Jiri Dienstbier (1937–2011)

He was a good, well-meaning man who was guilty only of an exuberant love of life. Detachment and reflection were not his style. He craved being involved, hands-on. This is what probably led him to join the Communist Party in his youth and travel around the world as a correspondent for the Czechoslovak Radio. As a boy I heard him report from Washington on the day Kennedy was killed in Dallas. Communist journalist or not, he was audibly moved and managed, somewhat subversively, to pass the emotion on to the listeners. When the Soviet tanks came to Prague, he did not hesitate for a moment to throw away his party card and his career and become one of the leading dissidents of the era, fighting for the human rights of the unjustly jailed and persecuted, experiencing life from the vantage point of prison and a boiler room. Throughout, he remained his gregarious self, always at the center of conversation, chain-smoking, arguing, laughing. When he became the first spokesman of the Civic Forum in the velvet but freezing days of November 1989, he sometimes had to leave press conferences in a hurry to stoke the furnace. In three weeks he was the foreign minister, cutting the barbed wire of the Iron Curtain, opening the long-closed door to Germany, dreaming aloud about Europe. When he accompanied President Havel to the United States in February 1990 and was told on his arrival to a reception at one of the venerable New York institutions, cigarette in mouth, that the place had a non-smoking policy, he turned to the TV cameras that followed Havel and his entourage wherever we went and solemnly declared: “I have not fought for human rights for twenty years to be now denied my fundamental human right to smoke.” And he was not and he did, much to his own detriment.

As someone who never minced words, he was a joy to argue with and easy to disagree with. After the end of the Cold War, he saw no need for the continuing existence of NATO (as the foreign minister of the last rotating presidency of the Warsaw Pact when it was disbanded at a meeting in Prague in July 1991, he got to keep the pouch containing a seal and a set of keys we never learned what lock the keys were for), he condemned the NATO intervention in Kosovo, he abhorred the war in Iraq, and he distrusted what he saw as an imperialist streak in American foreign policy. He was a firm believer in multilateralism, the United Nations, and world governance. Five years ago, he pronounced the unipolar moment over and predicted the emergence of China and India as the next superpowers. When recently his views became fashionable again, it was already too late for him. The argument, though, goes on.

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