A pair of world leaders died on a single weekend earlier this month, and each of the two men embodied one of the great alternative models of politics in the modern world, totalitarian and democratic.

Death claimed Kim Jong-Il, the “Dear Leader” of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, on Dec. 17, and Vaclav Havel, the dissident who became the first president of the free Czechoslovak Republic, the following day.

In North Korea, Kim’s rule epitomized modern totalitarianism — a despotic political system that sustains itself through fear and lies, official state propaganda and systematic repression.

In North Korea today, as in the old Soviet Union, there is only one political party, the Korean Workers’ Party. There are no competitive elections. There is no independent judiciary. There is no freedom of the press. Defectors report that North Korean radios come pre-tuned to the frequency of the official state broadcaster.

The Party controls everything: No private businesses to speak of, no independent schools, citizens’ groups or churches, no freedom to associate, no freedom to travel, and above all, no freedom to express dissent.

Through his control over the Party, Kim enjoyed absolute, dictatorial power over North Korea, which brought his people oppression, impoverishment, and, for several hundred thousand of them, starvation.

To appreciate the flavor of Kim’s tyranny, one need only look at the choreographed tears and ritual expressions of grief the regime shared with the world. Kim left behind him a government so pervasively terrifying that even ordinary people knew better than to defy its rule by failing to weep on cue.

No one understood more profoundly the nature of totalitarianism than Havel, who dedicated his life to opposing the Soviet-backed, communist dictatorship that ruled Czechoslovakia from the end of World War II until the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989.

Whereas North Korea’s “Dear Leader” died as the embodiment of totalitarian despotism, Havel personified the democratic spirit.

Havel was a poet and a playwright, who emerged as a prominent dissident in the years after Soviet tanks crushed the “Prague Spring” of 1968. Frequently jailed and denied the freedom to travel or to communicate directly with the outside world, Havel circulated his revolutionary manuscripts clandestinely.

In one of his most influential essays, “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel explored the nature of totalitarian rule. His analysis begins by asking why some ordinary worker, such as the manager of a shop, would post a communist placard in his front window, bearing Marx’s old slogan, “Workers of the World, Unite!” It was certainly not out of any principled commitment to the merits of communist rule.

In a North Korean translation, the question might well be: Why did everyone publicly mourn a man they privately hated?

Havel answers that such gestures — the posting of the required placard or the participation in the state-sponsored grief — are expressions of obedience. By complying with the Party’s demands, one demonstrates one’s acquiescence to the rule of the Party. And very ordinary citizen who complies becomes complicit in the regime.

Why, asks Havel, does the totalitarian Party not simply demand that people post signs saying, “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient” — which is the real meaning of the public gestures it demands.

He answers that such an explicit affirmation of servility would prove too great an affront to human dignity to be effective. Instead, the totalitarian regime survives on lies. It tells lies and enables people to lie to themselves about their complicity in their own enslavement.

“Why should I not support workers’ solidarity?” the placard poster might say to himself to shield his own dignity.

Seeing that propaganda and lies, deception and self-deception are not accidental features of despotism but its essence, Havel calls for a politics based in morality and dedicated to the ideal of “living within the truth.”

Just as totalitarian despotisms cannot endure without the lies ordinary people tell, neither can a fully democratic society endure without rulers who tell hard truths to their people and people who can recognize the truth when they hear it and are prepared to speak only the truth to one another about their own political situation.

With his high ideals, Vaclav Havel achieved only modest successes as the elected leader of a representative government. But his vision of a truly free society grounded upon the free embrace of the truth will endure long after the last totalitarian dictatorship joins Kim Jong-Il in the graveyard of history.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.

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