Václav Havel (1936-2011)

I love Prague—such a beautiful and culturally rich city. How could this wonderful land have fallen into the grip of one of the coldest regimes in Eastern Europe? It took a man with an artist’s soul to bring down this soul-less system.
Daniel Buttry

The Artist & Activist at the Head of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution

It is a very clear understanding that the only kind of politics that truly makes sense is one that is guided by conscience.
Václav Havel

Overview

In 1968, Russian tanks crushed a nonviolent revolution in Czechoslovakia, destroying a reform period known as the Prague Spring. In 1989, a nonviolent revolution toppled the government in a mere twelve days. Known as the Velvet Revolution, this revolt ended Communist power in Czechoslovakia and was part of the wave of revolts that quickly brought the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the head of the Velvet Revolution was a playwright—Václav Havel.

Background & Context

Havel was born into a wealthy, intellectual family, but following World War II and the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, he was branded a bourgeois. Instead of getting an artist’s education as he desired, he was restricted to technical schools and the study of economics. Stimulated by the intellectual tradition of Prague, he eventually found his way into the theater as a stagehand in the 1960s. In 1963 he wrote his first play, The Garden Party, a satire about modern bureaucracy. He continued writing plays and was finally able to enroll in the Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Activist Writings

Havel participated in the Prague Spring, during which he wrote an article calling for the end of one-party rule. The reform movement was then crushed by the invasion of the Warsaw Pact nations. Havel joined in writing a Ten Points manifesto that condemned the invasion and provided commentary on Radio Free Czechoslovakia during the nonviolent resistance against the Soviets. As a result, and as the Communists regained control, Havel’s writings and plays were banned and his passport confiscated.

In 1975, Havel penned an open letter to the president, who had been installed following the Warsaw Pact invasion. Havel called for an end to the normalization process that was instilling fear in people. The Communist regime was offering material improvements in life in exchange for quiet obedience. Havel wrote:

For fear of losing his job, the schoolteacher teaches things he does not believe. Fearing for his future, the pupil repeats them after him; for fear of not being allowed to continue his studies, the young man joins the Youth League and participates in whatever of its activities are necessary; fear that under a monstrous system of political credits, his son or daughter will not acquire the necessary total points for enrollment at a school, leads the father to take on all manner of responsibilities and voluntarily to do everything required.

Instead, Havel called people to reject fear and stand up to those in power:

So far you and your government have chosen the easy way out for yourselves, and the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances … and ceaselessly degrading human dignity, for the puny sake of protecting your own power.

Hand-typed copies of Havel’s challenge were passed around the country, and the letter was broadcast over Radio Free Europe. People were shocked and then energized by what he said. Later, Havel said this about the letter, I felt the need to stir things up, to confront others for a change and force them to deal with a situation that I myself had created.

Rock Music as a Vehicle for Dissent

Rock music had become a key vehicle for social, political and artistic dissent—especially stimulated by the band The Velvet Underground, from which the 1989 revolution took its name. As Havel said, the rock culture created a temperament, a nonconformist state of the spirit, an anti-establishment orientation, an aversion to philistines, and an interest in the wretched and humiliated. In 1976, a Czech psychedelic band, The Plastic People of the Universe, was put on trial in a Kafkaesque farce that made for ripe responses from artists. Havel’s political and legal response was the formation of the dissident human rights group, Charter 77. Its Charter 77 Manifesto was a collaborative effort led by Havel with 242 signatories, calling on the government to live up to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in the Helsinki Agreement, signed by Czechoslovakia. The dissidents could claim they were not opposing the regime, merely asking it to live up to its own legislative commitments.

Imprisonment

Havel was imprisoned for his protest with Charter 77, later released and then imprisoned again. In 1979, he co-founded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Oppressed to help dissidents and their families cope with the stresses of the multiple layers of repression they were experiencing. All around Europe, Havel’s plays were performed in solidarity with the dissident community, but they remained banned in his own country. Havel was imprisoned again for subversion, this time for four difficult years. A later play with clear autobiographical elements dealt with the problems of post-prison psychosis.

Language as a Tool for Nonviolent Resistance

In his essays, Havel wrote about nonviolence as a way to resist the political order that forced people to live within a lie. He often discussed the power of language to interfere with clear thought, which drew many comparisons to George Orwell. He said in a speech about Cuba, When more and more people learn to speak their own language and reject the hollow, mendacious language of the powers that be, it means that freedom is remarkably close, if not directly within reach. He sought language that could clarify reality, calling things by their proper names, and also liberate.

Political Activism

In the 1980s Havel spent less time writing and more involved with politics. He participated in writing Democracy for All, a manifesto that called for the end of the leading role for the Communist Party, which again prompted his arrest. But the Communist officials were feeling the pressure for change. His release from prison was timely, for he was then able to speak to thousands of Czechs at the first officially allowed demonstration. But, he was then arrested for watching from a distance as dissidents lay flowers in Wenceslas Square to remember Jan Palach who burned himself in protest in 1969. Havel wrote, I hope that the state apparatus will soon stop behaving like one of the ugly sisters, who breaks the mirror because she blames it for what she sees.

As Leader of the Velvet Revolution

Again, shortly after he was released, Havel led the writing of another manifesto, this time one that was signed by over 30,000 restive citizens. On November 17, 1989, a protest was brutally suppressed by police, and the Velvet Revolution was underway. Waves of protest followed. On the 19th, the Civic Forum was established with Havel chosen as its leader and as negotiator with the government. Within days the government conceded to the Civic Forum, and on December 29th, Havel was voted in as president of the newly freed, multi-party democratic nation.

As President of Czechoslovakia

Havel generally remained a popular political figure as president. He worked to dissolve the Warsaw Pact, though it took two years to finally get the Soviet troops to leave Czechoslovak soil. He released prisoners from the jails, but he also sought to reconcile the old Communist Party members into the new Czechoslovakia rather than to prosecute them for their repressive acts. He issued an apology for the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans following Germany’s defeat in World War II, something many citizens opposed but that was consistent with Havel’s concern for reconciliation following conflicts. He also closed the arms factories that had shipped weapons around the world.

The division between the Czechs and the Slovaks grew in intensity, even though Havel passionately urged maintaining one nation. When separatist leaders from both sides won in the Assembly, Havel resigned as president, refusing to participate in the dissolution of the country in 1993. He then was elected the first president of the newly formed Czech Republic.

As President of Czech Republic

As President of the Czech Republic, Havel supported the invasion of Iraq, citing the example of Neville Chamberlain’s sell out of Czechoslovakia to Hitler in 1938 as a failure to stop tyranny early. Yet he also pointed out that the same rationale was used to justify the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Legacy

Whether as dissident or president, Havel remained his own person, acting boldly according to his conscience. He was always remarkably approachable, frequenting pubs in Prague, taking foreign dignitaries to his favorite local watering holes. As his political career came to an end, he was glad to see a generation emerging that wasn’t stunted by the “destruction the Communist regime wreaked upon our souls.” He enjoyed seeing people live with simple freedom, a freedom he did so much to achieve.

Havel died on December 18, 2011 at age 75, a week after a final meeting with his longtime friend, the Dalai Lama, in Prague.

See Also

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