Vaclav Havel – A Man of His Time

Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel died December 18, 2011 after a lifetime of promoting freedom as an anti-communist crusader.

For every sociopathic dictator, it is important to remember there is also a visionary, a person with great courage and a longing for freedom. Vaclav Havel was that person.

Havel was born in Czechoslovakia on October 5, 1936 to a wealthy restauranteur. He should have lived a privileged life, but the communists changed the direction of his life.

In 1948, the communists marched through his country and confiscated everything his family owned.

As a bourgeoisie, Vaclav was denied easy access to education. He managed to get through high school and college by working his way through night school as a lab technician.

In 1959, he acquired work as a stage hand in the Prague Theatrical Group and began writing for  Ivan Vyskoil.

Having been in Prague in 1968, I can tell you there was an eerie feeling in the air, one of suspicion, but also hope, resignation,and determination.

Placards of hammers and sickels marred the landscape and the facades of homes, but something else was in Prague that was not visible, it was the beginnings of revolution. The Czechs we met told us to leave the country at once, for our safety, and we did. Two days later the Dubcek Revolution, also known as the Prague Spring, began.

Havel was prominent in the uprising which was quashed by the communists. Havel was banned from writing, his passport taken away, and later imprisoned for four years for fighting on behalf of human rights. As he badgered his government to uphold its bargain in the Helsinki Accords, he was repeatedly sent to prison.

His writings were satirical, mostly plays, some essays, and they were strongly anti-communist, emphasizing the dehumanizing effects of bureaucratic routines. One play, Vyrozumní (1965; The Memorandum), portrayed an incomprehensible artificial language imposed on a large bureaucratic enterprise, causing the breakdown of human relationships and their replacement by unscrupulous struggles for power.

His plays characterized life of self-seluding rationalizations and moral denigration evolving from life under a totalitarian system.

He was something of a George Orwell.

It was his essays, however, that defined him and his society. One of his most significant writings was his timeless essay, The Power of the Powerless, written October, 1978. It became a term used to describe the modern social and political order that enabled people to “live within a lie” or “live with the truth,” depending on how you want to describe it.

By this time, he believed in a peaceful revolution. His vision encompassed the belief that if enough people lived their conscience, the communist system would dissolve.

In this essay, Havel argued for civil disobedience. He lived by his beliefs and he brought his vision into reality. One government law mandated the registering of visitors to every person’s home. He refused to register visitors because he believed no one had the right to know who visited his home. Thousands followed his example and the law became unenforceable.

He argued for  civil society and urged people to form small groups in every area such as sports, music and art as an  ”independent life of society,” that could not be controlled. Independent philosophy seminars, illicit printing presses and the “Flying University” began to change the Czechs way of doing business, undermining the communist establishment.

He never stopped fighting for freedom, even after the fall of communism.

In 1989, new uprisings against the communists began and Havel again took his leadership role in the Civic Forum.

The “Velvet Revolution,” as it was called, was a peaceful transition which lead to his appointment as interim president of Czechoslovakia on December 29, 1989. He said at the time, “We have become morally ill because we are used to saying one thing and thinking another… We have learned not to believe in anything, not to care about one another. Love, friendship, mercy, humility and forgiveness lost their depth and dimension.”

He hesitated when asked to assume the presidency but he believed he needed to live what he preached and accepted. His friend, Milos Forman, said his most dominant traits were shyness and courage. Obviously, courage was the most dominant.

He was reelected to the presidency in July 1990. He was the first noncommunist President of Czechoslovakia since 1948 in an amazing example of retributive justice.

He said in his presidential speech, Let us teach ourselves that politics can be not just the art of the possible… but … the art of the impossible, namely the art of improving ourselves and the world.”

In 1998, the new Czech Republic was formed and he narrowly became President and brought the Czech Republic into NATO. His popularity had waned for a number of reasons, none reflective of his character or competence. He could not seek a third term by law.

Havel’s first new play in more than 20 years, Odcházení (Leaving)—a tragicomedy that draws on his experiences as president and presents a chancellor leaving his post while grappling with a political enemy—premiered in 2008. Biography

What he will most be remembered for is not his plays, but for helping to forge a new era for his countrymen as a free society.