Vaclav Havel: playwright, poet, president, advocate for 'the individual'

Vaclav Havel not only led a peaceful 'Velvet Revolution' in Czechoslovakia, but inspired similar revolutions around the world with ideas that still resonate today.  Vaclav Havel passed away on Sunday.

Petr David Josek/AP
In this file photo taken Feb. 3, former President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel answers questions about anti-government protests in Egypt, North Africa and the Middle East during an interview with The Associated Press in Prague, Czech Republic.

“People, your government has returned to you.”

The words of Vaclav Havel's 1990 New Year’s address to what was then Czechoslovakia were heard with a mixture of joy and disbelief by crowds holding candles on Wenceslas Square. History had taken a new turn: The Soviets were out and Havel was “in the castle” in Prague, as president, in a bloodless Velvet Revolution that changed the world in ways completely unforeseen in the West and East.

Impish, shy, a playwright and poet, a friend of both rock and roll stars and physicists, Havel offered not just a voice, but a deeply moral and spiritual vision for human rights and for addressing what he called “our crisis of civilizational values.”

During the Soviet era, he spent years under arrest for dissident writing that detailed in plain language why eastern and central Europeans did not want or deserve a totalitarian system rigged in Moscow or a daily life based on a steady imposition of lies, fear, conformity, and punishment. The typical Czech “greengrocer” – Havel's famous description of the symbolic Czech Everyman – did not believe Soviet propaganda, but felt helplessly enmeshed in it.

Havel articulated a credo of conscience that he called “living in truth.” It was a call to take life at its most profound and searching level, come what may. “Hope,” he said, “is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

His concurrent view that “consciousness precedes being” was a direct challenge to the opposite Marxist dictum that material values are the be-all and end-all of human life. He steadily decried the lack of transcendent ideals in modern times, but did so with an incisiveness that defies easy categorization. “Consciousness precedes being, and not the other way around, as the Marxists claim,” he said in a speech to the US Congress in 1990. “For this reason, the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness, and in human responsibility. Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will ever change for the better in the sphere of our being as humans, and the catastrophe towards which this world is headed – the ecological, social demographic, or general breakdown of civilization – will be unavoidable.” 

Havel passed away Dec. 18, but he remains a truly historic figure, a defining “public intellectual” who was part South African anti-apartheid champion Nelson Mandela, part Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov. His words and example live on in such essays as “The Power of the Powerless,” and the “Charter 77” manifesto.

Writing today in the Guardian, Havel's friend Timothy Garton Ash calls him “a defining figure of late 20th  century Europe. He was not just a dissident; he was the epitome of the dissident, as we came to understand that novel term. He was not just the leader of a velvet revolution; he was the leader of the original velvet revolution, the one that gave us a label applied to many other nonviolent mass protests since 1989.”

Havel was born into a bourgeoisie family, and described himself as pudgy and not well-adjusted. Early on, he was attracted to the theater, but his wealthy background meant he could not study at the state school for dramatic arts, so he worked as a stage hand instead. In Prague's artistic circles, he began to write plays, many of which centered on one of his main themes: the importance of human identity. He was drawn to dissident and creative social circles that put him close to the events of the 1968 Prague Spring movement. He spent more than five years in prison and served 14 years as president of Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic. He was deeply opposed to the breakup of Czechoslovakia, and stepped down briefly from the presidency instead of presiding over the split. 

Havel’s writings helped inspire and partly unfreeze a numbed “post-Tiananmen” intellectual generation in China. While he never won a Nobel Peace Prize, he took great delight in its award last year to Liu Xiaobo, part of the outlawed pro-democracy Charter 08 movement in China that partly modeled itself after Havel's Charter 77. He was part of a group of intellectuals and writers that showed up at the Chinese embassy in Prague to deliver a letter asking for Mr. Liu’s release from prison, only to find that no one at the embassy would open the door.

Havel championed the marginalized and those whose plight fell below the media radar: the persecuted Roma people, or gypsies, in Europe, North Koreans imprisoned in labor camps, the Tibetan people, Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi. He advocated Western military intervention in Bosnia to stop ethnic cleansing and initially supported the war in Iraq, although he quickly soured on it.

Just last month, Havel met the Dalai Lama. Days before his death, he criticized the current Russian regime as a farce of democracy, writing in Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta on behalf of ordinary Russians that, “There can be no talk of democracy as long as the leaders of the state insult the dignity of citizens, control the judiciary, the mass media and manipulate election results.”

In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor in 1995, Havel expounded on why he had chosen building “civil society” as his main theme after the cold war. "Western experts don't realize how basic a tool for totalitarian society was the destruction of civil society. An unbelievable effort was made not to allow people to form grassroots and humanitarian groups, private circles. The secret police knew such groups bring some feeling of freedom, which is why I stress so much in our present Czech environment the necessity to reconstruct civil society."

Mr. Garton Ash today, referencing the crisis that Europe now finds itself in as a political and economic union, says, “One can only cry: ‘Havel! Europe hath need of thee!”

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