Political Profile: Václav Havel

Václav Havel (born 5 October 1936) Czech writer, dramatist, and politician. Last President of Czechoslovakia, and the first President of the Czech Republic.

Early life

Václav Havel grew up in a well-known entrepreneurial and intellectual family, which was closely linked to the cultural and political events in Czechoslovakia from the 1920s to the 1940s. Because of these links the Czech communist government did not allow Havel to study formally after he had completed his required schooling in 1951. In the first part of the 1950s, the young Havel entered into a four-year apprenticeship as a chemical laboratory assistant and simultaneously took evening classes to complete his secondary education (which he did in 1954). For political reasons he was not accepted into any post-secondary school with a humanities program; therefore, he opted to study at the Faculty of Economics of Czech Technical University. He left this program after two years.

Playwright

The intellectual tradition of his family compelled Václav Havel to pursue the humanitarian values of Czech culture, which were harshly suppressed in the 1950s. After military service (1957–59) he worked as a stagehand in Prague (at the Theatre On the Balustrade – Divadlo Na zábradlí) and studied drama by correspondence at the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (DAMU). His first publicly performed full-length play, besides various vaudeville collaborations, was The Garden Party (1963). Presented in a season of Theater of the Absurd, at the Balustrade, it won him international acclaim. It was soon followed by Memorandum, one of his best known plays. In 1964, Havel married Olga Šplíchalová, to the despair of his mother.[1]

Entry into political life

Following the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 he was banned from the theatre and became more politically active. This culminated with the publication of the Charter 77 manifesto, written partially in response to the imprisonment of members of the Czech psychedelic band Plastic People of the Universe. His political activities resulted in multiple stays in prison, the longest being four years, and also subjected him to constant government surveillance and harassment.

After his long prison stay he wrote Largo Desolato, a play about a political writer who fears being sent back to prison. He was also famous for his essays, most particularly for his brilliant articulation of “Post-Totalitarianism” (see Power of the Powerless), a term used to describe the modern social and political order that enabled people to “live within a lie”.

A passionate supporter of nonviolent resistance, a role in which he has been compared, by ex-US President Bill Clinton, to Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, he became a leading figure in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the bloodless end to communism in Czechoslovakia.

The following is the translation of a New Year’s Address that Václav Havel gave to his country in 1990

Prague (1 January 1990)
  • My dear fellow citizens,
    For forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day different variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us.
    I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.
  • Our country is not flourishing. The enormous creative and spiritual potential of our nations is not being used sensibly. Entire branches of industry are producing goods that are of no interest to anyone, while we are lacking the things we need. A state which calls itself a workers’ state humiliates and exploits workers. Our obsolete economy is wasting the little energy we have available.
  • The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore one another, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility or forgiveness lost their depth and dimension, and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities, or they resembled gone-astray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous in the era of computers and spaceships.
  • The previous regime—armed with its arrogant and intolerant ideology—reduced man to a force of production, and nature to a tool of production. In this it attacked both their very substance and their mutual relationship. It reduced gifted and autonomous people, skillfully working in their own country, to the nuts and bolts of some monstrously huge, noisy and stinking machine, whose real meaning was not clear to anyone.
  • We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all—though naturally to differing extents—responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery. None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators.
  • Why do I say this? It would be very unreasonable to understand the sad legacy of the last forty years as something alien, which some distant relative bequeathed to us. On the contrary, we have to accept this legacy as a sin we committed against ourselves. If we accept it as such, we will understand that it is up to us all, and up to us alone to do something about it. We cannot blame the previous rulers for everything, not only because it would be untrue, but also because it would blunt the duty that each of us faces today: namely, the obligation to act independently, freely, reasonably and quickly. Let us not be mistaken: the best government in the world, the best parliament and the best president, cannot achieve much on their own. And it would be wrong to expect a general remedy from them alone. Freedom and democracy include participation and therefore responsibility from us all.
  • The recent period—and in particular the last six weeks of our peaceful revolution—has shown the enormous human, moral and spiritual potential, and the civic culture that slumbered in our society under the enforced mask of apathy. Whenever someone categorically claimed that we were this or that, I always objected that society is a very mysterious creature and that it is unwise to trust only the face it presents to you. I am happy that I was not mistaken. Everywhere in the world people wonder where those meek, humiliated, skeptical and seemingly cynical citizens of Czechoslovakia found the marvelous strength to shake the totalitarian yoke from their shoulders in several weeks, and in a decent and peaceful way.
  • Those who rebelled against totalitarian rule and those who simply managed to remain themselves and think freely, were all persecuted. We should not forget any of those who paid for our present freedom in one way or another.
  • Self-confidence is not pride. Just the contrary: only a person or a nation that is self-confident, in the best sense of the word, is capable of listening to others, accepting them as equals, forgiving its enemies and regretting its own guilt.
  • Our country, if that is what we want, can now permanently radiate love, understanding, the power of the spirit and of ideas. It is precisely this glow that we can offer as our specific contribution to international politics.
  • Let us teach ourselves and others that politics should be an expression of a desire to contribute to the happiness of the community rather than of a need to cheat or rape the community.
  • My honorable task is to strengthen the authority of our country in the world. I would be glad if other states respected us for showing understanding, tolerance and love for peace. I would be happy if Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama of Tibet could visit our country before the elections, if only for a day. I would be happy if our friendly relations with all nations were strengthened. I would be happy if we succeeded before the elections in establishing diplomatic relations with the Vatican and Israel.
  • You may ask what kind of republic I dream of. Let me reply: I dream of a republic independent, free, and democratic, of a republic economically prosperous and yet socially just; in short, of a humane republic that serves the individual and that therefore holds the hope that the individual will serve it in turn. Of a republic of well-rounded people, because without such people it is impossible to solve any of our problems—human, economic, ecological, social, or political.
  • People, your government has returned to you!

Václav Havel Official website
http://www.livinginthetruth.com – “Information relating to the work and philosophies of Václav Havel; appreciation site”
Havel and Prague
Havel Festival – a New York festival of all of Havel’s works, held in 2006
Havel at Columbia – website produced for seven-week residency of Havel at Columbia University in the fall 2006
An Interactive VR Panorama of Vaclav Havel at the signing of his book, Prosím stručně

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