A decade without Václav Havel

Originally from a family of upper-class businessmen and intellectuals, the playwright and writer Václav Havel was in the crosshairs of the communist authorities who prevented him from finishing his university degree and hindered the publication of his literary works.

Václav Havel (1989) | Photo: Miloň Novotný

As one of the authors of the manifesto Letter 77, whose signatories asked the communist leaders to respect their own laws and the principles of Human Rights in accordance with the Helsinki Accords, Václav Havel ended up in prison several times, where he spent a total of five years.

During the Velvet Revolution, which put an end to communism in Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel was one of the main protagonists of the Civic Forum political movement. Its members presented Havel’s candidacy for the presidency of democratic Czechoslovakia and on December 29, 1989, the playwright and writer was appointed the Head of State.

Modest and austere with taste in the absurd

His friend and the current director of the Václav Havel Library, Michael Žantovský, recalled for Radio Prague International the beginning of his friendship with the first post-revolutionary president.

Michael Žantovský, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

“When I met him in 1983, Havel was already quite popular. I was impressed by his modesty, austerity and his sense of humor. We both liked to laugh at absurd things, there were many at that time, so we enjoyed ourselves a lot ”.

Both intellectuals shared a fondness for literature. Together they had the opportunity to meet several American writers who traveled, practically clandestinely, to Czechoslovakia to encourage and inspire Czech intellectuals. Until his appointment Václav Havel had made himself known as a playwright and writer. His political position prevented him from continuing his literary activities, recalls his friend Žantovský.

“He was doing quite badly. He did not share much enthusiasm for occupying the position of the president, since he was aware that he would have to interrupt his literary work. Havel sometimes voiced certain complaints about it. However, he was a responsible man and he knew that the position needed a total dedication ”.

Michael Žantovský shared with Václav Havel many moments that he fondly remembers and shares one of many funny ones.

“On September 1, at the beginning of classes, we always visited a school. On one occasion, Václav Havel was talking with the students, who were eight or nine years old. He spoke with them about the unnaturalness of existence and about the thought of the philosopher Martin Heidegger. It seemed funny to me and the children too, because it was probably for the first time that someone spoke to them as if they were adults ”.

Within the reach of the Nobel Prize

Dalai Lama and Vaclav Havel, Forum 2000 | Photo: Radio Prague International

Czechoslovak society hoped that the dissident Havel’s work in protecting Human Rights would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The most likely date was 10 December 1989. However, the long-awaited accolade was bestowed on the Dalai Lama for his non-violent struggle for Tibetan independence. Although Havel was nominated on several occasions, he did not win the award. According to historian Petr Nováček it is a mild injustice.

“Yes he was, especially from the point of view of two perspectives; his work as a dissident and as a defender of Human Rights. For Havel our indivisible duty is to take care of Human Rights in any part of the world. He was also able to receive the award as a playwright. , but I think that political reasons prevented it ”.

“Our country does not flourish”

After the partition of Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel served two more full terms as president of the Czech Republic. Petr Nováček points out some moments in Havel’s career that he considers very important.

Petr Nováček | Photo: Karel Šanda, Český rozhlas

“I frequently remember his speech on January 1, 1990, and his well-known phrase that ‘our country does not flourish.’ He was sincere, maybe too skeptical, but after the previous communist speeches, people expected someone to finally tell them the truth. Although at first, he proved to be a bit naive and politically inexperienced in some respects. “

However, Petr Nováček acknowledges that Václav Havel was the great symbol of the independent Czech Republic.

“Thanks to Havel, we got back on the international political scene very quickly. They were not admitted to NATO and the European Union, thanks to their prestige we recovered our position in that part of the world where security prevails. “

Political prophet

Journalist and dissident Adam Michnik remembered his friend Havel as the first person to speak with his own voice guided by truth and freedom and singled him out as a prophet of politics. According to Petr Nováček, Václav Havel would probably not be very happy with the path that democracy in the Czech Republic has headed in the last ten years.

From left: Marc-Olivier Padis, Jacques Rupnik and Adam Michnik, Foro 2000, photo: Hugo Ben Simhon / French Embassy

“His idea of ​​what the Czech Republic should be like was largely determined by his knowledge of the First Republic era in the first half of the 20th century. He had certain ideals linked to President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and read the play ‘Construction of the State ‘of Ferdinand Peroutka. By the way, Václav Havel always carried a miniature edition of the Constitution. It was his Bible, and when he was not sure, he discreetly consulted it. His modus operandi was dialogue. He had several flaws, unworkable naive ideas “But respect and decency were his outstanding values. Something of his legacy should be an inseparable part of Czech political culture and also of our image in the world.”

10 years without VH

On November 18, numerous activities will take place in tribute to the first president of the Czech Republic. The commemorative event ’10 years without VH ‘will offer an exhibition, film screenings, concerts, a march to Prague Castle or a video project in which personalities will remember Havel and send him imaginary messages.

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A decade without Václav Havel