Remembering Havel

ColumbiaUniversityHavel80Havel80bWhile Columbia University students basked in 77 degree temperatures today, several notable scholars and colleagues of Vaclav Havel (1936-2011) gathered at an event on campus to remember the life and impact of the renowned playwright, dissident, and president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. The discussion included Havel’s involvement in the Charter 77 movement, which led to the 1989 Velvet revolution and the end of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia.

Commenting in March 1986, on Charter 77, Havel wrote: “Charter 77 is neither left-wing nor right wing…as a civic initiative that is politically undefined and does not seek to implement a political program of its own, it is—if I may say so—‘above’ it all, or, to put it more modestly, outside it all. It is concerned with truth, with a truthful description of conditions, and with a free and objective criticism of those conditions. Which means that it is and must be concerned with truth no matter whom the truth favors.”

Havel adds, in his 3/86 letter, that Charter 77 is “not a secret branch of the Husak regime” and “not a secret Czechoslovak branch of the Reagan administration,” but rather “the Charter recognizes only a single authority, and that is the authority of truth and the authority of the conscience that demands that it speak the truth.”

One of the guest speakers, Jacques Rupnik, referred to the situation in Central Europe today as one of “identity and sovereignty” with the “hardening of identity politics,” and not what Havel had in mind 25 years ago. Michael Krauss said that Havel was skeptical of modern democracy’s ability to deliver (a healthy society), with political parties acting not as vehicles of the common good but as dividers of citizens.

In 1989 Vaclev Havel was awarded the German Peace Prize of the German Booksellers Association. It was presented to him in absentia, at the Frankfurt Book Fair on October 15, 1989. His remarks, read by Maximilian Schell, titled: A Word About Words included:

“It is not hard to demonstrate that all the main threats confronting the world today, from atomic war and ecological disaster to a catastrophic collapse of society and civilization—by which I mean the widening gulf between rich and poor individuals and nations—have hidden deep within them a single root cause: the imperceptible transformation of what was originally a humble message into an arrogant one.”

For happiness and peace to be realized in society, a culture of freedom is needed, and for that truthfulness is essential. The hardest truth to live is humility, which doesn’t mean being humiliated. In Havel’s 1990 New Year’s Address, his first major public address as president of Czechoslovakia, he suggested: “Our main enemy today is our own bad traits: indifference to the common good; vanity; personal ambition; selfishness; and rivalry. The main struggle will have to be fought on this field.”

Photographs: Stephen Wise

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