Czech Republic: Václav Havel – neither an angel nor God

Václav Havel in Prague, March 1987.
Václav Havel in Prague, March 1987.
19 December 2011 – Hospodářské Noviny (Prague)

The former Czech president did not seek power for power’s sake, but became indispensable during the next twenty-two years of his country’s post-communist development. A tribute from Prague daily Hospodářské noviny after his death on December 18th.

The interview was called “A place I will never go to," and it appeared in the samizdat journal Sport, the predecessor of today's Respekt. That was September of 1989, just after Poland had held its first free elections that June, and East Germans were driving their Trabants down complicated roads to a new future…

And in a grey Prague full of scaffolding, a fifty-three year old man who had got out of another spell in prison only a few months earlier was slowly reconciling himself to the reality that he would probably spend the next years of his life a little differently from how he would have wished to.

In that interview, conducted by journalist Ivan Lamper, the Czechoslovak leader of the opposition Václav Havel tried very hard to explain that he really had no desire to become a professional politician.

"We're not the ones who chose politics; the politics of the day have chosen us. And what we do, we do to bring about a state of affairs that will save us from having to dedicate ourselves to politics,” Havel said, quoting his friend Adam Michnik.

"I'm not an angel and I’m not God, and I have no superhuman abilities or the powers of a Heraclitus either. I will not change this nation.... I'm just willing to serve as long as I can.(...)"

Truth and love

Three months later he became president, and he served the nation “in this and that" another twenty-two years – until yesterday. And we can be sure that he will continue to.

At the end of 1989, no one could have known what awaited us. A country in decline, in which incidentally there were still more than seventy thousand Soviet troops, was facing a metamorphosis in its civilisation that would touch everyone.

The euphoric spirit of the times was expressed by Václav Havel in his famous motto “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred," which, it seemed, a considerable part of the society took as a personal guarantee of the expected triumph.

We should recall another of Havel's statements from that era, as it is closely related to the previous one. And that was his promise that he would lead the country to its first free elections in June 1990, and then return to writing.

For Havel's critics, it was customary evidence of his hypocrisy, as he was still president, after a short break, into the second half of 1992, when Czechoslovakia fell apart. He remained president for a full thirteen years, during which time the contest of love of truth against lies and hatred did not go the way one had hoped.

The “Havel effect"

The problem is that we have no idea what the situation would be now if Václav Havel had not taken on this responsibility and if after the summer of 1990, or perhaps after the founding of the Czech Republic, he had begun fully to enjoy his natural role as a global intellectual star.

Havel, though, dedicated his own individual gifts to serving not only his country but all of post-communist Europe. Although he had to re-evaluate a whole host of his original ideas (the complete dissolution of all military pacts, for example) and some were proven to be naive at the least, it was he who in the eyes of the world brought the whole region back on a civilised footing.

Of course, in those beginnings there was a certain exotic fascination with the rock 'n' roll president who in his new role refused to change his habits or his friends. But if it were only that, the “Havel effect" would have faded away sometime soon after 1990, when George Bush, the Dalai Lama, Margaret Thatcher, the Rolling Stones, the Pope and François Mitterrand visited him by turns in Prague.

It didn’t fade away. Václav Havel became the guarantee that this part of the world deserves to be taken seriously and that it also deserves help. As Madeleine Albright put it accurately yesterday in the flood of condolences from around the world: “Americans took Václav Havel as evidence that the people of central Europe want to belong to the West."

When in the spring of 1997 Havel wondered whether to stand one last time for the presidency, it was not quite half a year after a difficult lung surgery. He had every right to withdraw from the increasingly thickening atmosphere in the country coming to the end of its "economic miracle", and indeed the end of an entire era that he was symbolically associated with.

Yet once again he accepted the challenge, and in his last term he brought the country into NATO and to the front door of the European Union.

Morality, conscience, responsibility

Czechs simply needed him, even though his domestic popularity – unlike his international standing – gradually declined, and at the end of his mandate nine years ago he got somewhere around forty percent in the polls.

Probably because – as he once said about himself in Sport – Vaclav Havel was neither an angel, nor God, and he knew that the nation would not change.

For all that, he always did exactly what he thought was the right thing. He talked constantly about things that were not exactly easy to listen to after years of hearing about them over and over again – morality, conscience, responsibility, but also of racism and corruption, whose dangers he was very quick to recognise in the early 90s.

And he did all that knowing full well the risk that people would measure his words against their own experience and against what he would do himself. A confrontation between moral authority and politics in the real world cannot, it seems, end up without some disenchantment all round.

Truth and love have not won over lies and hatred, but there can be no doubt that everything Vaclav Havel did or said arose from his deepest conviction that precisely that way leads the path. And no matter what the majority may think about it at any moment.

Translated from the Czech by Anton Baer

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