Vaclav Havel: The End of an Era

Martin Butora co-founded Public Against Violence, the major democratic movement in Communist Slovakia, in November 1989, and served as Human Rights Advisor to Czechoslovak President Václav Havel (1990–1992). Between 1999 and 2003, he was Ambassador of the Slovak Republic to the US. He is the honorary president of the Institute for Public Affairs, a public policy think-tank in Bratislava. His most recent books are Druhý dych (Second Wind), 2010, and Skok a kuk (Jump and Look), 2011.

Everyone knew it would happen one day and many sensed it was going to be soon – and yet, speaking about it, every word weighs a ton. The fact that he stayed with us this long was a miracle. Right until the very last moment, with extreme effort, he made sure his voice was heard wherever human dignity was at stake, wherever hope needed to be instilled. He did so with his characteristic sense of duty and responsibility.

As someone born into a wealthy family, he was ashamed of his position and privileged upbringing and longed to be like other children: he felt “an invisible wall” between himself and the others. His family background heightened his sensitivity to inequality, his distaste for undeserved advantages.

Hope as an orientation of the heart:

Vaclav Havel understood hope as an anthropological quality that pertained not only to politics. Hope is a state of mind, not a state of the world, he used to say. Either we have hope within us or we don’t: “It is a dimension of the soul. It’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation.” Hope is not prognostication, he emphasized, “it is an orientation of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.”

In this sense, hope for him was not synonymous with optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of the outcome. This is an extraordinarily strong message in a world that found hope yet lost it time after time – a message that is universal as well as unique, personal and individual.

His life story as writer, playwright and later politician played out over a period of some six decades. As a thirteen-year-old, he tried to compile a “newspaper.” Later, he banded together with a group of poets in “Club of 36,” writing an essay for them on Hamlet’s Question. It was also his question, one to which he’d been seeking an answer as a technician in a chemistry lab, working as theater stagehand and lighting assistant, and later as playwright, president and statesman, as well as – in between – working in brewery and being a sheet-metal welder in jail.

Living in truth:

In August 1969, on the first anniversary of the Soviet invasion, in a letter to Alexander Dubcek, he outlined three options for a Prague Spring politician. He could exercise self-criticism, admit his mistakes and accept Brezhnev’s version of events. He could submit quietly and wait to see what happens next. But he could also “tell the truth, stick with it and reject everything that turns it upside down.”

The letter goes on to present a prescient scenario of the consequences arising from each of these positions. “Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance,” he wrote. It can help people realize that it is always possible to stick with one’s ideals and have integrity, that there are values worth fighting for; and that there are leaders worth believing in.

In this letter he had inadvertently defined the blueprint for his attitude to life. It has come to be known as “living in truth,” an integral part of it being the willingness to sacrifice oneself. Through his own way of life, for which he paid in prison terms, Havel seemed to “redeem” the silent majority of society for accommodating the regime for many years.

Forty years later, he commented on President Obama’s decision not to receive Dalai Lama due to an upcoming trip to China. “It is only a minor compromise,” he said, “a compromise which actually has some logic to it.” But exactly with these minor compromises start the big and dangerous ones, he added.

Caring for the soul as well as for the public space:

It was not only a “life in truth” that has brought him together with Czech philosopher Jan Patocka, one of the most influential Central European philosophers of the 20th century who died of a brain hemorrhage following a series of interrogations by the secret police for having signed the Charta 77 manifesto. It was also another key tenet of his life and thinking – “caring for the soul,” an attempt to anchor human actions in morality.

Havel admirably combined this nurturing of the soul with a caring for public affairs and the public space, which he understood in its widest sense and which he has influenced and helped shape in ways more distinctive and varied than hardly any other public actors in the history of the last third of the last century and first decade of this.

He did so as a man who supported and initiated small independent “islands of self-reflection and self-liberation.” He did so as the president of two states. He did so as an authority in the pan-European public space. He did so as a defender of and a critical commentator on the West. And last but not least, he did so as a unique voice in the global space of human civilization, through his ability to attract and bring together personalities capable of contributing to its future.

But caring for the public space wasn’t just a matter of abstract theoretical reasoning – it was closely linked to everything that is happening right now and right here, to the shape of our culture and our country. In his eyes, the battle for survival waged by the fringe theatres and galleries of Prague wasn’t just a battle for subsidies: it was a battle for the very meaning and character of the state.

The city, he had warned, was spreading like a cancer, “obliterating our countryside with its warehouses and mega-warehouses, parking lots and garbage tips, super- and hypermarkets and, above all, the vast wastelands created in between all these.”

“Litmus paper”

One of the roles Vaclav Havel played in Slovakia was that of an extremely sensitive “litmus test.” For it wasn’t only sociologists who would regularly discover that people who had trusted him had a greater desire for European integration, were more tolerant of various versions of otherness, more open towards members of minorities, had a more critical view of both fascism and communism.

Havel had tried to preserve the common state of Czechs and Slovaks, because he was convinced it was meaningful. Yet, after the 1992 election, when the Slovak and Czech political representatives under the leadership of Vladimir Meciar and Vaclav Klaus concluded that the state had to be divided, he did not resist them.

President Havel was different from President Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, who had maintained regular contact with Slovakia before the creation of the first Czechoslovak state in 1918, traveled there frequently, and over many years had nurtured relations with the local political elite as well as with Slovakia’s budding intelligentsia.

Initially, the only people Václav Havel knew tended to be his writer friends and, later, dissidents. However, he had gone a long way toward getting to know his partners, and the fact that he treated them as partners was key. He neither patronized nor demonized Slovakia. After the country split, he helped make sure the Slovak Republic ended up in the same political, economic and security space as the Czech Republic. And he often and respectfully commented on what Slovakia had managed to achieve in two decades of reforms.

His views have had long-lasting resonance. In the summer of 2008, he attended Pohoda, Slovakia’s largest music festival embracing also theater, film, literature, and NGO fora. The discussion with him was held in a big crowded tent and those unable to get in could watch it on a huge screen. It was a beautiful sunny Sunday and some ten thousand people, who had still been in nursery school in 1989, had gathered round, standing or sitting in the grass. An eerie silence reigned and the vast space resounded with the voice of the shy, yet convincing and charismatic man, who shared with the audience his experience of building a new world and encouraging those present to be part of it.

Present more than ever:

When he was in opposition, he was as much part of the “protest dissent” as of the “reflective dissent.” While the former type, the frontline, was intent on showing lies and hypocrisy of the regime, representatives of the other type of dissent – writers, philosophers, historians, theologians, psychologists – analyzed the state of society and the prospects for change. It was this original “dual role” that had cemented Havel’s leading position before November 1989, as well as during the revolutionary days. And he did his best to adhere to this dual role even after 1989, when he found himself confronting countless dilemmas and arguments. He longed to keep a critical distance and a clear-eyed view of the various aspects of the new regime, to meld the “ethics of conviction” with the “ethics of responsibility.”

A week before his passing, on December 10, 2011, he attended a ceremony in Prague to receive the award of the Bratislava-based Jan Langos Foundation for his contribution to the defense of human rights. It was to be his last appearance in public. He thanked the Foundation for the award and me for the laudatio and shook my hand as vigorously as his strength permitted. Later on, when he sat in the corner of a big hall, he quietly told me and my wife Zora how happy he was to see small groups emerging and active citizens speaking up.

His departure marks the end of an era. He has been a moral anchor and an intellectual mirror both in bad times as well as in happy moments. His words and deeds have mattered more than other powers of the world. It is impossible to express how much we will miss him, particularly today, as the Western world is once again in crisis. However, it is beyond doubt that his legacy remains with us, perhaps more than ever. What a paradox, Mr. Havel. Vaclav. Dear friend, somewhere up there in heaven.

A version of this tribute was published in the Slovak daily SME, Bratislava, on 12/19/2011.