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Václav Havel (1936-2011)

William J. Brennan, Jr. Defense of Freedom Award Recipient, 2009

Playwright and Former President, Czech Republic


Based on personal experience, I would say that…courage does not come as the result of a single moment in a person's life in which he or she decides to become a brave man or woman or to stay a coward for ever. It is rather a development in which a person first takes one step that he or she considers to be the right one to take, and then another step follows, and then there is a process - a step by step process - of course based partly on the decisions the person is making, but partly also on the circumstances. Naturally, a person's character plays a role but quite often the decisive influence comes from the outside circumstances. Many brave people have become courageous much to their surprise.

– Václav Havel, 2002, The Guardian

In the weeks following Czechoslovakia’s transformation from a Soviet satellite into a free, democratic nation, Václav Havel, an early leader of the dissident movement, found himself struggling to come to terms with his new role as a state-sanctioned leader.  His literary and political life had always been one of opposition to the Communist government that seized power in Czechoslovakia in the wake of World War II.  President Havel had been publicly condemned by the state in its official media and was a banned writer.  He continued to write and speak out, calling on the government to respect human rights, and was repeatedly arrested and jailed.

Following the Velvet Revolution, the revolution that led to the downfall of the Communist government in 1989, he was elected president of Czechoslovakia.  He described feeling as Sisyphus would if “one fine day his boulder stopped, rested on a hilltop, and failed to roll back down.”  Yet despite his open expressions of self-doubt, President Havel rapidly adapted to the changing needs of the new society he had helped create, implementing sweeping reforms and continuing his fight for freedom both locally and abroad.

In his writings, President Havel criticized the Communist regime for bullying the Czech people into accepting the new order through fear.  But he also stressed the revolutionary power of individuals: if they exercised their freedoms and “lived within the truth,” they could bring an end to the charade of the government.  Rather than giving in and implicitly choosing to live under oppression, he believed that each person had the responsibility to stand up to it.  As President Havel shifted from being a playwright and a dissident to becoming a president, his dedication to the cause of human rights and civil liberties remained firm.  Because of his unwavering and fearless commitment to free expression, President Havel is being honored with MLRC’s William J. Brennan, Jr. Defense of Freedom Award.

Birth of a Playwright

President Havel was born in 1936 into one of Prague’s most wealthy and prominent families.  The Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948, however, devastated the family.  The state declared them to be “class enemies” and confiscated most of their property.  Because of his “bourgeois” background, the young President Havel was initially forbidden from continuing his secondary education.  He worked as an apprentice and as a lab technician, later attending school at night to finish his secondary education.

Prohibited by the regime from pursuing an education in the arts, President Havel studied economics at the Czech Technical University in Prague from 1955 to 1957, and began publishing his first journal articles.  He then performed his compulsory military service, during which time he established a theater company in the regiment and co-wrote a play declared to be “anti-army” by a military tribunal.  In 1960, shortly after leaving the army, President Havel joined Prague’s Theatre on the Balustrade as a stage hand, and soon became its resident writer.  While working at the theatre, he was finally allowed to pursue an arts education and completed correspondence studies at the Academy of Arts in Prague.  He also joined the editorial board of a non-Marxist journal, Tvá?.

The Theatre on the Balustrade produced three of President Havel’s plays in the 1960s: The Garden Party in 1963, The Memorandum in 1965 and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration in 1968.  The plays dealt with the bureaucratization of life under communism and were seen by audiences as implicit critiques of the government.  Popular inside Czechoslovakia, President Havel also earned acclaim outside of the country.  In 1968, he traveled to New York to see an English-language production of The Memorandum at The Public Theater and won an OBIE award, his first of three.  That same year, he also received the Austrian State Prize for European Literature.

The Dissident

In early 1968, reformer Alexander Dub?ek took power in Czechoslovakia and ushered in a period of reform – known as “Prague Spring” – that involved a loosening of restrictions, including on speech.  President Havel took advantage of the thaw.  He established the Club of Independent Writers after being removed a year earlier from the Writers’ Union for a speech criticizing the undemocratic nature of the Union and the influence of the Communist Party on it.  He also wrote an article in the journal Literární listy that called for an end to one party rule.

Prague Spring lasted less than eight months.  The Soviet Union took notice and Warsaw Pact forces invaded Czechoslovakia, reversing the reforms.  But, President Havel continued his call for change.  In 1969, he took part in writing the “Ten Points” manifesto, which condemned the Warsaw Pact invasion and the new Czech government’s “normalization” policies.  The government retaliated in 1970 by prohibiting President Havel’s latest play, The Conspirators, from being performed or published.  A year later, it banned his works from schools and public libraries.

In 1972, President Havel joined others to petition for the release of a number of opposition leaders who had been arrested for seeking a return of the Prague Spring reforms.  His next major critique of the government came in 1975, when he wrote an open letter to then-president Gustav Husák:

So far, you and your government have chosen the easy way out for yourselves, and the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity; of deepening the spiritual and moral crisis of our society, and ceaselessly degrading human dignity, for the puny sake of protecting your own power.

Despite the ban on President Havel’s work, the letter spread.  People read illegally typed, carbon copies or heard it broadcast over Radio Free Europe.

That same year, President Havel’s newly-finished play, The Beggar’s Opera, was performed at an inn outside of Prague.  Although he remained anonymous, Radio Free Europe reported on the performance, which led authorities to harass the cast.

I’m with the Band

In 1976, the regime arrested and tried members of the Czech rock group, The Plastic People of the Universe, for “organized disturbance of the peace.”  The band was banned after the crackdown of the Prague Spring, but continued to play secretly.  The dissident movement, newly energized by President Havel’s open letter to President Husák, rallied around the trial of The Plastic People.  President Havel, a liaison between the band and the foreign press, wrote extensively about the trial, bringing to light the degree to which the government sought to control life.

He later explained in an essay his reasons for supporting The Plastic People.  He wrote that, “Everyone understood that an attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on a most elementary and important thing, something that in fact bound everyone together: it was an attack on the very notion of ‘living within the truth,’ on the real aims of life.”

From Mere Ideas…

In January 1977, a West German newspaper published a document called “Charter 77,” signed by President Havel and over 200 others.  It called on the Czech government to implement and respect the civil, political and economic rights set forth in the 1975 Helsinki Agreement, which the government had signed.  Adhering to the Helsinki Agreement meant allowing free expression and other freedoms.  Because the government was a signatory, the dissidents could argue that they were not agitating against the regime, but simply calling on the government to follow its own laws.  The regime arrested a number of the signatories, including President Havel, who was a spokesperson for the Charter 77 collective that later formed.  He spent five months in jail for subverting the state.

Undeterred by his first jail sentence, President Havel co-founded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted in 1978, which sought to help dissidents and their families.  Later that year, he wrote an essay addressed to 20 prominent dissidents throughout the East Bloc called “The Power of the Powerless,” in which he analyzed totalitarian oppression and called for “living in the truth” as the ultimate defense against the corrupt use of power.

In 1979, the government arrested President Havel and other members of the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted for participating in an “illegal and anti-socialist organization.”  He was found guilty and sentenced to four and a half years in jail.  Although he was offered the opportunity to emigrate to the United States, he refused.  President Havel wrote weekly letters to his wife, and adopted a difficult, convoluted style of writing in order for the letters to pass the bizarre rules of the prison censors, which prohibited writing about life in prison and jokes.  The letters were read by his friends and later published as a collection.

He was released from jail in 1983 for health reasons, and continued writing essays and plays.

When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began the radical reforms of perestroika in 1986, the hardliners in Czechoslovakia slowly began to lose their grip.  Nonetheless, President Havel remained a target for government persecution.  He later told an interviewer that he always left home with a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and other small items - an “emergency packet” - in case he was arrested.

President Havel was arrested twice in the last two years of the decade.  The first arrest, in 1988, was related to his involvement in writing the “Democracy for All” manifesto, which called for the downfall of the Communist Party.  He spent a month and a half in jail.  The second arrest occurred on February 21, 1989, during a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the suicide of Jan Palach, a student who had burned himself to death in protest against the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1969.  Although President Havel did not participate in the commemoration, he watched from a distance and was arrested.  Sentenced to nine months, he was released after spending more than four months in jail.

Shortly after his release, President Havel took the lead in putting together a petition called “Just a few sentences,” which called on the government to introduce liberal reforms.  By September 1989, it had been signed by more than 40,000 Czechs.

…A Revolution

On November 17, 1989, the government reacted to a peaceful demonstration by students with violence.  Massive protests against the government erupted in Prague.  The crumbling Communist regime could not withstand the widespread unrest.  Three days later, President Havel addressed a crowd of 500,000 and encouraged them to continue demonstrating: “The truth and love will always beat the lie and hatred.”

The Civic Forum, a coalition of opposition groups pressing for democratic reforms, quickly won the support of the Czech people and began negotiations with the Communist Party for a coalition government.  The Velvet Revolution had succeeded.  (The name of the revolution was inspired by the American rock band, The Velvet Underground.  The group’s first album had been popular in Prague and The Plastic People of the Universe covered a number of songs from the album.)

Even though President Havel never publicly expressed any interest in the position, the Civic Forum nominated him for the presidency.  On December 29, 1989, Václav Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia.

The struggle for democracy swept across Eastern Europe in the years following the Velvet Revolution, and President Havel and the Velvet Revolution were seen as both harbingers and motivators of the swift fall of communism that reshaped Europe.

Although President Havel resisted the break-up of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in January 1993 and had earlier resigned the presidency, he was elected the first president of the Czech Republic that same month.  In 1998, he was reelected and served until 2003.

On the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, MLRC is privileged to honor Václav Havel tonight for his commitment to “living in the truth,” as exemplified by his work on the world stage.



Václav Havel Videogreeting on receiving the William J. Brennan Defense of Freedom Award

Recorded: Voršilská Office 15 September 2009
Released: New York 11 November 2009
Edited transcript

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me send you most cordial greetings and truly heartfelt thanks for the William Brennan Prize, which it is my honor to receive from you today. I highly esteem the work of your organization, which systematically monitors the media, the framing of media laws and freedom of expression, because the media’s importance grows all the time in pace with the progress of modern technologies. In conditions of democracy the media become a kind of fourth pillar of power alongside parliamentary, executive and judicial power. On the one hand, politicians ought not subject themselves to the media, so that they scrutinize their own actions and measures from the point of view of the media (usually of the worst variety), and surmise what reaction they might engender, therefore adjusting their opinions accordingly. However, all too often they do succumb to the media or meet them half-way by adopting a different vocabulary, on the grounds that a more complicated language might cause confusion and create controversy. Alternatively, politicians can adopt a hostile attitude to the media. During my period in high office I discovered that among the topics that inevitably crop up periodically at informal friendly talks between prime ministers, presidents and top-level politicians were complaints against the media. The media were reviled and ridiculed, while they were also feared, which is not a healthy situation. So it is a matter of responsibility on all sides. Politicians must be responsible to their own consciences and their fellow citizens, while journalists should show responsibility towards their own principal task, which is the free dissemination of information. Their task is not to create scandals and cook up intrigues, either deliberately in order to sell newspapers, or inadvertently by being chaotic, muddle-headed or ill-prepared. Responsibility is today’s major task, and it is the major task of your organization And the fact that I am receiving this prize from that very organization is something I value very much, of course.

Thank you.

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