On the courage of Václav Havel

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Havel under arrest (Photo Credit: CO)

Being a world-renowned writer did not protect Václav Havel from Communist persecution. After the Soviets crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, they banned his writings, surveilled and jailed him, and encouraged him to emigrate to the West. But he refused to leave. Havel continued courageously to criticize Communism and demand human rights for the people of Czechoslovakia.

After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Federal Assembly unanimously elected Havel as president. He promptly negotiated the Red Army’s withdrawal from Czechoslovakia and began dismantling the totalitarian state.

As a leader, Havel took several unpopular stands, consistently challenging his country to live up to high ideals.

He resisted demands to outlaw the Communist party or to mount a witch hunt to punish everyone who collaborated with the totalitarian state. “We are all responsible, we are all guilty,” he explained.

Havel issued an official apology for Czechoslovakia’s expulsion of Sudeten Germans after World War II.

When his country began splitting along ethnic lines into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Havel resigned in protest, though he soon relented and accepted the presidency of the latter entity.

He championed full civil rights for the Roma (Gypsies), a despised minority.

Moreover, he condemned the perversion of the privatized economy by political corruption, Ponzi schemes and increasing inequality.

After retiring in 2003, Havel devoted himself to writing again until his death in 2011.

“The real test of a man is not how well he plays the role he has invented for himself, but how well he plays the role that destiny assigned to him.” (1986)

“Hope is a state of mind, not of the world. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.” (1986)

“A state that denies its citizens their basic rights becomes a danger to its neighbors as well: internal arbitrary rule will be reflected in arbitrary external relations. The suppression of public opinion, the abolition of public competition for power and its public exercise opens the way for the state power to arm itself in any way it sees fit…. A state that does not hesitate to lie to its own people will not hesitate to lie to other states.” (1986)

“Human beings are compelled to live within a lie, but they can be compelled to do so only because they are in fact capable of living in this way. Therefore not only does the system alienate humanity, but at the same time alienated humanity supports this system as its own involuntary master plan, as a degenerate image of its own degeneration, as a record of people’s own failure as individuals.” (1986)

“You do not become a ‘dissident’ just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society.” (1986)

“The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.” (1988)

“Our country is not flourishing. The enormous creative and spiritual potential of our nations is not being used sensibly. Entire branches of industry are producing goods that are of no interest to anyone, while we are lacking the things we need. A state which calls itself a workers’ state humiliates and exploits workers. Our obsolete economy is wasting the little energy we have available…. The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore one another, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility or forgiveness lost their depth and dimension, and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities, or they resembled gone-astray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous in the era of computers and spaceships.” (1990)

“The previous regime — armed with its arrogant and intolerant ideology — reduced man to a force of production, and nature to a tool of production. In this it attacked both their very substance and their mutual relationship. It reduced gifted and autonomous people, skillfully working in their own country, to the nuts and bolts of some monstrously huge, noisy and stinking machine, whose real meaning was not clear to anyone.” (1990)

“We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all — though naturally to differing extents — responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery. None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators. Why do I say this? It would be very unreasonable to understand the sad legacy of the last forty years as something alien, which some distant relative bequeathed to us. On the contrary, we have to accept this legacy as a sin we committed against ourselves. If we accept it as such, we will understand that it is up to us all, and up to us alone to do something about it. We cannot blame the previous rulers for everything, not only because it would be untrue, but also because it would blunt the duty that each of us faces today: namely, the obligation to act independently, freely, reasonably and quickly. Let us not be mistaken: the best government in the world, the best parliament and the best president, cannot achieve much on their own. And it would be wrong to expect a general remedy from them alone. Freedom and democracy include participation and therefore responsibility from us all.” (1990)

“Self-confidence is not pride. Just the contrary: only a person or a nation that is self-confident, in the best sense of the word, is capable of listening to others, accepting them as equals, forgiving its enemies and regretting its own guilt.” (1990)

“You may ask what kind of republic I dream of. Let me reply: I dream of a republic independent, free, and democratic, of a republic economically prosperous and yet socially just; in short, of a humane republic that serves the individual and that therefore holds the hope that the individual will serve it in turn. Of a republic of well-rounded people, because without such people it is impossible to solve any of our problems — human, economic, ecological, social, or political.” (1990)

“The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.” (1990)

“Man is in fact nailed down — like Christ on the Cross — to a grid of paradoxes . . . he balances between the torment of not knowing his mission and the joy of carrying it out, between nothingness and meaningfulness. And like Christ, he is in fact victorious by virtue of his defeats.” (1990)

“It has become clear that the legacy of the past decades we have to cope with is even worse than we anticipated or could anticipate in the joyful atmosphere of those first weeks of freedom. New problems are emerging day by day, and we can see how interconnected they are, how long it takes to solve them, and how difficult it is to establish priorities…. We have discovered that what a year ago seemed to be a neglected house is essentially a ruin.
This is not a pleasant fact, and it is not surprising that all of us are rather annoyed and disappointed about it…. A year ago, we all were united in the joy over having broken free of totalitarianism. Today we all are made somewhat nervous by the burden of freedom. Our society is still in a state of shock. This shock could have been expected, but none of us expected it to be so profound. The old system collapsed, and a new one so far has not been built. Our social life is marked by a subliminal uncertainty over what kind of system we are going to build, how to build it, and whether we are able to build it at all.” (1991)

“There are no exact guidelines. There are probably no guidelines at all. The only thing I can recommend at this stage is a sense of humor, an ability to see things in their ridiculous and absurd dimensions, to laugh at others and at ourselves, a sense of irony regarding everything that calls out for parody in this world. In other words, I can only recommend perspective and distance. Awareness of all the most dangerous kinds of vanity, both in others and in ourselves. A good mind. A modest certainty about the meaning of things. Gratitude for the gift of life and the courage to take responsibility for it. Vigilance of spirit.” (1999)

“Those that say that individuals are not capable of changing anything are only looking for excuses.” (2011)

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