Living in Truth: Honoring Václav Havel

Living in Truth: Honoring Václav Havel

By Steven Boyd Saum and Paul Wilson

Dissident, President, Poet: Vaclav Havel, Nov. 17, 2009. Photo by Ben Skala.
The life and work of playwright, dissident, and former Czech President Václav Havel were honored with an evening of readings, remarks, and remembrances on February 29 at 7 p.m. in the Fess Parker Studio Theatre at Santa Clara University.

As writer and political leader, Václav Havel advocated using truth and love to combat oppression. He went from being a dissident in prison to negotiating the end of communism in Czechoslovakia in the Velvet Revolution. He served as president of Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic.

Though he died in December 2011, his work and legacy continue to inspire and his life was honored with a February 29 tribute at 7 p.m. in the Fess Parker Studio Theatre at Santa Clara University. Sara Capule '08 directed stage readings from Havel's plays The Memorandum, the absurd drama that catapulted Havel to fame, and Leaving, his last play, about a former president exiting the political stage. Professor of Politcal Science Jane L. Curry, author of six books on the politics of Central and Eastern Europe, and SCM Editor Steven Boyd Saum, shared remarks about Havel as playwright, dissident, and president.

Cynthia Haven has a write-up of the event on her blog at Stanford University.

Canadian writer Paul Wilson served as Havel's translator for decades. He recently wrote a moving remembrance of this remarkable man in The New York Review of Books. An excerpt is reprinted with permission below. Read the entire piece on the NYRB website.


Václav Havel (1936–2011)

by Paul Wilson   |   February 9, 2012



The five days following Václav Havel’s death on Sunday, December 18, at his country house, Hrádecek (“the little castle”), were unique in modern Czech history. Almost as soon as the news broke, people began gathering spontaneously in public places, not just to pay their respects, but to talk about what it was they had just lost in the passing of this modest, complex, and courageous man who had been their first post-Communist president.

In villages and small towns, the local church was often the gathering place of choice; in larger towns, it was the public squares; in Prague, locales associated with Havel—the plaque on Národní Trída honoring the demonstrators of November 17, 1989, who had set off the Velvet Revolution; Havel’s post-presidential office two blocks away; his villa on Delostrelecká Street not far from the Prague Castle; the castle itself—became candle-lit shrines. But it was in Wenceslas Square—the locus of so many joyful and tragic events that shook this country over the past centuries—that the largest crowds gathered to lay a sea of flowers and flags and handwritten thank-you notes and votive candles at the foot of the equestrian statue of Saint Wenceslas (Svatý Václav in Czech, the “good king” of the Christmas carol who is also Havel’s namesake).

The mourners—if that’s the proper word to describe them, for there were few displays of outright grief—were of all ages and backgrounds and everyone brought memories of their own. The elderly could look around them and perhaps recall the grim prelude to World War II as, in March 1939, columns of Nazi troops and motorized brigades occupied this very same square, and then the country, when Havel was the two-and-a-half-year-old son of a wealthy Czech property developer. The middle-aged could recall August 1968, when Soviet tanks rumbled through the square, crushing the Prague Spring in which Havel, now a prominent young writer, had been a gadfly to the reformers.

It was as though the Czechs had only belatedly begun to grasp the magnitude of their loss, and the greatness of the man who had unobtrusively slipped out of their lives.

And almost everyone over thirty could remember Wenceslas Square during the events of 1989, which began in January with clashes between protesters and police (when Havel, the dissident, and others had been arrested and imprisoned) and ended in the jubilant November demonstrations that toppled the Communist regime, and thrust this same man into the forefront and, ultimately, into the post of president where he remained, first as head of Czechoslovakia, and then of the Czech Republic, for almost thirteen years.

Since then, on the rocky road to democracy and a working market economy, Havel had been with the Czechs, sometimes an inspiring figure, sometimes an annoying scold, articulating his vision for the country, for Europe, and for the world. It was a vision based on a democratic politics underpinned by a strong civil society and rooted in common decency, morality, and respect for the rule of law and human rights; a politics that sought to transcend racial, cultural, and religious differences by articulating a “moral minimum” that Havel believed existed at the heart of most faiths and cultures and that would provide a basis for agreement and cooperation without sacrificing the unique gifts that each person, each culture, and each “sphere of civilization” could bring to enrich modern life.

His vision held great appeal in the world at large. But in the rough and tumble of domestic politics, Havel’s words, once powerful enough to shake the foundations of the totalitarian state, sometimes seemed helpless to stem the rise of racism and corruption, or to slow the inflation that plagued so many who lived on fixed incomes or pensions, helpless to halt the headlong rush to separation from Slovakia that tore the country apart in 1993.

Since then, the diminished Czech political scene had been dominated by Václav Klaus, a man with a different view of what democracy meant. Freedom, in Klaus’s view, was something bestowed upon the people by their governors and guaranteed by their elected representatives. Citizenship meant voting once every four years and then leaving civic and economic matters for government and the marketplace to sort out. It was a view that to many, including Havel, seemed suspiciously like the old centrist regime dressed up in new, market-minded, quasi-populist rhetoric.

The conflict between these two men and their competing visions dragged on, unresolved, for many years, casting a pall over domestic politics that neither man seemed willing, or able, to dispel. Havel’s second term as Czech president—from 1998 to 2003—was marred by health problems, by scurrilous personal attacks on him and his second wife, Dagmar, and by political missteps that made him seem tired and out of touch. When his mandate ended in 2003, despite his enormous achievements—most notably bringing the Czech Republic into NATO and preparing the ground for its successful entry into the EU—he left office with little fanfare, and few public displays of affection or gratitude.

Thus the crowds that spontaneously filled the streets when he died—the largest since the Velvet Revolution—were all the more astonishing. It was as though the Czechs had only belatedly begun to grasp the magnitude of their loss, and the greatness of the man who had unobtrusively slipped out of their lives.


This is an excerpt from a piece by Paul Wilson in the Feb. 9, 2012 The New York Review of Books. Read the entire piece on the NYRB website.


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