Vaclav Havel

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Havel, Václav (5 October 1936 - 18 December 2011)

Havel ws a dramatist who was President of the former country of Czechoslovakia (1989 - 1992), its tenth, then became its first President of the Czech Republic (1993 - 2003).

Early Life

Havel was the son of Václav Maria Havel and Božena Vavřečková. His father was an entrepreneur and his mother's father was an ambassador and journalist. He completed his required schooling in 1951, after which the communist regime did not allow him as a proletariat to study in a university. He took evening classes and a four-year apprenticeship as an assistant in a chemical laboratory. Unable to study the humanities in a post-secondary school, he studied at the faculty of Economics of Czech Technical University in Prague but dropped out after two years.

In 1964, he married proletarian Olga Šplíchalová.

Early Career

Havel completed military service from 1957 to 1959, then worked as a stagehand in Praque. One of his plays, The Garden Party (1963) was performed in a Theater of the Absurd event that brought him international acclaim. He then wrote The Memorandum (1968) but was not allowed to leave the country to see performances in foreign countries.

In 1968 he was banned from the theater and, forced to work in a brewery, wrote Audience, a play that helped make him known as a leadidng dissident. "Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate," he demonstrated.

His Presidency

Havel became the tenth and last President of Czechoslovaki (1989 - 1992) and the first President of the Czech Republic (1993-2003)

Selected Works

Čtyři rané básně (Four Early Poems)
Záchvěvy I & II, 1954 (Quivers I & II)
První úpisy, 1955 (First promissory notes)
Prostory a časy, 1956 (Spaces and times, poetry)
Na okraji jara (cyklus básní), 1956 (At the edge of spring (poetry cycle))
Antikódy, 1964 (Anticodes)
Motormorphosis 1960
Hitchhiking (Autostop) 1960
An Evening with the Family, 1960, (Rodinný večer)
The Garden Party (Zahradní slavnost), 1963
The Memorandum, 1965, (Vyrozumění)
The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, 1968, (Ztížená možnost soustředění)
Butterfly on the Antenna, 1968, (Motýl na anténě)
Guardian Angel, 1968, (Strážný anděl)
Conspirators, 1971, (Spiklenci)
The Beggar's Opera, 1975, (Žebrácká opera)
Unveiling, 1975, (Vernisáž)
Audience, 1975, (Audience) – a Vanӗk play
Mountain Hotel 1976, (Horský hotel)
Protest, 1978, (Protest) – a Vanӗk play
Mistake, 1983, (Chyba) – a Vanӗk play
Largo desolato 1984, (Largo desolato)
Temptation, 1985, (Pokoušení)
Redevelopment, 1987, (Asanace)
Tomorrow, 1988, (Zítra to spustíme)
Leaving (Odcházení), 2007
Dozens of Cousins (Pět Tet), 2009 – a short sketch/sequel to Unveiling
The Pig, or Václav Havel's Hunt for a Pig (Prase), 2009 – based on a text from 1987, adapted by Valdímir Morávek in 2009

Non-Fiction Books
The Power of the Powerless (1985) [Includes 1978 titular essay.]
Living in Truth (1986)
Letters to Olga (:: Olze) (1988)
Disturbing the Peace (1991)
Open Letters (1991)
Summer Meditations (1992/93)
Towards a Civil Society (Letní přemítání) (1994)
The Art of the Impossible (1998)
To the Castle and Back (2007
Fiction books
Odcházení, 2011

On Religion

He has stated that he is not “a proper Christian or Catholic” and he sees no point in worshipping God. But he is “conscious of a ‘horizon,’ an 'intimate-universal’ partner of mine—who is sometimes my conscience, sometimes my hope, sometimes my freedom and sometimes the mystery of the world.” He adds, “the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human responsibility.”

In his Letters to Olga, he mentions “my general faith in the meaning of things, in my hope.” Inspired by Heidegger and overlooking his having been a Nazi, Havel speaks of the universe as a living being. He laments that mankind sees the universe differently, sees it as something subservient. He talks about a Being, something spiritual which encompasses all of existence. Man unfortunately has lost sight of Being, relying on technology and rationalist ways of thinking. Therefore, man needs to return to an authentic sense of self, freed from false identities that are imposed by rationalism and technology. Havel has also talked about Gaia and about the Anthropic Cosmological Principle, which allegedly offers a proof of God’s existence. In one of his Presidential addresses, he stated,

  • Soul, individual spirituality, firsthand personal insight into things, the courage to be oneself and go the way one’s conscience points, humility in the face of the mysterious order of Being, confidence in its natural direction and, above all, trust in one’s own subjectivity as the principal link with the subjectivity of the world—these, in my view are the qualities that politicians of the future should cultivate.

Journalist Paul Berman, quoting the above, added that “conventional political people roll their eyes when Havel goes on in this particular vein. Yet to dismiss Havel’s trippier ideas as ‘fluff’ (that is the word one of Havel’s advisers used in a private conversation with me) would be a big mistake, I think.” Berman quoted Czech philosopher Jan Patocka as noting that Havel has been the “main force” that keeps Czech democracy going, the “glue” that holds it together.

In 1993, speaking at a George Washington University graduation exercise in Washington, D.C., Havel sounded very much like a secular humanist:

It seems to me that the challenge offered by the post-Communist world is merely the current form of a broader and more profound challenge to discover a new type of self-understanding for man, and a new type of politics that should flow from that understanding. As we all know, today’s planetary civilization is in serious danger. We are rationally capable of describing, in vivid detail, all the dangers that threaten the world: the deepening gulf between the rich and the poor parts of the world, the population explosion, the potential for dramatic confrontations between different racial and cultural groups, the arming of whom no one seems able to stop, the nuclear threat, the plundering of natural resources, the destruction of the natural variety of species, the creation of holes in the ozone layer, and the unstoppable global warming. What is unsettling is that the more we know about such dangers, the less able we seem to deal with them.

He then stated, without explaining what metaphysics is,

I see only one way out of this crisis: man must come to a new understanding of himself, of his limitations and his place in the world. He should grasp his responsibility in a new way, and reestablish a relationship with the things that transcend him. We must rehabilitate our sense of ourselves as active human subjects, and liberate ourselves from the captivity of a purely national perception of the world. Through this ‘subjecthood’ and the individual conscience that goes with it, we must discover a new relationship to our neighbors, and to the universe and its metaphysical order, which is the source of the moral order.

In 1994 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Havel said, “The modern age has ended.” He added that not just the collapse of Communism or of Moscow’s colonial empire has happened but also the era of rationalism that began with the Enlightenment. He explained that the end of the era of rationalism has been catastrophic, that although rationalism had welded together a global civilization, now people, “behind its back as it were, cling to the ancient certainties of their tribe.” Therefore, “cultural conflicts are increasing and are understandably more dangerous today than at any other time in history. . . . By day, we work with statistics; in the evening, we consult astrologers.” Havel cited two examples of post-modern science, the anthropic cosmological principle (first stated by the English physicist Brandon Carter in 1974) and the Gaia hypothesis (which was proposed in 1972 by the Englishman, James Lovelock)—each, he said, implies that life on earth is part of a larger purpose . . . that we are an integral part of higher, mysterious entities against whom it is not advisable to blaspheme.” Self-transcendence is “the only real alternative to extinction”; man can realize liberty only if he “does not forget the One who endowed him with it.” Of this, journalist Nicholas Wade has commented,

A view of the world built on the anthropic principle and the Gaia hypothesis would not be “post-modern” science but rather a throwback to the numerology and astrology from which the era of rationalism has still not fully rescued us. Havel’s diagnosis of our end-of-century discontents may be right. But transcendence is not the only solution. And to subvert rationalism into mysticism would be a cure more pernicious than the disease.

Although once mistakenly thought to have an outlook quite similar to that of American and European secular humanists—Nicolas Walter has called him an unbeliever—Havel has specifically mentioned that just as Heidegger once talked about the need for a god, “I really think that this civilization is in crisis and only a god can save it.” In a 15 May 1996 address given in Aachen concerning the future of Europe concluded, “Europe will only be able to bear the cross of this world, and thus follow the example of Him in whom it has believed for two thousand years, and in whose name it has committed so much evil, if it first pauses and reflects upon itself, when—in the best sense of the word—it lives up to the potential inherent in the twilight to which it owes its name,” a reference to the fact that the Akkadian word for Europe, erebu, means sunset or twilight whereas the word for Asia, asu, means sunrise.

Some Czechs were not happy when in 1997 less than a year after his wife Olga's death, he married Dagmar Veskrnova, an actor almost 20 years his junior, a person known for her role as topless vampire.

Among those who are negative about Havel are Mario Bunge, who has termed Havel’s thinking “obscurantism.”

Timothy J. Madigan, in analyzing Havel’s philosophy, has concluded that it “is appropriate that the literary school that most influenced Havel was the Theater of the Absurd.”

Critique by Paul Wilson

Paul Wilson, who translated several of Havel's books, wrote the following in The New York Review of Books (10 January 2012):

Like many great Czechs before him, Havel insisted on the importance of truth, but with a difference. “Truth and love,” he was fond of saying, “must prevail over lies and hatred.” He was often ridiculed for what seemed like a Hallmark sentiment (“Why love?” people asked), but he defended the slogan by referring to one of his greatest insights: truth, by itself, is a malleable concept that depends for its truthfulness on who utters it, to whom it is said, and under what circumstances. As a playwright, Havel turned this insight into a dramatic device: in most of his plays, the main characters constantly lie to one another and to themselves, using words that, in other circumstances, would be perfectly truthful. Truth by itself is not enough: it needs a guarantor, someone to stand behind it. It must be uttered with no thought for gain, that is, in Havel’s words, with a love that seeks nothing for itself and everything for others.
We are close to religious territory here, and indeed, in the week of leave-taking in Prague, I heard many discussions about Havel’s true beliefs. Was he a Catholic and, if not, was the high mass in St. Vitus’s Cathedral the right way to send him off? Yes, replied some, he had been raised a Catholic and been confirmed as a young man. Sister Veritas said she felt that Havel was “with God” more profoundly than many observant Catholics, but she admitted that he had neither asked for nor received the last rites before he died. One of his last conversations was with the Dalai Lama, whom he considered a spiritual guru. But in the circumstances, such questions seemed inconsequential, even scholastic. Havel was a deeply spiritual man who expressed his spirituality, if that is the right word, almost entirely through his actions in the world.
Not all of those actions stand up to closer scrutiny. Havel’s endorsement of the invasion of Iraq, nuanced though it was,* angered many of his supporters. Tony Judt, in a September 2006 article in the London Review of Books, lumped Václav Havel and Adam Michnik in with “America’s liberal armchair warriors”—a group in which he included people like Christopher Hitchens and Michael Ignatieff and whom he called Bush’s “‘useful idiots’ of the War on Terror.” The term must have been particularly stinging to Havel since it was originally applied to Western intellectuals who supported Stalin without really understanding the implications of that support. When he was asked by the Czech weekly Respekt to respond to the criticism, he replied that despite the bogus justification and the questionable outcome of the invasion, he was glad to see Saddam Hussein gone. It was not a persuasive answer, but then Havel was never one to back down from a position once taken, and he never took a position on anything simply because he thought it would play well with the public.
A case in point was his position on the expulsion of almost three million Czech Germans from the country after World War II. Havel had always considered this expulsion both morally wrong and politically disastrous, because it was an inhuman act carried out on dubious legal and moral grounds, and because it established a precedent that he felt had prepared the way for the Communist putsch in 1948. And though he later claimed that he had not, as president, offered any formal apologies to the Germans, he certainly believed that some sort of compensation was in order for those expelled, perhaps in the form of Czech citizenship. His position caused an uproar at home that has still not entirely died down, but he stuck to his guns.
"Havel’s generosity toward Sudeten Germans points to one of his finest, and most radical, qualities: his capacity for forgiveness. “So many horrible things have happened to this little nation in its relatively short history,” someone told me recently, “and Havel knew that the only way to break out of that lethal cycle of hatred and vengeance was to forgive those who have wronged us. If,” he added, “they ask to be forgiven.” During the Velvet Revolution, Havel, contrary to the position later taken by Václav Klaus, had spoken out strongly for reconciliation with Communists who were willing to step out of their ideological straitjackets and embrace the new democracy. On the other hand, as president—again, unlike Klaus—he refused to have anything to do with the Communist Party because, he said, it had never apologized for its forty years of terrible misrule.
While in Prague for Havel’s funeral, I became convinced of something that I had, in fact, always known: that the true measure of Havel’s greatness was not the respect he could command from the powerful and the famous, but the affection he inspired in so-called “ordinary people” whose lives he had touched and enhanced: people like Sister Veritas or former staff members, or the policemen who had once been assigned to follow him around. In the end, Havel will be remembered by those who came within his orbit for his unfailing decency and politeness, qualities still sadly lacking in Czech political culture. Havel instinctively understood that the old system thrived by stripping people of their dignity, by systematically humiliating them in a thousand little ways that rendered them powerless. His way of treating others, even former opponents, with civility helped to restore that dignity and that power, and it was through thousands of such small acts, as much as through his writing and his towering example, that he brought his society closer to healing.

Later Life

In December 1996 the chain-smoking Havel was diagnosed as having lung cancer. The disease reappeared two years later. He later quit smoking. In 1996, Olga, beloved by the Czech people and his wife of 32 years died of cancer. Less than a year later Havel remarried, to actress Dagmar Veškrnová.

Havel died at the age of 75 after having a long respiratory illness. With him was his wife Dagmar and a nun who had cared for him at his country home in Hradecek, north of Prague.


BBC News
New York Times
The Telegraph
Washington Post

(See entry for Michael Novak.)

{Paul Berman, The New York Times Magazine, 11 May 1997; Mario Bunge, Free Inquiry, Winter 1998-1999; Václav Havel, “The Hope for Europe,” The New York Review of Books, 20 June 1996; Timothy J. Madigan, Free Inquiry, Fall 1998; Nicholas Wade, The New York Times Magazine, 14 August 1994}