The death of Vaclav Havel, the political dissident turned national leader and international hero has touched the world. Havel died Sunday December 18 at his weekend home in the northern Czech Republic. The 75-year-old former chain-smoker had a history of chronic respiratory problems dating back to his time in prison.
He was born October 5, 1936, in Prague, the child of a wealthy family that lost extensive property to communist nationalization in 1948. Havel was denied a formal education, eventually earning a degree at night school and starting out in theater as a stagehand. His political activism began in January 1977, when he co-authored the human rights manifesto Charter 77, and the cause drew widening attention in the West.
Havel was detained countless times and spent four years in communist jails. His letters from prison to his first wife were among his best-known works. “Letters to Olga” blended deep philosophy with a stream of stern advice to the spouse he saw as his mentor and best friend.
The events of August 1988 — the 20th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion — first suggested that Havel and his friends might one day replace the apparatchiks who jailed them. Havel’s arrest in January 1989 at another street protest and his subsequent trial generated anger at home and abroad. Pressure for change was so strong that the communists released him in May of that same year.
That fall, communism began to collapse across Eastern Europe, and in November the Berlin Wall fell. Eight days later, police brutally broke up a demonstration by thousands of Prague students. This was the signal that Havel and his countrymen had awaited. Within 48 hours, a broad new opposition movement was founded, and a day later, hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks took to the streets. In three heady weeks, communist rule was broken.
On December 29, 1989, Havel was elected Czechoslovakia’s president by the country’s still-communist parliament.
Three days later, he told the nation in a televised New Year’s address: “Out of gifted and sovereign people, the regime made us little screws in a monstrously big, rattling and stinking machine.”
The end of Czechoslovakia’s totalitarian regime was called the Velvet Revolution because of how smooth the transition seemed: Communism dead in a matter of weeks, without a shot fired. But for Vaclav Havel, it was a moment he helped pay for with decades of suffering and struggle.
As president of Czechoslovakia, Havel continued to combine his political, dissident and artistic sensibilities. He insisted on writing his own speeches, conceiving many of them as philosophical and literary works, in which he not only criticized the dehumanized technology of modern politics, but also repeatedly appealed to Czechs not to fall prey to consumerism and mindless party politics.
He continued to be regarded a moral voice as he decried the shortcomings of his society under democracy, but eventually bent to the dictates of convention and power. His watchwords — “what the heart thinks, the tongue speaks” — had to be modified for day-to-day politics.
In July 1992, it became clear that the Czechoslovak federation was heading for a split. He considered the breakup a personal failure, though years later he would conclude that it was for the best. Havel resigned as president, but he remained popular and was elected president of the new Czech Republic uncontested, even though the job held great immense prestige but little power.
Media criticism, once unthinkable, became unrelenting. Serious newspapers questioned his political visions; tabloids focused mainly on his private life.
Havel left office in 2003. Havel was small, but his presence and wit could fill a room. Even late in life, he retained a certain impishness and boyish grin, shifting easily from philosophy to jokes or plain old Prague gossip.
The former president of the Czech Republic was one of my heroes and one of the last of a now-extinct breed of political leaders who could lead effectively in extraordinary times because their first commitment was to common decency and the common good, not to possessing power. If the world is to make it through its various crises successfully, the legacy of Vaclav Havel must remain alive.
That unforgettable fall of 1989 in Rome
I shall never forget those historic days of the fall of 1989, having experienced them up close as I pursued my graduate studies in Sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. I knew that I was living through some very historic moments as we watched the Iron Curtain come crashing down.
I wrote down these sayings of Havel during those momentous years following the Velvet Revolution and they continue to inspire me. One of my favorite descriptions of hope is from Vaclav Havel. Havel described this great Christian virtue with these words: “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
He also wrote: “The hope of the world lies in the rehabilitation of the living human being, not just the body but also the soul.”
On vision, Havel wrote: “Vision is not enough – it must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps, we must step up the stairs.”
“Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred,” Havel famously said. It became his revolutionary motto, which he said he always strove to live by.
“I am not sure I know what a miracle is…”
In April 1990, the new president of then newly-liberated Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, caught this dimension of Blessed John Paul II’s remarkable life when he welcomed the pope to Prague with these profoundly moving words:
“I am not sure I know what a miracle is. In spite of this, I dare say that, at this moment, I am participating in a miracle: the man who six months ago was arrested as an enemy of the state stands here today as the president of that state, and bids welcome to the first pontiff in the history of the Catholic Church to set foot in this land…
“I am not sure that I know what a miracle is. In spite of this, I dare say that at this moment I am participating in a miracle: in a country devastated by the ideology of hatred, the messenger of love has arrived; in a country devastated by the government of the ignorant, the living symbol of culture has arrived; in a country that, until a short time ago, was devastated by the idea of confrontation and division in the world, the messenger of peace, dialogue, mutual tolerance, esteem and calm understanding, the messenger of fraternal unity in diversity has arrived.
“During these long decades, the Spirit was banished from our country. I have the honor of witnessing the moment in which its soil is kissed by the apostle of spirituality.”
“Welcome to Czechoslovakia, Your Holiness.”
During that same historic Papal Visit to Prague in April 1990, President Vaclav Havel welcomed John Paul II to a gathering of the cultural and non-Catholic leaders by reminding him of a line from a poem written by then Cardinal Karol Wojtyla when he was Archbishop of Cracow in 1974. Havel spoke these moving words:
“In one of your poems you asked: ‘Can history ever run counter to conscience?’ What you intended to say in that exclamation is clear: that history cannot run counter to conscience forever. You were right and with you all those who did not lose hope.”
President Havel understood what had happened in his country as the victory of conscience over history. In an article appearing in The New York Times on March 1, 1992, Havel wrote that Communism was defeated by “life, by the human spirit, by conscience, by the resistance of Being and man to manipulation.” He warned, however, that Communism’s fundamental error, to reject the centrality of conscience as the key to human history, continues to threaten us with destruction. “We are looking for new scientific recipes, new ideologies, new control systems, new institutions, new instruments to eliminate the dreadful consequences of our previous recipes, ideologies, control systems, institutions, and instruments . . . We are looking for an objective way out of the crisis of objectivism.”
One of liberty’s great heroes
Even out of office, Havel remained a world figure. Among the many honors he received was the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian award, bestowed on him by President George W. Bush for being “one of liberty’s great heroes.” Havel was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, and collected dozens of other accolades worldwide for his efforts as a global ambassador of conscience, defending the downtrodden from Darfur to Myanmar. Over the past few years, Vaclav Havel saw the global economic crisis as a warning not to abandon basic human values in the scramble to prosper.
In the last years of his presidency, Havel’s political opponents ridiculed him as a naïve moralist. Many ordinary Czechs, on the other hand, had come to dislike him not only for what seemed like relentless moralizing, but also because he reflected back to them their own lack of courage during the Communist regime. Though he enjoyed respect and admiration abroad, if only for continuing his fight against human-right abuses around the world, his popularity at home was shaken. But not anymore. Czechs have become terribly dissatisfied with the current political system’s omnipresent corruption and other failings, have increasingly come to appreciate the importance of Vaclav Havel’s moral appeals. In his death, he is being lionized as someone who foresaw many current problems, and not only at home: while still president, he repeatedly called attention to the self-destructive forces of industrial civilization and global capitalism.
What is it that made Havel exceptional? The answer is simple: decency. He was a decent, principled man. He did not fight against communism because of some hidden personal agenda, but simply because it was, in his view, an indecent, immoral system. Acting on such beliefs in his political career made him a politician of the kind that the contemporary world no longer sees. Perhaps that is why, as the world — and Europe in particular — faces a period of profound crisis, the clarity and courageous language that would bring about meaningful change is missing.
Havel’s life a miracle
On Friday December 23, 2011, a state funeral was held for Vaclav Havel in Prague’s majestic Cathedral of Saint Vitus, Wenceslas and Adalbert. Prague Archbishop Dominik Duka, who is also the Primate of Bohemia, spoke these moving words about Havel:
“Where death comes and orders a man to cease, his statements are heard strongly. And so when someone leaves, the moments emerge that we have spent together. Both are given a new meaning. Vaclav, I clearly hear you words pronounced to welcome Pope John Paul II: “I don’t know if I know what a miracle is, but the fact that you are here is a miracle.” Your whole life was a miracle. Against all expectations almost all of your dreams were fulfilled: fall of the inanimate Husák’s regime protected by the Soviet Army, restoration of independence and democracy. But they were not dreams; they were your innermost desires.
When I now hear your words: “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate,” it is clear to me that you were not agnostic as it may have seemed, and to many it will seem further on. Truth and love were those desires of your heart. You believed in them, and against everything and everybody what historically surrounded us, you trusted in them. This was giving you courage and trust in the future. The whole mystery of your bravery and persistence is hidden in that innermost belief of yours. And I see this as the most precious thing that you have done for us. You have awakened hope in a wearied nation and united it by this. It is not accidental, but inevitably natural, that in the last days of your life you said that we would not have to worry about the next year or even the crisis, if we are united.
…May Saint Agnes [of Bohemia] accompany you – kind and most sympathetic with anyone who suffers injustice – to the kingdom of Truth and Love, where reigns the One who Is – as you said during our last encounter. In the last weeks of this life you spoke about him as the true God.
May he protect us against lies and hatred and lead us through history on the paths of peace.”
Benedict’s response to Havel’s death
Pope Benedict XVI sent a telegram of condolence to the President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, on the death of former president Vaclav Havel. In the text, the Pope expressed his nearness to those attending his funeral, joining them in “commending the soul of the deceased to the infinite mercy of our heavenly Father” and recalling Vaclav Havel’s courage in the defence of “human rights at a time when these were systematically denied to the people of your country”. He paid tribute to his “visionary leadership in forging a new democratic policy after the fall of the previous regime” and gave thanks to God “for the freedom that the people of the Czech Republic now enjoy”.
May Vaclav Havel rest in peace and intercede for Europe.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation