Without Václav Havel

African Update – 31/12/11

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… (It is the) ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

The strength of these famous words by Václav Havel – the writer, former president and the main figure of the 1989 “velvet revolution” in Czechoslovakia – is not only in the thought itself. It gets much stronger because of the story of its author Václav Havel, who always lived according to this quotation and who died on the 18th of December 2011.

In retrospective it is easy to forget one thing: When Havel started his non-violent struggle to return freedom and democracy to Czechoslovakia he didn´t foresee how long this struggle will last and if he succeeds in the end. He didn´t challenge the communist dictatorship because he knew that he will win one day. He did it because he knew it was the right thing to do. Despite the years of imprisonment that followed, he didn´t want to “live in a lie”.

Out of moral motivations he wrote a letter to the late communist president Gustav Husák, who was installed by the Soviet Union after the military invasion of 1968 that crashed attempts to reform communism in Czechoslovakia. Havel honestly described the state of our society in the years of so called “normalization” in the 1970´s and 1980´s, that were so destructive for the national soul and that poison our society until today: “It is the worst in us that is being systematically activated and enlarged – egoism, hypocrisy, indifference, cowardice, fear, resignation, and the desire to escape every personal responsibility.”

In the moment, when the communist empire looked as strong as never before, Havel was one of the initiators of Charta 77, a petition that wanted the government to protect basic human rights. Havel managed to connect diverse opposition groups around this legendary document - Catholics, former Communists, radical leftists, liberals and independent alternative artists.  

Charta 77 created a common oppositional platform whose real importance became visible during the fall of communism in central Europe in 1989 and 1990. Charta 77 created a structure and elites that guaranteed a smooth transfer of power to a free system. Havel became the leader of the revolution and was, still in 1989, elected as the new president. Inspiring is that he never looked and behaved as a stereotypical leader or hero, which we know from books or movies. He was a shy, often insecure, always doubting politician – a real opposite of the self-confident alpha-males that usually dominate the world of high politics.

“Historians will argue about different aspects of the past, about what should have been done or said differently during and after the revolution. But one is for sure. Vaclav Havel took responsibility and became the center of gravity of the whole society,” wrote Erik Tabery, editor-in-chief of the most influential Czech weekly Respekt. He also gave one answer to critiques of Havel: “He became the ferryman over the stormy river. This entails that many would later say that they would sail differently, to a different direction and better. Maybe but they didn´t do it.”

The description of the years of Havel´s presidency would deserve many pages. He didn´t misuse power, never wanted to be bigger than the democratic system and allowed the growth of a new generation of politicians. He brought the Czech Republic into western political and security structures and always criticized the frequent European anti-Americanism – he repeated that the USA always helped to save Europe in its worst moments of history, during both World wars and also during the cold war.

Havel always criticized regimes that harmed human rights, be it Cuba, China or Russia – as a freedom fighter he never believed in different justifications that dictators use to excuse their absolute power. This worldview made him a supporter of “humanitarian interventions” to protect civilians (he also supported the war in Iraq). He saw basic human rights as a universal value which stands higher than national sovereignty that authoritarians use as a ideology to protect their power.

Havel never became a populist who would tell the people what they want to hear. In a philosophical manner he always brightly criticized the faults of the Czech people and society - he was sometimes labeled as an elitist who doesn´t understand “ordinary people” because of that. Havel also resented unregulated, pure capitalism. After leaving the presidential post he more and more criticized the human destruction of the natural environment and the materialism of the Czech and generally western society. He described it as “the cult of eternal growth without considering its consequences; the Marxist dominance of the material over the spirit, where everything is just measured by the level of material wealth, consume and profit.”

Vaclav Havel died on the 18th December aged 75 years. Like all humans and politicians he has done mistakes but he leaves a considerable and scarce legacy. For scholars and artists he remains inspiring as an intellectual who understood his work mainly as a part of public life that he wanted to improve in the first place. For future politicians he is inspiring as a statesman, who didn´t become corrupted by power and who didn´t forget ideals and values in the day-to-day political business. For fighters against dictatorships around the whole world he remains an example that their fight is not futile. For all citizens of the Earth, not only for Czechs, he remains as an example of a citizen, who felt his “responsibility for the world” and behaved according to it.

Author: Tomas Lindner, editor at the foreign desk of the Respekt magazine

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Our library has aquired a number of new and interesting books. Here is the list of the latest titles.

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  • Healing Traditions: African Medicine, Cultural Exchange and Competition in South Africa, 1820-1948 by Karen Elizabeth  Flint
  • Global Education Policy and International Development: New Agendas, Issues and Policies by Antoni Verger
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