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René Wadlow looks back on the life and work of former Czech President, Vaclav Havel, who passed away on December 18, 2012



Vaclav Havel (1936-2011):  His Revolt is an Attempt to Live Within the Truth

by René Wadlow

 

He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game.  He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity.  He gives his freedom a concrete significance.  His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.”                           --Vaclav Havel

 

Vaclav Havel, the former President of the Czech Republic, who moved to another dimension on 18 December 2011, had analysed that “There are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended.  Many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born.

 

It is as if something were crumbling, decaying and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, arises from the rubble.

The distinguishing features of transitional periods are a mixing and blending of cultures and a plurality of intellectual and spiritual worlds.  These are periods when all consistent value systems collapse, when cultures distant in time and space are discovered or rediscovered.  New meaning is gradually born from the encounter, or the intersection, of many different elements…Politicians are rightly worried by the problems of finding the key to ensure the survival of a civilization that is global and multicultural: how respected mechanisms of peaceful coexistence can be set up and on what principles they are to be established.”  Vaclav Havel goes on to suggest the principles: “All my observations and all my experience have, with remarkable consistency, convinced me that, if today’s planetary civilization has any hope of survival, that hope lies chiefly in what we understand as the human spirit.”

It is only during rare periods such as ours of the transition of historical eras, that we observe the merging of philosophy and politics.  Such a period requires action based on the intellectual resources of philosophical and spiritual thought.

Havel, who had to live many years under a repressive government, was well aware of the need for non-violent, spiritually-motivated revolt.  As he wrote in an important essay concerning the role of opposition in a repressive society, “Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything.  It falsifies the past; it falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future.  It falsifies statistics.  It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus.  It pretends to respect human rights.  It pretends to persecute no one.   It pretends to prevent nothing.”

In such a situation, a revolt is first of all an effort to live within the truth.  “When I speak of living within the truth, I naturally do not have in mind only products of conceptual thought, such as a protest or a letter written by a group of intellectuals.  It can be any means by which a person or group revolts against manipulation:  anything from a letter by intellectuals to a workers’ strike, from a rock concert to a student demonstration, from refusing to vote in a farcical election to making an open speech at some official congress, or even a hunger strike.”

A revolt based on the human spirit must also lead to a positive framework for a planetary society.  Today, we are slowly and with difficulty building such a framework for peaceful and creative co-existence.  There are still too many doors shut, too many ideas rejected because they do not fit into a culturally-formed mindset.  We still see too many violations of the human rights of those who have too little power, influence, or money to have their views taken seriously.

I had first heard Vaclav Havel speak in Prague in October 1990 when he addressed the founding meeting of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly.  The Assembly had brought together some 800 people from peace, human rights, ecology, feminist, federalist movements, many of whom had been active in efforts to bridge the East-West Europe divide of the Cold War.  This was the first chance for such a large group of activists to meet after the radical changes in Eastern Europe. Havel was both a key actor and the symbol of these changes.  Yet his remarks were not turned toward the past but toward the challenges that faced us.  He echoed what the Polish writer and activist Adam Michnik had said “The greatest threat to democracy today is no longer communism.  The threat grows instead from a combination of chauvinism, xenophobia, populism and authoritarianism, all of them connected with the sense of frustration typical of great social upheavals.”

Seven months later, war broke out in what was to become ex-Yugoslavia and the new civic structures that Havel hoped would be forces for peace and creativity were not able to break the hold of aggressive, narrow nationalism. In fact, since 1990, after a first fire of hope, civil society throughout Central and Eastern Europe has grown progressively weaker. There are few of the post-Havel generation with as broad a vision or a willingness to act.

 I met with Havel when he came to the United Nations in Geneva to speak at the celebration of the 50th  His role as President had not basically changed his nature — a creative intellectual open to the ideas of others (1).  In his talk he stressed that there are many treaties and declarations that use the term international, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the only one that uses the term universal — a sign that the writers of the Declaration wanted to include all countries and all individuals.  The principal aim of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is to create a framework for a world society which needs universal codes based on mutual consent in order to function.  It is its universal character which makes it a base for relations among peoples across national and cultural frontiers and a basis for the healing of nations. anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was always open to the representatives of NGOs.

 I had been active in unsuccessful efforts at mediation in the Yugoslav conflict and was worried at growing national-ethnic tensions in Europe.  I think that he shared my concerns but mobilizing trans-frontier civil society was difficult, and civil society groups were not up to the challenges that history presented Yet, he stressed that even in dark periods which he had experienced more than I, we must also see the growth of new institutions preparing for the future — institutions which are open, which break down social divisions, which are sensitive to all voices.  It is our task to be aware of the growth of these new forms, to participate in them, to add our energy to theirs, and thus to speed the manifestation of the new era.

(1)For a good overview of his pre-President thinking see Vaclav Havel Open Letters (1965-1990) (London: Faber and Faber, 1991). This collection includes his best-known theoretical statement “The Power of the Powerless”.