Vaclav Havel. President. Writer. Dissident. Airport honoree. National hero…
Before coming to the Czech Republic, I didn’t know who Vaclav Havel was. That changed within a day of arriving in this country – at least on a name-recognition level. I landed at Vaclav Havel airport, watched videos of Havel during the Velvet Revolution and read several of his letters during orientation week. Several of our professors at NYU Prague reminisced about working closely with Havel during the dissident movement. It was immediately clear that Havel is a huge deal to Czechs, but why? What is it about this man that’s given him legendary status?
It’s actually quite simple. In an interview, Jan Urban, an NYU Prague professor and student dissident during the Revolution, explained that Havel’s success stemmed from his ability to serve as “a mouthpiece for people’s dreams and fears” (Costanza). This ability is especially evident if you read Havel’s Open Letters.
For example, in 1975 Havel wrote the letter “Dear Dr. Husák” to Dr. Gustav Husák, the general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party at the time, to express dissatisfaction with recent political changes. For context, the Prague Spring of 1968, a time of laxer censorship and increased freedoms, had been stifled by a surprise Soviet invasion. More moderate Communists like Alexander Dubček had been replaced by pro-Moscow hardliners, who quickly reestablished state control on daily life.
Havel’s letter captures the domineering control the Communist Party imposed on the lives of Czech citizens. He explains that “For fear of losing his job, the schoolteacher teaches things he does not believe; fearing for his future, the pupil repeats them after him.” Fear dominated the national culture – one of my professors told me that in communist Czechoslovakia, the only time someone looked you in the eye was if the secret police wanted you to know that you were being watched.
Yet Havel also warned Husák that Czech submission would not continue forever. He proclaimed that “even if they never speak of it, people have a very acute appreciation of the price they have paid for outward peace and quiet: the permanent humiliation of their human dignity.” A sense of resistance has long fermented in the Czech consciousness, be it during the Hussite wars or under the rules of the Nazis and the Soviets. This fermentation came to a head in 1989, when student-led protests took over Wenceslas Square. People still remember the atmosphere of half a million protestors filling the streets, no small feat for a country of only 15 million people. And throughout the Revolution, there was Havel, urging them on towards a new life.
Havel is ubiquitous in the post-Communist Czech Republic, and for good reason. He put pen to paper and captured the feelings of frustration and fear that millions felt under the Communism regime. He voiced their inner longing for freedom, both through his writing and later on through his actions during the Velvet Revolution.
In a way, Havel’s letter to Husák seems almost prophetic about the end of the Communist regime. For many Czechs, the collapse of the regime was actually a shock. The Soviet Union and its puppet states was expected to last forever, so the student protestors in 1989 were stunned when the Communist Party stepped down within weeks of their marches. Yet Havel issued the Communist Secretary the following warning: “The machine that worked for years to apparent perfection, faultlessly, without a hitch, falls apart overnight. The system that seemed likely to reign unchanged, world without end, since nothing could call its power in question amid all those unanimous votes and elections, is shattered without warning. And, to our amazement, we find that nothing was the way we had thought it was.”
Vaclav Havel devoted his life to the Czechs and their liberty, and his role as the people’s mouthpiece is the keystone of his legacy.