In 1918, John Haynes Holmes, minister of the Community Church in New York City, preached a sermon titled “The Greatest Man in the World”. He chose as his topic not Woodrow Wilson or the German Chancellor, or any of the great political leaders of his day. Indeed, he chose no master of commerce, no great artistic or social figure. Rather, Holmes chose as his topic a humble, obscure Indian lawyer, known to very few people outside of his own country, and known far from universally within it. This lawyer had returned home from South Africa just three years before, and had started a movement—still a very small movement—that sought to use non-violent means to bring about India’s independence from Great Britain.
His name, of course, was Mohandas K. Gandhi—who would, within a decade become known as “Mahatma”—“Great Soul”. He was, indeed, a man who would, in time, be acknowledged as one of the titans—one of the truly great men—of the Twentieth Century. Holmes could not even imagine how prescient and prophetic he was!
I make no such claims with Vaclav Havel. Or, at least, I make a much more modest claim. Even if I am his “only American biographer” (there have been others who have published books on Havel, but I am still, as far as I know, the “only American”-- though I have a feeling that may change before too long), I do not claim to have “discovered” Havel, as Holmes did (largely) with Gandhi. Havel may yet be a relatively obscure world figure (unjustifiably, still, in my estimation), but he hardly qualifies as “unknown” in the eyes of the world. He remains, rather, in some circles, among the most respected of world leaders. Nor am I presenting any green, untested entity to you here, either. I have spoken to you of Havel before, numerous times (whether too numerous, I leave to you to judge, and it has been a while). Havel has been around for a while, too: he has spent almost forty years on the political stage; he has spent the past thirteen years as his countries’ president (note the plural; he has been president of two different countries: first Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic). Today, in just a few hours, he will complete his second full term as Czech president, and retire into private life. So it is this morning that we offer him our words of “Sbohem!”— “Farewell!”— while at the same time anticipating eagerly what amazing things this fascinating man will do next in this life which has brought him from pampered child of the Prague elite, to social outcast, to avant-garde playwright, to political dissident, to political prisoner, to president, to prophet of postmodernism and esteemed elder statesman.
For each stage of his life, too, there have been valuable lessons—gifts of the spirit—which Havel has offered to the rest of us.
As a young man, Havel showed forth a depth of character, a resiliency, unusual in one so young. At the conclusion of the Second World War, when the Nazis were finally vanquished, and the Communists came to power in Czechoslovakia, Havel’s father, a very prosperous businessman, was among the first targets. Almost overnight, he saw his properties confiscated, his businesses take over by the state. In spite of the fact that he was an intelligent and motivated student, because of “class considerations”, Havel was denied access to high school and college, and forced to go to work as a lab assistant.
But he wouldn’t be stopped; he wouldn’t be beaten down. He enrolled in night school and studied six days a week, for five years, until he finally got his degree. In spite of the fact that the Communist authorities held a stranglehold over the nation’s culture, he and his teenage friends formed their own literary club—“The Thirty-Sixers”, after the year in which they were born. As a young man, he made his way to the underground jazz clubs and coffee houses of Prague, where he would stay until late into the night, discussing poetry and philosophy with the kindred spirits he found there. Even living under a dictatorial regime, Vaclav Havel found outlets for creativity and self-expression. May we living with so much more opportunity and freedom find ways to express ourselves creatively as well.
As he matured, Havel also paid attention to his own inner sense of calling. He knew that the love of writing—first poetry, then plays, later essays—was deep within him. He seemed to have been “born” a writer, composing his first handwritten “philosophical book” when he was only about ten years old. When he was drafted into the Czechoslovak Army, he and his friend, Carl Brynda, formed a battalion theater company, which won several regional honors for its original productions (much to the chagrin of certain of those in power, who had already identified Havel as a “troublemaker”). When he returned to Prague from the army in 1959, he took a job as a stagehand at the ABC Theatre, one of Prague’s old vaudeville houses. Then, he moved on to the modernist Theatre on the Balustrade, where he served first as an electrician, then as a stagehand, then as a set designer, finally as dramaturge, or resident playwright. It was the Theatre on the Balustrade which staged some of Havel’s earliest plays— including The Garden Party and The Memorandum in the early 1960s.
Through periods of thaw and frost, liberalization and reaction, Havel continued to write. When the Prague Spring was crushed in 1968 and his plays could no longer be performed in public, Havel still kept writing. Now, his works threw new light on the life of the dissident and the cultivation of fear in totalitarian regimes. When the official public theaters were closed to new ideas, he and his friends would gather in the barn at his summer home at Hradecek and put on their own plays. They managed to statge an illicit performance of Havel’s play The Beggar’s Opera before several hundred people at a supper club outside of Prague in 1975. Havel knew his calling, and would allow no inconvenience, no mere circumstance of life, no authority of party or state, to dissuade him from it.
Havel’s life also shows the power of the individual. His keynote work, written under virtual house arrest in 1978, was “The Power of the Powerless”—which inspired the workers of Solidarity in Poland to keep on when martial law seemed grimmest. Sudents at Tien An Men in 1989 were reading Chinese translations of “The Power of the Powerless” when the tanks rolled in, crushing their rebellion.
Very simply put, the theme of “The Power of the Powerless” (indeed, the overriding theme of Havel’s entire life perhaps) is that once individual men and women begin to take simple, everyday actions to oppose an oppressive system—once they begin what he called “living in the truth”—then that system is doomed to collapse sooner or later.
Throughout his life, Havel had seemed “one man against the world”:
In 1956, when only 19 years old, he managed to get an invitation to a writer’s conference at the Dobris Writers’ Home near Prague. There, he dared to utter the names of poets long banned by the Communist authorities. His remarks unleashed a heated discussion about the place of literature in a Communist society. It would be almost a decade before he would be invited back to a writers’ conference again, and the events of that conference in 1965 were eerily reminiscent of those at Dobris nine years earlier. When Havel denounced the closing of a reformist literary journal named Tvar, many rose to denounce him; but then, this time, others rose in Havel’s defense. The episode illustrated the sharp chasm that has developed within reformers and Stalinists within the Communist Party as a whole. The discussion grew so heated and went on so long, that the conference eventually adjourned, unable to transact any further business. Single-handedly, it seemed, Havel had broken up a meeting of the most powerful literary figures in the country. After Havel spoke, one hard-liner was heard to remark: “This one is going to be a dangerous fellow for us!”.
Just how “dangerous” Havel would be, those in power in Czechoslovakia could not begin to imagine. There is nothing tyranny loathes more than an engaged man or woman willing to speak openly his or her own truth.
Each of our individual actions is needed to change the world, but individually, none of us can change the world alone. Havel’s life illustrates the power of the individual; it also shows, just as clearly, the power of community, and of association. Throughout his life, he has sought out confreres, comrades, kindred spirits, with whom he could join in the struggle. Almost always, it seemed, he emerged as the leaders of these groups, formal and informal, as well. “When I get involved in something (in my usual all-out manner),” he wrote in 1991, “I often find myself at the head of it before long—not because I am more clever or more ambitious than the rest, but because I seem to get along with people, to be able to reconcile and unite them, to act as a sort of unifying agent.” “Havel understood politics at its best as the care and feeding of the immediate needs and interests of a community,” political commentator Paul Wilson writes. He was a leader who never abandoned his own principles, but who was nevertheless able to work closely and successfully with a wide range of people in order to reach concrete political goals. As leader of the “dissident” movement in Czechoslovakia, he welded together a wide range of different viewpoints into the Charter 77 human rights movement. When a student rebellion broke out in Prague in 1989, Havel was among the leaders who brought together the various critics of the government, and rallied public opinion, to foster the heroic and inspiring “Velvet Revolution”. Havel’s life proves the truth of Margaret Mead’s observation “Never doubt that small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Havel’s life also testifies to the power of ideas to change the world. When he was in prison, and banned from writing all but a single letter a week to his wife, Olga, Havel used the opportunity he had to full advantage, All week long—as he worked at various jobs around the prison, during the exercise break in the prison yard, in bed at night in the minutes before sleep came—Havel would plan his next letter. Eventually, Havel’s ideas—sometimes practical, sometimes deeply moving, always deep, often very difficult for lesser minds (like mine) to comprehend—came to be published in his book Letters to Olga, which was later smuggled out of the country and published in the West.
Likewise, the words of his essays, including his open letter to President Gustav Husak in 1975, his masterwork “The Power of the Powerless” in 1978, and many of his later dissident writings, were also smuggled out and broadcast back into the country via Radio Free Europe and other Western radio stations. Thousands would listen closely to Havel’s every word; some copied them down, word for word. From their notes, people made handwritten copies—samizdat—and passed them along to their family members and friends. Havel’s words—his ideas—became a flicker of truth amidst the totalitarian darkness: a flame that would grow as the truth of his ideas became more and more apparent in the hearts and minds of his countrymen.
There are so many precious legacies which this great man of our time has bequeathed to us (and will continue to grant us, as the next stage of his life—may it be a long and fruitful one—unfolds). Havel, almost alone among political leaders of our time, reminds us of the importance of deep inner spirituality—as opposed to ostentatious public religiosity-- in both our private and our public lives. He warns us against the siren call of ideology (whether the ideology of state socialism or that of monopoly capitalism) and the “bridge of excuses” which ideologies offer us away from living our own truth. His life is a living beacon of the power of courage—and even in power, as president, he has not shied away from holding unpopular ideas and taking unpopular actions. Currently, in spite of widescale opposition within the Czech Republic to American unilateralism toward Iraq, Havel has emerged as one of Europe’s most outspoken defenders of American policies. (Which might very well also show us that Havel proves another truth we need to remember: that even the greatest heroes are not perfect, and that even the wisest leaders make mistakes sometimes, as I believe, frankly, Havel is making in his thoughts on Iraq).
But perhaps the most important gift Havel has given us is hope. His life story brings hope back to our lives. His career is a living exemplar of the politics of hope. In these troubled times, when world politics—and our own national politics—seem riddled with fear and division, we certainly need a good dose of the “politics of hope”.
“I cherish a certain hope in me,” Havel told the American editor Lance Morrow in 1992, “hope as a state of the spirit without which I cannot imagine living or doing something. I can hardly imagine living without hope. As for the future of the world: there is a colorful spectrum of possibilities, from the worst to the best. What will happen, I do not know. [But] hope forces me to believe that those better alternatives will prevail, and above all it forces me to do something to make them happen.”
The most thorough (though hardly the best) biography of Vaclav Havel was written in 1999 by the British author John Keane, who subtitled his work “A Political Tragedy in Six Acts”. Keane even had the hubris to conclude his work with a fantasized account of Havel’s funeral (because Havel was in such poor health at the time of the books writing that Keane did not believe he would survive).
Well, Keane was wrong—about Havel’s death—and about the ultimately tragic nature of his life. So now, this good man retires from this stage of his public life—to rest and spend some time at his villa on the Portuguese coast; to write his memoirs at last (he is Czech, not American, of course, so I will, perhaps, remain his “only American biographer” even then). No doubt, he will continue to amaze some of us (and challenge us, often) with his stinging insights and prophetic perceptions of the state of our times.
A life this full is hardly tragic. A life which has drunk so deeply the cup of life blesses the lives of us all, and bears wonderful testimony to the power of the human spirit. Whatever mistakes Havel has made, public and private—whatever failures his presidency exhibited—whatever his limitations as a political wheeler-dealer—all these have more than been redeemed by his grace, his dignity, and his stirring reminder to us that character is, indeed, destiny.
At the age of ten, with the great war finally behind him and his country, and the future uncertain, young Vaclav Havel recited before his class in school this original poem to his country’s president:
If I were a little boy
I’d bring snowdrops and
the first violets
that bloomed in hiding
and I’d say:
‘Take them, Mr. President, I
bring you greetings of spring.’
Take our greetings and our hopes, President Havel, soon to be just Citizen Havel again. Take our well wishes, like flowers, gratitude for the precious gifts with which your life has blessed us all.