None of us know all the potentialities that slumber in the spirit of the population, or all the ways in which that population can surprise us when there is the right interplay of events.
- Vaclav Havel
In this quote, Vaclav Havel might have been talking as much about his own life as of his Czech countrymen. Sometimes it seemed his life mimicked one of his absurdist dramas. Martin Palouš, one of the leaders of what came to be called the Velvet Revolution, characterized Havel’s life thus: “Havel was the man who was able to stage this miracle play. The sacrifice was to cast himself in the main role.”
Havel was born in 1936, the son of a rich building contractor. He was denied a good education after the communists seized power in 1948 and stripped the family of its wealth. He became interested in drama and his first job was as a theater stagehand.
He soon rose to directing and writing plays, most notably The Garden Party, which was his first international success. His career as a playwright ended abruptly, however, with the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia. Following that event, his works went underground, read only by a small circle of Czechoslovak dissidents. Havel was frequently arrested, harassed, and imprisoned by the police and soon became the most recognizable symbol of resistance to the Communist regime. In his works, he denounced the absurdities of totalitarian regimes, but also the apathy of a society which never rebelled against its oppressors. He helped found the Charter 77 movement for democratic change.
In 1989, the citizens of Czechoslovakia woke from their political torpor and in a few short months, overthrew one of Eastern Europe’s most repressive communist regimes. Havel, who played a leading role in the Velvet Revolution, was elected President of the newly freed country by the Interim Coalition Cabinet. But, as Reuters reports, his transition to political leadership proved difficult as Czechs’ initial enthusiasm towards free market democracy collided with the reality of economic reforms, questionable business deals, and corrupt politics.
“. . . he struggled to uphold his ideals. Dismayed at the looming breakup of Czechoslovakia, he quit as president in 1992, but soon became leader of the newly created Czech Republic.
Much of his two terms was also cast as a struggle for the soul of democratic reforms against right-wing economist Vaclav Klaus, who eventually replaced Havel as President in 2003.”
Human rights remained a key element of Havel’s political agenda. He repeatedly angered Chinese communists by hosting the Dalai Lama, and also met Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize on his nomination.
European Fighter for Human Rights has Died – BBC News
While his political idealism was less appreciated by his fellow Czech citizens in the years following the Velvet Revolution, there is no doubt in their collective consciousness that his passion and commitment to ethical leadership provided the inspiration for the country’s transition to democracy. Havel never wavered in his belief that politics had to have a moral foundation. As W.L. Webb noted in his obituary, he wanted
. . .to carry the moral clarity and authenticity of the politics of dissidence into the hurly burly of late 20th-century market democracy politics. Nor was this effort directed only at a domestic audience. “Experience of a totalitarian system of the communist type,” he once said, “makes emphatically clear one thing which I hope has universal validity: that the prerequisite for everything political is moral. Politics really should be ethics put into practice … This means taking a moral stand not for practical purposes, in the hope that it will bring political results, but as a matter of principle.”
Since the announcement of Havel’s death, many tributes have been paid by leaders from around the world. Perhaps the tribute given by President Barack Obama best summed up his life and legacy:
“His peaceful resistance shook the foundations of an empire, exposed the emptiness of a repressive ideology, and proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon.”
The ethical leadership provided by Vaclav Havel can serve as a model for the many countries just emerging from long periods of repressive government like Libya, Tunisia and Egypt.