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Václav Havel (1936–2011)

Isifa/Ondrej Němec/Getty Images
Czech President Václav Klaus at the memorial ceremony for Václav Havel at the Prague Castle, December 21, 2011

Several people I talked to thought that Klaus’s speech was generous, and indeed, Klaus did say most of the right things. He recognized Havel’s courage, his willingness to suffer for his ideas, his service to the state, the way he had enhanced the country’s image abroad, and he called upon Czechs to follow his example. But later, when I studied his remarks more closely, there was something curious about them too. Klaus frequently referred to Havel’s achievements in the passive voice, as though what Havel had accomplished had somehow just happened, without any volition on his part. “His life reflects and expresses a large part of the very complex and problematic twentieth century,” Klaus said. “The war, the postwar period, the arrival of communism, the thaw of the 1960s, normalization, the fall of communism, the building of a new democracy, the collapse of the federation, and the inclusion into the European integrational structures. His life reflected all of this.”

Klaus’s account of Havel’s significance to the Velvet Revolution was even odder: “Václav Havel became a symbol of the beginning of the transformation,” Klaus said, “and people projected their hopes onto him. He also played an important role through the concrete steps he took so consciously and decisively to support those of us who did not see in 1989 simply another 1968 or another attempt to create socialism with a human face.” It was as though Klaus, aware of the momentousness of the occasion, were reserving a top spot for himself in an eventual rewriting of history. In that sense, he was true to form.


The official requiem mass for Václav Havel, held in Prague’s largest cathedral, St. Vitus, in the presence of representatives and heads of forty-two different countries (with the conspicuous absence of anyone from the Kremlin) and a thousand invited guests, was a masterpiece of last-minute logistics. Klaus’s office, as his chief of protocol, Jindřich Forejt, later admitted, had absolutely no plans in place for a state funeral, despite the fact that Havel had been in palliative care for several weeks before his death. No matter: they got down to business, and in four short days pulled together a beautifully orchestrated two-hour ritual send-off that I imagine Havel himself could have admired and perhaps even enjoyed, complete with the Dies Irae from Dvořák’s Requiem, Handel’s Hallelujah chorus, a high mass, and a dozen small personal touches that softened the hard liturgical edge of the proceedings. The archbishop of Prague, Monsignor Dominik Duka, who had spent fifteen months in the same prison as Havel in the 1980s for his activities in the underground church, recalled the chess tournaments he’d played with Havel in jail. Havel had organized them, he said, not because he was particularly fond of chess, but to provide Duka cover for his secret prison masses—yet another example of Havel’s dramaturgical skills and generosity of spirit.

Klaus delivered a second eulogy, and the former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright gave a short encomium to Havel in fluent Czech. But for many of Havel’s old friends, the high point was a brief address by the current Czech foreign minister and President Havel’s former chancellor, Karel Schwarzenberg, who is thought to be a front-runner in the Czech presidential elections next year, when Klaus’s term is up.

Schwarzenberg directed his remarks to those who were not in the cathedral, those, he said, whom protocol had forgotten, who had stood by Havel in the hard times, the

students, who were the backbone of the Civic Forum…citizens in Brno, in Pilsen, in Ostrava or in Česke Budějovice who believed in him and created democracy in this country.

He went on to mention the absent Slovaks for whom Havel had been president for more than two years. And he gestured to the underground musicians who called Havel their “Chief,” an expression that in Czech evokes images of Geronimo or Crazy Horse. Havel had no need of high office for his leadership to be recognized, Schwarzenberg said. “He was a chief by his very nature. It was enough for him to be present in the room.”

When the requiem was over, the coffin, still draped in the flag, was carried out of the cathedral and taken to the Strašnice crematorium, where close friends of Havel said their final farewells. That evening, the Lucerna entertainment complex on Wenceslas Square, built almost a century ago by Havel’s grandfather, was filled with revelers of all ages, who came for a huge wake, sponsored by his brother Ivan, who is part owner of the place, to celebrate their “rock’n’roll president.” It was a joyous occasion. Bands and musicians who had had strong connections with Havel were invited to perform, and actors performed a shortened version of his very first play, The Garden Party.

For me, the highlight of the evening was a performance by the Plastic People of the Universe, a band I had once played with, and whom Havel had championed back in the 1970s when they were on trial for disrupting the social order. Havel was one of the first of his circle to recognize the importance of the Plastic People’s refusal to be shut down, and the alliance forged between the dissident intellectuals and the musical underground led directly to the formation of Charter 77 and the Committee to Defend the Unjustly Prosecuted, for which Havel spent over four years in prison. That the Plastic People were still playing thirty-five years later was only one of many apparently miraculous things that could be traced directly back to the man who was no longer there.


In a week in which the Czech newsstands were flooded with special commemorative editions of magazines and newspapers devoted to Havel’s passing, there was scarcely an aspect of his life and ideas that was not mulled over and parsed for deeper meaning, or recalled in pictures. The most iconic of those pictures—a shot of Havel with his back to the camera, walking toward the ocean—was turned into a poster and widely displayed around Prague, along with a quotation expressing one of Havel’s most deeply held beliefs: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

A ringing statement, but it was not quite in focus. What Havel meant by “something”—as his other formulations of the same belief make clear—was action. All his life, Havel lived by the belief that if you wanted something to happen, you had to do something to make it happen, and damn the consequences, including arrest and prison, and possibly even death. Speaking about the early days of the post-Stalin thaw, he once said: “The more we did, the more we were able to do, and the more we were able to do, the more we did.” It is a fine summary of his attitude, and, in a sense, his legacy. Havel was continually pushing the boundaries of the possible, and in doing so, he was able to create space for others to follow.

This quality is what, quite properly, put him in the same league as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. But what put him in a league of his own is the corollary: you act not to achieve a certain outcome; you act because it is the right thing to do. That is what he meant by “living in truth,” a notion he explores in some depth in his most radical and enduring work: The Power of the Powerless.

Like many great Czechs before him, Havel insisted on the importance of truth, but with a difference. “Truth and love,” he was fond of saying, “must prevail over lies and hatred.” He was often ridiculed for what seemed like a Hallmark sentiment (“Why love?” people asked), but he defended the slogan by referring to one of his greatest insights: truth, by itself, is a malleable concept that depends for its truthfulness on who utters it, to whom it is said, and under what circumstances. As a playwright, Havel turned this insight into a dramatic device: in most of his plays, the main characters constantly lie to one another and to themselves, using words that, in other circumstances, would be perfectly truthful. Truth by itself is not enough: it needs a guarantor, someone to stand behind it. It must be uttered with no thought for gain, that is, in Havel’s words, with a love that seeks nothing for itself and everything for others.

We are close to religious territory here, and indeed, in the week of leave-taking in Prague, I heard many discussions about Havel’s true beliefs. Was he a Catholic and, if not, was the high mass in St. Vitus’s Cathedral the right way to send him off? Yes, replied some, he had been raised a Catholic and been confirmed as a young man. Sister Veritas said she felt that Havel was “with God” more profoundly than many observant Catholics, but she admitted that he had neither asked for nor received the last rites before he died. One of his last conversations was with the Dalai Lama, whom he considered a spiritual guru. But in the circumstances, such questions seemed inconsequential, even scholastic. Havel was a deeply spiritual man who expressed his spirituality, if that is the right word, almost entirely through his actions in the world.

Not all of those actions stand up to closer scrutiny. Havel’s endorsement of the invasion of Iraq, nuanced though it was,* angered many of his supporters. Tony Judt, in a September 2006 article in the London Review of Books, lumped Václav Havel and Adam Michnik in with “America’s liberal armchair warriors”—a group in which he included people like Christopher Hitchens and Michael Ignatieff and whom he called Bush’s “‘useful idiots’ of the War on Terror.” The term must have been particularly stinging to Havel since it was originally applied to Western intellectuals who supported Stalin without really understanding the implications of that support. When he was asked by the Czech weekly Respekt to respond to the criticism, he replied that despite the bogus justification and the questionable outcome of the invasion, he was glad to see Saddam Hussein gone. It was not a persuasive answer, but then Havel was never one to back down from a position once taken, and he never took a position on anything simply because he thought it would play well with the public.

A case in point was his position on the expulsion of almost three million Czech Germans from the country after World War II. Havel had always considered this expulsion both morally wrong and politically disastrous, because it was an inhuman act carried out on dubious legal and moral grounds, and because it established a precedent that he felt had prepared the way for the Communist putsch in 1948. And though he later claimed that he had not, as president, offered any formal apologies to the Germans, he certainly believed that some sort of compensation was in order for those expelled, perhaps in the form of Czech citizenship. His position caused an uproar at home that has still not entirely died down, but he stuck to his guns.

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    See my article ” A Wonderful Life,” The New York Review, April 10, 2003. 

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