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Václav Havel (1936–2011)

Havel’s generosity toward Sudeten Germans points to one of his finest, and most radical, qualities: his capacity for forgiveness. “So many horrible things have happened to this little nation in its relatively short history,” someone told me recently, “and Havel knew that the only way to break out of that lethal cycle of hatred and vengeance was to forgive those who have wronged us. If,” he added, “they ask to be forgiven.” During the Velvet Revolution, Havel, contrary to the position later taken by Václav Klaus, had spoken out strongly for reconciliation with Communists who were willing to step out of their ideological straitjackets and embrace the new democracy. On the other hand, as president—again, unlike Klaus—he refused to have anything to do with the Communist Party because, he said, it had never apologized for its forty years of terrible misrule.

While in Prague for Havel’s funeral, I became convinced of something that I had, in fact, always known: that the true measure of Havel’s greatness was not the respect he could command from the powerful and the famous, but the affection he inspired in so-called “ordinary people” whose lives he had touched and enhanced: people like Sister Veritas or former staff members, or the policemen who had once been assigned to follow him around. In the end, Havel will be remembered by those who came within his orbit for his unfailing decency and politeness, qualities still sadly lacking in Czech political culture. Havel instinctively understood that the old system thrived by stripping people of their dignity, by systematically humiliating them in a thousand little ways that rendered them powerless. His way of treating others, even former opponents, with civility helped to restore that dignity and that power, and it was through thousands of such small acts, as much as through his writing and his towering example, that he brought his society closer to healing.

January 10, 2012

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