Roving thoughts and provocations

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Love and Truth: Václav Havel in Bratislava, Twenty Years After 1989

Václav Havel and other members of Charter 77 addressing a crowd of demonstrators marking the fortieth anniversary of the Universal Declarations of Human Rights, Prague, December 10, 1988 (Lumbomir Kotek-Joel/AFP/Getty Images)

It can’t happen often that citizens of one country gather to honor someone who was the president of two other countries, all the while claiming him as their own. But so it was on November 18, 2009, twenty years after student protests in Prague that began the Velvet Revolution led by the playwright Václav Havel. Now the former president of both Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic had come to Bratislava, the Slovak capital, to talk with Slovak students about the events of 1989. Although these young people remember neither those events nor the dissolution of Czechoslovakia that followed three years later, they greeted him with standing ovations and sincere expressions of respect.

Havel had opposed the split of Czechoslovakia into Czech and Slovak republics, caring more for its multinational society than he did for the economic arguments made for a separate Czech state. It is hard to say that the end of Czechoslovakia was good for the Czechs or the Slovaks. Many believed the establishment of the Czech Republic would allow the Czechs to pursue economic reform and join Europe. But both the Czech Republic and Slovakia joined the European Union at the same time, in 2004; the Slovaks use the euro while the Czechs do not; and the current Czech president, Vaclav Klaus, opposes European integration. Meanwhile the Slovak government, led by former communists in a coalition with nationalists, cynically exploits nationalism. Would any of this be possible if Czechoslovakia had remained intact? Though the question is moot, the thought was hard to avoid. Slovak students understand Czech. Havel speaks Czech to his Slovak friends, and they speak Slovak to him. In this sense, Czechoslovakia has not disappeared.

Havel has been ill for more than a decade. In the embrace of a bodyguard helping him on with his overcoat, he seems small and frail. His voice sounds like dark honey. What he has to say about morality and politics is much the same as it was three decades ago, when Havel was the most articulate proponent of individual resistance to communist rule in eastern Europe. When asked why any young person would choose to take part in politics, Havel answered that each person has to take responsibility for the world, without taking the world as it is as a given. Havel’s ideas about freedom arise from a tradition many of us do not know, the phenomenology of Heidegger, Husserl, and Patočka. In order to be free at all, we must first exist authentically, and in order to exist authentically, we must take responsibility for a world that we can’t really control. “Something has to change inside of each of us,” he said, “and perhaps that is the hardest thing.”

Isn’t politics always tainted by ideology? Ideology, replied Havel, is not the same thing as an ideal. An ideology has an answer to everything, and a total vision of how the world should be. It is a magician’s bag of tricks, a cornucopia of things that you don’t want. Ideals, on the other hand, are multiple, and various, and sometimes even contradictory. That is at it must be. When asked about two of his own ideals, “love and truth,” he smiled. “Truth will prevail” was the motto of the early fifteenth-century Czech church reformer Jan Hus, and as Havel recalled, is the most familiar of Czech expressions of the ideal. He had added love, he said, because he could see no other response to the technocratic, consumerist anomie of communist Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. In the notes he made for himself while the students were asking questions, Havel wrote “love and truth” above “ideology,” and then began to draw flowers.

Cynicism and violence are easy, love and truth are difficult. In front of the national opera, the city of Bratislava had just unveiled a monument to the Velvet Revolution, or the Gentle Revolution as it is known in Slovakia. The Slovak movement against communism in 1989 was called The Public Against Violence. Its members had in mind the violence of the riot police who were beating students in Prague in November 1989, but also meant the daily violence of life under a communist regime. From a distance, the monument looks like a white heart on a pedestal, a material expression of sentimentality. Only from up close can it be seen that the giant heart is made from barbed wire and steel rods.

Between Bratislava and Břeclav, November 19, 2009

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