In 1975, Czechoslovakia was a grim, gray place. Soviet tanks had crushed the Prague Spring just a few years earlier, extinguishing even that tiny, flickering flame of freedom for the Czechoslovak people. In the daily lives of millions, obedience became total, misery inevitable.
One man, however, refused to accept communism’s triumphant command over the human spirit. That year, he penned an open letter to his country’s hard-line socialist leader:
“Life may be subjected to a prolonged and thorough process of violation, enfeeblement and anesthesia. Yet, in the end, it cannot be permanently halted. Albeit quietly, covertly, and slowly, it nevertheless goes on. Though it be estranged from itself a thousand times, it always manages in some way to recuperate; however violently ravished, it always survives, in the end, the power which ravished it.”
“If life cannot be destroyed for good, neither, then can history be brought entirely to a halt. A secret streamlet trickles on beneath the heavy lid of inertia and pseudo-events, slowly and inconspicuously undercutting it. It may be a long process, but one day it must happen: the lid will no longer hold and will start to crack.”
That man was Vaclav Havel, a playwright, poet, and dissident who eventually helped bring down one of the world’s cruelest regimes – not through violence, but through satire, humor, and resolve. And, though he was taken from this world on December 18, Havel will go down in history as one of the leading lights for freedom of our age.
Indeed, by the time he wrote that letter, Havel had already been harassed for decades by a communist regime that had taken nearly everything from him. They banned his plays and his books. They locked him up. They forced him to perform menial labor. They denounced him.
But he refused to be silenced.
And so, as the Soviet satellite regimes in Eastern Europe began to wobble in the late 1980s, it was Havel who was there to lead his people to final victory over the snarling despots who had previously dictated where they must work, what they must eat, and – most offensively for Havel – how they must think. Accordingly, newly free Czechoslovaks insisted that Havel serve as the first president of their nascent democracy; it was a demand the modest playwright only reluctantly accepted. In 1989, he was unanimously confirmed in the post by his country’s parliament.
The 1990s were a turbulent time for the former communist states in Eastern Europe, and Czechoslovakia was no exception. Havel presided over dramatic and chaotic change in his country: the transition to free-market capitalism, the development of democratic institutions and civil society, the “Velvet Divorce” that split his country in two (which he opposed), and the path that led to eventual Czech and Slovak accession to NATO and the European Union.
Even through the tough times, though, Havel never lost the sense of wit and good humor that allowed him to endure years of communist harassment and imprisonment. As one of his first acts in office, Havel appointed the eccentric American rocker Frank Zappa as an ambassador to the Western world. Some say he even zoomed around the presidential palace in roller skates.
Havel served as Czech president until 2003, although as The Washington Post put it, he always remained “a playwright by profession and a political activist by avocation.”
While Vaclav Havel has left us, his memory will live on for years. As he predicted, with determination and hope, the human spirit – even when suppressed, smothered, and silenced – can still triumph over the forces of tyranny. And that is an important lesson.
“Hope is a state of mind, not of the world,” he once said. “Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good.”