Reading Václav Havel from His Jail Cell

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The curtain came down on the amazing life of the playwright-president this weekend. Václav Havel, the Czech dissident who helped oust the political leaders who imprisoned him, died at 75 in his country home in Bohemia on Sunday.

Havel was the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic. What he didn’t do in both offices far outweighs anything that he did do.

Born into privilege in 1936, Václav Havel lived under persecution for the better part of his years. The Communists expropriated his family’s property in the ’40s, blocked his education in the ’50s, banned his writings in the ’60s, and imprisoned him in the ’70s and ’80s. If ever a man had cause for retribution, Havel did. Yet, when he took power he treated his oppressors the way he wished to be treated—“in a cultured, legal, and civilized manner”—and not in the thuggish manner that they had treated him. “We are not like them,” Havel once told fellow democrats gathered in Prague’s Wenceslas Square. He proved it.

He proved it again upon the breaking up of the multi-ethnic Czechoslovakian state. With the bloody backdrop of the Balkans, Havel wished to preserve national unity and avoid disaster. He succeeded in the latter but not in the former. The idea of war, the first impulse of other national leaders placed in this difficult spot, was not even on the table for Havel. He neither wished to attack his countrymen for seceding nor to preside over his country’s break up. So he resigned his position, becoming Czechoslovakia’s final president. Rather than descend into a second Yugoslavia, Czechs and Slovaks parted as friends. Europe has the peacemaker Havel to thank for this.

Havel shouting “the emperor has no clothes” does much to explain how his rule replaced his oppressors’ rule. “If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth,” Havel wrote in 1978’s “The Power of the Powerless.” “This is why it must be suppressed more severely than anything else.” Havel “living the truth” proved so contagious to others living behind the Iron Curtain and so threatening to the Czechoslovakian government that they confined him from 1979 until 1984. The example set by one man saying publicly what he believed privately led others to follow suit.

When Havel wrote “The Power of the Powerless,” it could be read only in samizdat form. In the winter of 2006, I freely picked it up, along with other of Havel’s bound essays, in a thriving little bookshop on the Prague Castle side of the Vltava River. At the same shop, I also bought a copy of The Communist Manifesto, which had escaped a samizdat fate in post-Communist Prague thanks to the city’s new live-and-let-live spirit and Penguin Books.

It was in one of Havel’s former jail cells that I first encountered him—not the man himself but this volume of his letters, speeches, and essays. The cell had originally been part of a convent. The mission of the nuns who occupied it, according to the hoteliers now occupying it, “was to serve the poor, ill, maltreated.” The mission of the Communist secret police who evicted them was to make people poor, ill, and maltreated. They certainly did this to Havel.

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  • Anamah

    Thank you Daniel, your article is a beautiful way to learn about Vaclav Havel life; you paint an emotional picture of the horror of the Communist regime and the Vaclav victory shining for ever in the freedom of Prague. So revealing!

  • JeromeBurg

    Had life not taken me to Prague in 2006 to write global lesson plans with a group of Apple Distinguished Educators, I would still be ignorant of the contributions of Václav Havel and the inspiration he provided for the Velvet Revolution. To not be aware of such heroes at the global level is the new provincialism.
    But, to my dismay, and as a grand example of irony, while I was reading this article, the advertisement placed in the middle of both pages of this story was promoting Ann Coulter, a prime example of Havel's, "If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth…,”

    • Supreme_Galooty

      Interesting. The same two ads in MY case were for Swing Away can openers – which I had previously been looking for online. Were you browsing Ann Coulter? And why the dismay? And I don't understand your concept of irony. What's your beef with Ann Coulter? I know she drives liberals crazy. Is that it?

      • JeromeBurg


  • WilliamJamesWard

    I think reading Solzhenitsyn is necessary to have a grasp of what Vaclav Havel
    was enduring, Russia was the homeland of the oppressors and spread the life
    of less than human reality within Eastern Europe. Socialists and Communists
    are still looking to return the time of the midnight knock at the door and the
    danger is coming out of the UN………………………………………..William