Vaclav Havel vs the world

President Barack Obama said Havel’s word echo through the ages. Really?

Questions:

1. How will Vaclav Havel be remembered?

2. Will his word echo through the ages as President Obama said? Would you say his impact is really so profound also outside the Eastern Europe?

Answers:

Janusz Bugajski, Lavrentiadis Chair, New European Democracies, Center for Strategic and International Studies

1. Havel was a unique combination of thinker, activist, non-conformist, and revolutionary. Although most observers stress his commitment to human rights and non-violence, it is also important to remember that Havel was a strong and consistent supporter of the NATO alliance and had no illusions about Moscow’s policies toward Eastern Europe, whether the rulers were communists or Putinists.

2. Havel will be remembered and revered not only in Czech and Slovak history but among all activists and peoples who have struggled for freedom and independence. Above all, he exposed the absurdity of authoritarianism and imperialism and defended individual freedoms and the human right not only to be free but to be different. His core beliefs are relevant for all humanity.

Martin D. Brown, Assistant Professor of International History, Richmond: the American International University in London, Member of the Forum of British, Czech and Slovak Historians

1. Above all else Havel’s legacy in the west is focused on his central role as a dissent, a founder member of Charter 77, and an opponent of Czechoslovakia’s Socialist regime in the 1970s and 1980s. The western media, not least through the likes of Timothy Garton-Ash, probably made him more famous and well known in the West than he than he ever was behind the Iron Curtain at the time. Along with Mikhail Gorbachev and Lech Wałęsa, Havel will also be remembered as one of the key figures in the collapse of the Soviet Bloc; and perhaps just as importantly someone who successfully steered Czechoslovakia’s transition towards democracy. His role as a writer and playwright comes in a distant second in Western Europe.

I suspect that his impish sense of humour as President will be recalled too; roller-skates in the Castle, his meetings with The Rolling Stones and contacts with Frank Zappa. Havel’s legacy in the West will probably remain more positive than it is in the Czech Republic, where his failure to keep Czechoslovakia together and the messy economic reforms of the 1990s and his conflicts with Václav Klaus have somewhat tarnished his reputation among the population.

It’s probably a good idea to remind Slovak readers just how few Czech and Slovak figures are known in the West. Apart from Franz Kafka, T. G. Masaryk, his son Jan, and Alexander Dubček, Havel was one of the few very figures from the region to enter into Western consciousness. Like it not, most British people remain as ignorant of the former Czechoslovakia as they were in 1938. Whether Havel will now enter the pantheon of these Czech and Slovak personalities’ only time will tell.

2. I’m not so sure about this aspect. It is quite difficult to conjure up a quote from his writing that would encapsulate what he stood for. Both Presidents Obama and George W. Bush struggled to quote him. People in the West know he was a writer and playwright, but apart from Letters to Olga, and his essay ‘Power and the Powerless’, few know what he wrote or have seen his plays. Unfortunately for Havel for one’s words to echo through the ages you need short pithy quotes, the sort of thing Winston Churchill did so well, and I’m not sure his writings really produced too many of these. He tried to promote his trademark ‘heart’ logo, but this never really took hold either in Prague or outside the country. Most likely he will henceforth be most closely connected to the Socialist regime he despised and opposed, rather than to what he wrote

Kevin Deegan-Krause, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Wayne State University

Valedictory words like Obama’s are too often simply empty praise, but in /this/ case I cannot help but think that they are accurate. Havel not only thought well but had the playwright’s turn of phrase that will keep his work in collective memory and call those who are interested back to his written works (and may lead some to the more profound but less accessible works that inspired Havel). He also resisted courageously (and with generosity) and when circumstances suddenly changed he governed generously (and with relatively few missteps). I think what will keep Havel in memory is his ability to do all of these many things fairly well. He was, perhaps, not the most profound philosopher, the best playwright, the most obdurate dissident, or the most effective president, but his strengths in each of these areas multiplied all of the others. Havel the dissident president would be remembered for a time, if only for the image of the recently-jailed opposition leader standing on the presidential balcony. Havel the playwright philosopher would be remembered for a longer time because his words ring true, particularly his perceptive analysis of totalitarian systems and his call for moral courage and social responsibility that transcended any particular system of government or economics. But Havel the dissident playwright philosopher president is something quite unusual and quite powerful, a sign that thinkers can also inspire, that resistors can also govern, and, perhaps most importantly, that power does not always corrupt.

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