Reading Václav Havel from His Jail Cell
by Daniel Flynn
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.