Friday, December 23, 2011

Tribute and Farewell to Vaclav Havel

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Hi Everyone,
Today I'd like to pay my respects to Vaclav Havel, a former and first president of Czechoslovakia. He was voted president after the fall of communism, in 1989. Havel passed away this past Sunday, December 18, 2011, after a suffering respiratory illness. He died in his sleep. His funeral is taking place as I type, and it is quite an affair, but more on that later.

Vaclav Havel the Man

Family Background
Havel was known for his modesty, intelligence and love the arts. He wrote over 20 plays, some of which were banned under communism. Havel was from a prominent and wealthy family that was a part of the political and cultural scenes in the 1920s through the 1940s. His family lost their property after the communists took power, and Havel was not allowed to attend secondary school or college due to his family's prominent background. 

From the very beginning, Vaclav Havel was put in an underdog position, but he didn't let that defeat his spirit. He managed to complete night school, earning his secondary education in 1954. During that time, Havel was an apprentice, as a chemical laboratory assistant. Due to the communist regime not allowing him to attend college, Havel later studied at the Faculty of Economics of Czech Technical University in Prague. He dropped out after two year,s and married his first wife, Olga Splichalova.

Havel the Playwright
Havel began to write plays after studying drama (by correspondence with the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague). His first play was publicly performed in 1963. The name of that play was The Garden Party. More plays followed after this, some of which were banned by the communist regime.

Havel the Dissident
In 1968, during the communist crackdown on the Prague Spring, Havel was at Radio Free Europe, then located in Liberec, giving the play-by-play account of what was happening during the invasion and subsequent period of normalization which followed. Due to his work at Radio Free Europe, the communists banned Havel from the theatre, and he was forced to take a job in a brewery. Havel wrote plays about his experiences during this time of his life, and became famous for the character Vanek, who represented Havel in the plays.

Ferdinand Vanek
Vanek was the autobiographical character of Havel, and appeared in a trilogy of plays, where Havel showed what his life was like under communism. Through Vanek, Havel discussed the situation of “absurdistan.” In one vignette, Vanek finds his brewery boss in the office, with empty beer bottles all around him. During a discussion between the two, the brewery boss offers a better job to Vanek if he would be willing to fill out the reports to the security services about himself. The reports were difficult for the boss, as he had to make up information to include in the reports. This is just one example of “absurdistan” experienced by Vanek in Havel's plays. These plays were banned, but were distributed in the dissident underground.

There is one funny note I was able to find about Havel and Vanek—this was was a birthday notice put in the paper. It was for Havel, but due to censorship, the communists would have not included this birthday notice in the paper under his name. Instead of using Havel's name, his friends and supporters used the name of Ferdinand Vanek, and congratulated him on his 53rd birthday. Along with the notice for Vanek they include a picture of Havel, which made it past the censors.

Havel was all for peaceful and non-violent resistance. Former President Bill Clinton even compared Havel to Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Havel was the leading figure in the Velvet Revolution in 1989. There was no blood shed in this end to communism, in then Czechoslovakia.

“The Power of the Powerless”

Havel was also a great essayist; his most famous essay was The Power of the Powerless that he wrote in 1978. In this essay, Havel discusses life under the communist regime, saying that it could not last in it's then current form. He described the regime as “ unadulterated, brutal and arbitrary application of power, eliminating all expressions of nonconformity.” Havel urged people to live in truth, for doing so would undermine the foundation of lies constructed by the communist regime. There is much more, but that will have to wait for another post.

Charter 77
Vaclav Havel was one of the original signers of the document known as Charter 77. This document criticized the government for the lack of human rights. The document was signed by Havel and many others. The government was swift to act at the spread of Charter 77 by the dissidents. The communist government described the manifesto as an “anti-state, anti-socialist and demagogic, abusive piece of writing.” Those who signed the document, including Havel, were derided as traitors.

Those who signed Charter 77 later lost their jobs, and were denied formal education for their families. Along with this, their driver's licenses were suspended, and some loss their citizenship and became exiles from their beloved country. Havel and others were also detained and put in prison after trial. In all, Havel spent about five years in prison for various reasons. During these prison years, he developed respiratory problems that would later end his life.

The government offered Havel visas abroad and chances to recant, but he refused and stayed in prison. Havel's last arrest was only months before he became president of Czechoslovakia.

Havel the President

Again, the absurd came into Havel's life, when just after leaving prison, he was elected as president by the very government who had imprisoned him. Can you imagine going from prison inmate to president in only a few months? How remarkable for this shy, quiet playwright and dissident. Havel remained as president until 1992, when Slovakia wanted to split from the Czechs. Havel resigned the presidency, saying he didn't want to govern over the breakup of Czechoslovakia. The two countries split in what is now known as the Velvet Divorce. However, Vaclav Havel again ran for president in 1993, and was re-elected. He remained president of the Czech Republic until 2003. Here again, there is much more that could be said about his presidency, but that is also for another post.

Post-presidency, Havel continued to work for human rights and to support those imprisoned as dissidents around the world. Havel was seen as a guiding light for the former Soviet eastern bloc countries. His plays and essays helped others to overcome the regime and adapt to a life of freedom.

Funeral Ceremony
The Czech Republic has been in official mourning for the past three days, leading up to today's funeral ceremony for Havel. During the week, thousands of people gathered to show their respects. Many lit candles in places such as Vaclavske Namesti. Thousands of people followed Havel's casket through the streets of Prague, to where his body laid in state at Prague Castle. Thousands of people filed by his casket to pay their respects. It has been an amazing week with this outpouring of emotions and mourning.

Today's funeral took place at St. Vitus Cathedral, at Prague Castle. The service was everything it should be to bid farewell to a former president. The ceremony lasted about two hours, and was attended by at least twenty-five heads of state, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, Germany's Angela Merkal, France's Nicolas Sarkozy and many others. The U.S. delegation included Sec. of State Hilary Clinton, her husband, former president Bill Clinton, along with Madeline Albright (former Sec. of State), and David Eisen, the American ambassador.

After the state ceremony today, Havel's body will be cremated and taken to his family's tomb at St. Vaclav Cemetery in Vinohradska. Havel didn't want a grand head stone, but rather requested that he have the same as everyone else—a simple headstone with his name and date of birth and death. He even requested that no titles be included on the stone. Even here, Havel shows his modesty.

My Admiration for Vaclav Havel

Back in 1989, I was a young, stay-at-home mother with two kids. I clearly remember the news reports on TV discussing Havel and Lech Walesa and their leadership and work to overthrow the communist regime. The Fall of the Wall was something I never thought to see in my own lifetime, but it happened. Those were heady times, even in the US, to see freedom knocking down the wall of communist repression.

Havel was a quiet and modest man, but he wasn't perfect. None of us is perfect. Even so, there is much I admire about Havel and his life. He had a strong spirit and wasn't afraid of the truth or standing up for what was right. He led a nation out of an abusive regime and into a new life of increased freedoms and human rights. Havel never gave up; even when in prison he kept his vision. I also admire Havel for his peaceful, non-violent revolution. These are the traits I admire in Havel, the man. Havel has been compared to the first president of Czechoslovakia, T. G. Masaryk. I would agree with this comparison—both were great philosophers who wanted to free their country from repressive regimes.

This is my tribute to a great man. I would like to thank him for his tireless work to free this beautiful country from repression and abuse. If not for he and other dissidents I would not be here today, enjoying life with my Czech husband. I experienced my own dark times of repression and abuse, so I can readily relate to Havel and the Czech people who came out of communism. Though the situations were different, abuse and repression are wrong, and we have to strive to throw off the dark and work to reach out to the Light and Life. I share this with Havel, though my own situation was only a small matter compared to what he strove for. I worked for the life of my kids and myself, while Havel worked for his life and those of the people in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

This post is my tribute to the man, Vaclav Havel, who changed the course of history for millions, and even touched those in other parts of the world. Thank you, Mr. Havel, for your tireless fight for human rights and peace. Rest in Peace.

That's all for today. I'm a foreigner still learning about the Czech Republic, and I'm sure this post has some errors, as much as I've tried to get the facts straight. Please forgive these, and if you'd like to elucidate and clarify any points, please do so in the comments. There's so much I need to learn—and you all do help me a lot when we have discussions here.

Have a great day.

God bless,

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Ivanhoe said...

From all of the pics that are out there, I used exactly the same one for my post today. Amazing!
Thank you for doing this, there was not much coverage of VH here in the States.

Sher said...

@Ivanhoe, That's really amazing! I thought this was a good picture of him, great you thought so, too! :0)

I'ts sad they didn't mention him too much back home. Many people there do remember Havel.

I grew up with stories about Czechoslovakia, and when I got older, I always paid attention to the news from here. There was some news before the fall and after. It would be great if back home we could remember patriots such as Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel. They fought for human rights for their own people, and became shining examples around the world.

Have a wonderful and very Merry Christmas! And I wish you all the best in this New Year!
Sher :0)

Ivanhoe said...

Hope you had a wonderful christmas, Sher! Just stopping by to say a big thank you for all of your comments and support. It's really appreciated :)

Sher said...

@Ivanhoe: Thank you, I did...and I hope you also had a wonderful Christmas!

I have to say the same--thank you for your support and comments, too. We have an interesting perspective, as we are living in one another's home countries. It's fun to share perspectives and learn from one another.

Please do let me know if there's something I can send from here--that's a serious offer!

Have a wonderful and happy New Year,
Sher :0) said...

Hi Sher,

My second attempt to leave a comment here.

Just to say that this is an extremely good article about Havel. Whilst I already knew most of what you wrote about, I hadn't heard or read about the birthday greetings to Vanek with a picture of Havel. Hilarious!

What saddens me is reading the last sentence of Ivanhoe's first comment regarding the lack of coverage of the death of Havel in the USA. It is an unfortunate reflection of the view of so many Americans that America is the world & very little of note occurs beyond its borders. Sad - to say the least.

Sher said...

@Chaplain: It's great you enjoyed that bit about Vanek--I thought it was hilarious--what a ruse!

Yes, sadly we don't all take much interest in the outside world back home. This post was inspired by the need to share Havel with everyone back home, as I have a few American readers. There are many famous Czechs we don't realize are Czech, too...I plan to write about them in the future, too!

Have a great day and happy New Year,
Sher :0)