Václav Havel Has Died

From Dear Dr. Husák, addressed to Gustav Husák, then the general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party:

… For there is no one in our country who is not, in a broad sense, existentially vulnerable. Everyone has something to lose and so everyone has reason to be afraid. The range of things one can lose is broad, extending from the manifold privileges of the ruling caste and all the special opportunities afforded to the powerful–such as the enjoyment of undisturbed work, advancement and earning power, the ability to work in one’s field, access to higher education–down to the mere possibility of living in that limited degree of legal certainty available to other citizens, instead of finding oneself amongst the special class to whom not even those laws which apply to the rest of the public apply, in other words, among the victims of Czechoslovak political apartheid. Yes, everyone has someihing to lose. The humblest workman’s mate can be shifted to an even more lowly and worse-paid job. Even he can be cruelly punished for speaking his mind at a meeting or in the pub.

This system of existential pressure, embracing the whole of society and every individual in it, either as a specific everyday threat or as a general contingency, could not, of course, work effectively if it were not backed up–exactly like the former, more brutal forms of pressure–by its natural hinterland in the power structure, namely, by that force which renders it comprehensive, complex, and robust: the ubiquitous, omnipotent state police.

For this is the hideous spider whose invisible web runs right through the whole of society; this is the vanishing point where all the lines of fear ultimately intersect; this is the final and irrefutable proof that no citizen can hope to challenge the power of the state. And even if most of the people, most of the time, cannot see this web with their own eyes, nor touch its filaments, even the simplest citizen is well aware of its existence, assumes its silent presence at every moment in every place, and behaves accordingly–behaves, that is, so as to acquit themselves in those hidden eyes and ears. And he knows very well why he must. For the spider can intervene in someone’s life without any need to have him in his jaws. There is no need at all actually to be interrogated, charged, brought to trial, or sentenced. For one’s superiors are also ensnared in the same web; and at every level where one’s fate is decided, there are people collaborating or forced to collaborate with the state police. Thus, the very fact that the state police can intervene in one’s life at any time, without his having any chance of resisting, suffices to rob his life of some of its naturalness and authenticity and to turn it into a kind of endless dissimulation.

If it is fear which lies behind people’s defensive attempts to preserve what they have, it becomes increasingly apparent that the chief impulses for their aggressive efforts to win what they do not yet possess are selfishness and careerism.

Seldom in recent times, it seems, has a social system offered scope so openly and so brazenly to people willing to support anything as long as it brings them some advantage; to unprincipled and spineless men, prepared to do anything in their craving for power and personal gain; to born lackeys, ready for any humiliation and willing at all times to sacrifice their neighbors’ and their own honor for a chance to ingratiate themselves with those in power.

In view of this, it is not surprising that so many public and influential positions are occupied, more than ever before, by notorious careerists, opportunists, charlatans, and men of dubious record; in short, by typical collaborators, men, that is, with a special gift for persuading themselves at every turn that their dirty work is a way of rescuing something, or, at least, of preventing still worse men from stepping into their shoes. Nor is it surprising, in these circumstances, that corruption among public employees of all kinds, their willingness openly to accept bribes for anything and allow themselves shamelessly to be swayed by whatever considerations their private interests and greed dictate, is more widespread than can be recalled during the last decade.

The number of people who sincerely believe everything that the official propaganda says and who selflessly support the government’s authority is smaller than it has ever been. But the number of hypocrites rises steadily: up to a point, every citizen is, in fact, forced to be one. …

If every day someone takes orders in silence from an incompetent superior, if every day he solemnly performs ritual acts which he privately finds ridiculous, if he unhesitatingly gives answers to questionnaires which are contrary to his real opinions and is prepared to deny himself in public, if he sees no difficulty in feigning sympathy or even affection where, in fact, he feels only indifference or aversion, it still does not mean that he has entirely lost the use of one of the basic human senses, namely, the sense of dignity.

On the contrary: even if they never speak of it, people have a very acute appreciation of the price they have paid for outward peace and quiet: the permanent humiliation of their human dignity. The less direct resistance they put up to it comforting themselves by driving it from their mind and deceiving themselves with the thought that it is of no account, or else simply gritting their teeth–the deeper the experience etches itself into their emotional memory. The man who can resist humiliation can quickly forget it; but the man who can long tolerate it must long remember it. In actual fact, then, nothing remains forgotten. All the fear one has endured, the dissimulation one has been forced into, all the painful and degrading buffoonery, and, worst of all, perhaps, the feeling of having displayed one’s cowardice–all this settles and accumulates somewhere in the bottom of our social consciousness, quietly fermenting. …

So far, it is the worst in us which is being systematically activated and enlarged–egotism, hypocrisy, indifference, cowardice, fear, resignation, and the desire to escape every personal responsibility, regardless of the general consequences.

Yet even today’s national leadership has the opportunity to influence society by its policies in such a way as to encourage not the worse side of us, but the better.

So far, you and your government have chosen the easy way out for yourselves, and the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity; of deepening the spiritual and moral crisis of our society, and ceaselessly degrading human dignity, for the puny sake of protecting your own power.

Yet, even within the given limitations, you have the chance to do much toward at least a relative improvement of the situation. This might be a more strenuous and less gratifying way, whose benefits would not be immediately obvious and which would meet with resistance here and there. But in the light of our society’s true interests and prospects, this way would be vastly the more meaningful one.

As a citizen of this country, I hereby request, openly and publicly, that you and the leading representatives of the present regime consider seriously the matters to which I have tríed to draw your attention, that you assess in their light the degree of your historic responsibility, and act accordingly.

April 1975

  1. raycon and lindacon

    RIP Vaclav Havel.   Sad to read the above and realize that we, in the free West, are now embracing much of what this great man saved Eastern Europe from. 

    And man, in his arrogance, does not believe he needs a savior!

  2. katievs

    I love him for his first public words on being elected President of post-communist Czechoslovakia:

    “I presume you did not elect me so that I, too, would lie to you.”

    And for his great, great essay, “The Power of the Powerless.”

  3. katievs

    When I was growing up, a person who died at 75 seemed to have lived to a ripe old age.  Now it almost seems a life cut tragically short.

  4. david foster

    A very good essay about Havel by Sheila O’Malley.

  5. Crow

    A grim December it has turned out to be–a number of lights extinguished.

    From Havel’s marvelous little volume To the Castle and Back, a political memoir worth reading:

    What bothered me most, however, was the fact that I found a lack of conceptual vision, not only in the economy, but in our very understanding of what the state should be….A country that finds itself at a historical crossroads must have an idea of what it is, of its possibilities and of what it wishes to be, of what role it wants to play, of what it will put its money on, and on the contrary what it will try to avoid. This view must be partly the outcome of a very broad and practical discussion that draws on a variety of expert analyses, and it must reach beyond the limits of individual political programs or electoral mandates…..My point is that such a fundamental and far-reaching decision, one that would have a long term, if not permanent impact on the nature and importance of the whole country, is not something to be discussed as one of thirty points on the agenda of a single cabinet meeting.

  6. Percival

    The thing that always floored me was that Havel was elected by the Federal Assembly of Czechoslovakia, a body that had served as nothing more than a rubber stamp for the Communist Party for its entire existence.  The apparatchiks grabbed a poet/playwright/political dissident off the streets and put him in charge.  If someone tried to put that in a play, the air would fill with post-prime produce. It’s the kind of thing that has to happen in reality, because fiction won’t stretch that far.

  7. Paul A. Rahe
    C
    Percival: The thing that always floored me was that Havel was elected by the Federal Assembly of Czechoslovakia, a body that had served as nothing more than a rubber stamp for the Communist Party for its entire existence.  The apparatchiks grabbed a poet/playwright/political dissident off the streets and put him in charge.  If someone tried to put that in a play, the air would fill with post-prime produce. It’s the kind of thing that has to happen in reality, because fiction won’t stretch that far. · Dec 18 at 7:08am

    The man had moral authority.

  8. tabula rasa
    katievs: I love him for his first public words on being elected President of post-communist Czechoslovakia:

    “I presume you did not elect me so that I, too, would lie to you.”

    And for his great, great essay, “The Power of the Powerless.” · Dec 18 at 6:28am

    Edited on Dec 18 at 06:28 am

    A few weeks ago, we had a discussion of Ricochetian Flagg Taylor’s The Great Lie, a sampling of international essays on modern totalitarianism.  Five of those essays, more than any other writer, were from Havel’s pen.  A great, great man who lived a great, great life.   And he writes like a dream.

  9. Not JMR

    Hitchens used to tell a story of having been arrested in the ’80s during a raid on Havel’s apartment by the Czech secret police (back when he was just a playwright). Two friends, two fantastic writers, two of the greatest advocates of human freedom gone in as many days. It hurts to even think about it.

  10. Kervinlee

    After Havel became president of Czechoslovakia I learned that, during the years of communism, he and his friends had passed among themselves a single, smuggled, mimeographed copy of Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. I was mightily impressed by that, as I was then one who pretty much unthinkingly accepted as true whatever was considered a progressive view. So, per Havel’s inspiration, I read Friedman. Changed my way of thinking about the world. RIP.

  11. Flagg Taylor

     This is a very sad day.  Nobody, and I mean nobody, wrote with more penetration about the nature and function of ideology in totalitarian regimes.  He was one of the figures that inspired my studies of totalitarianism and dissidents.  Through his letters, plays, essays, and speeches he will be a source of wisdom for years to come.

  12. The Cloaked Gaijin
    Not JMR: Hitchens used to tell a story of having been arrested in the ’80s during a raid on Havel’s apartment by the Czech secret police (back when he was just a playwright). Two friends, two fantastic writers, two of the greatest advocates of human freedom gone in as many days. It hurts to even think about it. · Dec 18 at 8:20am

    I was thinking that there was some connection between Václav Havel and Christopher Hitchens, but all I could find on the Internet was a discussion between Christopher Hitchens and some guy named Peter Robinson about how Hitchens thought that Frank Zappa and Václav Havel had arguably more influence on ending the Cold War than Ronald Reagan.  However, I thought Hitchens didn’t meet Havel until later (“I’ve only met him once. I had a long conversation with him at lunch in fact in — in Prague not — he hadn’t been president that long at that point.”).

  13. Michael Kubat

    Not only that: the apparatchiki were shaking in their boots, hoping that a man with real moral authority would somehow keep order, and they (and much of their loot) would remain safe. Mostly, it turned out that way, though Czechoslovakia’s post-Communist lustration law did catch a few small Party fish in its nets over time. The Party lost a lot of property, but most big fish remained safe and sound.

    As much as it rankles, it was a much better option than chaos and civil war.

    RIP, Václave!

    Paul A. Rahe

    Percival: The thing that always floored me was that Havel was elected by the Federal Assembly of Czechoslovakia, a body that had served as nothing more than a rubber stamp for the Communist Party for its entire existence.  The apparatchiks grabbed a poet/playwright/political dissident off the streets and put him in charge.  If someone tried to put that in a play, the air would fill with post-prime produce. It’s the kind of thing that has to happen in reality, because fiction won’t stretch that far. · Dec 18 at 7:08am

    The man had moral authority. · Dec 18 at 7:22am
  14. EThompson

    One of the few great men worthy to be mentioned in the same sentence as Lech Walesa and Viktor Yushchenko.

  15. iWc

    My mother brought me to a London production of a Havel play “The Memorandum” in the mid 1980s. It opened my eyes – the man was a rare teller of truth in the darkest days, and he could (and did) explain how pernicious Communism really was.

    The world is the worse for his passing.