Czech media reflects ambivalence over Havel legacy

Václav Havel, photo: Filip Jandourek

The Czech Republic is marking the two-year anniversary of the death of former president Václav Havel. Current Czech president Miloš Zeman is due to lay a wreath at his predecessor’s grave, while Cardinal Dominik Duka is serving a requiem mass from St. Anne’s Church in Prague. However, much of the local media commentary about the former president is of a far less emotional nature.

Václav Havel,  photo: Filip Jandourek
The headline in Wednesday’s edition of the daily Mladá Fronta Dnes served to perfectly encapsulate the tone of Czech media coverage of the second anniversary of the death of Václav Havel: “Havel is a Good Name Abroad. Czechs Keep their Distance.” Much of the story focused on locations abroad renamed in Havel’s honour, such as a street in Gdansk, Poland, or a library in Paris, France. The online daily noted in its headline “Naming after Havel? Accolades yielding more disputes”. Its story noted further examples of international locations renamed in the Czech icon’s honour – a statue in Malta, a park in Tbilisi, round table spaces created in both Washington and Dublin. It then contrasted this with efforts in the Czech Republic – which famously renamed its main airport in Prague after Havel – often running into red tape or opposition, such as a theatre in the city of Pilsen, or a bank of the Vltava river presently called Rašínovo nábřeží.

Photo: Kristýna Maková
The online edition of Hospodářské Noviny, namely, also reflected the apparent reserve of Czechs as compared with the rest of the world. Their headline went thus: “New York Times marks second anniversary of death of Václav Havel. Comparisons made with Mandela.” The New York Times article to which referred is unrestrained in its praise of Havel, noting the life of a “giant” whose life, marked by a struggle against the communist regime, was akin to a “fairytale”. Perhaps therein lies the disconnect: Czechs preferring to keep real life and fictional fairytales with their “happy ends” entirely separate.

Within the Mladá Fronta Dnes “Czechs keep their distance” story, former Havel spokesperson Ladislav Špaček seeks to explain the disconnect, arguing that his fellow country men need more time: “We are gradually realising that this really was a notable Czech, and a unique personality on the global stage. But in our hearts and thoughts, it will take a long time yet for Czechs to reach the same view that has for long been accepted in the rest of the world.”

Dominik Duka,  photo: Filip Jandourek
In an interview with Czech Television, Cardinal Dominik Duka sounded the reverse: “It isn’t the times, but the society in which we are living. It has distanced itself too much from Havel’s ideals; from that for which he fought for his entire life, and for which he suffered. In the end, we promised him that we would follow the path of freedom.”