Václav Havel turns 75

Václav Havel, photo: ISIFA/Lidové noviny, Tomáš Krist

Former Czech president and playwright Václav Havel on Wednesday turns 75. Hundreds of people from the Czech Republic and abroad have sent well-wishes to the man who has become a symbol of his nation’s yearning for freedom and democracy and whose life story astonished the world. Now, eight years after leaving office, Mr Havel is gradually turning into a legend in his own country as well.

Václav Havel, photo: ISIFA/Lidové noviny, Tomáš Krist
In the eyes of many Czechs, Václav Havel has evolved from the “untouchable” dissident to the sometimes fervently adored philosopher king of the early 1990s; and eventually a scapegoat for the disenchanting post-communist reality.

Since he left office in 2003, Mr Havel has gone back to writing; he authored a new play, Leaving, and made a movie based on it. But through his activities in the realm of foreign relations, human rights, and internal Czech politics, he has remained a distinct voice in the Czech Republic.

Political commentator Jiří Pehe served as advisor to the president between 1997 and 1999. He thinks Czechs would have benefitted more from Václav Havel had he remained a critical voice, rather than an actor on the political scene.

“We can see in today’s world where people are protesting anywhere from Madrid to Wall Street in New York that what these people are saying resembles very much what Mr Havel wrote in his seminal essay ‘Politics and Conscience’. This is something he abandoned when he became the president simply because he had to play along with the system.”

In spite of the many compromises Václav Havel made as president, and the everyday intricacies and petty quarrels he was involved in during the 14 years in power, he is duly credited with raising the international profile of Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic.

At home, the slogan “truth and love will prevail over lies and hatred” which Václav Havel coined during the Velvet Revolution of 1989 has been ridiculed and dismissed by many, including the current president Václav Klaus. But abroad, the story of an artist turned political prisoner turned president never lost its appeal.

“I sometimes jokingly told him when we worked together that he was involved in what’s known as deceptive advertising. Because of the way he was perceived in the West, many western politicians thought that Czechs in general were like that. That’s why – after he left the office – the outside world was surprised by the very big decline of the image of the Czech Republic.”

Václav Havel, photo: CTK
Even though Václav Havel the president soon lost much of his aura, many Czechs now seem to have begun appreciating Mr Havel’s role of shaping their nation’s recent history. Jiří Pehe again.

“The real danger for Václav Havel is not that his imprint in the Czech national memory will remain as it is now but rather that he will jump over the realm of history and wind up in the real of mythology.”