Václav Havel: a life in Truth

Václav Havel, who died on December 18, epitomized the power of the pen. A playwright and actor, he was born in Prague in 1936, two years before Nazi Germany militarily occupied Czechoslovakia. As I have written elsewhere, the Stalinist effort to destroy internal opposition to the Czechoslovak communist regime and its worsening economic policies led to hundreds of executions and tens of thousands of imprisonments. Millions were left suffering. Rigid communist economic views, bureaucratization of all dimensions of life, and recurring shortages meant that people could survive under communist rule only through venality and by shortcutting regulations. Those who went along with the habitual corruption—including the great proportion of managers and professionals—found themselves subjected to blackmail and entrapped by lies.

Havel’s family property was confiscated after 1948 by the regime, and he was denied access to education because of his “bourgeois” background. Yet he managed to reach the university level. In 1959, he got a job as a stagehand in a Prague theatrical group and started writing plays with Ivan Vyskocil. By the late 1960s, Havel was a resident playwright of the Balustrade theatrical company.

One of the first Czechoslovaks overtly to refuse conformity with the totalitarianism that descended after 1948, he would be in and out of prison starting in 1977. On August 9, 1969, Havel sent a private letter to Alexander Dubček, first secretary of Czechoslovakia’s communist party, urging him to oppose reintroduction of callous one-party rule, following the Soviet-led invasion by 750,000 Warsaw Pact troops in response to the reforms led by Dubček and during what came to be known as the Prague Spring of 1968. In 1969, the government blacklisted Havel’s writings and charged him with subversion.

Under Stalinism, the Havel family’s farmhouse in northern Bohemia, where he died, served as a retreat for informal authors’ conferences. There, writers and theatrical personalities found a place of calm and strength after being alienated from each other when authorities destroyed their articles, novels and plays.

For more than a century, those ruling in the name of Marxism maintained that theirs was the true opposition to repression and injustice. As Havel and his colleagues sought to uncover such hollow posturing with a strategy called by Havel “living in Truth,” it challenged the pretenses of the communists, who would over a period of years lose their ability to make the people obey. In due course, the erosion of the legitimacy and authority of the party-state by these activist intellectuals would be among the currents that forced the communist party to abandon its efforts to hold onto its hegemony.

Throughout the 1970s, statements and manifestoes were being posted overnight on kiosks and walls. Citizens copied or memorized them to share them with other sections of the country. In April 1975, Havel publicly criticized the government’s disdain for the principles it had accepted in the Helsinki Accords, the Final Act of which was signed on August 1 of that year. In an “Open Letter to Gustáv Husák,” general secretary of Czechoslovakia’s communist party, he voiced the deep ethical crises faced by communist Czechoslovakia and protested the policy of “normalization”—code word for re-imposing harsh Soviet control after the crushing of the Prague Spring. Doing what the party-state most detested, he violated the protocols of silence. Having sent the letter by regular mail, he simultaneously released it to international news agencies. In this, his first systematic philosophical writing, Havel concentrates on fear and moral decay. As the letter’s contents quietly spread, waves of dissent broke, followed by repression. In 1976, civic defiance groups rapidly formed.

An active figure in a dissenting community of actors, playwrights and staff of Czechoslovakia’s admired theatrical companies, and connected with university-based academicians, in 1972 he and others founded Edice Petlice, or Padlocked Editions, a semi-clandestine press that published typescripts of fiction, philosophy and literature. Photocopy machines were forbidden, but typewriters were allowed. By 1987 Padlocked Editions had available more than 400 manually-typed volumes. Havel damned the party-state “not because it was Communist, but because it was bad.” Forbidden printing presses cultivated fearlessness, as clandestine publications and journals communicated below the radar of government censorship. Musicians, rock bands, entertainers and artists spread ideas. One popular tactic was to bog down government officialdom with incessant protest letters from aroused citizens.

When musicians from the Plastic People of the Universe, an underground rock group, were arrested in 1976, it set the stage for Charter 77. The energies of diverse former party reformers, artists, theater people and Roman Catholic intellectuals congealed to defend the musicians’ right to free expression. Milan Hlavsa had created the band in 1968, soon after the Warsaw Pact’s invasion, basing its name on the song “Plastic People” by the U.S. musician Frank Zappa. On New Year’s Day in 1977, a document signed by 243 citizens materialized. The most significant occurrence since the 1968 Prague Spring, Charter 77 contested “the system of the virtual subjection of all institutions and organizations in the state to the political directives of the apparatus of the ruling party and the arbitrary decisions of the influential individuals.” In muted and studiously “antipolitical” wording, it suggested that the Moscow-imposed and Czechoslovak communist system had no popular mandate. Among the signers were leaders from the Prague Spring, artists, clergy, engineers, journalists, professors and its creator, Václav Havel. Charter 77 argued that the Czechoslovak regime must honor all international agreements, including the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the Helsinki Accords that it (and the Soviet Union) had agreed in 1975 to uphold. Within two years, eleven of the foremost signers were locked up, Havel and five others receiving prison terms of two to five years.

By 1979, with Havel under a four-and-a-half year sentence, his letters and other prison writings continued to spread covertly, inspiring pro-democracy movements across Eastern Europe. His major works include four plays and three one-act dramas. Havel’s writings often ponder the justifications given by individuals who cooperate with a repressive machine and are compelled to reconcile, within themselves, their collaboration with a malicious order. Shunning the cliché of excusing individuals as impotent against state coercion, he penned essays on the origins of power and totalitarianism. His dramas enact the pressures of living under corrupt authoritarian systems of tyranny, non-accountability, unrelenting moral compromise, random violence, cruelty, police states and the necessity of living in Truth as a means of breaking a vicious cycle.

The concept of living in Truth brought Havel recognition as a moral philosopher and playwright. He never joined the communist party. The Beatles musician John Lennon was an icon of clever defiance for the growing opposition in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s; Havel said he was a Lennonist, not a Leninist.

Havel’s years in prison, and an even longer time being banned and censored, made him emblematic of those who sought to prevail despite a ruthless Eastern bloc. Deeply grasping the value of communications, he relied on underground publications called samizdat (Russian for “self-published,” as opposed to state-published) to spread his commentary and tracts on political responsibility. Czechoslovaks had been using samizdat as a means of contention since the country fell under Soviet domination in 1948. Frequently typed on yellowed onionskin paper onto ten carbon copies, samizdat was crucial for the covert circulation of ideas leading to the Velvet Revolution. Samizdat also established essential links between democracy movements throughout Eastern and Central Europe, often reaching the West. Havel’s fellow countrymen and women viewed him as a leader who prized honor and honesty.

Havel’s living in Truth concerns the ability of persons who regard themselves as powerless to understand that they possess a form of power and can act upon it. Otherwise, he argued, one mutely functions in the midst of injustice, official deception and corruption—doing nothing to produce change, while sustaining an unjust structure through one’s silence. To stop living within a lie, one must withdraw cooperation with the machinery of oppression. Living in Truth lets citizens repossess their humanity and take responsibility, in compatibility with the appreciation of nonviolent struggle for the connection between the means and ends. Havel said this in plain words: those who live in Truth “create a situation in which the regime is confounded, invariably causing panic and driving it to react in inappropriate ways.” He regularly expressed his conviction that the power that comes with living in Truth is the power to overturn repressive structures and undermine dictatorships. Such power resides within each person.

When historian Timothy Garton Ash arrived in Prague in November 1989, he said to Havel of the time required for the self-liberation of adjacent nation-states: “In Poland it took ten years, in Hungary ten months, in East Germany ten weeks: perhaps in Czechoslovakia it will take ten days!” November 17, Day One of what would be called the Ten Days, marked the start of the Velvet Revolution, which began with 15,000 students condemning the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and honoring Jan Opletal, a student killed by Hitler’s army half a century earlier. By some accounts, the pupils numbered 50,000 when they turned toward Wenceslas Square, where police accosted them, beating some and arresting others. By Day Two, word spread to Prague’s Charles University and other universities. Students first called for strikes, but the theatrical circles soon declared support and proposed a national general strike. On Day Three, a pro-democracy Civic Forum (Občanské Fórum) emerged, many of whose members had been active in Charter 77. Over the following three days, throngs occupied Prague, as they would indeed for much of the famous Ten Days. Havel became the beacon for the Civic Forum, which used the Magic Lantern Theater for its headquarters. Speaking to multitudes in Wenceslas Square on November 24, the seventh consecutive day of massive demonstrations, he invited the police and armed forces to join the opposition.

The Ten Days in reality took twenty-four. At gatherings, processions, and rallies nationwide, popular sentiment favored Havel assuming the presidency, which he would soon do.

During the 1970s and 1980s, a proud, cultured nation that had lost its freedoms gradually re-developed a civil society, a domain not controlled by government. In this political space, the artistic, drama, journalism, literary and university communities—and those who had been obliged into manual labor washing windows or stoking furnaces, banned as authors, or tossed in jail—interacted and worked to set themselves free from the corrosion of economic, moral and political decomposition. Its guiding light was Havel.

This story was made possible by our members. Become one today.