Vaclav Havel :
When Vaclav Havel died in 2011, tens of thousands of Czech citizens paid their respects. It is rare for a politician to be so loved. Havel was a man of great integrity who spent his life “living the truth” in a society that was “living a lie”. Born in Prague in 1936, Havel was denied full-time schooling by the Communists because his family was bourgeois. During the 1970s and 1980s he spent almost five years in prison for his dissidence. The letters that he wrote to his wife from prison were later published as Letters to Olga.
He was a constant critic of the government and prominent in the “Prague Spring”. He was a key figure in the protest movement when the members of the Czech rock group The Plastic People of the Universe were imprisoned for having long hair and using obscenities in their music. He was a cofounder of Charter 77, a human rights initiative that influenced the Solidarity movement in Poland. He nominated Burmese resistance leader, Aung San Sui Kyi, for the Nobel Peace Prize, which she won “for her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights”, mirroring his own life’s work.
Havel was an accomplished playwright. His plays The Garden Party, The Memorandum, and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration were first performed at the Theatre on Balustrade in Prague and subsequently performed to much acclaim in London and New York. After 1968, the plays were banned in Czechoslovakia and his royalties were blocked by the government. Consequently, he took a job as a labourer in a brewery.
On 22 November 1989, he addressed a crowd of half a million people in Wenceslas Square in Prague, exhorting them to keep up the fight against the regime. “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred”, he told them. By the end of the year, the Communist Party had capitulated and Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia. He held that role until Slovakia split in 1993, after which he became the President of the Czech Republic, a position he held for the next ten years.
In Summer Meditations, written eighteen months into his first presidency, Havel reflects on how to “live in truth”. He sees around him the evil behaviours that years of totalitarian rule have instilled in many of its citizens and seeks to address them. He says. "Whenever I encounter a problem in my work and try to get to the bottom of it, I always discover some moral aspect, be it apathy, unwillingness to recognise personal error or guilt, reluctance to give up certain positions and the advantages flowing from them, envy, an excess of self-assurance, or whatever."
He asserts that decency, courage and civility make sense and that his role is to create a “positive climate, a climate of generosity, tolerance, openness, broadmindedness, and a kind of elementary companionship and mutual trust”.
He concludes that a moral and intellectual state cannot be established through a constitution, law or directives, but only through complex, long-term and never-ending work involving education and self-education. What is needed is lively and responsible consideration of every political step, every decision; a constant stress on moral deliberation and moral judgment; continued self-examination and self-analysis; and an endless rethinking of priorities. He goes on to assert that the moral state is not simply something we can declare or introduce. It is a way of going about things, and it demands the courage to breathe moral and spiritual motivation into everything, to seek the human dimension in all things.
This is a fine treatise by a fine man. It is full of wisdom from a life well-lived. Reading it will profit anyone aspiring to a political career.