A week long period of mourning has been taking place in the Czech Republic after the death of their former President Václav Havel on Sunday. As the flags over the European Institutions fly at half mast, emotional tributes have been pouring in from European Leaders. Current president of the Council Donald Tusk described the leader of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution of 1989 as a “great European” who ought to be considered among the ‘founding fathers’ of modern Europe. Herman Van Rompuy described Havel as a “great man”, while José Manuel Barroso said that “Havel’s name will remain forever attached to the re-unification of Europe and the expansion of its values to central and eastern Europe”.
Václav Havel was a great European. Having lived and suffered through years of division and separation he fully understood the power of unity. He suffered class discrimination at the hands of the Soviets and was denied further education beyond the age of 15. Five years as a laboratory assistant followed and then a period of national service in the engineer corps. After this he made his way into the theatre and the world of literary politics, writing witty, politically challenging plays in the absurdist manner that won him an international reputation.
This anti-establishment zeal continued to burn and after the Soviet invasion of Prague in the spring of 1968, Havel became one of the founders of Charter 77 and a leading dissident. This defiance resulted in him spending several years in and out of prison, but it also confirmed him as the embodiment of the Czechoslovakian people’s dissatisfaction with the Soviet regime when they sent him to take back Prague Castle in 1989.
Although he clashed with others within the Czechoslovakian leadership, particularly those who wished to see the free-market dominance of Havel Klaus’s party, he never lost his social democratic values. He railed against the widespread hostility to gypsies, deplored but was unable to halt the separation of the Czech Republic from Slovakia, and apologised for the expulsion of Sudeten Germans after World War Two. Despite declining popularity he was voted in for a second presidential term, serving until 2003.
In his first address as president, on New Year’s Day, 1990, Havel said: “Let us teach ourselves that politics can be not just the art of the possible, especially if that means the art of speculation, calculation, intrigue, secret deals and pragmatic manoeuvring, but that it can even be the art of the impossible, namely the art of improving ourselves and the world.” This sentiment was central to Havel’s view that Europe needed to cooperate to break down the divisions that remained. The collapse of communism did not necessarily mean that economic growth and political unity would naturally occur in the former Soviet bloc.
It was Havel’s international diplomacy and leadership that meant that the requirements of these former communist countries remained at the forefront of the Western conscience. He led his country through revolution, devolution and then into the ultimate unification. Although the Czech Republic did not join the EU until a year after Havel stepped down as President, it was his vision and leadership that guided them there.