Vaclav Havel: A Look Back

What legacy did Czech playwright turned president Vaclac Havel leave behind?

February 3, 2003

What legacy did Czech playwright turned president Vaclac Havel leave behind?

Vaclav Havel almost literally walked from a prison cell into the Czech presidential palace. With the possible exception of Poland's Lech Walesa, there is no other leader who was as entitled to govern a country newly liberated from communist rule. Mr. Havel ascended to his post in 1989 and stepped down from it in 2003. Our Read My Lips examines the tenure of the dissident writer turned reluctant president.

How was the transition from dissident writer to Czech President?

“Every day, I suffer from stage fright.”

(October 2002)

Did you think the job of president was overwhelming at times?

“I was given no diplomatic immunity from the exhilarating world of revolutionary excitement into the mundane world of bureaucratic routine.”

(October 2002)

How should one conduct politics?

“In politics, I am not the only author. And I also have to play a role on the stage. It is a semi-authorship — combined with acting contribution. This is drama in politics.”

(May 1996)

Have Czech-German relations improved since 1945?

"Germany has been our inspiration — as well as our pain. It is a source of understandable traumas, of many prejudices and misconceptions, as well as of standards to which we turn."

(February 1995)

What makes a membership into the North Atlantic Trade Organization (NATO) so valuable?

“We are better secured than we have been in the entire long history of Czech statehood.”

(January 2003)

What do you think of globalization?

“Globalization by itself is morally neutral. It can be good or bad — depending on the kind of content we give to it.”

(August 2000)

Where do you foresee the major challenge for the future?

“Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better and the catastrophe towards which this world is headed — the ecological, social, demographic, or general breakdown of civilization — will be unavoidable.”

(February 1991)

Looking at the past, what made the various communist regimes so hideous?

“A system of persecutions, of bans, of informers, of compulsory elections, of spying on one’s neighbors, of censorship and ultimately of concentration camps is hidden behind a veil of beautiful words.”

(October 2002)

How is life different in a democracy?

“In a free society, it is about someone getting whacked with a truncheon on the backside by the police. In totalitarian situations, it is really about spending years of your life in jail.”

(September 2000)

How do you view the international financial institutions?

“No matter what mistakes the IMF and World Bank have committed, they are a bit of a false target for the critics, a lighting rod discharging the overall frustration of today’s civilization.”

(September 2000)

What lessons did the presidency teach you?

“Evil must be confronted in its womb. If there is no other way to do it, then it has to be dealt with by the use of force."

(October 2002)

Would you avoid war at any cost?

“If the sophisticated modern weaponry must be used, let it be used in a way that does not harm civilian populations. If this is not possible, then the billions spent on those weapons will be wasted.”

(October 2002)

Why have you come to accept the break-up of Czechoslovakia?

“Most people must taste full statehood for at least a while in order to learn to cooperate with others.”

(January 2003)

And finally, what might be Mr. Havel's greatest service to his country?

"He elevated the country to a level way above its real importance."

(Tomas Klavana, Czech journalist, January 2003)