Vaclav Havel

By Toby Litt

Václav Havel is the only political hero I have ever had. This, I’m pretty sure, is because he never wanted to be a politician. And also because – for me – he was truly heroic.

Havel’s heroism was very quiet and incremental. He did not act in a critical moment to save imperilled lives. Instead, he allowed his own life to degenerate in order to try and bring about political change. This degeneration, eventually, led to his imprisonment. Havel was heroic in the way he tolerated a mass of minor discomforts. His prison letters to his wife Ogla detail some of these. He was prepared to watch his own health suffer. He was prepared to forgo writing plays. And for what reason?

He believed very straightforwardly in human rights. Freedom of thought and conscience. Freedom from unjust imprisonment.

His method of pursuing his aims was very simple. He went to the Czechoslovak Communist authorities and asked them to abide by their own constitution. He never asked for more than was due him, as a citizen.

In doing this, of course, he knew he was asking the seemingly impossible. But, by asking, he immediately brought it into the realm of the possible. As a citizen, he called his government to account. The reason governments are as they are is because so few citizens do this.

Between 1990 and 1993, I lived in Prague. Václav Havel was the President. Civic Forum – largely comprised of former dissidents – was the party of government. I doubt I will ever again experience such a feeling of social euphoria. The people knew that their rulers had never plotted to be their rulers, and so they could trust them in an entirely euphoric way. The rise of Václav Klaus and a new political class soon put this into the past. Havel, though, remained.

The main reasons for having a hero is that they force you to ask yourself, ‘What would they do in the same situation?’

With the threat of the extension of imprisonment without charge to 42 days, I am in no doubt what Václav Havel would do. He would recognise it as an attack upon the freedom of all citizens. He would speak out publicly against the corruption of the law. He would politely call his government to account.