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Václav Havel: “We are at the beginning of momentous changes.”

September 10, 2007 | Editor's office

Champion of democracy, internationally recognized authority and above all a man who thinks deeply about things. Václav Havel is for many people synonymous with the Czech Republic. We present you his reflections on how we can change personal responsibility in the modern world and whether we can agree on a common ethical code. Read this interesting interview with a distinguished man and icon in the fight for freedom and democracy.

This year we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of Charter 77. In light of this anniversary, much has already be said and written, but because you are so closely associated with Charter 77, we can’t help but return to this theme by asking: Are we now living as you had imagined at the time?

The conditions that led to the conception and activity of Charter 77 on one hand and the free and democratic conditions on the other are so different that it is impossible to make a simple comparison. However, it is a shame that some principles, upon which the Charter was founded, were so quickly – and unfortunately were among the first – to be lost in the public sphere after 1989.

In a recent interview on French radio’s France Culture, the French political scientist Jacques Rupnik spoke about the Charter by saying that the “Velvet Revolution” owes a lot to dissidents. In relation to this, he expressed his regret that their ideas were not incorporated into the transformation of the political system. Is this something you also regret?

Charter 77 was founded on simple openness, on personal responsibility, personal accountability, on the rehabilitation of the word, the rehabilitation of the soul. I have the impression that this is still topical. Nevertheless, the experience endured by the Czech opposition is at least present in Czech foreign policy. As a free and democratic country, we have many opportunities to help people who today are in the same situation that we found ourselves in thirty years ago. I am happy that our Foreign Ministry uses this specific experience in international institutions.

Václav Havel se spisovatelem Pavlem Kohoutem Václav Havel with writer Pavel Kohout. Source: ČTK

In an interview last year for Le Monde, you spoke of a revolution against post-communism, which you defined as a “combination of authoritarian regime and mafia capitalism”. What exactly does this statement mean?

Communism emerged for the first time in history and as a result we are going through the era of post-communism for the first time. No one could have guessed how long it would take to counterbalance the effects of the totalitarian past. One mandate characteristic of new democratic governments after 1989 was to revive the principals of democracy, the rule of law and economic transformation. Vast transfers of property didn’t just include reparations for some injustices affecting property, but unfortunately also tempted entrepreneurial adventurers and cheats. Many newly minted owners of new empires proved very skillful at orienting themselves and profiting from – and exploiting – the newly acquired freedom and advantages of democracy to assert old totalitarian practices, often under the banner of nationalism. Post-communism, characterized by a combination of economic, political, police, judicial and media power, can be perceived as an echo of totalitarian conditions.

Could this “echo” be amplified until it becomes a siren? Or could it, in your view, cause a return to totalitarianism?

The ethos of the post-communist revolutions of 1989 and 1990, the natural auto-structuring of civil society and the international situation, fortunately won’t allow for a return to the practices of the past. The situation in post-communist countries, which were the worst off in that respect, sooner or later came to a head in social revolt. Of course, this development occurred differently in every country and we can’t compare the developments in Ukraine, in Slovakia, in Serbia and in Georgia. However, what is common to each is that in those and other countries, there was a revolt not against communism, but against post-communism in the 1990s and in the early years of this century. For that reason I am optimistic. The patience of society can be large, but it is not infinite. The European Union also plays a stabilizing role, so sooner or later conditions in countries that only recently embarked on the path to democracy will stabilize.

When we look at it from a broader perspective, from the point of view of the European Union, it seems that a number of problems are now coming up against one another. Post-communist countries are solving their own grievances and at the same time are being confronted with problems belonging to the entire EU. On the other hand, it is exactly those countries that have complicated the state of the EU. The personal mistakes and shortsightedness of many politicians, the difficulties of the integration process… Isn’t this too much for good old Europe?

No, I don’t think so. Europe has already experienced much larger problems in its history and has overcome these crises sooner or later. The fiftieth anniversary this year of the beginning of the integration process could be a challenge for the Union to consider its spiritual potential, its possibilities, and its moral obligations more thoroughly and take a more systematic approach in its everyday politics.

You are very optimistic about this. What possibilities exist to overcome the current crisis?


Europe must be aware of the sources of its internal integrity and strength. The ideas of human rights, civil freedoms, democracy and the rule of law emerged on European soil, and were thus exported to the entire world, often violently. Europe itself has frequently forgotten and abandoned them. Such tendencies and inclinations can still be seen today. I have in mind political appeasement.

If the Europe Union returns to its spiritual roots, we won’t need to be concerned about its future. It would be unfortunate if this historical opportunity that is the European Union became nothing more than endless arguments about higher taxes, quotas, subsidies and duties. The European Union cannot act as a mere grant agency for its member states.

Václav Havel with Madeleine Albright Václav Havel with Madeleine Albright. Source: Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary

A society of technocrats

The problem of climate change is very topical today. In his film “An Inconvenient Truth”, Al Gore asserts that “If people acknowledge and understood it, the moral obligation to carry out large changes would be inevitable.” Why is this “acknowledgement” and “understanding” so difficult?

We live in a world that makes up one global civilization, composed of different civilized areas that nevertheless have one thing in common: technocracy. Anything that can be counted, quantified and valued has predominance. Everything else is regarded as merely a shell. This is then a very materialistic approach that is leading us to an important crossroads for civilization. We the human race will either come to acknowledge our place within the living and life-giving organism that is our planet, or will face the threat that we could turn our evolutionary path back by thousands or even millions of years. It is necessary to see this as a challenge for responsible discussion and not expect the end of the world. The end of the world has been predicted many times throughout history and of course has never happened. It won’t happen this time either, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot cause a serious threat to the human race on this planet.

Global warming has been proven. The so-called Paris Appeal asserts that humanity is responsible for the increase in temperatures and is appealing for measures to be taken. Why isn’t action being taken immediately?

If we are at the beginning of serious - and today, proven - global climate changes, and if these changes in temperature and global cycles are a threat, it could mean a catastrophe for everyone. It is obvious that man has had a part in the changes, but we just don’t know what part. Do we need to know that down to the last percentage? Even more difficult is to estimate the consequences. The planet isn’t and never was in a state of equilibrium that was disrupted by either humans or other factors before it again returns to its original state. The climatic system and the circulation of energy represents a giant, complex structure of networks and networks within those networks. Their misalignment can have completely unthinkable consequences for the world’s ecosystem. There are many variables that now exist and more than caution is needed.

Caution? What exactly does that mean?

We can’t keep deceiving ourselves by thinking that nothing is happening and that we can continue our consumer way of life happily and without resolving threats to the climate. Maybe no larger catastrophe will occur in the coming decade, but that doesn’t take away our responsibility for future generations. We must analyze everything with an open mind, with consideration and without ideology or obsession and incorporate this knowledge in practical policies.
 
Then in your view, it is mainly about an appeal to people’s everyday behavior. In principle, it is about taking personal responsibility. Using energy-saving appliances, efficient cars and choosing to take public transportation, increased use of renewable resources or technological measures such as carbon filters…

The examples you give are but a means to an end. It would be better to advocate not just efficient, but primarily ecologically clean technologies and resources that are a part of the natural cycle. Energy resources moreover need to be diversified without relying on a single saving technology. I am skeptical about whether the economy is capable of solving these complex problems on its own. That still doesn’t change the fact that economic tools are very important and that it is necessary to use them. Also important is support for education, ecological instruction and an emphasis on mutual responsibility.

As one of the founders of the Forum 2000 Foundation, you endeavor to actively identify key problems facing our civilization. If you had to choose one concrete problem of our “technocratic society”, what would you say is the most burning issue?

If I think about the various problems of today, be they economic, social, ecological or concern civilization in general, I always come back to the question of conscience, the question of whether this or that is or isn’t proper and if it is or isn’t responsible from a global, long-term perspective. Ethical order and its sources, the human conscience, human responsibility and its origins, human rights and the sources of rights of people to human rights, these are in my deepest conviction and in my experience the most important political themes of today.

Václav Havel Václav Havel. Source: Forum 2000

Good, but what path to take? Is it at all possible to agree on one form of ethical order, on an equally extensive code of human rights? Wouldn’t these efforts just end in another political theory?

If humanity is to survive and avoid various potential catastrophes, then the global political order must be accompanied by mutual respect of different civilizations, cultures, nationalities and continents and their genuine efforts to look for and find values or basic ethical imperatives that are common to everyone and use them as the basis, on which stand and will stand their shared co-existence in a globally connected world. In practical politics that means devising a common minimum that is respected by all cultures and religions and use it as the basis for co-existence in the 21st century.

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Václav Havel (1936) has played many important roles in his life. He is a recognized Czech writer and playwright and was also the last president of a democratic Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic.

The list of his professions and roles continues:  He was of the first spokesmen for Charter 77, a leading figure in the political changes of November 1989, as well as a stage technician.

In 1996, Václav Havel, together with Japanese philanthropist Yohei Sasakawa and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, established Forum 2000, which is focused on identifying the key problems of contemporary civilization. With his second wife Dagmar Havlová, he founded the Dagmar and Václav Havel Foundation VIZE '97, which is concerned with culture, healthcare, youth education, human rights and the fight against racial intolerance.

Because of his opinions on the problems of a globalized world, Václav Havel is an internationally recognized authority. He has been nominated for the Nobel Prize several times.

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