Thursday, October 05, 2006

Havel na Hrad!

Today is Vaclav Havel's seventieth birthday.

During the 1980s I was an active supporter of the dissident movements in Central and Eastern Europe. Over the years I met with Hungarians from FIDESZ- while they were still libertarian and not conservative, and with Poles from Solidarnosc. Already in those days the opposition was semi legal, although both Poland and Hungary saw many people arrested, imprisoned and otherwise denied their civil rights.

Though other places, like Romania or Albania were more brutally governed, there was nonetheless a particular horror about the "Czechoslovak Socialist Republic". The crushing of the Prague Spring led to the deadening hand of "normalization". Utterly grey, utterly conformist.

Yet the Bohemian spirit was not entirely crushed. A few very brave souls kept the spirit of freedom alive. In 1977 Charter 77 was founded. Yet amongst the 15 million Czech and Slovaks very few people actually signed it. The secret police, the StB, kept a brutal lid on any stepping out of line.

Despite this, when the revolution came the Czechs and Slovaks cheered the Bohemian playwright into Prague Castle- the symbol of the government. The slogan "Havel na Hrad!"- Havel to the Castle!- was a sign of the end of tyranny.

A year or so later. I finally came to Prague and met with the Chartists that I had written to during the long years of the tyranny. In a smoked filled house in Prosek- North Prague- I met with many of the Chartists- some by then in the government. Olga Havlova- Vaclav's wife- led the party and good Czech beer, music and good fellowship were the order of the day. In broken Czech and broken English we toasted Obcanske Forum- the Civic Forum that had grown out of the Chartist movement. We toasted freedom- Na svobodu!

So after all the suffering, the imprisonment and beatings in Pankrac (and other) gaols, liberty finally came to the Czechs. The moral courage of Vaclav Havel was no small part in the gaining of that freedom. Though many of those present at the party, including Olga Havlova and our host that day, Ervin Motl, are now dead, it still seems appropriate to raise a glass:

Vaclav Havel: vsecno nejlepsi!

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