Summary of Havel at 80: Reflections on his Thoughts and Legacies

Vaclav Havel was one of the most important political thinkers of Central Europe, whose dissections of Communist rule as a playwright helped topple Communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989 and lead to his eventual election as President. On Wednesday, March 9, 2016 his advisors and contemporaries spoke about his legacy, as this year would have been his 80th birthday celebration. The panel included Timothy Frye, Marshall D. Shulman Professor of Post-Soviet Foreign Policy, Columbia University; Michael Kraus, Frederick C. Dirks Professor of Political Science, Middlebury College; Jacques Rupnik, Director of Research, Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches Internationales (CERI), Sciences Po; and Jan Svejnar, James T. Shotwell Professor of Global Political Economy and Director of the Center on Global Economic Governance, Columbia University. Before the panel, opening remarks were made by Alex Cooley, Director of the Harriman Institute, which was a co-sponsor of the event with the Center on Global Economic Governance, as well as the East Central European Center, the Alliance Program, and the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation.

Michael Kraus began the discussion by focusing his remarks on what he believed shaped Havel’s character. He spoke of Havel’s early life, which was shaped by the war and the post-war communist period. He noted that Havel was the beneficiary of a prosperous upbringing as his maternal grandfather had been a successful writer, diplomat, and manager of factories and his uncle was a captain of the Czech film industry. Kraus discussed how aware Havel was of his wealth throughout his upbringing, citing a 1985 interview in which Havel said he felt somewhat ashamed in being looked after by the many staff hired by his family and that he longed for equality with others. Kraus then discussed how this eventually came to be after the communists seized power in 1948 and Havel’s family lost everything. His father and uncle were both fired and arrested and the businesses and properties were expropriated by the state. Just months prior to this, Havel was enrolled in boarding school and Kraus discussed Havel’s experience there with a group that distributed anti-communist posters. Kraus also discussed how Havel’s profound feelings of being excluded taught him empathy for the plight of others, which helped shape his commitment to human rights.

Next, Timothy Frye spoke about his experiences with Havel while at Columbia University. The first of which was when Frye came to Columbia as a graduate student in 1990 right before Havel came to receive an honorary degree. Then, Frye came back to Columbia in 2006 as a professor and overlapped with Havel’s residency at the university. Frye discussed the different aspects of Havel’s visit that people found to be the highlight - from his discussion with Bill Clinton on the challenges facing new democracies to the production of his plays on the lower east side. For Frye, one of his favorite moments was when there was a student production of one of his plays at Columbia and Havel attended, which he felt must have been truly inspirational for the students. Frye then went on to talk about what Havel’s legacy looks like today. He spoke about understanding Havel’s The Power of the Powerless in the context of the present day. Frye looked specifically at Havel’s reference to the collusion of silence that solidified communist autocracy since you can’t be sure who is a nonbeliever since everyone participates out of fear. He drew parallels from this analysis that Havel made of society to today’s elected autocrats, claiming that perhaps they are more dangerous than Havel’s example of autocracy. This is due to their ability to appeal to the very potent forces of nationalism and xenophobia that communist leaders couldn’t.

Then Jacques Rupnik spoke on his time as one of Havel’s key advisors during the transition out of communism. He focused on Havel’s approach to 1989 and the reasoning behind the use of the “Return to Europe” slogan. He noted four different elements to this thinking at the time. The first, Rupnik said, was the consideration that central Europe should be reentering the European fray as countries with something to contribute. The second, then, was on considerations of balancing national identity and greater involvement in the European context. Third was concerned with the integration of European values into the country, which Rupnik said was incredibly important to Havel, who was a proponent of a European constitution. The fourth element, was in terms of how to approach a relationship with Russia in the post-communist era. Rupnik noted that Havel felt it would be difficult to start a partnership with a country that doesn’t know where it begins and where it ends.

Finally, Jan Svejnar concluded the panel by discussing his experience as one of Havel’s economic advisors. Svejnar described Havel as a person of great ideas and great ideals. Svejnar also noted that the economic transition was difficult for Czechoslovakia, as it was for many post-Soviet countries, since Havel was not trained as an economist. When Svejnar would meet with Havel to discuss the economy, however, he felt Havel had good intuition on how to address the issues. In reference to stories told by the other panelists, Svejnar noted that due to the strains on the country during the transition it is interesting to hear of Havel’s grand receptions abroad since there were numerous times when he was criticized for his decisions at home. Svejnar concluded his remarks by announcing that the President of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, has agreed to have a bust of Havel displayed at the university given the role he played here.

- Samantha Weinberg, MPA '16