Václav Havel: Heir to a Spiritual Legacy

by Richard L. Stanger

Richard L. Stanger is senior minister at Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn, New York.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 11, 1990, pp.368-370, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Havel wonders at the tremendous strength of an oppressed people who "seemingly believed in nothing," yet who cast off a totalitarian system within a few short weeks, "in an entirely peaceful and dignified manner."

Havel wonders at the tremendous strength of an oppressed people who "seemingly believed in nothing," yet who cast off a totalitarian system within a few short weeks, "in an entirely peaceful and dignified manner."


On December 29 at the Hradcany Castle, high above the Vlatava River that wends its way through the city of Prague, playwright Václav Havel, leader of Civic Forum, was elected president of Czechoslovakia. After a short speech, Havel and some members of parliament crossed the castle compound to St. Vitus Cathedral where the archbishop of Prague, Cardinal Frantisek Tomásek, celebrated a Te Deum Mass. To quote words spoken by Havel a month earlier, when the Communist Party agreed to give up its 41-year monopoly on political power: "History has begun to develop very quickly in this country."

Havel is a study in the spiritual ferment that lies at the base of collapse and renewal in Eastern Europe. As early as the spring of 1989, Alexander Dubcek, the communist leader of the Prague Spring of 1968, emerged from the silence of two decades to receive an honorary degree from the University of Bologna. He then made a journey to Prague where he called on Havel.

The memory of those heady days in 1968 takes on a new meaning in this era of perestroika and glasnost in the Soviet Union. Dubcek’s Action Program when he was first secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party called for the democratization of political life, decentralization of the command economy, ideological openness and full exposure of Stalinist crimes. Little wonder that when Gorbachev visited Prague in early 1987, his spokesman, Gennadi Gerasimov, described the essential difference between Gorbachev and Dubcek in two words: "Nineteen years."

The fabric of those 19 years contains a little-known thread picked up in Zhores Medvedev’s biography Gorbachev (Norton, 1986) Zdenék Mlynár was the secretary of the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party in 1968 and one of the chief architects of the Prague Spring. In exploring the student life of the young Gorbachev at Moscow State University, Medvedev shares Mlynár s account of his student years in the Soviet Union, where for five years his roommate, study partner and friend was an ambitious young law student named Mikhail Gorbachev. The issues of the Prague Spring and the present restructuring of Soviet and Czechoslovakian political culture were quite plainly the product of dormitory room bull sessions.

The spiritual legacy of the Prague Spring is very much a part of the movement for Czech national renewal that Havel embodies. Symbolically, he would accept the office of president only if Dubcek would become head of the parliament. What began two decades ago must be completed. The playwright-politician is not insensitive to the dramatic dimensions of history itself.

But there is a second spiritual dimension at work in Havel, and for that he draws, consciously or unconsciously, from the 14th-century movement for Czech national renewal that centered around the proto-Reformation figure Jan Hus. Church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette described the Hussite movement in Bohemia as stressing high ethical purpose over radical theological speculation, and moral reform over ecclesiastical revolution. Hus, rector of the University of Prague, advocated the rights of the people against the power of a Latin church and a German intelligentsia. Although the language of scholarship was Latin, he wrote and preached in the just-emerging Czech language.

After Hus was burned at the stake in 1410 by the emperor, Sigismund, the Hussite spirit animated the Czech nation, giving birth to a small countercultural church that survived underground for centuries as the Bohemian Brethren. The spirit of Hus energized moral insight and ethical action in the service of God and the truth. Today, in Prague’s Old Town Square, Hus’s statue dominates the scene, and underneath it is this inscription: "Love the Truth. Let others have their truth and truth will prevail."

The formation of the modern Czechoslovak state in 1918, after centuries of domination by Germanic Hapsburg power, is associated with the leadership of the Masaryk family. In those days of national rebirth, politicians and clergy alike focused on the moral renewal of the nation. In that spirit, under the leadership of Karel Farsky, an independent Czechoslovak church was formed as a breakaway movement from Rome. At the outset it claimed 800,000 communicants, drawn largely from the working class. The church claimed as its heritage the spirit of Hus and Jan Amos Comenius, the last bishop of the Czech Brethren. The mass was to be celebrated in the Czech language, accompanied by a Eucharist in which both the bread and the cup were shared by clergy and laity. There was an echo here of the Hussite practice of sharing the cup with all worshipers that was not a part of Roman Catholic practice until the reforms of Vatican II. The theme of moral renewal of the nation was there as well, as Farsky spoke in words of an almost messianic sweep and force "of the importance of the God-enlightened human being in reshaping the present social order into a more perfect one." The Proclamation to the Nation, announcing the new church, ended: "We are fulfilling the prophesy of the great bishop, Jan Amos Comenius, that the rule of thy affairs shall again return into thy hands." During the trauma of Nazi occupation and the subsequent confinement of the Czech national spirit within Marxist-Leninist ideology, little was heard from the Czech National Church. But, like the spirit of the Czech Brethren of old, it was there in the underground of national life.

Havel stands as an heir to these two spiritual traditions: the renewing breeze of socialist reconstruction first felt in Eastern Europe in the Prague Spring of 1968 and the spirit of Czech moral and spiritual transformation, drawn from the Hussite underground of nationhood and culture. Havel’s lineage was clear in his New Year’s address to the nation where he spoke of the Marxist-Leninist legacy of a decayed moral environment:

We have become morally ill because we have become accustomed to saying one thing and doing another. We have learned not to believe in anything. not to care about one another and only to look after ourselves. Notions such as love, friendship, compassion, humility and forgiveness have lost their depth dimension.

This is the language of spiritual and moral renewal -- surprising talk from a national leader. In what crucible was this compound generated? On what anvil was this soul shaped and hammered?

Several months, ago the English-language edition of Havel’s prison reflections, Letters to Olga (Henry Holt) , appeared in the West. Writing under the watchful eye of the prison censor, these reflections are a stirring indictment of the Marxist-Leninist state and a call to personal and national spiritual renewal. Not since Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s gulag writings has a document of such moving power emerged from the tradition of prison literature.

The man is human-all-too-human, as he chides his wife for packing his prison "care" packages improperly and as he exults in his recordings of the Bee Gees and Pink Floyd. He studies his Bible and admits to an affinity for the "Christian sentiment," but insists: "I accept the Gospel of Jesus as a challenge to go my own way." Havel also shares Saul Bellow’s sense of that channel in the deepest part of ourselves which is conscious of a higher consciousness. Each human being is responsible, says Havel, to the "absolute horizon of Being." He shares a moment in the prison work camp which filled him so totally with a sense of joy and well-being that he was "suddenly given a glimpse into the abyss of the infinite, of uncertainty, of mystery." One evening the television weatherwoman loses her sound and stands before the cameras in speechless embarrassment. From that incident, Havel crafts a reflection on the human condition and the pathos and empathy of soul with soul.

All of this is both abstract and moving. but it is to the ethical theme of responsibility that Havel directs his most illuminating insights. "But who should begin?" he asks Olga. "Who should break this vicious circle?"

The only possible place to begin is with myself . . .it is I who must begin . . . For the hope opened up in my heart by this turning toward Being has opened my eyes as well. . . . Whether all is really lost or not depends entirely on whether I am lost.

His letters abound in a kind of Heideggerian spinning of scenarios concerning Being, and one can well imagine a different kind of spinning taking place in the mind of the dutiful prison censor as he tried to determine what was dangerous and what was harmless in "the word." And so it slips out and through:

And just as man turns away from Being, so entire large social organisms turn away from it . . . For this reason we may observe how social, political and state systems, and whole societies, are inevitably becoming alienated from themselves.

Here is the language of Marxian analysis in the service of a transcendent frame for social and national renewal. The nation cannot be reclaimed without turning toward Being and there is a humbling awareness that the turning begins with the individual. Such language pushes beyond the cramped confines of a Czech prison cell. We too are engaged.

Havel also reflects on his own moral failure during his first imprisonment, five years earlier. In a petition to the Public Prosector for release, he was able to craft his phrases with just enough ambiguity so that his freedom was granted; but as a result his statements were used by the government to give the impression that Havel had drawn back from his critique of the regime. When it became clear to him what his "honorable cleverness" had produced, he was gripped by remorse:

It’s not hard to stand behind one’s successes. But to accept responsibility for one’s failures . . . that is devishly hard! But only thence does the road lead. . . to a radically new insight into the mysterious gravity of my existence as an uncertain enterprise and to its transcendental meaning. . . . I have my failure to thank for the fact that for the first time in my life I stood directly in the study of the Lord God himself.

It is strikingly clear in those letters from the closing period of his imprisonment that Havel is moving within the sphere of profound religious archetypes as he seeks to make sense of his personal journey and of the struggle for freedom of expression and human rights as delineated in the Charter 77 Movement which brought him to his prison cell:

Yes: man is in fact nailed down -- like Christ on the Cross -- to a grid of paradoxes . . . he balances between lie torment of not knowing his mission and the joy of carrying it out, between nothingness and meaningfulness. And like Christ, he is in fact victorious by virtue of his defeats.

A "hint of horizon" is present in Havel’s life and prison writings -- heir as he is to the spiritual foundation of a nation and its people. The grid of paradoxes continues to unfold in Eastern Europe as the playwright of the absurd seeks to guide a nation in making sense out of the suffering of the past and an unknown future. The promise of social renewal is not enough. The Marxist-Leninist vision of the future -- what Czech novelist Milan Kundera described as "organized forgetting" -- is now supplanted by a leader who knows that remembering is redemptive, that human dignity is finally an expression of the inexpressible mystery. that we each find our "outline . . . in the memory of Being."

When Havel addressed his nation on New Year’s Day he wondered at the tremendous strength of an oppressed people who "seemingly believed in nothing," yet who cast off a totalitarian system within a few short weeks, "in an entirely peaceful and dignified manner." We can picture him in those Wenceslas Square days of mass demonstrations, addressing the crowds from a balcony as one who indeed believed in something greater than the political events that were unfolding. For a brief moment, he himself embodied the spirit of the Czech nation, but more than that, he drew from the people a hint of horizon without which the human venture is flat and lifeless. Havel ended that New Year’s address with a double echo of Czechoslovak history: "My most important predecessor [Tómas Masaryk] started his first speech by quoting from Comenius. Permit me to end my own first speech by my own paraphrase. Your Government, my people, has returned to you!"