Two years on, a powerful but ambiguous legacy

Václav Havel continues to inspire deep affection among Czechs, but some see him in less glowing terms

As a cold winter‘s afternoon gave way to evening, Filip Chráska, a student from Prague, knelt down and added a small red candle to the scores already laid out in heart shapes on the pavement of Wenceslas Square.

Inside one of the hearts, the letters VH had been marked out, also by candles, in tribute to Václav Havel, who died two years ago today aged 75.

A playwright, dissident, leader of the 1989 Velvet Revolution and ultimately president, in the post-communism era Havel was, among Czechs, unmatched in global recognition.

The tributes to him in central Prague — sited beneath the statue of his namesake, St. Wenceslas — were evidence of the power of his legacy at home, with the heart often used since Havel would add one after his signature.

“Václav Havel was the idol for me, a historical person who was really loved. It’s become my tradition [to leave a candle]. I came here two years ago when he died, and I think I will come here every year,” said Chráska, 22, who is from Prague.

“It’s about the fight for democracy and the values he represents. There are many people who suffered like him or more than him, but he was the symbol for the fight for democracy and freedom.”

Among the others leaving a candle in memory of the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic was Milan Plesar, the vice mayor of Otrokovice, a town of 19,000 people in the far southeast of the country.

“Mr. Havel symbolized freedom of our country. The candle is not only for my wife and me here, but for the people from our city,” he said.
“In my opinion, the Czech Republic needs another Havel. It was popular to steal, rob and practice many other bad things. Mr. Havel still practiced some not good things, like smoking, but they were small. He was working for all. He’s a big person for me, for our Czech Republic.”

While there were many admirers on Wenceslas Square, few would take issue with the suggestion that Havel’s legacy, especially in his home country, is an ambiguous one.

Czech media have noted this week how there tend to be more memorials to Havel overseas than at home. Prague’s airport may have been named in his honor last year, but many of the more high-profile tributes — a heart on the European Parliament in Brussels last December and January, and a recently opened library in Paris — have been overseas. Numerous attempts to name streets after him have fallen through.

Some Czechs, such as Chráska, believe Havel deserves better than the mixed reactions he elicits at home.

“There’s this very negative Czech pragmatism that I hate and that is represented by [Havel’s successors as president] Václav Klaus and Miloš Zeman, whose spirits cannot handle the ideas and values that he represented,” he said.

For Jiří Pehe, who served as director of the political cabinet in Havel’s office from 1997 and 1999, when the playwright was president, before continuing to act as an adviser, it is unsurprising Havel is lauded more often abroad than at home. His legacy here is, he conceded, “more problematic.”

“He was scrutinized for many things [at home] that, let’s say, didn’t play an important role abroad. … His political preferences combined or interfered with his broader legacy, his broader stature, which was seen abroad as that of a philosopher, as someone who was a courageous dissident,” said Pehe, who is director of New York University in Prague.

Examples of decisions that made some lose faith in Havel include his appointment of the communist Marián Čalfa as Czechoslovak prime minister in 1989, a move seen by some as unhelpful to a country trying to break from its past.

“And his political views clashed repeatedly with those of Václav Klaus. Klaus had a more traditional [type] of politics based on political parties, but Havel was seen as more of an advocate of civil society,” Pehe said.

“Particularly, with the help of Klaus’s supporters, this was interpreted as Havel’s dislike of standard liberal democracy politics. He really didn’t [do enough to] counter this view strongly enough. As I knew him, he was a very committed liberal democrat.”

Havel’s legacy suffered, Pehe said, because “there was a period of time when he left the initiative to Klaus.”

Perhaps this was because Havel “was certainly not a professional politician.”

“He was someone who combined the arts, [being] a dissident and [being] a politician … He was catapulted by history into this political role, but he wasn’t entirely comfortable with it, which was something I admired in him, that he stayed true to what he had been before,” he said.

Pehe remembers Havel as someone who was typically easy-going but who could, as a writer, also be a perfectionist when it came to things such as his speeches, which he tended not to appreciate others making changes to.

“On a purely human level, he was great to be around because he had a true sense of humor, not only aimed at other people, but also himself,” said Pehe, who last saw Havel a few months before his death.

“He had this attitude of self-irony, which is very healthy if you’re in a very high position.”

While Havel has a significant number of critics within the political elite and the public, there are many who share Pehe’s admiration. Among his supporters, and another to leave a candle in his memory, is Petr Gregor, a 21-year-old student from Prague. Havel was, he said, “the greatest person we might’ve ever had.”

“He made a change in the Czech Republic that was very much what we needed. His contribution to this country and everything he did, that’s the inspiration,” he said.

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