Pieter De Buysser on the legacy of Václav Havel


Out of the many talks I had with Ondrej Hrab [Director of Archa Theatre Prague], this question emerged: how could Europeans deal with the legacy of Václav Havel? Could Hávels legacy help us to understand contemporary Europe, and even more, could his legacy be of any inspiration in an attempt to forge a much needed new narrative for Europe? To me, his legacy is as highly problematic as it is fantastic. Above all it’s meaningful. His legacy is the key to understand what has happened in Europe and it’s the key to tell a story of tomorrows Europe.


Hável was a witty and unconventional philosopher cum president. A defiant and discerning moral authority. As a politician, he helped his country make a smooth transition from a communist zombie state to a modern Western democracy. He also oversaw the peaceful partition of Czechoslovakia into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. He’s one of the most fascinating and accurate incarnations of the liberal utopia.


As a playwright, his early work wickedly mocked a regime that no longer speaks its own ideology. All that remained was absurd drivel, empty rituals and especially a hair-raising and cruel totalitarian regime that had forgotten what it had started out as. The derailment of communism led to an abhorrence of ideology. He experienced how the lifeless ghosts of an ideology terrorized him and his people. He wanted to be a person of flesh and blood. He wanted to question the free, moral and physical individual, and to experience it completely himself. He despised ideology and expected everything from moral integrity and authenticity. And then he opted for ‘a politics of non-politics’. He betted for a politics of living “in truth and love.”


It is an almost inhuman undertaking not to have sympathy for the man. Not to be delighted by the enlightened moment of his modest, truthful presidency would require a heart of stone. Mischievous, unimaginably brave and consistent: all these qualities only make his legacy all the more tragic.

Despite his extraordinary intelligence, courage, sense of humour, shrewdness and moral hypertrophy, he became a wooden puppet, manipulated by both communism and capitalism. If today the ideological fault lines have been erased, then Hável was the pioneer. If today charisma and personality are more important than ideology, then he was the eminent trailblazer.


Throughout his life, he courageously and intelligently resisted totalitarian socialism. Resistance without an ideology or a political programme: his only weapons were the force of the truth, humour and his personal integrity. With love in his chest, Zappa in the loudspeakers, beautiful women at his side and at the same time with a brave talent for moral introspection, without entirely realizing it, he sold his country to private investors. He wasn’t blind to the excesses of capitalism, but he believed that he could resist them with frank humour and wisdom. He expressed moving, subtle moral reflections on dealing with his own conscience. Even in his speech for the US Congress, where he praised the American free spirit, he dived into the most refined personal moral doubts. But he didn’t say a word on the official approval by the American Congress, that same week of his visit, to use waterboarding and other forms of torture. The core of the problem is the confusion between ethics and politics. Acting correctly politically is not the same as acting in agreement with one’s own truth and conscience. Politics is a question of analysis, of the gathering of knowledge and information, followed by decision-making.


A moralization of politics is also what we are now seeing at work in actual crises: southern Europeans are the lazy crickets, while northern Europeans are the industrious ants. Reducing politics to a moral fable about good and evil means avoiding the unpleasant task implied by politics, it means relinquishing the preparation of informed analysis and an ideological choice.