One of the most significant events during my lifetime is known as the Velvet Revolution that took place in what was then Czechoslovakia in 1989 and ended over 40 years of communist rule without a shot being fired, which followed a period of spiritual awakening in that country. Adding to the personal significance is the fact that my grandfather came to the United States of America from Czechoslovakia in 1907 in the month that my father was born in this country. The Velvet Revolution inspired me to be on the lookout for situations where spiritual ideas provided a significant focus to drive human history. Until recently I did not appreciate the role that Vaclav Havel had played in the Velvet Revolution and other events still playing out in the world today.
Initially Havel was a part of the Prague Spring that took place in 1968 and ended with Russian tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia to shut it down the open expression of artist and political freedom that were breaking in and around Prague. I was in college at the time and since my grandfather was from Czechoslovakia, I thought seriously about going over to fight the imposition of a repressive regime. For a variety of reasons I did not go, but my heart I was with the spirit of the Prague Spring.
In 1989 I visited Czechoslovakia and could feel that there was a new spirit and an awakening going on. This spirit came to full fruition at the end of 1989 in the Velvet Revolution. With Vaclav Havel’s passing on in December 2011, I learned of the significant role that he played in bringing it to pass. He was the leader of the Velvet Revolution that was fought with ideas and not guns and toppled the Communist government. Havel espoused freedom for individual expression, the freedom to congregate in small groups and became the president of the new nation. At one point he resigned as opposed to presiding over the split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but later became president of the Czech Republic until 2003.
As a dissident conscience and essayist he argued, “There is something far more powerful, fresh, and astonishing about the spirit of man, than is recognized.” “Pursuit of the material good life will not help humanity save itself. Nor is democracy alone enough. A turning to and seeking of “Being,” or God, is needed.” His credo became known as “living in truth.” *
In Philadelphia in 1994 he said, “Politicians at international forums may reiterate a thousand times that the basis of the new world order must be universal respect for human rights. But it will mean nothing as long as this imperative does not derive from the respect of the miracle of Being, the miracle of the universe, the miracle of nature, of the miracle of our own existence. The ‘Creator’ gave man the right to liberty, and ‘It seems that man can realize that liberty only he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.’” *
Havel became president after a “bloodless Velvet Revolution that changed the world in ways completely unforeseen in the West and East.” Yet in his own way he brought his love of music and counter-culture straight into Prague Castle, where he governed. At one point he coaxed former US President Bill Clinton into playing saxophone at a smoky jazz club in gritty, post-communist Prague. And he invited the Rolling Stones to the castle and later to play in a Prague park. No one had money to pay them, but for Havel they played for free and put on a show that many Czechs still remember today as definitive confirmation that communism was over.**
His voice and that of the Velvet Revolution have echoed many times in many part of the globe such as in China for the post Tiananmen Square generation. They played an important part of the Arab Spring of 2011 and are still resonating in other parts of the world today. In the month that he passed on he was visited by the Dalai Lama and together they a signed a declaration supporting dissidents in China, North Korea, Syria, and other countries. Even in his passing, his legacy and star are still shining.
* “Vaclav Havel: crisis of ‘human spirit’ demands spiritual reawakening.” The Christian Science Monitor December 23, 2011
** “Vaclav Havel: Moral beacon and leader of Velvet Revolution.” The Christian Science Monitor December 19, 2011