From the Archives A new president addresses his fellow citizens
On December 29 1989, Czechoslovakia’s Federal Parliament elected Václav Havel as the country’s president. In one of the many paradoxes of the Velvet Revolution, this was the same communist-dominated parliament that had previously fought so hard to stem the flow of change.
President Havel’s first New Year address, broadcast on Czechoslovak Radio three days later, was one of the most famous of his career, and in many ways was a watershed in the country’s history. He began with a quote that we featured in this programme a few weeks ago, arguing that, contrary to the lies told by his predecessors, Czechoslovakia was far from flourishing. This set the tone for the speech, which was surprisingly sombre, given the euphoric mood of the time. Here is President Havel talking on the legacy of communism:
“It would very unwise,” he said, “to interpret the sad legacy of the last forty years as something foreign, left to us by our distant relatives. On the contrary, we should accept this inheritance as something that we allowed to happen to ourselves. If we accept that, we understand that it is up to us all to do something about it. We cannot blame it all on our previous rulers - not just because that would not be true, but also because it could weaken the obligation which stands before each of us, the obligation to act independently, freely, responsibly and quickly.”
But Havel’s speech was not all so grim. Czechoslovakia had just been through some of the most dramatic – and least predicted – events in the country’s history, and the speech captured something of the great surge of optimism that had come with that moment.
“The last few months,” Havel said, “and especially the last six weeks of our peaceful revolution, have shown the huge human, moral and spiritual charge and the high civic culture, slumbering in our society behind the obligatory mask of apathy. Whenever someone has said of us that we are like this or like that, I have always protested that society is a very mysterious creature and that it is never a good idea to believe just in the face that it is showing at a given moment. I’m glad I was not mistaken. All over the world, people are looking with amazement at how these pliable, humiliated and sceptical Czechoslovak citizens, who had seemed to believe in nothing, found such an astonishing strength and wisdom within themselves, to shake off the yoke of a totalitarian system in a completely decent and peaceable way.”
But even within his first speech as president, Václav Havel provoked controversy. He was widely criticized, when he declared a sweeping amnesty for inmates of Czechoslovakia’s jails. As someone who had himself spent several years behind bars, he argued hat, however serious the crimes they may have committed, prisoners had been forced through a judicial system that was both corrupt and deprived them of their basic rights.
And at the end of the speech, President Havel declared his intention to invite Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama to Prague. But more of that in next week’s From the Archives.
The episode featured today was first broadcast on September 3, 2009.