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Vaclav Havel's "Politics as Responsibility for the World"

by Vaclav Havel Sunday, Jul. 20, 2003 at 11:02 PM

"What has greater weight: the political culture of unselfish service to the whole or the Mafia maneuvering between the laws..What I seek has the character of an ideal that we approach." Vaclav Havel was president of Czechoslovakia for 13 years.

Politics as Responsibility for the World

By Vaclav Havel

[This address upon the award of the German national prize on June 18, 2003 published in: DIE ZEIT 26/2003 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://zeus.zeit.de/text/reden/europapolitik/nationalpreis_havel.]

Honored president, honored ladies and gentlemen,

Since I face the task for the first time since my nearly thirteen year stay in the office of the president of addressing such an importance audience , I can hardly resist taking stock, answering the question whether I achieved what I tried to realize during my whole adult life. I have thought about this for several years and can hardly speak about anything else. Together with many other citizens, we have doubtlessly accomplished many essential things. Very quickly and in peaceful ways, we took power from the hands of the totalitarian regime and dissolved its main instruments for ruling society. Relatively quickly we liberated ourselves from the position of satellite, drove the occupation army from our country and contributed to ending the organizations securing foreign hegemony in a large part of Europe. Quickly we renewed all the fundamental civil liberties, the essential institutions of the democratic state, accepted the principle of the rule of law and created space for political plurality.

The state stopped being ideologically defined. The idea of human rights should be its leading idea. We began building authentic friendly relations to neighbors and other countries and gradually became a wholesome part of western democratic civilization and member of its contemporary organizations. As a consequence we assumed joint responsibility for peace in the world and the freedom of all its inhabitants. In our country where almost everything was nationalized, there was an unprecedented process of privatization and renewal of the market economy. Free reflection on our own past began, grappling with its dark chapters and making for the endless injustice committed for a long time.

All this happened in all European countries that formerly were behind the Iron Curtain. This occurred differently with different coloring, different speed and different quality. Thousands of differences earlier hidden under the cover of communist leveling or egalitarianism. The quality and measure of success in all these events and our role will be weighed and judged by historians and future generations. Certainly all this could have happened quicker, better, more thoroughly, more craftily and charmingly. Nevertheless something happened. This development cannot be reversed any more.

These essential and general things are not the main themes of my intensive and sometimes painful inner questioning. My main theme is a different, more subtle and more important area, namely the existential, human, civil, moral or social dimension of all these changes, the social climate, the indirect signs and connections and the system of mental attitudes and practices that made possible these changes.

Our society for decades lived in a corrupt moral climate, as I have said countless times. The historical changes for the better that we lived through since the end of the eighties are marked by this climate. The way to democracy and market economy opened up horizons for new kinds of temptations.

I name – as keywords – several principles, values and ideals whose spirit we wanted supporting these system changes.

There is a very good tradition among us besides often very bad traditions and models of social and political conduct developed over centuries and transferred from generation to generation. This good tradition extends from Komensky, Havlicek, Masaryk, Radl and Patocka on the inner ethos of Charta 77 to the ethos of the middle class forum, the massive spontaneous anti-totalitarian movement at the top of our gentle velvet revolution.

I always knew this tradition and tried to bring many of my friends and citizens all over the country to this tradition during my whole time as Czechoslovakian president, not only in the time of subversive changes in our country at the end of 1989.

This good tradition includes fundamental things like simple human decency, sincere readiness to sacrifice something of personal interest for the interest of the whole, respect for a certain moral order and its basic imperatives, whether accompanied by the certainty of their metaphysical anchoring or not, real not feigned respect for citizens and their absolutely free binding in the most different structures of civil society, resistance against all kinds of fanaticism, dogmatism, ideologism or fundamentalism, respect for the life world of unique human beings and their manageable communities, a skeptical relation to the purely technocratic leadership of the state that pursues quantitative more than qualitative goals, support of the culture of creative power against the mere culture of profit, respect for nature, landscape, historical inheritance and human settlement, resistance against the culture of advertising and consumption and against provincialism, isolationism, dull nationalism and the egoistic cult of national interests that completely ignores that the supreme interest of every nation should be the good life of people on this planet. What is central is the culture of humility before the world, guilelessness and good will that opposes the culture of intrigues, lies, deceit and agreements behind closed doors. What is imperative is politics as practiced responsibility for the world, not as a mere technology of power, politics as real service to fellow-citizens and their descendants, not only as mere bootlicking before the masses, a more responsible politics even with risky or minority attitudes, not politics of opportunist adjustment to the colorful spectrum of majority prejudices, a politics that strives for a really and permanently open society.

You should not suspect that I proudly regard myself as the incarnation or messiah of all good things. What is far more important is the political culture that I regard as right, respect, support and try to realize in the scope of my limited and changing possibilities.

Those who attempt this way, all economic con-games or political swindlers, all post-communist Mafiosi or pragmatic politicians allied with them, were a thorn in the eye. The free voice of the former resembling now and then the cries of dissidents in the wilderness always encountered the tenacious resistance of several strange business brotherhoods and their political and media partners. Those who intend the best with their fellow-citizens strangely are not victorious with democratic rules that are technically and formally perfectly applied. Those who understood political parties as an instrument of the middle class public rebelled again and again against those for whom parties were the main instrument for fortifying their power and the inconspicuous suffocation of everything they disliked. I don’t raise the question whether I succeeded in my time as president in replacing the totalitarian system with democracy, communist state control with the market economy, the idea of class hatred with the idea of human rights or the position as a Soviet satellite with the position of a free state that freely accepts the western democratic world. This question is unequivocal and can be answered positively.

The question that I raise is different: What has greater weight in the scope of existing conditions: the political culture of unselfish service to the whole or the Mafia maneuvering between the laws? In other words, have I lost or won my struggle?

The answer is neither the one nor the other. What I seek doesn’t have the character of an attainable goal that one scratches off from the list at a certain moment. What I seek has the character of an ideal that we constantly seek to approach, that is sometimes near and sometimes far away. This ideal is like a horizon. It shows us the direction but at the same time disappears again and again. Only a utopian believes that some ideal project of the world exists that can be completely realized one day and then crossed off once the goal is reached. Paradise on earth has begun and the history of torments has ended.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I thank you for your attention and thank those who honored me with the German national prize. I treasure this honor since it was awarded to me in Berlin, the first foreign city that I visited as president of my country, the city that has become the metropolis of united Germany and symbol of uniting Europe, the capital of our great neighbor and capital of the land with which I have always tried to develop friendly open relations, relations illuminated by the truth and not darkened by passions.

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