Honorary Doctorates 2007 - Vaclav Havel

Presentation of Vaclav HAVEL, President of Czechoslovakia (1989-1992) and the Czech Republic (1993-2003) by the Rector Bernard RENTIER





What I said concerning Roger Lallemand about personalities who inspire both respect and sympathy applies perfectly to Vaclav Havel, as does the little need for an introduction.

You will recognize the common characteristics shared by the two great men on simply reading a text by Havel about himself: ‘I am a writer who has never been able to remain still and who has always been committed as a citizen. I am a man who has always placed the interests of society above his personal interests.’

Born in 1936 in Prague into a bourgeois family of Czech entrepreneurs, he at a very young age saw his entourage subjected to the full impact of the nationalisation of goods by the regime which was established following the war. Singled out as a privileged person to be humiliated because of the class struggle, he suffered terribly from this humiliation. His father was an employee in his own business firm and his mother sold postcards. It was for him what he called ‘the experience of the absurd,’ a perspective from below, from the outside. At the age of 15, as retaliation against his origins he was obliged to cease his studies and work as a labourer. He took evening classes and gained his diploma. Very early on he launched into a very active artistic life, wrote, founded a literary club, and met with poets and writers. He published his first work at the age of 20. Very quickly he took the direction of writing for the theatre, showing excellent satirical verve and taking pleasure in dissecting the dominant ideological language in the Czechoslovakia of the 1960s, bringing a genuine freshness to the theatre stage of his country. He published a collection of poems and became a member of the editorial committee of a monthly devoted to new literature. In having to fight for the survival of this unconventional journal in the face of a Writers’ Union very much in line with the regime, he was led to take up a militant political activist attitude which, as he himself would say, ‘led to the paths of dissidence.’  

The failure of the Prague Spring and the brutal repression which followed made of Václav Havel a banned, tried and condemned writer. His writing became very critical of the society of the established regime, but fortunately he won awards in the United States and this beginning of international fame in some way immunized and emboldened him. The open letter he addressed in 1975 to the Czechoslovakian President, in which he denounced the critical situation society was in and the responsibility of the political regime,  had a large impact and made him known on the international stage as a representative of the Czechoslovakian intellectual opposition. With two friends he drew up the famous ‘Charter 77’ which became the symbol of Czech resistance until the regime was overthrown, numerous years later.

He experienced successive imprisonments intercut with periods of surveilled liberty during which he was the victim of incessant proceedings and permanent police harassment, fear, humiliations, denouncements and insults. And nevertheless he carried on writing, his works illustrating perfectly the inanity and absurdity of the world in which he and his fellow citizens were obliged to live. His leitmotif, which supported him throughout his trials and tribulations, was ‘do not give up on truth, even and above all in the little things which appear insignificant, and lose neither patience nor humour.’ In 1978 he published ‘The Power of the Powerless,’ a remarkable essay in which he analysed the essence of totalitarian communist oppression, which brings about a resigned society composed of fearful and morally corrupt individuals, and on the contrary shows the strength of moral resistance and life. This essay had an important impact amongst Czechoslovakian dissidents but also amongst opposition movements in other communist countries.

In 1989 the Velvet Revolution overthrew the communist regime and Václav Havel, who led the popular movement the ‘Civic Forum,’ was elected President of the Czechoslovakian Republic on December 29. In June 1990 the first democratic and thus entirely non-communist government in over forty years was established. Being endowed with great moral authority President Havel re-established his country’s relationships with the world’s major powers and internally brought about the democratisation of state structures and civil society. He resigned from his post in July 1992 when the partition of Czechoslovakia became inevitable. But in January 1993 he returned to the front stage and was elected the first President of the Czech Republic by the Parliament. He was re-elected in 1998. He retired from political life at the end of his mandate in 2003.

Václav Havel is undoubtedly the most original Czech writer and playwright of the post-war period, a major intellectual figure whose reach went beyond his home country and became established amongst the whole of the international community as a symbol of the defence of liberties and democracy.

The University of Liège is proud to be able to welcome within its community Václav Havel as a Honorary Doctor














Acceptance speech by Václav HAVEL, read by his Excellency, Ambassador Vladimír MULLER

Dear Rector,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very honoured to be able to address you on this special occasion, even though I must apologise for not being able to share it with you in person. I am nevertheless convinced that despite the distance which separates us, you can sense my joy at your honourable university having recognised my efforts to make individuals jointly responsible for the state of our society and our world. It was, it seems to me, this sense of responsibility which was behind my activities as a writer, citizen, dissident and President. It is moreover upon this sense which my current engagement rests, in other words post-Presidential. Even if the recognition of a life’s work invites us to look at what has been done and to draw up a balance sheet, I have decided not to talk about the past today but rather, if you will allow me, of questions which are very burning for all of us. In other words the cohabitation between diverse networks of civilisations and cultures in a globalised world and the position Europe occupies within it.

dhc2007-043After the fall of the Iron Curtain and a kind of absorption of the immediate consequences, the world found itself at an extremely serious crossroads in its history. If I analyse the current issues, be they of an economic, social or ecological order or those which lay in front of us in the evolution of our society, I can only return to the question of conscience, of what is honest and what is not, what is responsible and what is not from a global and long term perspective. The moral order and its roots, conscience, human responsibility and its origins, in other words human rights and the source of the rights of human beings to grant themselves human rights; these are, according to my deepest conviction and my most diverse experiences, the most important political subjects of our times. If humanity is to survive and avoid all the possible catastrophes which menace it, it is necessary that the world political order respects the networks of civilisations, the cultures of all the nations and every continent. It has to strive to find moral values and imperatives which are common to us all, and it has to make of them the foundations on which are built the cohabitation of all of us in a globalised world in which everything is connected.

Europe too finds itself at a crossroads in history. The grandiose project of the European Union holds no anxieties for me. But when we look at European history it does not seem important to me if we have a European Constitution in one year or in five years from now. It is on the other hand important that the European Union does not abandon the basis and the pillars of European civilisation, its identity, so that does not reduce itself simply to a series of bureaucratic decisions, quotas, taxes and subsidies. The European Union has to be more than an agency which distributes funds. It has to remind itself of its age-old roots and its identity. As a citizen faced with globalisation I feel the obligation of attending to the Czech identity which is close to me, as well as to the European identity, all the while asking myself the essential question, in other words does it really exist? As you might imagine, I already discovered my response a long time ago. It is enough to leave the borders of Europe. I noted it each time I visited dozens of countries on each continent and each time I was confronted with the reality of another people, another network of civilisation, another national culture, and another way of living. The search for an identity, the search for one’s specificity, the search for oneself always ends up in an understanding of the difference between us and other people and at the same time a respect for another culture and another history. The search for our own identity, asking questions about who we are, these are the keys to human, cultural and political cohabitation on our planet.

In the past, European civilisation exported its culture throughout the entire world, and it did so in a relatively aggressive manner. It was the source of various social antagonisms, it also exported its own conflicts, including the two World Wars which were born on its territory. It seems to me that its ambivalent role should constitute a challenge for us: everything that is positive, everything which is marvellous, everything that is part of the European spiritual tradition must now be diffused differently. By differently I wish to say in respecting that which is different and by letting itself be inspired by what is different, rather than conquering it, in order that we can serve as a model, as an example.

I thank you for your attention and I thank you also with all my heart for this title of Honorary Doctorate which you have today awarded me.

Print version Page updated on 2012-02-23