‘We Live In A Contaminated Moral Environment’


Havel (born 1936) is a playwright and former
President of the Czech Republic. At the age of 19 Havel began publishing magazine articles, later working in the theatre as a stagehand. For the Theatre on the Balustrade he wrote witty plays expressing dissent against the Czech Communist suppression of artistic and literary freedoms. Havel’s plays were critically acclaimed throughout Europe.
When Czechoslovakia fell under Soviet domination in 1968, there were severe consequences for Havel’s once-wealthy family, who were now classified as ‘class enemies’. Havel’s plays were banned, although they continued to be performed outside Czechoslovakia and Havel continued to write for underground publications. He was offered the chance to leave the country several times, but he declined: ‘The solution of this human situation does not lie in leaving it.’
In 1977 Havel, supported by hundreds of Czech intellectuals, helped to draw up the Charter 77 human rights document. His essay The Power of the Powerless (1978) accused the Communist regime of creating a society of morally corrupt individuals. Havel was imprisoned for subversion. He was released in 1983 but continued to criticize the government in the press and in 1989 was imprisoned for a further nine months. In the same year an opposition movement called Civic Forum, which Havel helped to found, gained momentum and culminated in the bloodless ‘Velvet Revolution’, which overthrew Communism in Czechoslovakia.
In December 1989 Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia. He resigned in 1992 when the Slovak Parliament passed its own constitution and Czechoslovakia split into two new states – the Republic of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Havel was elected the first President of the Czech Republic in 1993.
Despite ill health, Havel continued to write and received many awards for his literary as well as his human rights achievements, becoming an inspiration to fighters for democracy, symbolizing the ability of one person to change the course of history through non-violent means. He retired at the end of his second term as President.
We live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore each other, to care only about ourselves.
Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility or forgiveness lost their depth and dimensions, and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities, or they resembled gone-astray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous in the era of computers and spaceships. Only a few of us were able to cry out loud that the powers that be should not be all-powerful, and that special farms, which produce ecologically pure and top-quality food just for them, should send their produce to schools, children’s homes and hospitals if our agriculture was unable to offer them to all. The previous regime – armed with its arrogant and intolerant ideology – reduced man to a force of production and nature to a tool of production. In this it attacked both their very substance and their mutual relationship. It reduced gifted and autonomous people, skilfully working in their own country, to nuts and bolts of some monstrously huge, noisy and stinking machine, whose real meaning is not clear to anyone. It cannot do more than slowly but inexorably wear down itself and all its nuts and bolts.
‘We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought.’
When I talk about contaminated moral atmosphere, I am not talking just about the gentlemen who eat organic vegetables and do not look out of the plane windows. I am talking about all of us. We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it.
In other words, we are all- though naturally to differing extents – responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery, none of us is just its victim: we are all also its co-creators.
Why do I say this? It would be very unreasonable to understand the sad legacy of the last forty years as something alien, which some distant relative bequeathed us. On the contrary, we have to accept this legacy as a sin we committed against ourselves. If we accept it as such, we will understand that it is up to us all, and up to us only, to do something about it. We cannot blame the previous rulers for everything, not only because it would be untrue but also because it could blunt the duty that each of us faces today, namely, the obligation to act independently, freely, reasonably and quickly. Let us not be mistaken: the best government in the world, the best Parliament and the best President, cannot achieve much on their own. And it would also be wrong to expect a general remedy from them only. Freedom and democracy include participation and therefore responsibility
from us all.
‘We are all responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery.’
If we realize this, then all the horrors that the new Czechoslovak democracy inherited will cease to appear so terrible. If we realize this, hope will return to our hearts .
… In conclusion, I would like to say that I want to be a President who will speak less and work more. To be a President who will not only look out of the windows of his aeroplane but who, first and foremost, will always be present among his fellow citizens and listen to them well.
You may ask what kind of republic I dream of. Let me reply: I dream of a republic independent, free and democratic, of a republic economically prosperous and yet socially just, in short, of a humane republic which serves the individual and which therefore holds the hope that the individual will serve it in turn. Of a republic of well-rounded people, because without such it is impossible to solve any of our problems, human, economic, ecological, social or political.
The most distinguished of my predecessors opened his first speech with a quotation from the great Czech educator Comenius. Allow me to round off my first speech with my own paraphrase of the same statement:
People, your government has returned to you!