The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

Remembering Vaclav Havel


The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world?

I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life.

Obviously the greengrocer . . . does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.”. Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient;’ he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.

– Vaclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless (1978)


Remembering Vaclav Havel


Today marks the passing of communist-era dissident and former Czech President Vaclav Havel, who died on Sunday 18 December 2011, aged 75.  I was very saddened to learn of Havel’s death last weekend after aprolonged period of ill health  – for me, Havel was, and will remain, one of the most iconic figures to emerge from communist Eastern Europe.


Havel’s funeral at St Vitus Cathedral in Prague later today, which will be televised and broadcast on large screens across the Czech Republic, brings an end to a three days of official mourning, during which time thousands have queued to pay their respects while Havel’s body has lain in state.  Havel’s funeral will be attended by leaders from around the world; at twelve noon a minutes’ silence will be observed in his honour; requests have already been received from numerous Czech towns and cities seeking to name streets and squares in his memory, along with proposals that Prague airport be renamed in his honour. Tributes to Havel have also poured in from world leaders across the globe and the School of Slavonic and East European Studies at UCL have compiled a handy list of links to press and media coverage of Havel’s death HERE.


Crowds of Czech mourners follow Vaclav Havel's hearse on its journey to Prague Castle earlier this week. Thousands of people have queued to pay their respects to the former playwright, dissident and President during a three day mourning period.


Havel’s life has been well documented in the numerous tributes and obituaries that have appeared in the international press during the past week. Some of the best (English language) articles I’ve read have been Anne Applebaum’s article in The Washington Post; Edward Lucas’s tribute in The Economist; John Keane’s portrait ‘Remembering the Many Vaclav Havels’ and particulalry, David Remnick’s Letter from Prague ‘Exit Havel: The King Leaves the Castle’, first published in The New Yorker shortly after Havel left office in February 2003, but providing a fascinating insight into his Presidency.


Communist-Era Dissidence


The son of a wealthy ‘bourgeois’ family,  as a teenager Havel was prevented from pursuing his love of the arts at University and forced instead to enter a technical engineering programme, which he dropped out of after two years. His love of the theatre led to his finding work as a stage hand, and during the 1960s he made his name as a playwright, until his support for the ill-fated Prague Spring of 1968 resulted in enforced exclusion from theatre work. Instead, Havel was forced to take a job working in a brewery (which he later wrote about in his play Audience), but became increasingly politically active, writing a series of underground essays critically appraising the communist regime and later acting as a key figure in the Czech dissident movement Charter 77.


Charter 77 - the original membership card bearing Havel's signature.


Havel was imprisoned numerous times and was a frequent victim of repression and  harassment by the communist-era StB ( Czechoslovakian state security).  I’ll always remember seeing the following footage, originally filmed at the close of the 1970s and more recently shown as part of a documentary on The Lost World of Communism where Havel  demonstrated the blatantly intrusive level of police surveillance he was constantly subjected to:




Havel and The Power of the Powerless


Havel’s most enduring legacy will almost certainly be his most famous essay The Power of the Powerless, written in 1978 but still widely considered to be the greatest political essay to emerge from communist central and eastern Europe, and something which  I still set as essential required reading  for students taking my courses on communist Eastern Europe today. The Power of the Powerless proved a source of inspiration, not only to millions living during the last decade of communist rule across Eastern Europe but more broadly, speaking to those who have and continue to struggle to resist totalitarian rule across the globe.


Havel’s greengrocer, who unthinkingly places a sign in his shop window ‘because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it ‘ and because ‘these things must be done if one is to get along in life’ aptly represented the faceless millions living under communist rule. Havel however, looked beyond this act of seemingly harmless conformity to communism – the real meaning of the sign, he argued,  was not conveyed by the printed words on display, but by the silent signalling of conformity, acceptance and  desire to avoid trouble, the unseen signal ‘I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient’.  Havel’s greengrocer illustrated the fact that even the most oppressive regimes depend on some level of minimal compliance by the people they govern, the majority of whom chose to ‘live within the lie’ and, by conforming to the system, thus perpetuate its illusions.  This then was ‘The Power of the Powerless’. Instead, Havel thus called on the inhabitants of communist regimes to ‘live in truth’, practice non-violent civil resistance wherever possible, and encouraged the development of independent civil society. He recognised that this would not be an easy course for people to choose, as illustrated by the fate of his grocer:


“Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. The bill is not long in coming. He will be relieved of his post as manager of the shop and transferred to the warehouse. His pay will be reduced. His hopes for a holiday in Bulgaria will evaporate. His children’s access to higher education will be threatened. His superiors will harass him and his fellow workers will wonder about him. They will persecute the greengrocer either because it is expected of them, or to demonstrate their loyalty, or simply as part of the general panorama, to which belongs an awareness that this is how situations of this sort are dealt with, that this, in fact, is how things are always done, particularly if one is not to become suspect oneself”


These were tactics commonly employed by the communist authorities against any perceived dissidence, opposition and non-conformity as Havel had personally experienced. Havel however, quietly retained the courage of his convictions, and urged others to choose a similar course.


The Quiet Revolutionary

Havel went on to lead the Czechoslovakian ‘Velvet Revolution’ of 1989, establishing a Civic Forum during the dying days of communism in November 1989, and, as communism finally crumbled, appearing side by side with reformist communist leader and architecht of the failed Prague Spring Alexander Dubcek, while thousands of protestors lined Wenceslas Square, jingling their car keys and chanting ‘Havel na Hrad!’ (Havel to the Castle!).


November 1989: Vaclav Havel greets crowds in Prague's Wenceslas Square during Czechoslovakia's 'Velvet Revolution'.

November 1989: Havel turns and embraces former Communist leader Alexander Dubcek as news reaches them that the Czechoslovakian communist party have resigned from power.


Within weeks Havel  had indeed been elected as the first post-communist President of Czechoslovakia.  He was one of the few communist –era  dissidents to successfully make the transition from shadow politics into ‘real’ politics after 1989, spending a total of thirteen years as President, of Czechoslovakia (1989-1992) and then, following the Czech-Slovak ‘Velvet Divorce’ of 1993,  as President of an independent Czech Republic (1993-2003). Havel’s transition from dissident to head of state was not always a smooth one, and his post-communist Presidency was not without its problems  – most notably, he had strongly opposed the breakup of Czechoslovakia but failed in his efforts to hold the federation together – while critics have argue that he clung too long to the Presidency to the detriment of both his own health, and the wellbeing of his country, issues that Havel himself addressed in one of his most recent plays Leaving.


Since leaving the Czech Presidency, Havel retained relatively high popularity levels within the Czech Republic and remained an iconic figure internationally. In his last interview, recorded shortly before his death, Havel gave his thoughts on a range of contemporary issues including the Arab Spring and the current global financial crisis. Havel’s legacy will continue to exert influence long after his death.




December 23, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , ,


  1. Thank you, that’s a really interesting posting.

    It’s interesting to given the recent US Senate Bill 1867, clauses 1031, 1032 , which enable the snatching and grabbing of citizens without access to the legal system and can be held indefinitely.

    How this this law formulated in secrecy has not been front page stories around the world is an absolute mysery to me (and a testament to the corporate news media of the west), and is one more solid step of the slide into a police state.

    Comment by rfk | December 23, 2011 | Reply

  2. […] in The Economist, ‘Living in Truth‘), as discussed in more detail in my recent blog post here. Havel’s funeral on 23 December was attended by world leaders, past and present and received […]

    Pingback by 2011: A Quick Review « The View East | December 31, 2011 | Reply

  3. […] disillusionment with communism’.[8] (For more on Vaclav Havel, see the previous blog post HERE). While Havel became a dominant figure, other Charter 77 dissidents also continued to undermine […]

    Pingback by Silencing Dissent in Eastern Europe « The View East | June 29, 2012 | Reply

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