The life of Václav Havel, who died Sunday at age 75, shows poetry can shape the destiny of nations and change the course of history.
Dazzled by dollar signs, we in the United States tend not to take the art of language seriously. But Havel (who was awarded the 1994 Liberty Medal) knew the potency of words to mold the future. For more than five decades - in the tradition of Mohandas Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon and Pope John Paul II - Havel used words to do just that.
He did nothing single-handedly. He was but one of tens of millions who risked life and livelihood to throw off oppression in the 1980s and 1990s. But in the sweep of that history, he and his words spoke large.
"Few people can say they changed the world," former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P. J. Crowley tweeted Sunday. "#VaclevHavel was one of those people who created the #Europe we have today."
Havel began as an avant-garde poet, publishing samizdat chapbooks in the 1950s and 1960s. As of 1960, he became a playwright, using black humor to probe the hopelessness of life under totalitarianism. His plays often were banned in Czechoslovakia - but that gave them cachet in Europe and the United States. His growing fame flouted the very censorship his works satirized.
He may have had greatest impact as an essayist, as in his crucial "The Power of the Powerless" of 1978, opening with a sardonic echo of Marx and Engels: "A specter is haunting Eastern Europe: the specter of what in the West is called 'dissent.' "
In 1989, the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall, this manipulator of symbols became, often reluctantly, a symbol himself. As of February, he was, as so often in the previous decade, behind bars, where dim-witted communist leaders had once again thrown him. On May 17, bowing to international protest, they released him - or tried to. All Havel had to do, said his captors, was sign a make-nice statement. Brilliantly, he refused. In the comedy the tragedy had become, the regime let him walk, reasoning it was more dangerous to jail poetry than to let it out into the open where you could watch it. Havel passed the next months in the shadowy resistance movement in and around Prague.
In October, Havel was awarded the coveted Peace Prize of the German Book Association. He was forbidden to travel to Frankfurt to receive it, but again, absence spoke louder than presence. As an acceptance speech, he sent an essay, "A Word on Words," about the power of language in a dictatorship. Actor Maximilian Schell read it aloud at the ceremony:
If the Word of God is the source of God's entire creation, then that part of God's creation which is the human race exists as such only thanks to another of God's miracles - the miracle of human speech. And if this miracle is the key to the history of mankind, then it is also the key to the history of society.
Helmut Kohl, chancellor of West Germany, sat with Richard von Weizsäcker, president, in the front row, an empty seat between them.
October and November were cataclysmic for world history. In Czechoslovakia, they saw the Velvet Revolution, the peaceful uprising that dismissed communism in Czechoslovakia. On Nov. 17, a demonstration in Prague was put down with police force. At the Realistic Theater, dramatists and other artists discussed a general strike. Havel spearheaded a new group, Civic Forum. "Whoever feels he's a member, is" said Havel. Civic Forum met in coffeehouses and theaters, especially in the Magic Lantern, scene of many Havel productions. Word got out.
Ladislav Adamec, the panicked prime minister, agreed to meet with Civic Forum, but not with Havel, who was turned away. The beginning of the end for Adamec and his regime came on Nov. 21, when Havel finally was allowed to speak in public in Wenceslas Square. A word-of-mouth flash mob of 500,000 showed up on a freezing night. As Havel spoke, chaos erupted at the studios of the official TV station, Kontakt, as producers fought over showing Havel, or showing a rock show, as directed by the government.
Havel was not a great public speaker, but the crowd that night turned much of what he said into call-and-response. The phrase Havel na Hrany - "Havel to the Castle," as in "Havel for President," became common. The crowds shook keys by the hundreds of thousands, a jingle of protest and peace.
On Nov. 25, in flaying winds on Letná Plain, Havel spoke to three-quarters of a million people. Adamec also came, but the crowd shouted, "Too late! Too late!" Before the year was out, the government had stepped down, and Havel had been elected president.
Life in office was less poetic. Havel had to preside over the messy, bitter, but at least peaceful split of his country into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. He was president of the latter from 1993 to 2003, staying on despite surgery for lung cancer. More important as symbol than as legislator, Havel gave legitimacy and weight to the emerging order of his country and Eastern Europe.
He returned to writing. His 2007 play Leaving was performed at the Wilma Theater in 2010 and made into a 2011 Czech film.
A last poetic reminiscence. December 1989: peace after long upheaval. Havel and wife Olga took a quiet walk in Pruhonice Park. Havel later recalled thinking: "At last, outside under the high, wide heavens, I realized that this is for real, definitely not a dream."
It's said poetry is for dreamers. So is love and so is peace. Such dreams can become real by being dreamed - that was always Václav Havel's message, and it proved real enough to face down generations of tanks, troops, and weapons.