VÁCLAV HAVEL (OCT. 5, 1936-DEC. 18, 2011): A TRIBUTE
Playwright, poet, essayist, dissident, human rights activist, and statesman are but a few of the monikers that have been used to describe Václav Havel, the first post-Communist president of Czechoslovakia (1989-1992), and the Czech Republic (1993-2003) who died in his sleep this past Sunday after a protracted illness. Havel first stepped into the spotlight of the world stage in 1977 when he co-authored the human rights declaration known as Charter 77. His outspoken opposition to the Soviet-dominated Czech police state led to persecution, constant police surveillance, and repeated imprisonment. Undeterred, Havel continued to inspire the opposition until the 1989 Velvet Revolution brought an end to the one-party state and ushered the former dissident into the presidency of the new multi-party democracy.
While the era in which Havel made his mark in the transformation of Czechoslovakia into a multiparty democracy falls outside the parameters of the Wolfsonian Library collection, we do have an abundance of Czech language materials that document the traditional culture, tumultuous history, and contentious political aspirations of the Czech people during the early to mid-twentieth century. I thought it might be a fitting tribute to Havel to show off just a few of these items.
Ultimately, historians of Eastern Europe will likely rank the role Havel played second in importance only to that of the country’s founder and first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. The Wolfsonian library holds a number of works documenting the life and political influence of Masaryk including several photographic books, postcards, and other works.
Ironically, although Havel was known for his fearless fight against the Communist regime which dominated the country in the wake of the Second World War, our own collection includes much material produced by idealistic Socialist theoreticians and utopian thinkers who sought to break from Czechoslovakia’s traditions to forge a radically new and modern identity. Czech modernists like Karal Teige were inspired by Socialism and internationalism. Their own ideas drew heavily on radical Constructivist thought and art coming out of the Soviet Union before Stalin condemned the movement in favor of Socialist realism. Some years ago, MIT Professor Eric Dluhosch unexpectedly dropped by our library enquiring whether we might have any Czech materials in our holdings as he was finishing up a book on Teige, “l’enfant terrible of the Czech modernist avant-garde.” To our mutual delight, we discovered that we possessed a wealth of materials, some of which he had not been unable to locate in the land of his birth! Eric returned to the Wolfsonian as a fellow, helped us translate and catalogue much of our Czech language works, and as guest curator put together an exhibition entitled: “Dreams and Disillusion: Karel Teige and the Czech Avant-Garde.”
Of course, the cultural clashes between traditionalists and modernists, nationalists and internationalists all dissolved in 1938 with the Nazi annexation and partitioning of Czechoslovakia in the lead-up to the Second World War. The Wolfsonian library also possesses a number of important works from this dark period of Czech history. Some works nostalgically picture the cultural traditions threatened in the period, while a portfolio of pictorial maps created by Czech exiles in London angrily respond to the betrayal at Munich and the subsequent partitioning and occupation of the country by the Nazis.
ITEMS LOANED BY MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR.
Czechoslovakia’s history in the postwar period was no less tumultuous and tragic. Reduced to a Soviet satellite state in the aftermath of the war, it was not until the liberalizing reforms began in January 1968 that Czechs began to hope for a more independent future. While the euphoria of the “Prague Spring” and the reform movement was crushed as Soviet tanks invaded the country that August, the desire for freedom remained as intellectuals like Havel were spurred to action and non-violent activism.
For those interested in learning more about the life and influence of this important figure, I invite them to check out the Václav Havel library website.