Former Laureates

Vaclav Havel

1986

1986 marked the 450th anniversary of Erasmus's death. Commemoration of this anniversary was combined with the award of the Erasmus Prize to Václav Havel. The event took place in the St. Laurenskerk in Rotterdam.

This first award to an East European was noteworthy because the laureate was absent. Havel thought that the political circumstances in Czechoslovakia and his status as a dissident made it unwise for him to leave his country. Two people came on his behalf: the international chairman of Charta 77, František Janouch, and Havel's friend, the actor Jan Tríska. Many other friends, also émigré dissidents, attended the ceremony.

Václav Havel was born in Prague in 1936. After the communists seized power in 1948 Havel was unable to continue his studies. He went to the gymnasium in evening school, while at the same time working as a laboratory assistant. He was nevertheless denied a place at university time after time. In 1955 he began to write and publish articles. In 1960 he went to work as a stage hand at the Balustrade Theatre (Divadlo Na zábradlí), where he eventually became literary adviser and where his first play, The Garden Party (1963), had its premiere. After the Prague Spring was suppressed in 1968 and he was banned from the theatre, he turned his attention increasingly to criticising the state's undemocratic procedures. His books were banned in 1977 and his work could only be circulated underground. Václav Havel, together with Jan Patocka and Jirí Hájek, became the first spokesmen for Charta 77 on 1 January 1977. From 1979 to 1983 Havel was imprisoned for undermining the state. He went on writing, however, and in 1989, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he played a major role in the Velvet Revolution. In that same year Václav Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia. In 1993 this became the Presidency of the Czech Republic, an office which he resigned in 2003. Václav Havel was awarded the Erasmus Prize because he remained true to his own conscience and showed great courage in raising his voice against threats to the freedom of the individual citizen and to peace between countries. Havel's best known literary works are The Memorandum (1965), Largo Desolato (1985), The Power of the Powerless (1985), Living in Truth (1986), and Letters to Olga (1988) and To the Castle and Back (2007). Václav Havel died in 2011.

Václav Havel donated his Erasmus Prize money to the international office of Charta 77 in Stockholm.

Citation

The Erasmus Prize 1986 is being awarded to Vaclav Havel

  • because he bases his work on the traditional European idea of the individuality of every human being and therefore opposes all threats to a humane culture;
     
  • because he is of the opinion that every human being must personally bear his or her responsibility and make choices;
     
  • because he has always remained true to his own conscience and therefore speaks out with great courage against the dangers to which liberty is exposed;
     
  • because he stands for the idea that genuine peace between countries can only be achieved if every individual citizen in those countries has the chance to live in a free and just society;
     
  • because he demonstrates through his ideas that his country's culture is rooted in a European tradition which goes back for centuries and which must not be allowed to die.

Acceptance speech

Not wanting to leave his country Václav Havel could not attend the award ceremony. His acceptance speech was read by Jan Tríska.

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The awareness that the Erasmus Prize has in the past been awarded to so many outstanding people whom I find it extremely difficult to measure up to, in no way simplifies the formulation of my acceptance speech. The only thing which eases my understandable diffidence is the feeling that the appreciation shown for my literary work also reflects on Charta 77. Without the experience I have gained during my 10 years in Charta 77, and without the support I should hardly have been able to achieve very much at all of the little I may have succeeded in achieving in recent years. The honour which is being made through me, however indirectly, to Charta 77,1 see as something more: as a sign of recognition of all those who, in that part of Europe in which I happen to live, and in the face of all the difficulties they have to contend with, endeavour to live in truth; all those who go on trying to say out loud what they think and feel, who take the side of their fellow-men against all the various dehumanising pressures, trying to achieve a better world, a world without war, without the rule of lies, without brute force, without humiliation, and without environmental destruction of the tiny part of the universe which we inhabit.
Thus, if you will allow me, I will thank the Erasmus Prize Committee, which awarded me this high honour, both in my name, and in the name of all of those in Eastern Europe who try to speak and create freely as well as those who sympathise with them.
The fact that I live in the part of Europe which is cut off from you and to which the Erasmus Prize is today going for the first time quite naturally leads me to give some thought to the question of how to cope with the division of our continent.
We hear a great deal - from governments as well as from various non-conformist social movements - about the ideal of Europe as a continent of friendly cooperation between independent and equal nations from which, instead of the threat of superpower conflict, peace emanates as an example to the rest of the world.
Whatever the degree of sincerity with which this vision is put forward, there can be no doubt that it is a truly beautiful vision. But, unfortunately, at the present time nothing but a vision. Europe is divided by a high barrier, symbolised in brick and mortar by the Berlin Wall.
What can we do to convert this beautiful vision into reality? What can we do to help every European nation become truly independent and autonomous, with no reason to fear its neighbours? What can we do to ensure that all European nations enjoy political democracy and social justice, and that they aid the less developed regions of the world in a way that is in keeping with their possibilities? What can we do to make every single European feel free and safe, to give him the benefit of the rule of law and give his (or her) life dignity and meaning? What can we do to save our younger fellow-citizens from spending years training to kill others, and to enable European scientists to devote their talents to improving the environment instead of producing increasingly more sophisticated weapons?
I believe that each one of us can do at least two things. And I find it deeply symbolic that both are, in a way, linked with the legacy of that great European, Erasmus ofRotterdam.
Firstly: it is possible for all of us to go on repeating that we want what we want; all of us can - despite the harsh political reality, despite the many limitations given by human nature and by the spiritual, moral and social state of contemporary civilisation - give voice to our ideals and endeavour to put them into practice; all of us can make some personal sacrifice for the sake of these ideals, if, that is, we agree with the Czech philosopher, the late Professor Jan Patocka, that there are certain things for which it is worth while to suffer; we all can accept that peculiar, logical, and yet somewhat mysterious imperative which says that man ought to act the way hè thinks - that everyone should act like that. In short, each and every one of us can come to realise that he or she - no matter how insignificant or helpless they may feel - is in a position to change the world. The mystery lies in the inconceivable notion that any of us could, so to speak, shake the Earth. Its logic, is that unless I, you, he, she, all of us decide to set out on this path, the world will truly remain as it is. We all have to start with ourselves: if we wait for someone else, none of us will ever see any change. And it is not true that it is impossible: even the most powerless among us has his own willpower (however much this may be affected by temperament, origin, education or selfawareness) — and at the same time this is perhaps the only thing no one can take away from us. Whoever applies it may achieve something - if he does not even try, it is quite certain that he will achieve nothing.
Erasmus wrote a remarkable book, 'In Praise of Folly'. Well, as you may have noticed, the first thing I'm recommending here is the courage to be a fool. A fool in the best sense of the word. Let us try and be foolish and, in all seriousness, demand to change the seemingly unchangeable! In any case, are you not here today honouring a fool? And through him dozens and hundreds of others, who by demanding that the unchangeable be changed do not hesitate to risk years of imprisonment and - what absolute folly! - oppose the gigantic power of the state bureaucracy and police with their puny typewriters? Far be it from me to hold myself or my friends or East European dissidents up as examples for anyone to follow. I am well aware how brave were, for instance, the Dutch during the Second World War. And I certainly do not believe that the East boasts more courageous people than the West. Many of you, if placed in the position that many of us have been and are in, would doubtless behave no differently, and perhaps better. If I did not know that, I would not be saying all this. If I am recommending this kind of folly here and now, then I am only doing so in the certainty that people all over Europe are capable of it. And that unless we succeed in founding some kind of all-European community of fools, none of us - you there nor we here - will achieve any thing.
And that brings me to my second point, which I also believe to be in the power of each and every one of us, and which also has some connection with the legacy of your great fellow-countryman. Erasmus is rightly seen as a great - and possibly the last - personification of European integrity. He travelled all over Europe, spoke to all Europe, concerned himself with European problems, and was held in high esteem, and asked for help and advice, by all of Europe. (Incidentally, the very first translation from the Latin of his most famous book happened to be the Czech translation.) The approaching conflict in Europe affected him more deeply than most of his contemporaries. And, in the face of that conflict, he tried - in vain - to preserve and rescue the unity of the European spirit, European consciousness, European tradition. These values went hand in hand with the idea that that which is supremely human is at the same time also Christian, so that if everyone respected the claims of humanity, all conflict - whether its causes were religious, national or those of power politics - could be overcome. He even dreamed of a kind of supranational brotherhood of the learned. Jan Patocka, who at the very end of his life was honoured by the brave action of your Foreign Minister, who decided to receive him during an official visit to Prague, has once written about the 'community of the shaken'. Is this not a contemporary variant of Erasmus's old notion? And is not the shaken state of this community the source of that desirable kind of folly? Are we not in fact dealing here once more with the European brotherhood of fools?
Why am I bringing all this up on this particular occasion? It seems to me that no negotiations between governments or heads of state, whether in Helsinki, Geneva, Vienna, or anywhere else, can bring us anywhere nearer to the realisation of that beautiful vision of a peaceful and undivided Europe unless and until the negotiators enjoy the full backing of their respective nations. And, what is more, until they can be put under direct pressure by them. Europe must simply wrest this vision from today's unfeeling world; the European governments alone are not equal to the task, and if we were to expect the superpowers to present us with it, we would be contradicting its very meaning, which is not to hand over the solution to others but, on the contrary, for Europe to decide on her own destiny. Naturally, Europeans can only do this if they feel they have a truly compelling reason to do so; if, that is, they feel linked and motivated by what I would call a European consciousness. A profound awareness that they are all Europeans together. A deep feeling of unity, albeit unity in diversity. A profound awareness of their thousand-year-old common history and spiritual tradition with its roots deep in antiquity and the Judaeo-Christian ethic. A renewed respect for the spiritual principles which gave rise to everything good that Europe created. Europe is made up mainly of small nations, whose history is mutually linked by thousands of threads vhich together form the finished fabric. There can be no renewal of a European consciousness unless Europeans are aware of this, unless they gain a new understanding of its meaning and a new pride in it. And without such a renewal we can hardly hope to see any meaningful political changes leading to an eventual European Community of independent nations. If I am right in establishing an invisible link between Erasmus's idea of a humanistic brotherhood of scholars and Patocka's 'community of the shaken', surely this must lead to the ideal of a reconstituted European consciousness.
The second thing that is - now at this moment and anywhere - within our power is this new understanding of our common Europeaness. Even though I consider myself, on the whole, a very sober person, I cannot but notice that there have been increasing indications of this in the course of the past few years.
To give you just one small example: in the 1950s, thousands of innocent people were given long prison sentences in our country, and the West knew little, and cared less, about it. In the early 1970s the Czechoslovak regime jailed several dozen political prisoners. While the outside world was well aware of their fate, there were few expressions of solidarity, partly due to a tragically mistaken interpretation of détente as of a policy of determined silence about the misdeeds of the other side. When I and my friends were imprisoned towards the end of the 1970s, a mighty chorus of solidarity sounded throughout the world, which I find extremely moving and for which I shall continue to be grateful to my dying day I believe that this, too, goes to show that people in Western Europe are beginning to realise even more clearly what we in Eastern Europe have been painfully aware of for a very long time: that there exists the other half of Europe. And surely this growing feeling of solidarity is one of the reasons why today it is so much more difficult for the Czechoslovak authorities to lock us up than if we were living in the 1950s.
This newly-awakened European consciousness does not express itself- at least where I am concerned - in the traditional, ideological, routine anti-Communist rhetoric of some Western statesmen, usually intended to provide justification for their growing military budgets. That is most unlikely to save us. No, I see it in something quite different: in the undemonstrative, less ideological but for that much more profound and deeply felt awareness of our common destiny, firmly anchored in the hearts of the people of many nations, who give daily expression to it in the most effective way. It is here that I discern hopeful signs for the future. It is as if people in Western Europe were beginning to realise that they will only hurt themselves if they shield their eyes from what is going on in the East and pretend that it does not concern them. As if they were coming to realise ever more forcefully how fragile their western happiness and prosperity would be, were it permanently bound to the unhappiness of Eastern Europe and how sooner or later, it would inevitably end in their own misfortune. And so, as the landscape of prosperous Western Europe is slowly beginning to fill up with nuclear rockets, people in the West are beginning to ask themselves what is the sense of it all. And that question inevitably makes them look at the other part of Europe, with similar rockets and, moreover, gigantic conventional armies. That leads them to pose yet another question: why is it that their neighbours in the East do not feel the same disquiet over this as they do? Do they really believe that their rockets - as opposed to those in Western Europe - are peaceful ones? From there it is only a step to taking an interest in conditions in Eastern Europe, in the state of human rights there, where even the most modest protest against the rockets is brutally punished and the slightest interest in the public weal is suppressed as soon as it manifests itself. The paradox has come full circle: thanks to the rockets being sited in Western Europe, thousands of people there are beginning to realise the iniquity of their consumer paradise while ignoring the fate of people living only a few hundred kilometres to the East; they are beginning to take an interest in these people, whom they are coming to see as their brothers and sisters whose destiny is inexorably bound up with their own. And so, again, we see a new European consciousness being born. How terrible that this rebirth had to be caused - among other things - by these dreadful weapons. Nevertheless, we can only welcome the result.
Our destiny is truly indivisible. And the more modern the weapons of destruction encircling us, the more obvious does this become. Our individual freedoms are ever more plainly the freedoms of us all; a threat posed to some always means a threat to all; the chilling self-propulsion of contemporary power, constantly preaching peace yet preparing for war, is threatening to hurl us all into the abyss; the assault on human dignity and human rights, as evolved by European tradition and first codified in America, is aimed against us all, no matter who is carrying it out and where.
Let us - all of us together - put a stop to the deathdealing folly of our contemporary world by putting a different, better kind of folly in its path: the folly behind the vision of a peace-loving European community embracing all of Europe, the folly of our European consciousness.
I think it is no exaggeration to say that this occasion -when a small Western European country, 450 years after the death of the great European whom it has given to the world, for the first time awards its highest cultural prize to someone living in a small country in Eastern Europe - provides yet another proof of my thesis about a newly rising European consciousness. By giving their Erasmus Prize to a Czech, I am convinced the Dutch people are demonstrating that for them - as for that Czech - there exists but one Europe, a Europe which may be divided politically but is not divided, indeed, it is spiritually indivisible.
Thank you for listening to me.