Havel, Vaclav: The Power of Dreaming

Speech to Council of Europe Assembly, Strasbourg, 10 May 1990.

havel[The collapse of Communism in central and eastern Europe revealed a deep longing among the newly liberated populations to reunite with the European mainstream. This longing was articulated by Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and dissident leader, in a speech which he made as President of Czechoslovakia to the Assembly of the Council of Europe. His concept of a European Confederation did not materialize, but all the former Communist states, except Serbia, became members of the Council of Europe, and ten of them (including the two successor states to Czechoslovakia, which underwent a ‘velvet divorce’ in 1993) subsequently applied for membership of the European Union. Membership negotiations began in March 1998 for the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia, and in February 2000 for Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia. The first of these candidates will probably be admitted in 2004.]

The 12 stars in the emblem of the Council of Europe symbolize – among other things – the rhythmical passage of time, with its 12 hours in the day and 12 months in the year. The emblem of the institution in which I now have the honour of speaking strengthens my conviction that I am speaking to people who are acutely aware of the sudden acceleration of time that we are witnessing in Europe today, people who understand someone like myself who not only wants time to go faster but actually has a duty to project this acceleration into political action.

If you will bear with me, I shall once again try some thinking aloud on this subject in a place that is perhaps the environment best suited to such reflections. Let me start with my personal experience.

Throughout my life, whenever my thoughts have turned to social affairs, politics, moral questions and life in general, there has always been some reasonable person ready to point out sooner or later, very reasonably and in the name of reason, that I should be reasonable too, cast aside my eccentric ideas, and acknowledge that nothing can change for the better because the world is divided once and for all into two worlds. Both halves are content with this division and neither wants to change anything. It is pointless to behave according to one’s conscience because no one can change anything and those people who do not want a war should just keep quiet.

I often had to listen to this ‘voice of reason’ following Brezhnev’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, after which all the so-called ‘reasonable’ people felt much revived because it had given them a new argument for their indifference to public affairs. They could say: ‘There you are, that’s the way it goes, they’ve written us off, nobody cares, there’s nothing we can do about it, it’s no use trying, so just learn your lesson and say nothing! Or do you want to go to jail?’

Naturally, I was by no means the only one to disregard this wise advice and to continue doing what I considered to be right. There were many of us in my country. We were not afraid of looking like fools, but went on thinking about how to make the world a better place and we did not hide our thoughts. Our efforts eventually merged into a single co¬ordinated flow which we called Charter 77.

All of us together in the charter, and each one of us individually, thought about freedom and injustice, about human rights, about democracy and political pluralism, about market economics and much else besides. Because we thought, we also dreamed. We dreamt, whether in or out of prison, of a Europe without barbed wire, high walls, artificially divided nations and gigantic stockpiles of weapons, of a Europe free of ‘blocs’, of a European policy based on respect for man and human rights, of politics unsubordinated to transient and particular interests. Yes, the Europe of our dreams was a friendly community of independent nations and democratic states. When I had the chance to snatch a quarter of an hour’s conversation with my friend Jiri Dienstbier (now Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs) as we changed machines at the end of a shift in Hermanice Prison, we sometimes dreamt of these things aloud.

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