“I think we’re in a hinge moment where it’s on us – it’s unclear, and I think we’re in danger of making very big mistakes. We’re giving up things that we consider indisputable, inalienable liberal values. We’re giving those up for cheap, short-term Pyrrhic victories. We say: ‘Trump’s here so we can’t have freedom of speech. ‘ Really? You’re gonna part with freedom of speech that quickly? I think it’s because we’ve lost touch — we’ve been children of the summer, to use Games of Thrones language. People who part with free speech — they forgot what winter was like” ~ Thomas Chatterton Williams
People in many parts of the world, including China, Turkey, Egypt, Russia and Iran, know what it’s like to live through a perennial cultural winter. Suppressing freedom of expression of the written word is a hallmark of such regimes, just as it was in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. “The word is the weapon that rulers in authoritarian regimes around the world fear most,” says Regula Venske, president of the German PEN Center, one of many such centers in 100 countries affiliated with PEN International, which campaigns for freedom of expression. “The first to be arrested are always the writers and journalists.”
As Simon Schama points out, what we had imagined to be things of the past have returned to shadow the present and future. “Shrieking, whether online or on platforms, is back; hate is sexy and stalks the world as “disruption.”
The events that played out in Prague 50 years ago, described below, serve as a stark reminder of the fragility of the system put in place to guard against such tyranny. The enduring lesson is that freedom is not an established fact, but a work-in-progress, a constant creative act.
1968: the leader of Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party, Alexander Dubcek, initiated a project of liberalization in which the free press flourished, artists and writers spoke their minds, and Dubcek stunned Moscow by proclaiming that he wanted to create “a free, modern and profoundly humane society.”
It became known as the “Prague Spring.” But nearly as soon as the movement came to life, it was brutally crushed by Moscow, which feared it would spread. A long Stalinist cultural winter set in.
Among the first targets of the invading Soviet troops was the media. In an attempt to keep the Prague radio station broadcasting, protesters moved city buses around the building and set them ablaze. When Soviet tanks rammed the fortifications, Jan Palach and several other despairing protesters set themselves on fire.
1975: the Czech government signs the Helsinki Declaration, guaranteeing human rights and individual freedoms. Václav Havel, the internationally acclaimed playwright, sends an open letter to Czechoslovakia’s President, Gustav Husák, denouncing the policy of ‘normalization’ as demoralization and loss of identity.
“If life cannot be destroyed for good, then neither can history be brought entirely to a halt. A secret streamlet trickles on beneath the heavy cover of inertia and pseudoevents, slowly and inconspicuously undercutting it. It may be a long process, but one day it must happen: the cover will no longer hold and will start to crack” ~ Vaclav Havel’s open letter to Gustav Husák, 1975
1976: Members of the Czech psychedelic rock band, Plastic People of the Universe, are arrested and tried for disturbing the peace, with 8 to 18-month sentences. In response, a group of Czech artists, writers, and musicians, Havel included, circulated a petition for their freedom known as the Manifesto of Charter 77. Havel receives a suspended sentence for “harming state interests abroad.”
1978: Havel and other signatories of Charter 77 found the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted, which monitored and drew attention to those who were prosecuted contrary to the then laws of Czechoslovakia. Havel penned his best-known essay, The Power of the Powerless.
“Authoritarians can mobilise their heavy artillery of terror, torture, imprisonment and persecution; but in the end, Havel argued, they are not that well equipped to fight the asymmetric battle between lies and truth. Havel believed that the vast majority of people are not content to be forever walled within a prison of falsehood, where the price of material security and domestic safety is the unconditional surrender of personal freedom.
For a while, perhaps many decades, punitive disincentives against disruptive truth-speaking can prevail, especially when reinforced by visceral appeals to tribal loyalty: the demonisation of hate figures (such as George Soros) said to personify foreign manipulation. In the end what Havel calls the “trapped air”— a natural human wish to be able to speak one’s mind in a café, dress as one wishes (including visible hair), listen to unauthorised music, all the small acts of social defiance — can build into a rising tide of disgust.” ~ Simon Schama
1979: Havel and other founders of the Committee are sentenced to four and a half years without parole for subversion.
1989: During a week-long series of protests commemorating the self-immolation of Jan Palach (dubbed Palach Week), Havel is taken into custody. Released on parole, he immediately initiates a petition for the democratization of Czechoslovak society, called A Few Sentences, which is signed by tens of thousands. In October he is arrested once again – this time for only a few days. Then, following the violent suppression of a student demonstration, the ‘Civic Forum’ is founded with a view to bringing about dialogue with the authorities. Havel becomes the leading figure and main symbol of the non-violent toppling of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia and the transition from totalitarianism to democracy, known as the “Velvet Revolution.”
Sources: New York Times, Václav Havel library, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History & New Media, Financial Times.
“So those old battles need to be refought, and with the help of the unlikely weapons that once opened eyes and changed minds: the soft power of culture — poetically charged words, images, music, all of which can, in some circumstances, exert a force beyond the workaday stuff of politics. Culture can do this because it can connect with human habits, needs and intuitions in ways that expose the inhuman hollowness of official propaganda.” ~ Simon Schama
The Havel tartan portrays an endless succession of prison cell windows struck through in red, protesting the persecution and imprisonment of writers of conscience in the knowledge that free expression is an essential component of every healthy society. It is named in honour of the late Václav Havel, the dissident playwright and co- author of Charter 77, the landmark human rights declaration for which he was imprisoned for several years, only to lead the ‘Velvet Revolution’ that peacefully overthrew communism and installed him as Czechoslovakia’s president. Charter 77 was also the inspiration for Charter 08, the petition demanding the end of one-party rule in China for which author Liu Xiaobo is currently serving an 11-year sentence. Permission to adopt the Havel name was graciously granted by his wife, Dagmar Havlova Veskrnova, with assistance from the Dagmar and Vaclav Havel Foundation VIZE 97 and PEN International, the worldwide writers’ association promoting literature and defending freedom of expression.
“Freedom isn’t something we sit around waiting for, some gift, but our task. We initiate freedom by working and thinking freely; we create it, by providing as something concrete the results of our creation” ~ Václav Havel
“Truth and love will overcome lies and hatred” ~ Václav Havel