Madame Speaker, Edmund Burke once said that, “all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Thirty years ago, good men and women came together, and together, they ultimately triumphed over evil.
In 1987, I traveled to Czechoslovakia with a Helsinki Commission delegation led by my good friend, Steny Hoyer, who was then Chairman of the Commission. We traveled there just ten years after the Charter 77 movement had been formed and, amazingly, in spite of persecution and imprisonment, they had managed to publish 350 documents during its first ten years. And it was clear during my visit to Prague that this organization was having an impact, especially when the communist authorities went to the trouble of preventing five independent activists, including Vaclav Havel, from meeting with us.
In spite of this, our delegation was able to meet with several other Charter 77 signatories and sympathizers: Libuse Silhanova, Josef Vohryzek, Father Vaclav Maly, Zdenek Urbanek, and Rita Klimova. Libuse Silhanova, then serving as a Charter 77 spokesperson, described her fellow Chartists as “ordinary people who happen to be part of a movement.” For a group of “ordinary people,” they certainly accomplished extraordinary things.
One of the most notable of these “ordinary people” was the playwright Vaclav Havel, who is today the sole surviving member of Charter 77’s first three spokespersons. At a time when most Czechoslovaks preferred to keep their heads low, he held his up. When others dared not speak out, he raised up his voice. While others hid from communism in their apartments and weekend cottages, he faced it down in prison.
In 1978, Havel wrote a seminal essay entitled, “The Power of the Powerless.” In it, he proposed a remarkably conspiratorial concept: the idea that those repressed by the Communist Lie actually had the power to “live for truth,” and that by doing so, they could change the world in which they live.
One of the people who read this essay was Zbygniew Bujak, who became a leading Solidarity activist in Poland. Bujak described the impact of Havel’s message:
This essay reached us in the Ursus factory in 1979 at a point when we felt we were at the end of the road. Inspired by KOR [the Polish Workers’ Defense Committee, which preceded Solidarity], we had been speaking on the shop floor, talking to people, participating in public meetings, trying to speak the truth about the factory, the country, and politics. There came a moment when people thought we were crazy. Why were we doing this? Why were we taking such risks? Not seeing any immediate and tangible results, we began to doubt the purposefulness of what we were doing. Shouldn’t we be coming up with other methods, other ways?
Then came the essay by Havel. Reading it gave us the theoretical underpinnings for our activity. It maintained our spirits; we did not give up, and a year later – in August 1980 – it became clear that the party apparatus and the factory management were afraid of us. We mattered. And the rank and file saw us as leaders of the movement. When I look at the victories of Solidarity, and of Charter 77, I see in them an astonishing fulfillment of the prophecies and knowledge contained in Havel’s essay.
Vaclav Havel’s essay was not just the product of clever wordsmithing; it was an act of singular heroism. In fact, shortly after writing “The Power of the Powerless,” Vaclav Havel found himself in prison, again. And it should be remembered that others, including philosopher Jan Patocka, Havel’s close friend, and Pavel Wonka, paid with their lives for their opposition to the Czechoslovak communist regime.
Vaclav Havel is a man who has always been guided by the courage of his convictions. Remarkably, his courage did not fade upon his assumption of the presidency. Indeed, he is all the more heroic for his steadfast commitment to human rights even from the Prague Castle. From the beginning, he was a voice of reason, not revenge, as he addressed his country’s communist and totalitarian past. In 1993, he rightly identified the situation of Roma as “a litmus test for civil society.” And not only has he raised human rights issues in his own country but reminds the world of the abuses taking place in Cuba and China.
Throughout his presidency, he pardoned those faced with criminal charges under communist-era laws that restrict free speech. In 2001, he spoke out against the parliament’s regressive religion law, which turned the clock back on religious freedom. And he has reminded other world leaders of our shared responsibility for the poor and less fortunate the world over.
On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the founding of Charter 77, I want to join my colleagues from the Helsinki Commission in honoring Vaclav Havel and all the men and women who signed the Charter, who supported its goals, and who helped bring democracy to Czechoslovakia.