There are many fuzzy contours to the upcoming year, marred by pessimistic forecasts and feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. These are echoed in the melancholic atmosphere of today’s Prague. Yet, right at the time when one would think that most Czechs are able to care only about things which bring them material profit, the bulk of the people in this country show that such a judgement would be harsh and unfair: thousands and thousands of them, all visibly moved, have been attending designated places (first a church near the Charles Bridge, later the Vladislav Hall in the Prague Castle) to bow down before the coffin of our former President, usually after waiting for hours in long lines. Vaclav Havel arrived to the Hradcany Castle for the last time – on the very same gun carriage that had borne the coffin with the remains of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk in 1937. When the cortege approached the Mathias’ Gate, the crowd of people spontaneously started clapping – and kept doing so for more than five minutes. I saw so many men and women on the verge of tears – and indeed was choking back myself… But people were decent, silent, pensive – no hysteria, no inappropriate shouting, just an honest and profound sadness…
Candles beyond count, accompanied by Havel’s pictures, have been lit not only at Wenceslas Square and the National Avenue – the places directly connected with the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989, but near all kinds of memorials, and in virtually every town, village or suburban area. The feeling that somebody has just passed away whose horizons and global appeal extended the international significance of this country is omnipresent – as well as the prevailing idea that his death marks an end of one era… Even the other Vaclav in the presidential office, his successor Klaus, who has been Havel’s rival and critic ever since 1989, is now giving him credit – to the degree of admitting that we owe his predecessor “like nobody else for the international position, prestige and authority of the Czech Republic in the world.”
Image: Vaclav Havel’s coffin surrounded by mourners in Vladislav Hall on 21 December.
Vit Smetana, the Institute for Contemporary History, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, and DPIR Alumnus.