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President Havel at the Library of Congress:

80th Anniversary of the Czech Republic 

By Consul B. John Zavrel


President Clinton welcomes Havel in USA - Order of White Lion to General Shalikashvili - Woodrow Wilson and Madelaine Albright - 80 Years of Independence - From Czech nationalism to membership in NATO and European Union - Contributions of Reagan and Bush not forgotten.

WASHINGTON. On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia in 1918, the Czech President Vaclav Havel arrived in Washington for his 11th visit of the United States. Due to recent health problems and a string of operations over the past year, his planned visit was by no means set in stone: only days before his departure, the doctors have their reluctant OK for the President to undertake his first trip abroad in months.

Havel was accompanied by his wife Dagmar and the Czech Ambassador in Washington Alexander Vondra. Among the guests in the packed Coolidge Auditorium of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress were Zbigniew Brzezinsky, Jeane Kirkpatrick, the former US Ambassador in Prague, Julian Niemczyk. The exhibition "The Birth of Czechoslovakia: October 1918" was organized by the Library of Congress. It shows a number of interesting historical documents, correspondence, photographs and posters from its collection, relating to the founding of the Czechoslovak Republic in Otober 1918.

After the welcoming words by James Billington, the director of the Library of Congress, Secretary of State Madelaine Albright addressed the guests. A long-time friend of the Czech Republic and President Havel, she spoke about her own roots in the Czech lands. She praised the engagement of President Woodrow Wilson in the creating of an independent Czech State after World War I after the breakup of the Austrian Empire.

"I am thrilled to be here to see this wonderful exhibit and to mark with you the Library's opening of the Month of the Czech Republic," said Madelaine Albright. "This exhibit tells two important stories. The first is the story of Czechoslovakia's independence. And the second is really America's story -- it is about our tradition of giving support to dissidents and dreamers who fight for democracy in their own countries. Actually, the independence of Czechoslovakia has really started in Pittsburgh, when a Czech professor Thomas Masaryk lived there. He had an American wife, and he was the original feminist, because he took her maiden name as his middle name; the Constitutions were similar, and Woodrow Wilson was a Czech national hero. In fact, when I was in high school I refused to write any paper which criticized Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy," reminiscenced Secretary Albright.

And she continued: "Between the World War I and World War II, Czechoslovakia was a beacon of liberty and tolerance in Europe, and then we all know the very sad story. And after the war, there was a very brief re-awakening and then a deep freeze. And if you were a Czech American who came between 1948 and 1990, the dominant feeling you had at looking back at your homeland was one of sadness. But beginning in 1990, and really for the first time since the days of Masaryk, we were able, all of us who had been born there, to look back at our country with pride, and that was a tribute to great friends of freedom, but above all to this man, Vaclav Havel."

President Havel's own address this time was in Czech, although the Czech President speaks English quite well. He did not dwell on the ups and downs of the brief 80-year history of the young state. Rather, he limited his comments to a few personal observations and reminiscences.

"Ten years ago I was an enemy of my state and a bad playwright", said the Czech President to the assembled guests in the auditorium of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

With these personal recollections about the eventful time just before the European Revolution of 1989, the Czech President continued: "I was approached by a theater in Prague to write a play about the founding of Czechoslovakia in 1918. An historian-friend lent me some fifteen books about that historical period. So, after ten days I re-emerged from the apartment where I was hiding, having read these books, and the play was written. And the theater produced the play as promised, under an assumed name. I sat in the audience, hidden in the back row among the spectators on the opening night, and all of a sudden there was a great noise outside the building ... someone went out and told the others that the police were beating the people. So already ten years ago, on October 28, 1988, it was already a time of spontaneous demonstrations by the people, showing their desire for freedom and their dissatisfaction with the situation in their country," said President Havel.

The high point of the program was the handing over of high Czech State awards to several individuals who have made great contributions toward the re-establishment of democracy to the Czech Republic and whose engagement has been significant for the present good Czech-American political and cultural relations. The Order of the White Lion, the highest Czech decoration -- was presented to Gen. John Shalikashvilli, the former chief of the National Security Council. Several other Americans were also presented high awards: the former Secretary of State Zbigniew Brzezinsky, the former Ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and the former Ambassador to Prague during the Reagan and Bush administrations, Julian Niemczyk.

Actually, it was the policy of "Peace Through Strength" of Ronald Reagan and his successor George Bush that brought about the break-up of the communist system in Europe in the fall of 1989. The threatening russification of Czechoslovakia in late 1980's was avoided only due to a miracle. It is no wonder that Ronald Reagan and George Bush are the most popular American presidents in Europe. The millions of people in Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic understand very well that without the courageous engagement for liberty and peace of Ronald Reagan, George Bush and the German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, their fate today would have been much different. Although President Reagan no longer appears in public due to the Alzheimer's disease, George Bush represents their joint achievements on his occasional visits to Europe.

"Today, President Havel's Czech Republic is not only independent and free, it is safe. It is not only America's friend, it will soon be our ally. And we no longer fear for its destiny, but count on it to stand responsibly by us whenever there is a threat to our common destiny, and no one has done more than Vaclav Havel to teach that with freedom comes responsibility," said Madelaine Albright. "In prison and in power, he has been a speaker of unwelcome truths, a voice of conscience, who reminds us that if we are to share a just and peaceful future, we must not flinch from the hard lessons of the past. President Havel was right about our responsibility to end the war in Bosnia and to expand NATO and the European Union. He is right that every nation has to face the darker aspects of its history and to reconcile itself with its neighbors, no matter who were the victors and the vanguished in the past."

The reference by Secretary Albright to the "darker aspects of Czech history" relates to the inevitable public discussion about the expulsion of Germans by the Czechoslovak goverenment after World War II. The historical lands of Bohemia and Moravia have had a large ethnic German minority for centuries. After the war some 3 million of these ethnic Germans were expelled overnight from their ancestral lands and all their property was confiscated. Most of them and their families now live in Germany and in Austria. They and their descendants seek an apology from the Czech government for the expulsion and a right to return to what they see as also their country. It remains to be seen if this unresolved issue will jeopardize the Czech Republic's efforts to be admitted into the European Union. While the Czech President Havel and the German President Herzog have opened discussion of this formerly ignored topic several years ago, much still remains unsettled. Honesty, compassion and courage will be needed from both sides to put this dark chapter of history behind, and to work together for a better future in their common home, which is Europe.

Secretary Albright said this in closing of her inspiring talk: "In the years to come, a lot of people on both sides of the Atlantic are going to be looked upon as the architects of the new Europe. A Europe that promises for the first time to be without division of any kind. But my friends, we shouldn't forget that the structure we have built has a moral foundation, and that foundation was laid by Vaclav Havel and his colleagues in Central Europe. And so once again, that small country in Central Europe has produced a giant, a philosopher, a humanist respected throughout the world. I have heard both the Czech national anthem and the Star-Spangled Banner played at the Hradcany Castle in Prague as well as on the south lawn of the White House. And the words of both are very true: the Czech national anthem is "Where is My Homeland", and the Stars-Spangled Banner is "The Land of the Free and the Brave." And Vaclav, I thank you so much for letting us, those of us who were born Czechs, to once again be proud of our heritage," concluded Secretary Albright.

During the October celebrations in Washington and its surrounding areas, there will be many other cultural activities, such as a picture exhibition of present Czech Art, film presentations and a gala concert in the Washington National Cathedral. In this way it will be possible for Americans to get to know more about the Czech Republic and its rich cultural traditions.


We recommend these books:

The Art of the Impossible, by Vaclav Havel

Apocryphal Tales, by Karel Capek

The Garden Party and Other Plays, by Vaclav Havel

Eumeswil, by Ernst Jünger



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