Catalonia International Prize

1995-05-11 - Vaclav Havel

Your Majesty,
Mr. President of the Generalitat,
President von Weizsacker,
Mr. Porcel,
Ladies and gentlemen,
The fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II has once again made me think about the eventful modern history of my country. Once again I came to the realization that the central motif of this period is an everlasting theme, one in which I have always taken a special interest, namely the relationship between morality and politics. Thus, when Mr. Pujol asked me to say on this ceremonial occasion a few words on this particular subject, I immediately thought of taking this opportunity to look at it in the light of the modern history of my country.

During that period there were several crucial moments that put before the representatives of our state the same agonizing dilemma: whether to harm the nation by yielding to somebody's dictate or by not yielding. They always opted for the former, and I have always thought that choice a fatal error. I still think so, but compared with the times when I was but an independent observer of history, lacking the experience of how difficult decision-making is for a person saddled with a political office and thus bearing a direct responsibility for the fate of his or her fellow citizens and their descendants, I now understand much better what kind of a burden lay on the shoulders of those who were required to take those historic decisions. I will admit that many times lately I have tried to look at their situation the way they saw it, and to imagine what I would have done in their place, asking myself whether I would have been able to decide in favour of the alternative which I deem to be the right one as easily as I advocated it before I tasted myself the responsibilities of a political office.

The first of such ominous dilemmas was faced by Czechoslovak President Edvard Benes at the time of the Munich dictate. He knew full well that he was confronted by the aggression of a madman, sanctioned by our then allies who thus betrayed not only the treaties they had signed but also the values they professed. He was aware that from the viewpoint of national honour, and with a view to preserving the moral integrity of our national community, the right thing to do would have been not to give in to the dictate and to proceed to defend the country. On the other hand, however, he knew what that could have meant: thousands of lost lives, the devastation of the country and the probability of an early military defeat by a far stronger adversary. He realized that such a decision would likely have met with lack of understanding, even rejection on the part of the democratic world, and that he himself might well have been branded as a peacebreaker and provocateur foolishly attempting to draw other nations into a totally unnecessary war. He decided to capitulate without fighting, because he thought that course more responsible than risking capitulation preceded by heavy losses.

The same man found himself in a similar situation in February 1948. Then, he could have resisted the Communist putschists supported not only by the powerful Soviet Union but also by a part of the nation. He could have risked bloodshed which might have ended with a victory of the Communists anyway. The other option was to succumb, and thus pave the way for many years of Communist totalitarian rule. At that time too, old, ailing and disappointed, he chose capitulation.

For a third time, Czechoslovak representatives capitulated after the Soviet occupation of our country in 1968. Having been abducted to the Soviet Union and exposed for several days to humiliation and threats, all with one laudable exception signed the so-called Moscow protocols, thus de facto legalizing the occupation and taking the first, and essential, step toward the ensuing course of events that was called, rather perversely, "normalization".

Any parallells between different historical situations may of course be misleading. This is true of the cases I mention here as well: different people, equipped with different experience and acting in different circumstances, both international and domestic, decided about considerably different matters. Whole libraries of testimonies, memoirs and historical analyses now exist on each of the three dilemmas, and whoever delves into them realizes all too well how cheap it would be to simply equate those three dark moments of our modern history.

Nevertheless, we should not overlook certain general similarities among them:

1) Those making the decisions did not know what we know today about the consequences which their decisions would have or, more generally, about the course which history would take afterwards. They had only their own judgment to draw on, the depth of their understanding of the given situation and their own imagination as to what the consequences of their choice would be. They all knew they were deciding between two evils, and they all tried to weigh responsibly which of them was the lesser.

2) All three dilemmas had one thing in common. Those who were thrown into them had to choose between an alternative that was more moral, yet carried with it the risk of incalculable loss of life and suffering, and one that was more realist and promised not to entail so many direct losses. Actually, they were torn between two dimensions of political responsibility on the one hand, responsibility for the moral integrity of the society; on the other, responsibility for human lives. This must be a dreadful dilemma, and someone who has never been confronted with it personally can hardly pass judgment on it.

3) None of us knows, nor shall we ever know, what would have happened had those who made the decisions in the three cases mentioned here decided otherwise. History is characterized by what physicists call singularity it always takes one course only, with no alternatives we could compare and no ifs. Therefore, we should be very careful when judging past decisions, and avoid jumping to conclusions.

4) All the aforementioned decisions brought about similar consequences: a far-reaching traumatization and long-term demoralization of the society. We can even say that this is where we can perhaps find a thread, thin as it may be, of a causal nexus between them. The post-war situation in my country would probably not have been as favourable to the Communist offensive to which the democrats eventually yielded if it had not been for the trauma of Munich, and the reform-minded Communists would hardly have given up so easily in 1968 if it had not been for the easy victory of the Communists in 1948. I do not think that the Czechs, or Czechs and Slovaks, are worse than any other nation from the moral point of view. I only believe that in the decades following the Munich dictate of 1938 my country suffered a specific type of moral frustration, and that the three political decisions I am discussing here were to a substantial extent instrumental in its emergence and subsequent deepening. Our democracy, or our longing for it, three times surrendered without battle, and this has left deep scars upon the soul of our society and adversely affected its development. I could give you hundreds of concrete examples bearing this out, but that is not the purpose of this speech.

Its purpose is to demonstrate how problematic it is to set politics and morality against one another. Didn't the "less moral" decisions have thoroughly adverse effects in the political sense as well? Didn't the moral traumas resulting from these decisions have a deep and long-term political impact? We do not know what the consequences would have been of decisions to the contrary the "more moral" ones. But we can well imagine that in the latter case the effects might not have been so deep, so long-lasting, or so fatal. Most likely, there would have been heavier immediate losses to both human lives and property, and greater immediate physical suffering. But wouldn't we have been spared other losses, the less visible yet deeper and more durable ones the losses caused by the harm done to the moral integrity of our national community? It surely is difficult to weigh different types of losses against each other, to judge how many thwarted human lives would still be a justifiable price for the long-term sanity of the society and its long-term immunity against new evils, or at which number would the price become too high. However, one thing is certain: both morality and immorality have direct political consequences, just as political decisions have a direct bearing on morality. That is why I think that it is nonsense to separate politics from morality, or to say that the two are totally unrelated. Putting such thoughts into practice, or even just saying them, is paradoxically not only deeply immoral, but very wrong politically as well.

Morality is omnipresent, and so is politics, and politics that dissociates itself from morality is simply bad politics.

But I have not yet answered the question of what I would have done had I been in the place of my predecessors and faced the dilemmas which they faced.

I will admit that I don't know. I only think I would probably have decided differently, while not ruling out the possibility that this belief is influenced by the fact that I know what they did not: the consequences resulting from their decisions.

Thus, it appears more relevant to ask myself another question: what would I do if I found myself confronted today with a dilemma similar to those which they had to deal with, not knowing and not being able to know just as they didn't what the ultimate impact of my decision would be.

I believe I would try to judge objectively all the relevant aspects, consult with many people who have my full confidence, analyze the whole situation and attempt to make a rational estimate of the different consequences that my action could possibly have. And when, having done all that, I still would not know what to do, I would probably turn to an authority which, while it may not be wholly reliable in the strict sense of the word, has more than once proved to be the most reliable source to me: my conscience, my moral instincts, that part in me which as I see it transcends me.

We all know what qualms of conscience are, the strange and dejecting feeling that we have betrayed something in us, or something above us, that we have sunk into a mire, or soiled ourselves with some ugly dirt, the feeling of having done something which we must constantly justify before someone near us, something in us or someone above us, while suspecting that the more we seek such justification the less convinced we shall be in our own mind that what we did was truly right. This is a state of deep existential distress, a contact with what some philosophers call nothingness. On the other hand, we all know the uplifting state of mind that comes from having decided to do something that does not bring us any visible benefits, but of which we can be certain that it satisfies the requirements we are called upon to meet, through our conscience, by what is called the moral order of the world.

I do not know whether these thoughts will win the applause of politicians. But I can't help it: nothing has convinced me so far that doing what our heart tells us to do is not the best politics of all.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I thank you for the attention with which you have listened to these remarks. Most of all, I thank Catalonia for the prize it has awarded me today. I am happy to receive it together with a man whom I hold in the highest esteem.