The different worlds of Husák and Havel

02-07-2009

If you tune in to Czech Radio on New Year’s Day, at some point you will hear the stirring tones of the presidential fanfare, introducing the president’s annual address to the nation. It was Czechoslovakia’s first head of state, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, who established the tradition, when he spoke to listeners on the Czechoslovakia’s tenth birthday in 1928. Here is a short extract from his address, which also happens to be one the oldest recordings in our archives:

“Democracy is not just a form of state, but also something that permeates all public and private life. It is a view of life. The basis of democracy is agreement among people, reasoned intercourse, love and humanity.”

Sixty years later the president was Gustáv Husák, and at the time Czechoslovakia’s communist leaders had a very different idea of what democracy meant. By the late 1980s huge changes were under way in many countries of the Eastern Bloc, but in Czechoslovakia it was business as usual. Here is a short extract from Gustáv Husák’s New Year address on January 1 1989.

“From the depth of my heart I greet our Soviet brothers, the nations of other socialist countries, and friends of Czechoslovakia the world over. Once again, I would like to wish you good health, joy, goodwill and success at work, so that we can fulfill our common plans together, and so that our homeland, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic may continue to flourish.”

This was to be Gustáv Husák’s last New Year address as president. Within a year, the communist regime had collapsed and Václav Havel was swept to Prague Castle. In his first presidential address, Havel’s message was the exact opposite of that of his predecessor.

“For forty years you have heard my predecessors tell you in various versions the same thing: that our country is flourishing and that the most wonderful opportunities are opening before us. I assume that you have not chosen me for this office in order for me to lie to you. Our country is not flourishing.”

To this day, President Havel’s words of January 1 1990 are well remembered. In a way they symbolize the end of the Velvet Revolution and the first step on the long and difficult path to reform. But more of that in future editions of From the Archives.

02-07-2009