A memorial to the former Czech President, Václav Havel, was yesterday unveiled at Oxford University Parks. The ceremony coincides with this month’s 25th anniversary of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, which brought an end to over four decades of communism in what was then Czechoslovakia.
Dignitaries from the Slovak and Czech Republics, including the two nations’ ambassadors to the United Kingdom, were present at the unveiling of ‘Havel’s Place’, as were four current Czech cabinet ministers.
Commemorating the first democratically elected leader of his nation following the communist era, ‘Havel’s Place’ at Oxford is an initiative of the Oxford University Czech and Slovak Society (OUCSS), and supported by the Czech and Slovak embassies. Funding was provided by Mr LudÄ›k Sekyra, a Czech businessman and Foundation Fellow of Harris Manchester College.
In a nod to the spirit of free discussion and debate that Havel championed, the memorial takes the form of two seats linked by a round table through which grows a Linden Tree, the national tree of Havel’s homeland. It is the work of Czech designer, BoÅ™ek Šípek.
The table is inscribed with Havel’s 1989 campaign slogan, ‘Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred’.
Czech ambassador to the UK, Michael Å½antovský, served as an advisor to Havel and is the author of a new biography of the former President. He told Cherwell that the “very modest” monument would be “a place of meditation, of reflection.”
He added, “It symbolises Havel’s devotion to the reflective process — the process of concentrating on our inner identity and our inner responsibility. It’s for everyone to draw conclusions for himself. There is no prescription in ‘Havel’s Place’ for what one should think about there.”
Walter Sawyer, Superintendent of the University Parks, said, “The parks’ Curators rarely agree to erecting any kind of structure to mark the life or work of an individual”. However they felt Šípek’s structure, entitled ‘Democracy Talks’, was “an inspired format.”
Sawyer added, “We chose a space near to the pond in the Parks as it is a quieter, more reflective area. One can sit overlooking the pond and river, but similarly the memorial can be turned to look into the adjoining copse of trees, or across the Parks to the city.
“The seats can be swivelled for the sitters to look inwards at each other, or to look outwards. The permutations are almost endless and the Curators hope that the seat will be used in the spirit that it was gifted to us for discussion and debate.”
With this week’s unveiling, Oxford joins Washington DC, Dublin, Prague, Barcelona and Venice as one of a network of cities to host a ‘Havel’s Place’ in memory of the former Czech president who died in 2011. The network was kick-started by Petr GandaloviÄ, Czech ambassador to the United States.
Hailed by former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, as “one of the most important figures of the 20th century”, Havel was instrumental in the toppling of communism in his country.
Ambassador Å½antovský said, “Havel’s historic significance is enormous, as both a leader of the resistance to the communist regime and as leader of the Velvet Revolution. And after that as leader of the country, who oversaw its enormous changes to liberal democracy, a market economy, the rule of law and Czech integration into Western international institutions, be it NATO or the European Union.”
The Ambassador also highlighted Havel’s ties to Oxford, saying, “There are faculty in Oxford whom he knew very well and for whom he had a very high regard.”
Among them were the late philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, as well as Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European studies, “who was a witness of the revolutionary events in 1989 and became a friend and confidant of Havel.”
In October 1998, the President received an honorary Doctorate of Civil Law from the University.
At that time the playwright-statesman also attended a ceremony at Magdalen College and conferred honours on a number of Oxford academics for their work in establishing an underground education network in Czechoslovakia, facilitating the study of material considered subversive by the communist regime.
Roger Scruton, Visiting Professor at the Department of Philosophy and Fellow of Blackfriars Hall, was awarded the Medal of Merit (First Class) of the Czech Republic. In the mid-1980s, he had been arrested by communist authorities and placed on the ‘Index of Undesirable Persons’.
Prof Scruton told Cherwell, “Havel is one of the few examples of somebody who emerged as a leader of his nation without having that ambition and without having any desire for power at all. He is a symbol of another type of politics.
“He was an ordinary, decent person motivated by conscience rather than a desire to control things. He stands as a symbol of an honourable politics that the Czechs wish their country to represent.”
Former President of Magdalen and Chairman of the Jan Hus Educational Foundation that established the underground university, Anthony Smith, was “delighted to know that Oxford is commemorating Havel.”
Kryštof Vosátka, President of OUCSS, commented, “The lessons of Václav Havel continue to resonate even as many countries, including ours, often turn a blind eye to the transgression of human rights in seeking economic advantage.
“His legacy is that of firmness in the face of blatant injustice and oppression, a firmness which never resorts to violence yet remains vocal and persistent.”
Mr Vosátka also sees a wider significance in having a monument to Havel at Oxford. He added, “The freedom to study anywhere in the world, including the famous English universities, is one of the important outcomes of the Velvet Revolution.
“Among other things, Havel’s Place is thus an expression of the right to pursue good education, which Havel recognised as the necessary part of any society.
“Its significance in Oxford derives also from Havel’s unfaltering defence of the principle of human rights, along with his personal example of intelligent, non-violent political dissent against authoritarian interests: Oxford being one of the global centres of studying and debating politics, we believe that this modest memorial is more than suitable here.”
The Chancellor of the University, Lord Patten, said, “I was delighted to hear about the unveiling of “Havel’s Place” in Oxford. Vaclav Havel was one of the bravest champions of pluralism and democracy in Europe in the second half of the last century. The triumph of liberal pluralism over authoritarianism was the result of the courageous actions of Havel and others like him.
“When I say that, however, I should also add that there were not many like him because, as well as his political actions, he wrote brilliantly about his ideals. Wherever people campaign and fight for freedom Havel offers inspiration and encouragement – and that includes Hong Kong today.”