U-M community mourns the passing of Václav Havel, honorary U-M Doctor of Laws and former President of the Czech Republic


By Rachel Brichta
Dec 19, 2011 Bookmark and Share

Vaclav Havel

"I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions." -Václav Havel

The University of Michigan community was deeply saddened to learn that Václav Havel, first President of the Czech Republic, passed away on December 18, 2011. As we reflect on the life and work of this profound poet, playwright, and political figure, we remember the strong connections Havel had with the University of Michigan. On September 5, 2000, Havel was awarded an honorary doctor of laws degree. Following the degree ceremony, President Havel participated in a panel discussion titled "Globalization's Intellectual Challenge" along with then-President Lee C. Bollinger; Jan Svejnar, Everett E. Berg Professor of Business Administration; and Glenda Dickerson, professor of theatre and drama and head of the African-American theatre minor in the School of Music. The panel was moderated by former International Institute and Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies director Michael D. Kennedy.

Below we share some photos from that event as well as text from the program that was prepared for the honorary degree ceremony.

Czech Republic President Václav Havel, renowned playwright and essayist, also is a brilliant statesman who holds and provides enormous moral and spiritual influence. Through his carefully articulated philosophy, expressed in plays, letters, speeches, and essays, he has transformed his own nation and informed the thinking of the greater international community.

President Havel, who studied drama at the Academy of Dramatic Arts, wrote for the Prague Theater on the Balustrade from 1960 to 1969. Several of his early plays were performed during Czechoslovakia's brief period of artistic and intellectual freedom known as Prague Spring. Following the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact members in 1968 and the ban on President Havel's work at home, his writings were published by the underground press and overseas, including at the University of Michigan. His critically acclaimed plays, rich in allegory and metaphor, have been performed throughout Europe and North America. He has won three prestigious Obie Awards, for Increased Difficulty, Private View, and Largo Desolato.

President Havel, a founder of the human rights organization Charter 77 and of the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Oppressed, was jailed three times for political dissent in the 1970s and 1980s. His highly principled opposition to authoritarianism inspired people throughout Eastern Europe, and when the communist regime began to crumble in 1989, he emerged as the obvious leader of the new Czechoslovakia.

President Havel's election symbolized the democratic revolutions that swept the region. He worked strenuously to preserve the unity of his country, and when it became clear that Slovakia and the Czech Republic would split, he resigned rather than preside over the dissolution. Since his 1993 election as president of the Czech Republic and reelection in 1998, President Havel has worked to promote harmony in Eastern Europe and to bring about democratic reforms.

The high regard in which President Havel is held by the world community is reflected in the numerous awards he has received for his writing, for his work on behalf of human rights, and for his contributions to cultural understanding. Honors include the Austrian State Prize for European Literature, Four Freedoms Award from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, UNESCO's International Simón Bolívar Prize, Charlemagne Prize, Indira Gandhi Prize, Philadelphia Liberty Medal, Future of Hope Award, and the J. William Fulbright Prize.

In recognition of his achievements as a writer, philosopher, and statesman, and his principled political and moral leadership, the University of Michigan is proud to present to President Václav Havel the honorary degree Doctor of Laws.


For more on Václav Havel's literary connection with the University of Michigan's Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, click here.