Havel's New Year's Address to the Nation, 1990
The dissident Czech writer Vaclav Havel endured decades of political persecution before being elected Czechoslovakia's (later divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia) first post-socialist president. That Havel, who had been imprisoned multiple times for his participation in the Prague Spring of 1968 and the signing of Charter 77 Manifesto, became president is an important indicator of the immense changes caused by the collapse of Eastern European socialism. His inaugural address to the nation in 1990 was notable for its frankness. He described the country's economy, educational system and environment as being effectively in ruins. He also used his inaugural address to promise transparency, the restoration of the country's important institutions from decades of neglect, and respect for all citizens.
Havel's New Year's Address to the Nation, 1990
My dear fellow citizens,
For forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day different
variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how
many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we
trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding in
front of us. I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too,
would lie to you.
Our country is not flourishing. The enormous creative and spiritual
potential of our nations is not being used sensibly. Entire branches of
industry are producing goods that are of no interest to anyone, while we
are lacking the things we need. A state which calls itself a workers' state
humiliates and exploits workers. Our obsolete economy is wasting the
little energy we have available. A country that once could be proud of the
educational level of its citizens spends so little on education that it ranks
today as seventy-second in the world. We have polluted the soil, rivers
and forests bequeathed to us by our ancestors, and we have today the
most contaminated environment in Europe. Adults in our country die
earlier than in most other European countries.
Allow me a small personal observation. When I flew recently to Bratislava,
I found some time during discussions to look out of the plane window. I
saw the industrial complex of Slovnaft chemical factory and the giant
Petr'alka housing estate right behind it. The view was enough for me to
understand that for decades our statesmen and political leaders did not
look or did not want to look out of the windows of their planes. No study
of statistics available to me would enable me to understand faster and
better the situation in which we find ourselves.
But all this is still not the main problem. The worst thing is that we live in
a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became
used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not
to believe in anything, to ignore one another, to care only about
ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility or
forgiveness lost their depth and dimension, and for many of us they
represented only psychological peculiarities, or they resembled goneastray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous in the era of
computers and spaceships. Only a few of us were able to cry out loudly
that the powers that be should not be all-powerful and that the special
farms, which produced ecologically pure and top-quality food just for
them, should send their produce to schools, children's homes and
hospitals if our agriculture was unable to offer them to all.
The previous regime - armed with its arrogant and intolerant ideology -
reduced man to a force of production, and nature to a tool of production.
In this it attacked both their very substance and their mutual relationship.
It reduced gifted and autonomous people, skillfully working in their own
country, to the nuts and bolts of some monstrously huge, noisy and
stinking machine, whose real meaning was not clear to anyone. It could
not do more than slowly but inexorably wear out itself and all its nuts and
When I talk about the contaminated moral atmosphere, I am not talking
just about the gentlemen who eat organic vegetables and do not look out
of the plane windows. I am talking about all of us. We had all become
used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact
and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all - though
naturally to differing extents - responsible for the operation of the
totalitarian machinery. None of us is just its victim. We are all also its cocreators.
Why do I say this? It would be very unreasonable to understand the sad
legacy of the last forty years as something alien, which some distant
relative bequeathed to us. On the contrary, we have to accept this legacy
as a sin we committed against ourselves. If we accept it as such, we will
understand that it is up to us all, and up to us alone to do something
about it. We cannot blame the previous rulers for everything, not only
because it would be untrue, but also because it would blunt the duty that
each of us faces today: namely, the obligation to act independently,
freely, reasonably and quickly. Let us not be mistaken: the best
government in the world, the best parliament and the best president,
cannot achieve much on their own. And it would be wrong to expect a
general remedy from them alone. Freedom and democracy include
participation and therefore responsibility from us all.
If we realize this, then all the horrors that the new Czechoslovak
democracy inherited will cease to appear so terrible. If we realize this,
hope will return to our hearts.
In the effort to rectify matters of common concern, we have something to
lean on. The recent period - and in particular the last six weeks of our
peaceful revolution - has shown the enormous human, moral and
spiritual potential, and the civic culture that slumbered in our society
under the enforced mask of apathy. Whenever someone categorically
claimed that we were this or that, I always objected that society is a very
mysterious creature and that it is unwise to trust only the face it presents
to you. I am happy that I was not mistaken. Everywhere in the world
people wonder where those meek, humiliated, skeptical and seemingly
cynical citizens of Czechoslovakia found the marvelous strength to shake
the totalitarian yoke from their shoulders in several weeks, and in a
decent and peaceful way. And let us ask: Where did the young people
who never knew another system get their desire for truth, their love of
free thought, their political ideas, their civic courage and civic prudence?
How did it happen that their parents -- the very generation that had been
considered lost -- joined them? How is it that so many people
immediately knew what to do and none needed any advice or instruction?
I think there are two main reasons for the hopeful face of our present
situation. First of all, people are never just a product of the external
world; they are also able to relate themselves to something superior,
however systematically the external world tries to kill that ability in them.
Secondly, the humanistic and democratic traditions, about which there
had been so much idle talk, did after all slumber in the unconsciousness
of our nations and ethnic minorities, and were inconspicuously passed
from one generation to another, so that each of us could discover them
at the right time and transform them into deeds.
We had to pay, however, for our present freedom. Many citizens perished
in jails in the 1950s, many were executed, thousands of human lives were
destroyed, hundreds of thousands of talented people were forced to leave
the country. Those who defended the honor of our nations during the
Second World War, those who rebelled against totalitarian rule and those
who simply managed to remain themselves and think freely, were all
persecuted. We should not forget any of those who paid for our present
freedom in one way or another. Independent courts should impartially
consider the possible guilt of those who were responsible for the
persecutions, so that the truth about our recent past might be fully
We must also bear in mind that other nations have paid even more dearly
for their present freedom, and that indirectly they have also paid for ours.
The rivers of blood that have flowed in Hungary, Poland, Germany and
recently in such a horrific manner in Romania, as well as the sea of blood
shed by the nations of the Soviet Union, must not be forgotten. First of all
because all human suffering concerns every other human being. But more
than this, they must also not be forgotten because it is these great
sacrifices that form the tragic background of today's freedom or the
gradual emancipation of the nations of the Soviet Bloc, and thus the
background of our own newfound freedom. Without the changes in the
Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, and the German Democratic Republic,
what has happened in our country would have scarcely happened. And if
it did, it certainly would not have followed such a peaceful course.
The fact that we enjoyed optimal international conditions does not mean
that anyone else has directly helped us during the recent weeks. In fact,
after hundreds of years, both our nations have raised their heads high of
their own initiative without relying on the help of stronger nations or
powers. It seems to me that this constitutes the great moral asset of the
present moment. This moment holds within itself the hope that in the
future we will no longer suffer from the complex of those who must
always express their gratitude to somebody. It now depends only on us
whether this hope will be realized and whether our civic, national, and
political self-confidence will be awakened in a historically new way.
Self-confidence is not pride. Just the contrary: only a person or a nation
that is self-confident, in the best sense of the word, is capable of
listening to others, accepting them as equals, forgiving its enemies and
regretting its own guilt. Let us try to introduce this kind of
self-confidence into the life of our community and, as nations, into our
behavior on the international stage. Only thus can we restore our
self-respect and our respect for one another as well as the respect of other
Our state should never again be an appendage or a poor relative of
anyone else. It is true that we must accept and learn many things from
others, but we must do this in the future as their equal partners, who also
have something to offer.
Our first president wrote: "Jesus, not Caesar." In this he followed our
philosophers Chelick and Komensk. I dare to say that we may even have
an opportunity to spread this idea further and introduce a new element
into European and global politics. Our country, if that is what we want,
can now permanently radiate love, understanding, the power of the spirit
and of ideas. It is precisely this glow that we can offer as our specific
contribution to international politics.
Masaryk based his politics on morality. Let us try, in a new time and in a
new way, to restore this concept of politics. Let us teach ourselves and
others that politics should be an expression of a desire to contribute to
the happiness of the community rather than of a need to cheat or rape
the community. Let us teach ourselves and others that politics can be not
simply the art of the possible, especially if this means the art of
speculation, calculation, intrigue, secret deals and pragmatic
maneuvering, but that it can also be the art of the impossible, that is, the
art of improving ourselves and the world.
We are a small country, yet at one time we were the spiritual crossroads
of Europe. Is there a reason why we could not again become one? Would
it not be another asset with which to repay the help of others that we are
going to need?
Our homegrown Mafia, those who do not look out of the plane windows
and who eat specially fed pigs, may still be around and at times may
muddy the waters, but they are no longer our main enemy. Even less so is
our main enemy any kind of international Mafia. Our main enemy today is
our own bad traits: indifference to the common good, vanity, personal
ambition, selfishness, and rivalry. The main struggle will have to be
fought on this field.
There are free elections and an election campaign ahead of us. Let us not
allow this struggle to dirty the so-far clean face of our gentle revolution.
Let us not allow the sympathies of the world, which we have won so fast,
to be equally rapidly lost through our becoming entangled in the jungle
of skirmishes for power. Let us not allow the desire to serve oneself to
bloom once again under the stately garb of the desire to serve the
common good. It is not really important now which party, club or group
prevails in the elections. The important thing is that the winners will be
the best of us, in the moral, civic, political and professional sense,
regardless of their political affiliations. The future policies and prestige of
our state will depend on the personalities we select, and later, elect to
our representative bodies.
My dear fellow citizens!
Three days ago I became the president of the republic as a consequence
of your will, expressed through the deputies of the Federal Assembly.
You have a right to expect me to mention the tasks I see before me as
The first of these is to use all my power and influence to ensure that we
soon step up to the ballot boxes in a free election, and that our path
toward this historic milestone will be dignified and peaceful.
My second task is to guarantee that we approach these elections as two
self-governing nations who respect each other's interests, national
identity, religious traditions, and symbols. As a Czech who has given his
presidential oath to an important Slovak who is personally close to him, I
feel a special obligation -- after the bitter experiences that Slovaks had in
the past -- to see that all the interests of the Slovak nation are respected
and that no state office, including the highest one, will ever be barred to
it in the future.
My third task is to support everything that will lead to better
circumstances for our children, the elderly, women, the sick, the
hardworking laborers, the national minorities and all citizens who are for
any reason worse off than others. High-quality food or hospitals must no
longer be a prerogative of the powerful; they must be available to those
who need them the most.
As supreme commander of the armed forces I want to guarantee that the
defensive capability of our country will no longer be used as a pretext for
anyone to stand in the way of courageous peace initiatives, the reduction
of military service, the establishment of alternative military service and
the overall humanization of military life.
In our country there are many prisoners who, though they may have
committed serious crimes and have been punished for them, have had to
submit -- despite the goodwill of some investigators, judges and above
all defense lawyers -- to a debased judiciary process that curtailed their
rights. They now have to live in prisons that do not strive to awaken the
better qualities contained in every person, but rather humiliate them and
destroy them physically and mentally. In a view of this fact, I have
decided to declare a relatively extensive amnesty. At the same time I call
on the prisoners to understand that forty years of unjust investigations,
trials and imprisonments cannot be put right overnight, and to
understand that the changes that are being speedily prepared still require
time to implement. By rebelling, the prisoners would help neither society
nor themselves. I also call on the public not to fear the prisoners once
they are released, not to make their lives difficult, to help them, in the
Christian spirit, after their return among us to find within themselves that
which jails could not find in them: the capacity to repent and the desire to
live a respectable life.
My honorable task is to strengthen the authority of our country in the
world. I would be glad if other states respected us for showing
understanding, tolerance and love for peace. I would be happy if Pope
John Paul II and the Dalai Lama of Tibet could visit our country before the
elections, if only for a day. I would be happy if our friendly relations with
all nations were strengthened. I would be happy if we succeeded before
the elections in establishing diplomatic relations with the Vatican and
Israel. I would also like to contribute to peace by briefly visiting our close
neighbors, the German Democratic Republic and the Federal Republic of
Germany. Neither shall I forget our other neighbors -- fraternal Poland
and the ever-closer countries of Hungary and Austria.
In conclusion, I would like to say that I want to be a president who will
speak less and work more. To be a president who will not only look out of
the windows of his airplane but who, first and foremost, will always be
present among his fellow citizens and listen to them well.
You may ask what kind of republic I dream of. Let me reply: I dream of a
republic independent, free, and democratic, of a republic economically
prosperous and yet socially just; in short, of a humane republic that
serves the individual and that therefore holds the hope that the individual
will serve it in turn. Of a republic of well-rounded people, because
without such people it is impossible to solve any of our problems --
human, economic, ecological, social, or political.
The most distinguished of my predecessors opened his first speech with
a quotation from the great Czech educator Komensk. Allow me to
conclude my first speech with my own paraphrase of the same statement:
People, your government has returned to you!
Source: Vaclav Havel, "New Year's Address to the Nation," speech,
Czechoslovakia, January 1, 1990, Czech Republic Presidential Website,
Speeches, http://old.hrad.cz/president/Havel/speeches/ (accessed March
Vaclav Havel, "New Year's Address to the Nation," speech, Czechoslovakia, January 1, 1990, Czech Republic Presidential Website, Speeches Czech Republic (accessed March 1, 2007).