The Czechs have a saying that roughly translates “truth will prevail” and is attributed as far back as Jan Hus, the 15th Century rebel who, 100 years before Luther, protested against a form of nepotism practiced by the Catholic church and for his trouble was burned at the stake. When Havel talks about “living in truth,” is he suggesting that we should be prepared to martyr ourselves for a cause we feel is just? This is tricky territory, especially where it concerns the fault-line of countries caught behind the Iron Curtain at the razor edge between east and west (from the Baltic countries south through Poland, what was then Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and south from there).
Havel declared that the forced expulsion of nearly three million Czech Germans (among them the mother and grandmother of my German first wife) after WWII was an inhuman act carried out on dubious moral grounds, a view that was politically unpopular in his homeland where the Germans were routinely blamed for “so many horrible things that have happened to this little nation… “ My current wife, born to Latvian parents, has a relative who as a boy was sent with his mother to a Gulag in
Siberia (for no other reason than having been in the wrong place at the wrong time). The boy and his mother survived only because the boy quickly learned to be adept at catching rabbits. Upon their return in the 1950s they were not welcomed. They were certainly not greeted as returning heroes. If anything, they were seen as competitors for restricted resources and resented when they sought to reclaim property.
Havel suggested that the best way out of that cycle of hatred and vengeance was to practice forgiving those we feel have wronged us, that is, if they ask to be forgiven.
Forgiveness is easy to practice when it’s merely theoretical. Suppose you were born a decade or two after the close of WWII. You are aware of your parents’ stories. In many cases, aware of their forced extraction from their homeland. Let’s say that you go there, to one of those former Eastern bloc countries, to what was once your parents’ home. You have something at stake. Perhaps you want to repatriate, to live in the land that speaks the language you learned in the home growing up. And there, in a position of power, say, the Minister of Defense, is, very publicly, the person you have learned was once in charge of guards in the prison where your father was brutally tortured. The perpetrators of the atrocities that ruined your parents’ lives are now owners of privilege, wealth, and power. They have not paid for their crimes, nor is it likely they will. What do you do?
Do you forgive them? What if they don’t want to be forgiven? What if they refuse to acknowledge that their actions were crimes against humanity, not to mention against your family? Do you forgive them anyway? Won’t this seem tantamount to doing nothing, and if you then seek the benefits of their office, does that make you complicit?
Whose truth should prevail?