Václav Havel
Václav Havel

The Havel Issue: A Lasting Stain on Van den Broek's Record

In the blog series Wandelingen door de Handelingen (Walks through the Bulletin), researchers from the Centre for Parliamentary History (CPG) report on their research into the 1980s. This time, Hilde Reiding writes about the Havel issue.

Hilde Reiding[1]

"What does the government consider more important: freedom of speech here in the country or good relations with a regime that suppresses that freedom?"[2] This question, posed by MP Frits Bolkestein (VVD), seemed to be at the heart of a principled debate between the government and parliament on 21 October 1986. The reality, however, was more complex, with another important question at play in the background: how far did ministerial responsibility for the Royal Family actually extend? Did it extend to what members of the Royal Family said themselves or also to statements made by third parties in their presence at a public meeting? Were politically sensitive statements allowed on occasions where members of the Royal Family played a ceremonial role, or could organisers and speakers be required to observe certain limits in this?

Battle Over the Erasmus Prize 

The reason for all the commotion was the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation's intention to award the Erasmus Prize for 1986 to Charta 77, a Czechoslovak dissident movement that fought for human rights despite severe repression by the communist regime. The movement garnered much admiration in the Netherlands, and the cabinet also had much sympathy for its aims. Yet the plan to award Charta 77 with this prize put the foreign minister in a dilemma. 

Cold War tensions played a decisive role in many foreign policy issues during these years. One of the constantly recurring dilemmas facing the Netherlands in relation to the Eastern Bloc countries concerned the issue of whether or not to denounce human rights violations. Promoting human rights was an essential part of foreign policy, but so was achieving a degree of relaxation between East and West. Raising the issue of repression in Eastern European dictatorships was extremely sensitive and could negatively affect mutual relations, so each time, a careful trade-off had to be made between voicing or withholding criticism. Sometimes, it took little effort to strike the right balance, but at times, political discussions arose. The issue surrounding the awarding and presentation of the Erasmus Prize was a glaring example. 

The problems arose when it was leaked that Foreign Minister Hans van den Broek (CDA) did not agree with the choice of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation. Prince Bernhard was regent of the Foundation and was to present the prize in the presence of members of the Royal Family, so the board informed Van den Broek in advance. As it was a politically sensitive nomination, Van den Broek objected: the Royal Family should under no circumstances get involved in international political entanglements. Awarding the Erasmus Prize to Charta 77 was, therefore, not possible as far as he was concerned. [3]

Consultations between the minister and the Foundation led to a compromise devised by Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers.[4] Would it not be possible to award the prize to a person who could symbolise Charta 77? Thoughts turned to playwright and essayist Václav Havel, who was considered one of Charta's most prominent representatives. Thus, it was decided that Havel was awarded the prize, according to the Foundation's formal statement, because his work was "supported by the ideals of European culture, including concern for human rights and humanist values."[5] Meanwhile, the relationship with the Czechoslovak dissident movement was evident to all. Even Havel himself left no doubt that he saw the prize as a tribute to Charta 77 and not as a personal award. Accordingly, he would make the sum of money that was due to him as a laureate of the Erasmus Prize available to Charta.[6]

Minister van Buitenlandse Zaken Hans van den Broek bij een begrotingsdebat in 1986.
Minister van Buitenlandse Zaken Hans van den Broek bij een begrotingsdebat in 1986. Bron: Nationaal Archief, Anefo.

A Political Defeat 

The presentation of the Erasmus Prize finally took place on 13 November 1986. Havel could not attend in person because he might not be able to return after leaving his country. Two of his Charta friends represented him at the ceremony in Rotterdam's St Laurenskerk. Sweden-based Charta spokesman František Janouch accepted the award, and actor Jan Tryska, exiled from Czechoslovakia, delivered Havel's acceptance speech on his behalf.

The ceremony, however, had been preceded by much more. After he had been presented with the draft text of Havel's acceptance speech, Minister Van den Broek objected to certain passages. He was known to be very precise regarding ministerial responsibility for members of the Royal Family, and he did not allow Havel to represent Charta explicitly in their presence. The Erasmus Prize was, first and foremost, a cultural prize, and a "wholly political speech" did not suit it. He was not concerned with avoiding criticism of the Czechoslovak authorities, but the Head of State should not get involved. This was a matter of principle, mainly because of precedent, and he believed that if the phrases in question were not deleted, then the Royal Family could not be present.[7]  

The board of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation wanted to avoid that situation but also struggled internally over what concessions it was willing to accept to that end. Part of the board was outraged by the request to amend the text, and soon, news of Van den Broek's intervention thus leaked out. It led to a wave of criticism from the media and also from MPs. Coalition party VVD asked the government a series of critical questions on 21 October 1986, and other MPs also expressed their concerns about the course of events. Had the minister committed censorship for fear of damaging good relations with Czechoslovakia? And was someone who fought for freedom of speech in his own country now being denied free speech in the Netherlands? That was unacceptable.

There were also hesitations in the cabinet about the appropriateness of Van den Broek's intervention. This was already evident during the parliamentary debate, where Prime Minister Lubbers was speaking because of Van den Broek's commitments abroad. One could wonder, he admitted, whether, in retrospect, the choice of Havel instead of Charta had been "sufficiently thought through in the sense that a somewhat artificial caesura was about to occur". The fact that tensions had come out in the matter was "proof that something is askew", and he regretted that.[8] Van den Broek resented Lubbers for not standing up for him more and for not bringing the aspect of ministerial responsibility more clearly to the fore in the Chamber. He felt that the parliamentary debate had unfairly put his performance "in a somewhat questionable light".[9]

That did not alter the fact that he had to accept the Chamber's verdict. The Council of Ministers on 24 October debated the question of what was wise in the circumstances. Unanimously, other ministers felt that the cabinet had ended up in an extremely unfortunate position. Several cabinet members felt that Van den Broek went too far in his interpretation of ministerial responsibility. It was unrealistic to assume that in a pluralistic society with a high degree of freedom of expression, the Head of State could always be shielded from political statements, thought Cees van Dijk (CDA, Home Affairs). Frits Korthals Altes (VVD, Justice) also pointed this out. Given the Dutch tradition and that of the Royal Family in matters such as freedom of speech and human rights, he found it "difficult to see why restraint should be exercised here in particular."[10] The conclusion that it was better to comply with the Chamber's wish was unanimous. 

Van den Broek remained convinced he was right but had no choice but to acquiesce. The adjustments he had desired were undone, and Havel's speech was recited in full on 13 November. There was applause in the church when Tryska expressed that, in his view, appreciation for Havel's work also included appreciation for Charta.[11]


Uitreiking Erasmusprijs aan Tsjechische toneelschrijver en essayist Václav Havel.
Uitreiking Erasmusprijs aan Tsjechische toneelschrijver en essayist Václav Havel. De prijs wordt door prins Bernhard overhandigd aan František Janouch. Bron: Nationaal Archief, Anefo, Rob Croes

Renewed Attention After 1989

The settlement of the issue was very painful for Van den Broek in several ways. Not only had he had to give in to pressure to have the controversial passage read out, but he also had to endure the public scorn and humiliation of Lubbers' not-so-open reprimand. Unfortunately for him, the ordeal continued as the media seemed unable to get enough of the issue. Especially when Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia after the fall of the communist regime in 1989, the affair received renewed attention. "The Dutch government would do well to immediately invite President Havel for a state visit to our country," wrote the NRC Handelsblad, "because precisely now, when President Václav Havel so aptly personifies the regained 'free word' in Czechoslovakia, our country could wipe away an ugly stain in its relationship with Havel in particular and freedom of expression in general."[12]

This was also the opinion of Doeke Eisma, D66's foreign affairs spokesperson in the Lower House. Wouldn't it be good if the foreign minister invited Havel to visit our country "as a kind of compensation for then", he asked Van den Broek when debating the ministry's budget.[13] "I wonder, chairman," sighed the minister in his response, exasperated, "whether this will ever come to an end one day." It bothered him immensely that four years after the event, the events surrounding the awarding of the Erasmus Prize were now being revived. Not only was the persistent suggestion that censorship had been committed at the time incorrect in his view, but he also felt it was not in the interest of the image of the Netherlands to perpetuate the myth that the foreign minister was 'not clean on that score'.[14]

According to media reports, even the Czechoslovak president himself had not forgotten Van den Broek's conduct. When Havel visited the Netherlands at the end of 1991 as part of a tour of Europe, he did not mention Van den Broek's name once in his press conference, while Van den Broek's predecessor in foreign affairs, Max van der Stoel (PvdA) received full praise. There were also words of appreciation for Lubbers, Queen Beatrix and the members of the committee that awarded him the Erasmus Prize in 1986.[15] Whatever Van den Broek did, the Havel issue remained a stain on his political record that would not soon be forgotten.

Literature reference

[1] Met dank voor het advies van Johan van Merriënboer.

[2] Handelingen II 1985/87, 21 oktober 1986, p. 13-636 (https://zoek.officielebekendmakingen.nl/0000106625).

[3] Voor een uiteenzetting van de gebeurtenissen, zie ook: Floribert Baudet, ‘Het heeft onze aandacht’. Nederland en de rechten van de mens in Oost-Europa en Joegoslavië, 1972-1989 (Amsterdam 2001), p. 197-199.

[4] ‘Erasmusprijs voor Havel’, Het Parool, 23 januari 1986; NA, notulen MR, 24 oktober 1986.

[5] ‘Erasmus-prijs gaat naar Charta-auteur Vaclav Havel’, de Volkskrant, 23 januari 1986.

[6] ‘Havel komt niet naar prijsuitreiking’, NRC Handelsblad, 24 januari 1986.

[7] NA, notulen MR, 24 oktober 1986.

[8] Handelingen II 1986/87, 21 oktober 1986, p. 13-643 (https://zoek.officielebekendmakingen.nl/0000106625).

[9] Handelingen II 1986/87, 28 oktober 1986, p. 16-835 (https://zoek.officielebekendmakingen.nl/0000106628).

[10] NA, notulen MR, 24 oktober 1986.

[11] ‘Kwestie Havel blijft knagen aan geweten Van den Broek’, Trouw, 21 maart 1991.

[12] Gijsbert van Es, ‘Invitatie aan president Havel zou een smet wegnemen’, NRC Handelsblad, 29 december 1990.

[13] Handelingen II 1989/90, 23 januari 1990, p. 30-1468. (https://zoek.officielebekendmakingen.nl/0000035216).

[14] Handelingen II 1989/90, 25 januari 1990, p. 32-1598 (https://zoek.officielebekendmakingen.nl/0000035218).

[15] ‘Van den Broek door Havel op de hak genomen’, de Volkskrant, 23 maart 1991; ‘Havel “negeert” Van den Broek’, Trouw, 23 maart 1991; ‘Lof Havel voor Van der Stoel’, Algemeen Dagblad, 23 maart 1991.

Contact information

This blog was written by Hilde Reiding as part of the research project on parliamentary history in the 1980s. 

Organizational unit
Centre for Parliamentary History