Martin Butora: Heroes

Source: The Freedom Collection /

Martin Bútora is a Slovak sociologist, writer, civil society activist and former diplomat. He was born in Bratislava in 1944. He studied sociology and philosophy at Bratislava’s Comenius University and at Charles University in Prague.
In the late 1960s, he was a writer and editor for several student newspapers that advocated reforms in communist Czechoslovakia. After the August 1968 Soviet invasion ended the Prague Spring period of liberalization, Martin worked as a sociologist and therapist, continuing to write for underground publications. In November 1989, Martin was one of the cofounders of Public Against Violence, a Slovak civic political and movement. Along with its Czech counterpart Civic Forum, Public Against Violence organized the peaceful mass demonstrations that brought down Czechoslovakia’s communist regime in what became known as the Velvet Revolution.
With the restoration of democracy in Czechoslovakia, Martin continued his engagement in public affairs. Between 1990 and 1992, he served as Human Rights Advisor to President Vaclav Havel and Director of the Human Rights Section in the president’s office.
Following the 1993 division of the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Martin turned his attention to teaching and civil society. In 1997, he founded the Institute for Public Affairs, a Bratislava think tank. He was a leader in Slovak civil society’s efforts to defeat autocratic Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar in the 1998 parliamentary elections. The civil society voter education and motivation campaigns helped convince nearly 85 percent of eligible voters to take part and secured a majority for a democratic and pro-reform government.
From 1999 to 2003, he served as Slovakia’s Ambassador to the United States, where he played a key role in securing his country’s membership in NATO. He ran as an independent candidate in Slovakia’s 2004 presidential elections.
Martin currently works as the Honorary President of the Institute for Public Affairs and Program Director of the institute’s European Integration and Transatlantic Relations program.

If I could start at home, my heroes would be the great personalities of the Slovak and Czechoslovak history. Certainly Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, because he was a man of enormous charisma, he could give it to you straight, he was able to face great challenges, he was a great unifier, he was able to unite many people around him, he was able to think ahead, he was a man who said that “we need 50 years to firmly anchor this democracy”, all of which is still true today. [Tomas Garrigue Marsaryk was the founder and first president of Czechoslovakia.
He was elected to four terms in office, serving from 1918 to 1935.] And in this sense he was the founder of Czechoslovakia, half-Slovak, and certainly he took some steps that are difficult to agree with, but he was a great charismatic personality that the communists later totally erased or tried to erase. I think that Havel’s presidency basically continued this Masaryk tradition and in this sense Václav, I mean Václav Havel, President Havel was a man who was very close to me personally. After I completed my activities as the advisor to the federal president, we met often, not only with me but also with other friends from Slovakia, we went there regularly.
After the elections in ‘98, his first informal trip was to Slovakia, which was organized by civil society – so these contacts lasted, simply these contacts lasted for a long time. Incidentally, the last public appearance that Václav Havel participated in was the day when he saw Dalai Lama at noon and then in the afternoon he received the Ján Langoš Human Rights Award. When it comes to people from abroad, ever since my childhood I felt somehow close to America, maybe it is because I had a lot of relatives there, or because as a teenager I watched the Second World War and I really rooted for the allies, it was amazing when the Americans joined the war.
So America spoke to me in many ways, whether it was the American culture, or perhaps this never ending process of new beginnings, this ability to say “Yes, we fell, but we raise the flag and move on”, this ability to have a combination of a great enormous vision on one hand that comes again and again, once it is the Great Society, then it is the New Frontier, another time it is simply a contribution to helping democracy around the world, and which also combined a certain ability to do things with such pragmatism. So in this sense America inspired me a great deal, those people from America that were important to me, you could say, I would name a few, there were several American presidents, they certainly included Martin Luther King with his idea of continuing the American dream, his own version.
So if I am to talk about the civil or political leaders, those were the people who inspired me, gave me something, and then had this unbelievable sensibility and this, I’d say, impulse to say to people what needed to be said, how to talk to people, and also how it was necessary to reiterate that there are some material values that cannot be neglected, that cannot be violated – and also John Paul II. It was his “Don’t be afraid” with his key message that he also said in Slovakia; almost a million people took the pilgrimage. He did not say, “Don’t be afraid of [authoritarian Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir] Mečiar”, he said what the Holy Father and Priest has to say, based on the Bible, of course. “Don’t be afraid”, and that was an amazing message and he was quite brilliant, in this sense of the word, really brilliant.

The Vaclav Havel Center