Vaclav Havel: In Czech Hearts He Lives On

David Sedlecký // CC 4.0

“If you have obtained a permit from the organizing committee, you may also dance a little, namely on the Grand Parquet A between half past eleven and twelve or between a quarter to one and half past two as well. Before that, the Grand Parquet is actually reserved for the Methodical Dissolution Section, in between for the Dissolution Commission and afterwards for the Delimitation Sub-Commission,” the secretary explains to the visitor. And the secretary adds: “If you want to use some funny items, such as paper hats, funny cardboard noses or others, you can get them from the secretary of your shop-section and enjoy them in the surroundings of the Small Parquet C.”

After this scene from his first play The Garden Party (1963), which can cause a loss of one’s desire to celebrate, the audience should already know, how to rate the author. Václav Havel, for what is sure, had generally no great respect towards authorities, certainly not for the bureaucratic authorities of the “very real socialism” that ruled over in his homeland.

By using the stylistic means of the modern Theatre of the Absurd along with various word games, he held up a mirror to the powerful ones.

Admirable Family

How could it be otherwise? His family background alone must have brought him into conflict with the regime. He came from an upper-class background, from a family that combined pioneering spirit connected to industry with a sense of non-conformist creativity.

His grandfather Vácslav Havel was not only the founder of a large construction company, to whom we owe the oldest still-existing cinema in Prague called Lucerna (opened in 1909), but he also stood out as an author of esoteric books about spiritualism under the pseudonym “Atom” (Book of Life, 1920). He was virtually the first writer in the family. And no one could ever say that he belonged to mainstream.

In 1921, the father Václav (Maria) Havel together with his brother Miloš founded the Barrandov Studios, which until today belong to the largest and most important film studios in Europe. He was also a convinced republican and a friend of the first president of the Czechoslovak Republic, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.

In short: the future writer, dissident and president Václav Havel was born in 1936 into a family that represented a favorable environment, where he potentially could have realized his creative potential.

However, fate had other plans and these were not easy. The communists, who seized power in 1948, expropriated the family’s companies. Because of his “bourgeois” background, Havel is denied access to higher education. He does an apprenticeship and passes his graduation exams at a night school. His attempt to study arts and humanities is prohibited by those in power as well. He is forced to study transport economics, but is eventually expelled as well.

At this time, he again applies for admission to the Academy of Musical Arts, yet without success. At least he manages to get some magazines to publish several reviews of his work.

The Prague Spring and Its End

For the moment, however, he has to work as a stage worker and a lighting technician in the small Theatre on the Balustrade. The small booth, where he operated with the spotlights, was later rebuilt into a “presidential loge” after 1989, in his honor.

However, there still remains a reason for hope. In 1960s, the communist government agreed on some liberalizing policy steps. Havel stages his first play in the Theatre on the Balustrade about dissidents who cannot get a job in any large theatre. The “Garden Party” was followed in 1965 by “The Memorandum“, a play that could nowadays be understood as a parody of political correct language. He was even allowed to take part in a distance-learning course in dramaturgy and passed his exams in 1966.

Havel became even more courageous, when the government during the Prague Spring in 1968 declared freedom of speech and the press. Along with his fellow writers he establishes the Club of Independent Writers standing in the opposition towards the official communist-controlled association of writers. Under his leadership, the club immediately sends a letter to the party’s Central Committee demanding a quicker democratization of the country.

When the troops of the Warsaw Pact ends the liberalization policy of the Prague Spring in August 1968 with violence, Havel protests against it. He is banned from his profession and his publishing. Since then he has to work in a brewery as an unskilled laborer carrying beer boxes and barrels.

However, he gets into hot water with the manager of the factory. Havel has a soft spot for fancy foreign cars. The manager’s small Soviet-type car parked next to Havel’s Mercedes looks poor. Havel is no longer allowed to park in the front.

Charter 77

He continues to write plays having little chance of reaching wide Czech audience. Nevertheless, his plays are gaining more and more attention on stages in Western Europe and become successful there. He receives various prices for literature (yet, he is not allowed to take them). This international popularity later becomes part of his political capital.

The invasion in no way discourages him, he remains faithful to dissent. The last straw for him is the arrest of the members of an anti-establishment band Plastic People of the Universe that happens on the open stage in Prague in 1976. Havel along with a group of like-minded people writes a petition. There they describe the regime as “a system, where all institutions and organizations are subordinated to the political directives of the ruling party apparatus and to the decisions of power-hungry individuals”. Charter 77 is born.

The Charter leads to a formation of an opposition movement of the same name, which refers to the commitment of the Warsaw Pact countries to the Helsinki Final Act (1975). This act originated in the course of the policy of détente. The signers are obliged to respect “human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief with no distinction regarding race, sex, language or religion”.

The Charter is published in Western press in January 1977, which creates pressure on the government whenever they cross the line.

The regime soon becomes aware of this – especially because Havel is regarded internationally as a symbol of resistance. When the Dutch Foreign Minister Max van der Stoel comes to Prague for a visit in February, he introduces a certain kind of “double diplomacy” for the first time.

In addition to the official meeting with the state leadership, the politician meets unofficially with the dissidents as well. Since Havel is detained by the police, the philosopher Jan Patočka meets with van der Stoel instead. The police finds out about it and Patočka’s brutal interrogation results in his death.

However, this does not scare off the courageous Western politicians from the dialogue with dissidents, which is undesirable for the regime. This sense of belonging helps Havel as well. Shortly afterwards Patočka’s death, Havel is sentenced to three years’ imprisonment on probation.

Nevertheless, since he proceeds in fighting for democracy, he is sentenced to four and a half year in prison with immediate execution. He bravely refuses an offer to leave for America in exchange of his silence. In prison, his health deteriorates significantly. Eventually, the political pressure from the West contributes to his earlier release in 1983.

The Regime Crumbles

Free again, Havel plunges back into the political life. Among other things, he helps to found the (formally illegal) journal Lidové noviny. In the meantime, not only the pressure from the West increases, but also the communist regime under President Gustáv Husák has to stand by as the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev comes to power in the Soviet motherland. Husák is losing his support.

So happens, that the President Francois Mitterrand does not get disinvited by Husák, when he publicly invites Havel and other dissidents to a dinner during his state visit at the end of 1988 – unlike van der Stoel. Because of the breakfast with Havel and his co-dissidents, Mitterand even keeps Husák waiting for an hour in his presidential palace.

After that, it is one blow after another. The dissidents organize large demonstrations during Mitterand’s visit. Havel is sentenced to prison once again, but has to be released immediately. On November 17, 1989, the Velvet Revolution begins with large demonstrations.

A few days later, the opposition alliance Civic Forum (inspired by Havel), forces the formation of a new government in which the communists no longer have any majority. In December 1989, Husák falls into oblivion and Havel becomes the first non-communist president since 1948. He is the only logical and most obvious candidate for the Office.

In following years, the first free parliamentary elections take place, in which the democratic forces win with great superiority. Shortly afterwards, Havel is elected president again. He continues to be an agenda-setter. He promotes the integration of the country into the West – NATO and EU. He speaks for the recognition of the suffering of Germans, who were banished from the Czechoslovakia after the World War II. This attitude results in criticism, which he faces with courage.

He perceives the dissolution of Czechoslovakia on January, 1st in 1993 as a defeat. Nevertheless, shortly afterwards he becomes the first president of the Czech Republic. After his re-election in 1998, he stays in office until 2003. At this point, he cannot run for another election because of the constitution, which only allows two election periods.

As a President he also represents unpopular positions. In order to protect human rights, he supports both the war mission of NATO in Kosovo (1999) and the invasion of Iraq (2003).

Finally, from the position of a symbolic figure, he continues to fight for human rights and democracy in his retirement as well. He dedicates himself to Chinese politics by receiving Dalai Lama or by travelling to politically isolated Taiwan, whose UN membership he supported already as a president in 1995. He establishes international human rights networks such as Forum 2000.

Icon of Human Rights

When he dies on December, 18 2011 – 10 years ago – the citizens of the Czech Republic and throughout the world are mourning. His significance continues to have an effect even after his death. The Václav Havel’s legacy can be seen on an example of the recent parliamentary election, where the Czech resistance to national populism and its strong democratic culture has been shown.

He continues to be a guiding star of all democratic forces, which inspires fundamental political decisions in the Czech Republic. In recent years, Havel’s successor, the power-conscious Official Miloš Zeman, tried to move the country’s foreign policy closer to China and Putin’s Russia. In the end, a strongly value-driven foreign policy prevailed.

The country remains self-confident especially with regard to China. Despite all Chinese protests, Prague entered into partnership with Taipei. Furthermore, the President of the Senate Miloš Vystrčil officially visited Taiwan, where he used these notable words: “I am a Taiwanese!” – all of this amid vigorous Chinese protests.

One shows a line to the authoritarians of this world. That corresponds entirely with Havel’s spirit and indicates that this spirit still lives in the Czech politics.

Another example of the Czechs’ enduring love for Havel is a very touching film Havel directed by Slávek Horák with Viktor Dvořák playing the leading part, which resulted in a huge success in 2020.

Even beyond the country’s borders, he has become an icon of all fighters for human rights. In Brussels (a place suitable for a convinced European, indeed), a monument in his honor was erected recently. In the Czech Republic, there are plenty of them, obviously. There is a strong reason to hope that as long as the memory of Havel lives, the idea of human rights lives as well.

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Detmar Doering
Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom