The Road to a Presidency
“I’ll never forget that taxi driver in Munich, who drove me home from Radio Free Europe headquarters not long after Havel moved into his new residence in the Castle of Prague. As soon as he learned that I was from Czechoslovakia, he began to speak of our president with such passionate enthusiasm that I had to ask: what is it that you like so much about this Havel? His answer was very simple: your president is such a trustworthy person that you can even believe him when he is speaking as a politician.” This telling anecdote was related by Lída Rakušanová, my former mentor at the Czechoslovak section of Radio Free Europe, in her mourning address broadcast on the Czech radio on the day of Havel’s death.
This level of trustworthiness noted by the taxi driver is rare indeed, if not unique. And not only in politics (though it is perhaps especially rare in the political realm). Trustworthiness is a rare virtue in the world of theatre, journalism, and “amateur philosophy” (Havel considered himself an “amateur philosopher”); in fact, it was rare even among the “professional” dissidents who turned against the repressive regime. A person of Havel’s character is formed by a unique mixture of culturally and “genetically” inherited characteristics and the social milieu.
We might think that a person of such strong, formidable character must be equally “respectable” and “imposing” in his appearance, in his gestures; he must be of impressive stature, one who gazes bravely and unﬂinchingly into a ﬁerce and shining future, etc. But our hero was just the opposite. Lída, in this same radio commemoration, described him as follows: “…above all, however, he was a conspicuously decent, extremely modest person, almost shy, who nevertheless possessed enormous charisma.” Like others, I was surprised when I met him face to face, just two weeks before the Velvet Revolution, in the foyer of the Divadlona zábradlí, Havel’s “mother theatre” in Prague.
That same day in Wrocław, a large-scale meeting, the ﬁrst of its kind, was held between Czechoslovak dissidents and Czechoslovak émigrés (who by that time were able to enter Poland freely). But most of those coming to Wrocław from Czechoslovakia itself were turned back at the Polish border; this was one of thelast, desperate actions of the infamous Stb (the Czechoslovak Communist secret police). On that day, at the Prague theatre, Havel and I were introduced to each other (up to that time, we had spoken over the phone a few times), and I found myself meeting a man a head shorter than I, soft-spoken, with a gentle gaze, but magnetic personality.
It was obvious that, among all the people who were present, no one took very seriously the potential reprisals against those who had been turned back at the border; the regime’s impending collapse was already in the air. Even in this noisy and excited environment, Havel behaved quietly and with restraint, yet nearly everyone hung on his every word, his every move.
Global public opinion, not to mention the “authentic” Czech and Slovak public opinion, was surprised indeed when, a few weeks after the meeting in Poland, Havel had become the undisputed leader of an enormous and spontaneous mass movement in Czechoslovakia. Exactly two months later he held his ﬁrst presidential speech, one phrase of which, “our country is not ﬂourishing”, soon became proverbial. The world’s intellectual elite, of course, had known about Havel. Since the end of the 1970s, he had received countless awards, honours and distinctions. During his imprisonments, solidarity movements were organized in his behalf; his photographs appeared on the front page of major newspapers; he often gave interviews to Western TV stations, and in the freer parts of the world his books were published and his plays staged. But at home, in his own country and in the countries of the “socialist camp”, he was known to ofﬁcial opinion (at the time, essentially the sole existing public opinion) only as a “self-appointed, doubtful character”. (In Poland and Hungary, this ofﬁcial image did not change until early 1989.)
The majority of ordinary citizens in Czechoslovakia had also heard of Havel only through this kind of news report and commentary. They knew his name, and for many, his reputation was enhanced when the ofﬁcial propaganda machine attacked him. Through Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America, they heard positive reports and even heard his voice. But very few citizens knew what he looked like and what sort of person he was – at least until 5 October 1989, Havel’s 53rd birthday. On that day, a distant friend of his named Petr Rýgr placed a classiﬁed ad in the Saturday supplement (Halo sobota) of the Communist Party newspaper Rudé Právo. In this ad, addressed to one Ferdinand Vaněk, he expressed in the name of “colleagues and friends” their thanks for Ferdinand’s hard work and their best wishes for his continued good health. The ad was accompanied, as was the custom, by a postage-stamp-sized photograph – of the informal leader of the Czechoslovak opposition. (Vaněk was the protagonist, embodying the author himself, of one-act plays written by Havel in the 1970s.) Copies of the newspaper were snatched up, half the country had a good laugh at the joke played on the censors, the newspaperman in charge of classiﬁed ads was ﬁred, and the Stb opened a ﬁle on Rýgr. Few would have believed that, just a few months later, a similar small portrait of Havel labelled “Czechoslovak Post” would grace thousands of letters and packages.
But this start to Havel’s political career, as unbelievable and miraculous as it sounds, did have precedents. In October 1986, at a seminar in Southern Germany, I ﬁrst heard Havel’s name mentioned as the future President of the Czechoslovak Republic by Pavel Tigrid, a leading member of the Czech émigré community. The seminar was held by the organization Opus Bonum, founded by Anastáz Opasek, the abbot of the Benedictine Monastery in Břevnov who had been forced into exile. During a break, Father Anastáz and Mr Tigrid placed a phone call to Havel; several of us stood by and listened excitedly. When the conversation was over, I heard Tigrid’s prediction about the future president. As I later learned, this was Tigrid’s idée ﬁxe, yet it seemed totally unbelievable to me. As to the genesis of the idea – in response to a remark that Kundera had also predicted that Havel would one day be president – Havel writes the following in his book Please be brief: “I am not surprised that Milan Kundera said such a thing. I believe he has always considered me more suited to politics than I have. And when Pavel Tigrid, in the émigré magazine Svědectví [No. 87, early 1989] wrote that I might one day be president… I thought this to be a good joke, and laughed… It was not until the days of the revolution that – if I am not mistaken – my rock musician friend Michael Kocáb began saying that I should be nominated. In summary, looking back, it seems to me that I was the last person to take this idea of the presidency seriously.”
I do not know why Havel believed this, if indeed this is what he believed. Because the fact is, for his entire life, in his own quiet, yet persistent way, in his modest yet deliberate, shy yet determined fashion, he was always organizing something, always had something cooking. He coordinated, acted as go-between, made peace, smoothed over, and generally speaking just “organized” – even as he also ﬁrmly represented his own standpoint, opinions and views. Despite his seeming clumsiness, he must have been a talented organizer from his early youth. In addition, it seems that his “nice guy” persona (about which his former classmate Miloš Forman spoke with such fond irony in a TV interview) was attractive to his friends.
He was 15 years old (in 1951, that is, during the darkest days of Stalinist repression under the Gottwald regime) when he and his friends founded the “Thirty-Sixers” club. In a 1986 interview, published in Long-Distance Interrogation, he recalled their adolescent intellectual activity: “We published typewritten newspapers, organized symposia, and even held a Congress. The Thirty-Sixers club was divided into committees (I recall the political-economic and the literary committees), and here we engaged in our ﬁrst, adolescent-style debates.” Almost all members of the club were born in 1936, hence the name. They were very young and were very eager to distance themselves not only from the mindlessness of their environment, but also the strong current of petit-bourgeois conformism that prevailed behind the theatrics of terror. All this happened between 1951 and 1953, they were playing with ﬁre, and they were lucky to get through it without being persecuted and sentenced to labour camps for their activities in this “unofﬁcial sphere”, which they had, in part, created. However, they purposely avoided overt involvement in political issues. Many members of their group would later play major roles on the Czech cultural scene. None of them became subservient to the ruling ideology, and most were largely sidelined until 1990.
At this time, Havel was writing poems and rather bombastic essays, and together with his cohorts, he tried successfully to contact the great literary personalities of the age. (Some readers may be familiar with the names of Czech poets Seifert, Holan and Nezval). Havel and his friends also sought and found connections to the representatives of the avant-garde, who had been totally excluded from “ofﬁcial” culture. In particular, they sought out members of the “42-ers Group”, disbanded in 1948 – primarily the poet-artist Jiří Kolář and Jindřich Chalupecký, the group’s theoretician. These contacts, which grew into friendships, served as a major inspiration for Havel’s later career as playwright and essayist.
Moreover, Havel’s childhood and youth were spent in an environment that was unusually inspiring and suffused with tradition. He came from a well-established, upper middle-class family of intellectuals. Later, this background would be brought up against him countless times during the Communists’ campaign of attacks beginning in 1977: that he was a so-called “millionaire kid” – naturally meant in the negative sense.
His paternal grandfather had been a major builder of his era (the late 19th and early 20th century). Among others, he built the Lucerna Palace on Wenceslas Square, a signiﬁcant ediﬁce to this day, which served as a centre of Prague’s cultural and social life during that era and later on. He was also named Václav, but it was spelled “Vácslav”. And he too had had a yen for writing and philosophy: toward the end of his life, he published (under the nom de plume Atom) a volume entitled The Book of Life. He was an adherent of modern theosophy and a practicing spiritualist.
Havel’s maternal grandfather was no less an important personage among the Czech upper bourgeoisie, which was gaining in strength during the late 19th and early 20th century. Hugo Vavrečka obtained a diploma from a technical college, then worked as a reporter, a war correspondent in the Balkans, and as an economist; he, too, published books under an assumed name. Following the First World War, he took part in the peace talks with Austria, then served as a diplomat. Between 1922 and 1926 he served as Ambassador to Hungary. Havel’s father (Václav M. Havel) was also an important builder and public ﬁgure. In Prague’s Southern district of Barrandov, he created a neighbourhood of functionalist single-family homes which constituted a deﬁning feature of the cityscape. In this neighbourhood, the future president’s uncle, the bohemian ﬁlm producer Miloš Havel, established the Barrandov Film Studio. Václav M. Havel was a friend of T. G. Masaryk, the founder of the Czechoslovak state, and together they established the Czechoslovak chapter of the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) in 1921. Beginning in 1948, Havel’s father worked as a public ofﬁcial. During the 1970s, encouraged by his sons, he wrote his memoirs, but naturally these appeared only in samizdat. (They were published in 1993.)
In every respect, the family legacy had a great effect on Havel throughout his life. (For details on this, and about other decisive inﬂuences on Havel’s intellectual background, see Martin C. Putna: Václav Havel. Spiritual Portrait within the Framework of Czech Culture.)
This legacy includes an inherently idealistic inclination toward a kind of “spiritual renewal of the world”. That is, a restless impulse that originates at the intersection of idealism, faith and knowledge. Putna paints a vivid picture of this family environment, in which the future playwright was raised: an environment surrounded by mystery and sometimes inclined toward “conspiracy” (and Václav M. Havel’s masonic activities also ﬁt into this picture). And his family’s restless impulse to “organize” would again emerge in Havel’s life during the stressful period of the 1970s and 80s, when the appeal of “world-healing” idealism and “conspiracy” bringing everything and everyone together, would play a signiﬁcant part in the formation of Charter 77 and other related movements.
Naturally, the spiritual legacy of the family manifests itself more directly and obviously in Havel’s writings: primarily in his essays, the Letters to Olga series, but also in his social (and later political) thought and, indeed, in his dramas from the 1980s. Thus, the family’s spiritual legacy is above all one of idealism – having nothing in common with positivism or materialism. Nor, however, is it truly religious. This idealism determines Havel’s categories, which he began formulating and expressing in his essays beginning in the 1970s, as means of deﬁning the major components of social and public life. More accurately, these are not categories, but rather expectations, demands, and ideals that do not express accommodation and adjustment to the ways of the world, or to the primacy of what is practicable. On the contrary: they reﬂect a tenacious intent to change (and improve) the world. (This standpoint would determine – though with varying emphases – Havel’s later attitudes toward political parties, toward the relationship between the individual and political mechanisms, political vs. apolitical politics, the relationship between the individual and power, and the responsibility of the individual for the whole.) In the 1950s, coming from a “bourgeois” background was tantamount to an existential exclusion from “normal” society, a situation which only increased the importance of family tradition and the family’s role as the purveyor of knowledge and culture. Here, a few biographical details should be recalled: beginning at age 15, Havel worked in a chemistry laboratory, but even getting this job was possible only due to connections. Meanwhile, he attended evening grammar school and graduated in 1954. Until 1957, he attempted to enrol in various humanities departments at the university, but was only allowed to attend the faculty of economics of a technical university. He left the faculty without earning a degree and was then called up by the army. From childhood, he was an avid reader, including philosophy. Through his family, he got to know many signiﬁcant writers and intellectuals (most of them conﬁned to the fringes of ofﬁcial society), including Josef Šafařík, the “lonely philosopher of Brno”, who had a great inﬂuence on Havel, and with whom he remained friends until his death.
Thus, following the “Victorious February”, that is, the Czechoslovak Communists’ putsch, a separate, parallel world of culture continued to exist – an “internal emigration”, as Havel once described it in a radio interview: the world of Holan, Kolář and Hrabal. The already established, modern middle-class and avant-garde traditions could not be wiped out from one moment to the next. Paradoxically –and Havel alludes to this in a different interview – had he simply grown up under “normal circumstances”, in the comfortable and peaceable embrace of an ordinary bourgeois family, he might have just become a well-read “golden youth” driving around in a Mercedes.
His early essays discuss intensively the works of the authors who were part of this “internal emigration”. For example, he dedicates separate essays to Kolář, Holan and – perhaps as a ﬁrst – to Hrabal, who was all but unknown at the time. The essay on Hrabal, written in January 1957, summarizes the essence of Hrabal’s poetics in a way that remains valid to this day: “Hrabal is an ordinary person who writes, not a writer who lives like an ordinary person… He does not live to write; he writes because he lives… Hrabal creates an art which does not attempt to be art, which arises out of pure human need, independent of any artistic outlook… it is as if the world had said to Hrabal: write about me – and Hrabal wrote.”
Until his years in the military, Havel did not consider writing plays. But in the engineering corps to which he belonged he organized an amateur theatre company together with a friend, and they even wrote a play. The goal was to relieve the depressing atmosphere and boredom that permeated military life (though the small beneﬁts they were entitled to when putting on a play, such as occasional permissions and leaves, were welcome). Havel and his friends did not take the whole thing seriously, but they did make it to the ﬁnal round of an army drama competition, where – probably due to the decisions of a few insightful jury members – their play was branded as anti-military.
However, this episode from the military years did lead to other things: “It was only after my time in the army that I began to take a more serious interest in the theatre, when I worked for Werich”, Havel writes in Long-Distance Interrogation. (Jan Werich, together with Jiří Voskovec, was perhaps the greatest Czech writer of short plays, and the founder of Osvobozené divadlo. In 1948, Voskovec emigrated. In the late 1950s, Werich played at the ABC Theatre together with Miroslav Horníček. It was here that Havel got a job as stagehand.) And again, his “family background” comes into play: “Again, it was my family connections that helped: Werich was an old friend of my father.” But Havel’s true start in his theatre career came in 1958 at the small theatre of Divadlona zábradlí. It was here, in this artistic milieu, that he elaborated his poetics of the stage, and became known in Czechoslovakia and abroad. On account of an article published in an – authorized – review, his job remained ofﬁcially that of a stagehand, but it was clear from the beginning that he built not only sceneries, but also dramaturgies. He spent eight decisive years there as stagehand, lighting man, dramatic advisor and secretary of the theatre company. The dramas of the ﬁrst period of his career as a playwright were produced in this inspiring environment: The Garden Party, The Memorandum and The Increased Difﬁculty of Concentration are absurd dramas questioning, in the usual bare, austere form, the meaningfulness or meaninglessness of human life – without the possibility of ﬁnding any answer.
It is this form – the theatre of the absurd – in which Havel was best able to construct his views on modern society. He himself stated that “if the theatre of the absurd had not existed, I would have had to invent it myself”. These plays present the individual’s existence as pointless and empty in an abstract, alienated world of organizations and hierarchies that appear to be in order, yet are in fact disorderly, a world which exists only for its own purposes, yet has been stripped of meaning to the point that it is merely comical. For me, the “career” of the hero (anti-hero?) of The Garden Party is relevant to this day: Pludek is motivated by conformism and the need to succeed; he appropriates and practices to perfection the expressions and twists of an empty kind of verbalizing; he immediately comprehends the messages inherent in any given situation, then carries them out in his own way. Like a machine, he proceeds through scene after scene, ingesting and digesting each message, until, in the end, he himself is ingested by the grinder and loses his identity completely. Pludek becomes an emblematic character, a symbol of deceit and emptiness.
During this period, the second half of the 1950s and the early 1960s, Havel began publishing regularly in ofﬁcially sanctioned publications. At ﬁrst, his writings were published by Květen, a magazine established in 1955 by the Union of Czechoslovakian Writers for the young generation of writers. Here, his debut consisted of a sharp critique of the magazine itself. Paradoxically, “thanks to my ﬁrst published writing, I got onto a kind of list of novice writers”, Havel says in Long-Distance Interrogation. During the political thaw of the 1960s, Havel gradually entered ofﬁcial literary life. He did not identify with the Marxists and reform Communists who dominated the ofﬁcial literary publications and the Union of Czechoslovakian Writers, established on a Soviet model, but he was able to cooperate with some of them. The Union of Writers gave him a role and, more importantly, a voice; during the 1960s, he gave speeches at several writers’ congresses that had an enormous impact.
Havel prepared for these speeches, as for all of his later public appearances, with anxious precision, great care and attention to detail. Generally, Havel was known for his systematic approach: he would use cobweb-like diagrams to outline the structure (in time and space) of his plays. His later political speeches as an opposition ﬁgure and his studies written after 1989 were always preceded by very detailed planning.
In 1964, a new magazine called Tvář was launched for the emerging new generation of writers. This was also published under the aegis of the Union of Writers, though no one on its board of editors was actually a member of the Union. Havel, who had applied for Union membership, was invited to join the editors of Tvář, who apparently hoped his future connections could be of practical use. This journal – banned a year later, in 1965, then again allowed to appear in 1968 for one more year – was one of the most important sources and products of the cultural and social fermentation of the 1960s. For Havel, the activities related to this magazine (editing, publishing, the struggle to keep the journal alive) represented the true beginning of his public life and individual commitment to social and political issues. His experiences with the journal and his role at the Na zábradlí theatre were the source of the civic, social and cultural engagement that later took shape in his life as a “dissident”, when the era of relative freedom was ended.
The “dream world” that seemed to become reality within the framework of Communism, and the Czech cultural fermentation of the 1960s (which caused smaller-scale stirrings in the political sphere) came to an end as a consequence of the stupidly merciless logic of the Soviet empire. Havel was in Liberec when the invasion of August 1968 took place. Here, he and his friends joined the peaceful resistance against the occupiers: he wrote appeals and declarations; his news analyses were broadcast on local radio and TV stations. Following the military invasion, the Czechoslovak leadership was ordered to Moscow, where all its members, seemingly without protest (with the exception of František Kriegel), signed the so-called Moscow Protocol. This act sealed the fate of the cause of freedom in Czechoslovakia for the next 20 years. This capitulation was a crucial moment for Havel. Rejection of the Czech leaders’ subservience was never a question for him. Others, however, saw this moment as a necessary step in conforming to the “Czech fate”. This debate, which divided the whole nation, found its most famous expression in the war of words between Kundera and Havel following the publication of Kundera’s essay The Czech Fate in December 1968. For a few months following the invasion, it was not yet clear whether it would be possible to preserve something of the partial liberties acquired in 1968 and during the 1960s in general: their debate, then, was about what should be done in order to preserve at least some of the fruits of the thaw of the previous era.
Kundera was sceptical from the beginning. He did not believe that any initiative by any sovereign citizen could possibly have any effect; others, however, gradually stood up against the re-emerging repression. With the ﬁrst wave of imprisonments, the ﬁrst petitions were organized. (One such petition action was later presented, with none-too-gentle irony, by Kundera in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being.)
In the period following the invasion and occupation of the country, it became evident: the popular reform-Communist leaders were unable to shake off their true identities; one by one they abandoned their commitment to relative freedom in Czechoslovakia, and “socialism with a human face”, a slogan that sounds so absurd today, gradually lost its human face as the leaders shifted positions and lost their unexpected and sudden popularity. At this point, Havel wrote a long letter to Dubček, trying to get him to step up and take a clear stand.
In this writing (as cited in Long-Distance Interrogation), Havel reminded Dubček of the possibility of “even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect”, yet which can “gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political signiﬁcance”.
Not long afterwards, the human-faced ﬁrst secretary was replaced by Gustav Husák, a stern-faced, committed Communist. The new-old reigning elite put itself in order and began “housecleaning”. Society, exhausted and apathetic, quickly adjusted, and the old stupidities – which had been, for a short time, shown to be ridiculous – again took the upper hand, as if to reinforce Kundera’s views. Havel recalled the ﬁrst half of the 1970s as follows: “I wouldn’t be able to tell you what I did in
1972, as against what I did in 1973.” Nevertheless, as if incidentally, Havel was branded a public enemy and ostracized everywhere, and even accused of subversion. (He was not, at this point, imprisoned.) As often and as long as he could, he holed up in his country house in Hrádeček. During this period, he became closely allied with many fellow writers who were formally his political rivals, now ousted reform- Communists (Kohout, Vaculík and others). During these bleak years, Havel was again active, organizing and bringing people together: his former rivals, as well as those who had been shunned throughout, came together thanks to him, at his home. At some point around 1975, as a side effect of these meetings, as they read one another’s writings, Czech samizdat came into being. Now Havel committed himself to another, more signiﬁcant public action: he would write another letter, this time to Husák, Dubček’s successor. Havel himself considered this letter a kind of “self- therapy”, a way out of lethargy. But others considered it one of the best analyses of the “normalization” era in Czechoslovakia during the ﬁrst half of the 1970s.
In 1975, at the time he wrote this letter (just as when he had written the letter to Dubček), Havel was impelled by a feeling of general responsibility for public issues, which allowed him to speak on behalf of the society. He did not state this outright, but it is clear that his analysis was motivated by this sense of a mission to be accomplished. In the letter, Havel relentlessly laid bare the elements of fear which undergirded the Husák system, yet which also led to the disintegration of the society: this fear, no longer based on the earlier, brazenly totalitarian methods, relied on more manipulative techniques, including the arbitrariness of the secret police, enforced conformity and adaptation, the annihilation of culture, and an existence without history. As he described the Husák regime (so familiar to Kádár- era Hungarians), its motto could have been: “Don’t bother with politics, just adapt” – i.e. the doctrine of renouncing any sense of responsibility toward the larger world.
The same year, Havel the playwright also managed to escape in some measure from lethargy. He wrote the one-act play Audience, which was inspired by his 1974 “career” in a beer factory. In this play, the beermeister boss convinces the employee Vaněk (who is essentially one and the same as Havel), that he should write, in the boss’s name, denunciations about himself to the authorities. Also in this year, Havel completed The Beggar’s Opera (“Variation on a Theme by John Gaye”), which was staged (under a pen-name) in a bar on the outskirts of Prague. But word of the event leaked out, and it was followed by arrests and persecutions; authorities claimed that their crackdown on “cultural policy” was due to Havel’s activities. All of this – especially the première of The Beggar’s Opera and the ensuing events – were a sort of prelude to the atmosphere that would come after Charter 77 came on the scene. However, we must look elsewhere for the direct antecedents to the Charter 77 manifesto and the movement it spawned. These were related to the measures taken by Czech authorities to put an end to the underground music scene – a mostly disdained subculture of long-haired, “raggedy” individuals on the margins of culture and society, who were considered unacceptable to most people preoccupied by “consolidation” and characterized by petty bourgeois sensibilities. The ofﬁcial system demanded uniformity and conformity from everyone. But these bands and groups were practically impossible to tame. For Havel and his group, it was clear that if the authorities – sneakily seeking the “moral” support of the average public – should make an example of these groups and force them, using the instruments of power and criminal law, to give up their tastes and lifestyles, then this would constitute a very dangerous precedent. And the issue was not solely nor even primarily appearances: these groups were ﬁnding answers to larger public issues, not in a Communism of mediocrity, but in faith, transcendence, and in the extraordinary.
Ten years later, Havel writes about this in Long-Distance Interrogation: “I sensed in these people, in the depths of their souls and in their stance and their songs, a peculiar purity, bashfulness and vulnerability. Their music expressed the experience of metaphysical bitterness, but also a yearning for salvation. I believed that this Jirous-style underground tried to offer hope even to those completely ostracized.”
For Havel, this kind of culture was heretofore foreign and all but unknown. (Although it did intersect at several points with the fate of several heroes in the world of Hrabal, and in Hrabal’s poetics.) When it became necessary to react to the ever more aggressive ofﬁcial measures taken against the underground, the main point was that the powers-that-be must not be allowed to trample even further upon people’s souls or to prescribe their tastes and their internal convictions. The rights of these peripheral groups (as minorities) had to be protected, thereby also protecting the natural rights of the members of “non-peripheral” society to preserve their individuality and human integrity. To achieve this, the ﬁrst step was to put a stop to the machinery of “justice” that had been put into play in order to criminalize these groups. In 1976, authorities had imprisoned the members of one of the most popular groups, The Plastic People of the Universe, along with other ﬁgures from the underground. They were charged with “breach of the peace” and “hooliganism”. This repressive act was the direct cause of the elaboration of the Charter 77 document, and of the formation of the movement based on the principles it articulated. The month of December 1976 was taken up by very thorough and careful organization, again with Havel as the main organizer and “conspirator”. The text of the Charter – originally signed by 242 people – was distributed in Czechoslovakia in manuscript form. Almost simultaneously, the text was published on 6-7 January 1977 in Le Monde, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, The Times and The New York Times.
The wave of protests united persons of completely divergent world views and backgrounds in a way that was earlier unthinkable. The movement included ex- Communists kicked out of the Party, Christian intellectuals, conservatives, liberals, and, of course, actors of the underground scene. The entire effort was explicitly not “political”, or “oppositional”, and it was explicitly not an “organization” or any other kind of hierarchically structured group. The Charter did exhibit a kind of asymmetry in one sense: until the collapse of the regime, it was signed by a disproportionately small number of citizens from Slovakia. Havel’s central role in the movement’s inception is underlined by the fact that he was among its three original spokesmen (together with Jiří Hájek, who had been Foreign Minister in 1968, and philosopher Jan Patočka). Authorities were enraged not just because the Charter stood up for social groups “condemned” to exclusion, but also because it based its arguments on the Czechoslovak Constitution, the UN Documents, and – above all – the 1975 Helsinki Accords.
The publication of Charter 77 was not only a signiﬁcant moment for the post-1968 social movements in Czechoslovakia, it was also a decisive turning-point in Havel’s life. 1977 marked the beginning of open and occasionally brutal repression against him. In addition, Havel gradually became a sort of “positive trademark” for his country, especially in the eyes of political opinion in the West. The “popularization” of Charter 77, however, was largely the doing of the Czech authorities themselves, who reacted with boundless stupidity: from the very ﬁrst days of 1977, the authorities embarked on a frantic, all-consuming propaganda campaign against the declaration, which they continued – albeit with varying intensity – all until the system itself collapsed.
It was obvious that the Charter’s organizers were the primary targets of these attacks, and that many of them would be imprisoned. (Among the original spokesmen, Patočka became the ﬁrst indirect victim of the persecution: following an interrogation that lasted for several hours, he died of a heart attack.) Havel knew that sooner or later, he would inevitably end up in prison. In mid-January, he was placed into investigative custody for a period of ﬁve months, but ﬁnally got out with a suspended sentence; he was released at his own request. (For a long time afterward he felt humiliation for having petitioned for his own release and could not forgive himself. The authorities, indeed, made use of his petition for their own propaganda purposes. Havel’s subsequent, lengthier imprisonment “made up for” this earlier “temptation”, but the issue haunted him for years.) Meanwhile, the regime imprisoned an increasing number of lesser known and therefore less-protected dissidents. In their defence, the VONS (Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted) was formed in 1978, and Havel, who was temporarily out of prison, was one of its initiators and organizers. The 1979 trial of the founders of VONS brought Havel a prison sentence of several years. Between his two imprisonments, Havel wrote one of his most famous essays, The Power of the Powerless. As in his letter to Husák, and in part building upon its contents, Havel again presented a thorough analysis of the situation. He concluded that the Husák regime (and, we might add in hindsight, the Central European Communist regimes in general) could be characterized not as classical dictatorships, but rather as post-totalitarian regimes. Using his famous example of the anonymous greengrocer, he demonstrated how people enabled the everyday workings of the system due to their progressive “taming” and their unconscious subservience, which became ﬁrmly rooted through automatisms of daily life. (The greengrocer, as part of his daily routine, places a sign in the window between the onions and the apples: “Proletarians of the world unite!”)
This practically unconscious, yet all-embracing falsehood to which no one was immune was juxtaposed with Havel’s thesis of “living in truth”, the need for peaceful resistance – which, however, should not lead back to “the earlier” conditions. Similarly to the Polish KOR, the Charter deﬁned the meaning of “dissident” existence as a kind of “social self-defence”, in which “being in opposition” is nothing less than “to live in truth” – that is, to turn against the system of lies which permeated everything. Whereas “living in falsehood” amounted to a crisis of human identity. As he pointed out in his preface to Jiří Suk’s 2003 book The Labyrinth of Revolution, Havel held and advocated similar viewpoints later in life, too, before he ofﬁcially “took the political stage” in July
1989. In a long telephone interview with the head of the Czechoslovak section of Radio Free Europe, aired on 15 July 1989, Havel explained that “…a new, more democratic kind of system is slowly coming into being, but I do not yet know what it will be like… Under no circumstances, though, should we imagine a return to the past, nor a normal parliamentary democracy such as those that operate in the West. Probably it will be something different, something new.”
During his years in prison, he wrote the philosophical letters addressed to his wife Olga. These essays, written in epistolary form, whose coherent sequence is only superﬁcially interrupted by descriptions of trivial daily matters, provided Havel with a unique form in which to seek answers to issues that had occupied him from the very beginning of his career and of his intellectual awakening – especially to questions about the loss of human identity. In these “letters”, he could not have explicitly referred to daily political events or wider social issues even if he had wanted to, since the letters were strictly censored. The censors’ rules consisted partly of laughable formal prohibitions (such as that of using quotation marks), and partly of prohibitions concerning the content (he was forbidden to write about anything except “personal matters” to his wife and younger brother Ivan). So as to confuse his jailer-censors, his discussions about essential existential questions were purposefully cloaked in especially complicated sentences and texts – much to the distress of his future translators. (Nevertheless, Havel’s letters were published in several languages, and I read somewhere that Letters to Olga is his most widely translated work.)
In the 1980s, an important group of dissident philosophers, the Kampademie, was a major inﬂuence on Havel. The group, constituted in the 1970s, got its name from the Prague district of Kampa, the location of Radim Palouš’s apartment, their unofﬁcial “meeting place”. It included Havel’s brother Ivan, as well as important Catholic intellectuals such as Martin Palouš, Daniel Kroupa, Pavel Bratinka, and Tomáš Halík. The members of Kampademie served as “correspondents” with Havel during the prison years. In these letters, sent to the prison (as “replies” to the writings addressed “to Olga”) they frequently inserted philosophical treatises as “personal matters”. These inserted texts were, in some cases, excerpts or entire texts from the classics of modern philosophy.
During the prison years, Havel became close friends with a fellow prisoner, a Catholic priest named Dominik (Jaroslav) Duka, whom the regime had prohibited from exercising his vocation, and who had been imprisoned for his underground activities within the Dominican order. Dominik (currently the Cardinal Archbishop of Prague and the Primate of the Czech Republic) held clandestine services in prison, which Havel attended. While the friendship with Duka and the religious services had a great effect on him, Havel did not “convert” to Catholicism and did not become a believer. The experience of prison, due partly to the constant preparation and intellectual alert required by the intricate philosophical exchanges of his correspondence, and partly to the drastically altered living conditions, taught him some weighty lessons. Havel realigned his thinking and focused his attention on new dramatic texts: the only world available to a forbidden playwright, a theatrical world with no theatre.
During this period, he wrote what are, in my opinion, his three most signiﬁcant plays: Largo Desolato, Temptation, and Redevelopment. These are ironically self- analyzing, multi-layered tragicomedies that are dark in tone, full of paradoxes, and entirely devoid of black-or-white characters. Havel himself said that while his dramas from the 1960s, which were truly absurd, “attempted to grasp the general social mechanisms and the situation of people who were caught up in them; or, to use a later terminology, were about ‘structures’ and how man is integrated into them”, his plays from the 1980s were rooted in an entirely new experience, that of being totally excluded from the world of “structures”.
In the late 1980s, events began to speed up in Czechoslovakia. The changes underway in the Soviet Union, Poland and Hungary contrasted dramatically with the inertia that characterized Czechoslovakia: while the news of the changing outside world ﬂooded into Czechoslovakia through “unofﬁcial” and prohibited channels, the government tried, using unimaginative and desperate measures, to salvage whatever it could. The regime alternated between making forced concessions and reverting to methods of brute force. On 10 December 1988 (International Human Rights Day), the regime unprecedentedly allowed opposition groups to hold a demonstration in Prague, where Havel was among the speakers. Yet in January 1989, police brutally beat up demonstrators who had gathered in memory of Jan Palach. For his participation, Havel was again imprisoned. He recalled this event in Please Be Brief: “… I was convicted in a totally senseless fashion, based on trumped-up charges, and by doing so they only accelerated the pace of change in Czechoslovakia; the whole thing had become almost like sabotage. Because [following my conviction] a huge wave of protests immediately developed, not only abroad but also at home: even ‘ofﬁcially sanctioned’ artists, in droves, were signing petitions demanding that I be set free. It was obvious that the regime had not counted on this. Authorities had no clue about what to do next: putting a few dissidents in prison was no problem, but how could they put every actor in the country behind bars? They didn’t dare… and behind bars I was an unusual prisoner, they treated me with kid gloves. Compared to my earlier prison terms, this was a veritable vacation.” On 17 May, they were forced to release him, citing health concerns. (Authorities had not been so solicitous during his earlier stints in jail, when his illnesses remained untreated, causing him recurring health problems for the rest of his life.) And from this point on, the accelerated pace of events went into free-fall. It suddenly became obvious that the authorities did not know what to do with the man who had become the symbol of resistance to the Communist system. Havel and his friends naturally took full advantage of the wave of protests that ensued following his imprisonment.
They issued the declaration entitled A Few Sentences, published in the samizdat organ Lidové noviny on 22 June 1989, and aired on 29 June by Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America. Four authors signed the declaration, including Havel. “This declaration is supposed to represent the culmination of the phase of society’s awakening, which was manifest in the signatures to the petition demanding my release from prison. But in contrast to those actions, now we are no longer just talking about society’s… reﬂex of self-defence”, Havel wrote to Ivan Medek, the Vienna-based reporter for the Voice of America in a rather conspiratorial note, which served as a sort of “instructions” for the mediatic strategy regarding the presentation of the declaration. Havel also indicated that the declaration was “like a plebiscite”, reﬂecting the opinion of the masses. The text begins with a short situation analysis, in which the authors note that “civil society is slowly recovering from its lethargy, and more and more people are committing themselves to declare that they demand a change in society”. At the moment it was published, almost as many people had signed it as had signed the Charter over 12 years. (By fall of 1989, 40,000 people had signed A Few Sentences. The Charter was signed by a total of 2,500 persons.) In 2006, Havel summarized the declaration’s goal as follows: “… in a very condensed form, it demanded the reestablishment of civil liberties. These were natural things that every civilized person believes in, but in order actually to fulﬁl these demands a radical change in the existing system would be necessary.”
The authorities reacted with anger, but it was much more muted than earlier. They were surprised and frightened by the mass scale of support for the declaration. They called it an “insolent pamphlet” and tried to exert pressure on the signatories to rescind their support. Naturally, they held house searches and made arrests, and a few of the organizers were not released until October or November of that year, but it was clear that the regime was on its last legs.
The events were coloured but also accelerated by a speech delivered by the Communist Party’s General Secretary Miloš Jakeš, then the country’s top political leader, at a party conference in the countryside on 17 July 1989. The national TV station, which ﬁlmed the speech, would have broadcast a detailed report of the event, but the speaker’s lengthy discourse was so suffused with nonsense and delivered in such a crude and vulgar manner that the TV simply could not broadcast it. Naturally, the tape got out of the TV station, was copied on cassettes and spread throughout the country; it was also broadcast by Radio Free Europe. The entire country had a good laugh; clearly, the emperor had no clothes. (I remember that a few months later, during the days of the Velvet Revolution and for weeks afterward, many stores placed TV sets in their shop windows, set up loudspeakers, and broadcast the Jakeš speech, much to the amusement of passersby.)
Meanwhile, in Poland, roundtable discussions between Party leaders and opposition groups had been underway since February. Elections were held on 4 June, in which the opposition party (which not long before was still being persecuted) won the maximum number of seats in the Sejm and the Senate. Mazowiecki formed a new government. In East Germany, mass demonstrations demanding system reform, and above all the opening of the inter-German border, became everyday events beginning in the summer of 1989. Hungary opened its Western borders to East German tourists, and by October, crowds of East German refugees were lining up at the West German embassy in Prague.
Naturally, the Czechoslovak opposition was also preparing itself, but not necessarily to take power. (They organized a demonstration for 10 December, again, International Human Rights Day.) Havel and his associates knew that the days of Communism were numbered, but no one knew what would replace it. Havel – and the majority of the opposition – still did not think in terms of concrete political orientations or parties that would have provided a framework and a proven model for the period to follow the end of the current enfeebled regime. And then, unexpectedly, came 17 November: the day of the famous students’ demonstration. (17 November 1939 was the date on which the Nazis closed down the Czech universities.) Police forces brutally cracked down on the crowd in front of the National Theatre, after luring them into a trap. This bloody event marked the beginning of the Velvet Revolution. The opposition’s “Charter generation” had purposely kept away from the student demonstration, so that their presence would not serve as an excuse for authorities to prohibit it or break it up. Havel had left Prague, and news of the bloody events reached him at his country house in Hrádeček. On 18 November, strike committees were formed in the theatres and at the universities; the strikes began. On 19 November, various opposition groups met in a Prague theatre, the Činoherní Club, to lay out a common position they would represent against the authorities. They agreed upon a cooperative platform and called it the Civic Forum. (The idea to call it a “Forum” came from Jan Urban, who would later become its president, on the model of the Neues Forum. The idea for “Civic” was Havel’s contribution.) In parallel to these events, the Forum’s Slovakian counterparts were created, known as Public Against Violence and the Independent Hungarian Initiative [of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia].
In view of the actions in the theatres and universities, it became clear that the existing opposition (especially the Charter) quickly had to form contacts with wider segments of society (especially the student population), and that it would have to negotiate in some manner with the authorities. Havel, standing on stage, explained the need for a new “independent initiative”: the authorities would not be willing to negotiate with the Charter, or with the group (heavily persecuted) that had grown out of the Charter. It seemed that the opposition, when presenting itself as a united front against the regime, also had to demonstrate its force by coming up with a fresh face. But this face turned out, again, to be Havel’s; the actors again were following his direction. On 20 November, a crowd of 100,000 ﬂowed into Wenceslas Square, and the next day the crowd was even bigger when Havel spoke to them. His speech was preceded by Radim Palouš’ address: “My dear friends! Today, the Civic Forum speaks to you!” “Who’s that?” asked the crowd. “The Civic Forum is Václav Havel”, Palouš’s shouted into the microphone. “Long live Havel!” cried the crowd. (Quoted by J. Suk, citing Palouš.)
The demonstrations which followed, one after the other, adopted the demands of the Forum and formulated new slogans. On 24 November, Jakeš resigned; the Czechoslovak Communist Party was sidelined, and Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec began negotiating with the opposition, which seemed reluctant to take over political power. In 2006, Havel described those fateful days: “The Civic Forum was not created to take over the leadership of the country, but to give a voice to the public will for change. None of us was a professional politician – indeed, how could there have been a democratic-minded political class in a totalitarian system? – and none of us knew, or could have known, that the regime would collapse so suddenly, and that it would hand over power to us on a golden platter, so to speak. But even if we had known, and if we had declared right then our desire to take over power, everyone would have just laughed at us, and public would have revoked its support for us rather than stand beside us. The people wanted to hear that ‘The emperor has no clothes’ – rather than ‘I wish to be the new emperor!’ In other words, not only were we unprepared to take over power, but the situation was not yet ripe for it. But within a few days, everything had changed. History had rushed ahead so fast that we could barely keep up.”
Subsequent events unfolded according to a kind of predeﬁned logic, almost automatically: following an unsuccessful attempt to form a government, Adamec resigned. On 10 December, Marian Čalfa, who until then had served as Adamec’s deputy, formed a new federal government, the members of which included several individuals from the opposition who had served prison terms.
The same day, the Civic Forum announced Havel’s nomination for the post of President of the Republic. On 29 December, the Federal Assembly (the only partially renewed Czechoslovak Parliament) elected Havel unanimously.
He had reached the goal – a goal that he had probably never wanted to achieve, but which he could not escape. And so he had to deliver an ofﬁcial New Year’s address. But that is another story, that of the politician.
Havel left a deep impression on people’s souls, both as an opposition ﬁgure and as a politician. But in the memories of most of us, he lives on primarily as a lovable and fallible ordinary citizen, whose words could be believed – even when he was speaking as a politician.
Translation by Katica Avvakumovits