R.I.P., Vaclav Havel

A hero of mine has died. Another great intellectual light has left the planet. R.I.P., Vaclav Havel.

Update: Friend (and high school prom date) Trav S.D. has a wonderful reminiscence about Havel and the Havel Festival at the Brick Theatre.

Here is a post I wrote about the Velvet Revolution in 1989 which culminated in Vaclav Havel being elected president of Czechoslovakia after 40 years of Soviet Communist rule.


Havel, a playwright, spent a ton of time in jail for his political writings, and his philosophy was that, yes, he lived in an un-free society, but he would behave as if he were free. The magic “as if”, so much a theatrical term, used to describe the mystery of the creative process of actors (act “as if” you were such and such). Of course, Havel, a man of the theatre, would use the “as if” as a way to survive oppression. He did not compromise. He acted “as if” he were living in a free society, and drove the authorities slowly insane.

Therefore: the years of arrests, suppression, censorship. Havel was far more famous outside of his own country, because we in the world got to see and read his plays while his own countrymen were not allowed to. But Vaclav Havel, a hero, continued to behave as if he were free. He did not internalize the censorship and oppression. It did not become him. He remained outside of it.

If you think that’s an easy thing to accomplish, then you don’t know your history.

Vaclav Havel wrote once:

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

In this detailed piece on him in The New Yorker David Remnick describes the giddy days of the “velvet revolution”, and I love the parts about Havel becoming President, and basically stage-managing the whole thing. What were the costumes? What should the “set” be? He thought like a theatre man. He wanted to eradicate the symbols of oppression. He loved going into “the castle” and discovering what was behind all the secret doors (much like the false front of stage sets, with a cavernous scene shop behind):

During the uprising, which quickly became known as the Velvet Revolution, and for a while afterward, there were graffiti around town proclaiming, “Havel je král“—”Havel Is King.” The King tried to demystify his Castle. He ordered the costume designer for the movie “Amadeus” to create red-white-and-blue uniforms for the palace guards. (Communist-era guards wore khaki.) He himself at first refused the suits that his friend Prince Karel Schwarzenberg brought him. “I can’t wear any of these!” Havel said. “I’d look like a gigolo.” In jeans and sweater, he rode a scooter through the Castle halls. He threw a “festival of democracy” in the courtyards, with jugglers and mimes performing while he wandered around drinking Pilsner and greeting everyone. Later on, when he discovered that the chandeliers in the gilded Spanish Hall were outmoded, a couple of typical visitors, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, paid for new fixtures. For weeks, he drove his staff crazy as he monkeyed around with the remote control, dimming the lights, then brightening them again.

“When I first came here, there were many things that I found absurd,” Havel told me in his office. A sly, can-youbelieve-it smile creased his face. “For example, it seemed to us on the first day that there were three rooms, close to where we’re sitting now, which you couldn’t enter. When we finally got inside, we discovered a kind of communications facility for contacts within the Warsaw Pact. So we took advantage of that and sent a New Year’s greeting to Mikhail Gorbachev. Later, I heard from confidential sources that the K.G.B. chief, Vladimir Kryuchkov, didn’t really appreciate the fact that we’d found those facilities.”

It’s a fascinating examination of his years as President.

Ivan Klima writes of Havel in his wonderful book about the revolution in Czechoslovakia. The book is called The Spirit of Prague:

Totalitarianism correctly understood the threat this cultural resistance posed, but the nature of that power ruled out any accommodation or compromise. It continued to battle against literature. It raided private flats and detained people who had gathered there to listen to lectures or the reading of a play or something as innocent as lyric poetry. It confiscated manuscripts from poets, prose writers and philosophers, both local and translated works, just as it did documents from Charter 77. From time to time it held trials in which judgement was passed on those who copied texts or organized other kinds of cultural activitiy. Because these people were clearly innocent, even according to the laws in force, the outcome of these trials were the opposite of what the authorities intended. They were meant to intimidate, but they succeeded only in unmasking power, in revealing it for the unprincipled, prejudiced and philistine force it was. This merely stiffened people’s resistance. Early samizdat publications came out in tiny editions of tens of copies; by the eighties, books were being reproduced in many workshops, the technology of reproduction was modernized, and the number of titles mushroomed. (The literary samizdat enterprise Padlock Editions published three hundred titles.) In the seventies, there were practically no samizdat cultural journals; by the eighties, there were more than a hundred unofficial magazines. (At the same time, there were only five official magazines dealing with culture.)

Sasmizdat literature was only one of the ways in which the repressed culture expressed itself. There were seminars in philosophy, and lecture series were held on different areas of the humanities. Young people frequently tried to distance themselves entirely from the pseudo-culture offered to them by the authorities. They founded small theatres, and from the seventies on, the most authentic expression of their relationship to the ruling system was the protest song. Singers who were closest to them in age and attitude became their idols. The authorities reacted predictably, and one generation of protest singers was essentially driven into exile, but as usual, the results were the opposite of what was intended.

By the late eighties, the international situation was undoubtedly influential. Those who represented power and those who represented culture were clearly squared off against each other. Several events also sharpened the conflict between the authorities and those who were trying to extricate themselves from their toils. The authorities frequently used police brutality to break up memorial assemblies to commemorate the country’s national holiday or the memory of Jan Palach, a student who had set fire to himself, and died, in protest against the Soviet invasion. Those who came to pay their respects to a person who symbolized the possibility of individual protest taken to its furthest extreme became the object of a violent attack by special units who used truncheons, water-cannons, and tear-gas. People, mostly the young, decided not to give way to violence. For five consecutive days the peaceful assemblies were repeated, and on four occasions the police used violence to break them up. Several people were arrested, Vaclav Havel among them. During these events, which aroused the emotions of the whole country, the cruel truth about power was publicly revealed for the first time. At this critical juncture, the government could not find a single person with sufficient authority to address the nation. No one was willing to give public support to the regime, but many could be found to protest against police brutality, against imprisoning the innocent. Among the protestors were actors, filmmakers, and writers who, until then, the regime had believed to be “on its side”.

In this critical situation, the authorities — and it is hard to say whether this was out of stupidity or desperation or arrogance, or the awareness that they were indeed indelibly tarnished — refused all invitations by the cultural opposition to take part in a dialogue. The deep chasm between totalitarian power and all the “shaken”, to use Patocka’s term, became unbridgeable. It was clear that any further error, any further act of arrogance, might be fatal.

What happened in November 1989 is well known. As an eyewitness and a participant, I wish to emphasize that this revolution, which really was the outcome of a clash between culture and pwoer, was the most non-violent revolution imaginable. In the mass meetings attended by up to three-quarters of a million people, no one was hurt, not a window was broken, not a car damaged. Many of the tens of thousands of pamphlets that flooded Prague and other cities and towns urged people to peaceful, tolerant action; not one called for violence. For those who still believe in the power of culture, the power of words, of good and of love, and their dominance over violence, who believe that neither the poet nor Archimedes, in their struggle against the man in uniform, are beaten before they begin, the Prague revolution must have been an inspiration.

Vaclav Havel wrote:

People who live in the post-totalitarian system know only too well that the question of whether one or several political parties are in power, and how these parties define and label themselves, is of far less importance than the question of whether or not it is possible to live like a human being.

He was not universally loved. There were many elements of society who abhorred him. His views were too pure, in many respects, and he refused to play the game. He continued to live “as if”, even as President. He was an idealist. He had a great sense of the absurd. Not just from living in a schizophrenic political culture for most of his life, where the dictates of the Politburo were official policy, and the energy on the ground was a very different thing (although that was definitely a huge part of his emotional makeup). Totalitarian governments are masters at creating schizophrenic populaces, where to live divided from oneself is not only expedient, but necessary for survival. But Havel’s sense of the absurd comes from the theatre as well, and its long history of non-literal abstract ways of looking at truth. He is in line with Ionesco, not Ibsen. Much of what was unforgivable to some in the velvet revolution was its insistence on humor, levity, and mockery. Nobody likes to be laughed at. I would also say that perhaps governments would prefer to be shot at and fought openly – because that inherently validates their power – rather than laughed at and mocked. If you are so little, so meaningless, that a population LAUGHS at your blustering assumptions of power, then what does that mean? Where does power reside? Just because you SAY you are powerful?

Havel, and his Civic Forum, and all of the protesters in the velvet revolution basically refused to recognize the power structure anymore. They didn’t accept the version of truth being handed to them. They laughed at it.

Ivan Klima writes:

The Prague of past eras is gone. No one can bring the murdered back to life, and most of those who were driven out will probably never return to the city. Nevertheless Prague has survived and has, finally, tasted freedom again. Its spirit is intact as well. This manifested itself vividly during the revolution that opened the way to freedom in 1989. Revolutions are usually marked by high-sounding slogans and flags; blood flows, or at least glass is shattered and stones fly.

The November revolution, which earned the epithet “velvet”, differed from other revolutions not only in its peacefulness, but also in the main weapon used in the struggle. It was ridicule. Almost every available space in Prague — the walls of the buildings, the subway stations, the windows of buses and streetcars, shop windows, lampposts, even statues and monuments — were covered, in the space of a few days, with an unbelievable number of signs and posters. Although the slogans had a single object — to overthrow the dictatorship — their tone was light, ironic. The citizens of Prague delivered the coup de grace to their despised rulers not with a sword, but with a joke. Yet at the heart of this original, unemotional style of struggle there dwelt a stunning passion. It was the most recent and perhaps the most remarkable paradox to date in the life of this remarkable city.

Havel was the undisputed leader of all of this. He had been prepared through a lifetime of persecution, for the position. His plays had made him famous. He lived in oppression in his own land (similar to the film directors in Iran today, whose works are lauded the world over, but who cannot get a screening of their own films in their own country). But again, these Iranian artists are on a similar path, and if you watch the movies of, say, Jafar Panahi, it becomes totally clear that he is living “as if” he were free. He is making movies “as if” the mullahs were not in charge. He has suffered a huge price for that. But that did not stop him. He has said that his films, hopefully, will be documents to future generations, generations who hopefully will not have to live under such oppression. He hopes that his films will be representations of “how we lived then”. Panahi is an heir of Havel. Regimes cannot stand to be ignored. Who are you to continue doing what you want without our stamp of approval? Human beings are extraordinary creatures. We can learn a lot from people like Havel, Panahi.

Ivan Klima, again, on Vaclav Havel:

Havel’s candidacy for president and his later election were, in the first place, an expression of the precipitate, truly revolutionary course of events in this country. When I was returning from a meeting of one of the committees of Civic Forum [the organization Havel formed in November, 1989, to investigate police brutality] one day towards the end of November, my friends and I were saying to each other that the time was near when we should nominate our candidate for the office of president. We agreed then that the only candidate to consider, for he enjoyed the relatively wide support of the public, was Alexander Dubcek. But it became clear a few days later that the revolution had gone beyond the point where any candidate who was connected, if only by his past, with the Communist Party, was acceptable to the younger generation of Czechs.

At that moment the only suitable candidate emerged — Vaclav Havel.

To a certain sector of the Czech public, Havel was, indeed, more or less unknown, or known as the son of a rich capitalist, even as a convict, but the revolutionary ethos that seized the nation brought about a change of attitude. In a certain atmosphere, in the midst of a crowd, however civil and restrained, an individual suddenly identifies himself with the prevailing mood and state of mind, and captures the crowd’s enthusiasm. It’s true that the majority of the country shared in the doings of the former system, but it’s also true that the majority hated it just because it had made them complicit in its awfulness, and hardly anyone still identified himself with that regime which had so often humiliated, deceived and cheated them.

Within a few days, Havel became the symbol of revolutionary change, the man who would lead society out of its crisis.

No pressure or anything.

In November, of 1989, as the Communist edifice began to crack, Czechoslovakia was given a warning. The government at the time was a hard-line Communist one, and the memories of the 1968 Prague Spring were still fresh. The upheaval in Eastern Europe was like a brush-fire, and those in power in Czechoslovakia wanted to make sure it didn’t spread within their borders. Amazing how quickly these events took place. Breathtaking, really. In the second week of November, 1989, Czechoslovakia was warned by the USSR to keep its people under control. By December 29, 1989, Vaclav Havel was the first freely elected democratic president of the nation. A month and a half.

On November 15, R.W. Apple, Jr. reported in The New York Times about the situation in Prague:

According to reports circulating in party circles, Moscow cautioned Prague not to make the same mistakes made by Communist traditionalists elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Excessive caution or half-heartedness in putting political changes into effec, the Soviets are reported to have said, could lead to an uprising like the one that forced sweeping changes in East Germany.

The present Czechoslovak leadership descends from the one that was installed by the Soviets 21 years ago, at a time when the Brezhnev doctrine, since renounced by President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, sanctioned intervention by one Communist country in the internal affairs of another if necessary to prevent heresy.

A senior adviser to one Czech minister said that the message was similar to one sent to Bulgaria, which apparently helped to persuade Todor I. Zhivkov, that country’s longtime party leader, that it was time to retire.

Later in the same article, Havel is mentioned:

Slowly, a party member familiar with the situation said the heretofor quiescent Parliament is moving – “not the way the Polish or the Hungarian Parliament has moved, toward real coalition government, not from black to white, not too far or fast, not everyone at once, but slowly and surely from black to dark gray.”

What that might mean in terms of political change is not clear. Mr. Jakes has already made concessions on travel, cultural issues and religion, but he has yielded nothing to the dissidents, such as the playwright Vaclav Havel, and indeed has cracked down even harder on demonstrators and others who make their dissatisfaction public.

Mr. Havel, one of the original signers of the Charter 77 manifesto, was arrested last January and released in May after serving half his sentence. His trial helped him to become, like Lech Walesa in Poland, a powerful symbol of the opposition. But he is still seen here as more a moral force than a man likely to form a governement.

“I think of him in terms of Jan Hus,” said a Czechoslovak journalist, referring to the fifteenth-century church reformer who remains a national hero. “But maybe he has capacities we don’t know about. Maybe he can someday become what he isn’t yet – the leader of a mass movement, like Walesa, or like Tomas Masaryk, come to that.”

In mid-November, as the events in East Germany were astonishing the world, Jiri Dienstbier, former Communist Party member, longtime protestor, and one of the founders of the human rights organization Charter 77, was interviewed in Czechoslovakia by The New York Times. At the time of the interview, Mr. Dienstbier was working in a hospital, stoking coal. His low-level job was punishment for his protests. A month later, he was foreign minister in Havel’s government.

Dienstbier was asked about the events in East Germany:

“What surprised everybody was the quick unraveling of thingsin East Germany. The opposition there wasn’t very muc bigger than in Czechoslovakia, which is pretty small. It was based almost completely on the evangelical church. In fact the East German movement started outside the country, with the opening of the border between Austria and Hungary, which gave the Germans an escape route. This shows that no matter where the rot sets in, the Communist system collapses very quickly.

“The next step? I hope it’s Czechoslovakia. I think it could be. The leadership here is dead, only waiting to be carried away. Jakes is completely discredited. The party’s only alternative to the status quo is to open up the system, but they know that once they open it up, they are doomed.”

Ivan Klima on the 1989 velvet revolution:

The authorities frequently used police brutality to break up memorial assemblies to commemorate the country’s national holiday or the memory of Jan Palach … Those who came to pay their respects to a person who symbolized the possibility of individual protest taken to its furthest extreme became the object of a violent attack by special units who used truncheons, water-cannons and tear-gas. People, mostly the young, decided not to give way to violence.

For 5 consecutive days the peaceful assemblies were repeated, and on four occasions the police used violence to break them up. Several people were arrested, Vaclav Havel among them.

During these events, which aroused the emotions of the whole country, the cruel truth about power was publicly revealed for the first time. At this critical juncture, the government could not find a single person with sufficient authority to address the nation. No one was willing to give public support to the regime, but many could be found to protest against police brutality, against imprisoning the innocent. Among the protestors were actors, filmmakers, and writers who, until then, the regime had believed to be on “its side”.

In this critical situation, the authorities — and it is hard to say whether this was out of stupidity or desperation or arrogance, or the awareness that they were indeed indelibly tarnished — refused all invitations by the cultural opposition to take part in a dialogue. The deep chasm between totalitarian power and all the “shaken”, to use Patocka’s term, became unbridgeable. It was clear that any further error, any further act of arrogance, might be fatal.

What happened in November 1989 is well known. As an eyewitness and a participant, I wish to emphasize that this revoltuion, which really was the outcome of a clash between culture and power, was the most non-violent revolution imaginable. In the mass meetings attended by up to three-quarters of a million people, no one was hurt, not a window was broken, not a car damaged. Many of the tens of thousands of pamphlets that flooded Prague and other cities and towns urged people to peaceful, tolerant action; not one called for ciolence. For those who still believe in the power of culture, the power of words, of good and of love, and their dominance over violence, who believe that neither the poet nor Archimedes, in their struggle against the man in uniform, are beaten before they begin, the Prague revolution must have been an inspiration.

On November 20, 1989, the mass protests began.

John Tagliabue reported from Prague in The New York Times:

More than 200,000 marchers called today for freedom and a change in government in the largest and most vociferous public demonstration since the euphoric Prague Spring that preceded the Soviet-led invasion of Czechslovakia.

At the same time, party and Government officials pointedly reaffirmed their opposition to introducing political change in the face of the protests …

The demonstrators, most of them young people, gathered initially at Wenceslas Square, the half-mile-long pedestrian plaza sloping down from the National Museum. The square has repeatedly been the forum for expressions of Czechoslovak nationalism. And today, the crowd waved flags and changed anti-Government slogans.

As the group, which included striking university and high school students, set out to cross the Vltava River on the way to Hradcany Castle, which houses the President’s office, their shouts became bolder. Cries demanding “freedom” and “free elections” mingled with calls for a general strike and chants of “Jakes out!,” a reference to the country’s orthodox Communist Party General Secretary, Milos Jakes.

The gigantic crowd moved slowly through the narrow, curving streets of the baroque city. But as the marchers headed onto several bridges, they were confronted by large numbers of heavily armed police officers. The protesters reversed course and dispersed soon after they returned to the north shore, avoiding the kind of violence with which club-wielding policemen scattered a smaller group of demonstrators on Friday night …

Dissident leaders repeated a call for a two-hour general strike on November 27. Vaclav Havel, the playwright and leading Czechoslovak dissident, reported that he had received a message from coal miners at a small pit in northern Bohemia, who expressed support for the requested stoppage. But the extent to which industrial workers might join the swelling protest remained both critical and, as yet, unanswered.

The next day, November 21, Tagliabue again reported from Prague. Events were beginning to happen more rapidly than could be understood:

Czechoslovakia’s Communist leaders held their first talks with representatives of a newly formed opposition movement today, while more than 200,000 people joined in a fifth day of street demonstrations sustaining pressure for political change…

In a televised address tonight, Milos Jakes, the hard-line Communist Party General Secretary, appealed to citizens to “depart from this present, exacerbated situation.” He warned, “There are boundaries that should not be overstepped.”

Says who?

Later in the same article, Tagliabue writes:

Earlier, the playwright Vaclav Havel, a frequently arrested dissident leader stood on a balcony and told a huge gathering in Wenceslas Square of the meeting between Prime Minister Adamec and a delegation of the Civic Forum, a recently formed opposition group.

Mr. Adamec also promised that the Government would not impose martial law. His comments were reported by the official press agency.

The demonstrators had at times cried, “Punish, punish, punish!” – urging retribution for policemen who had used billy clubs to scatter protestors on Friday. As Mr. Havel spoke, some waved Czechoslovak flags and others applauded.

Next day, November 22, 1989, the sixth day of protests across Czechoslovakia, Tagliabue again reports from Prague. On this day, there were calls for the Communist leaders to step down. No compromise, no coalition – step down, step down.

Mr. [Alexander] Dubcek also spoke in public today for the first time since his efforts to introduce “Socialism with a human face” were crushed in 1968. In Bratislava, he addressed 2,000 people protesting the trial of a human-rights advocate, urging calm. Mr. Dubcek, who has been officially ignored while working in a state forestry office for much of the last two decades, was shown on state television tonight as he met protestors. Mr. Dubcek’s message, read to the crowd in Prague, noted that he hoped to visit the capital soon and to appear in person in Wenceslas Square. When this was announced, the crowd began chanting, “Dubcek, Dubcek.”…

At today’s rally, Vaclav Havel, the playwright and dissident, told cheering crowds that he sought to reach “especially all the workers in our country who are for reform.”

As cheers of “Long live the workers” echoed through the floodlit square, Mr. Havel continued, “Those who have been taking bloody vengeance against all their rivals for so many years are now afraid of us.”

“But we are not like them,” he said, from a balcony high above the square. “We don’t want to take vengeance on anyone. We only ask to take control of our country.”

On November 25, 1989, the Communist Party leadership in Czechoslovakia resigned. As Dientsbier said, once the rot has set in, Communism collapses very quickly. Many hard-liners were replaced by other Politburo members, not as well-known, and yet some of the leadership stayed in place, so it was not a true surrender, not yet. But it was a major concession. Alexander Dubcek, the long-exiled hero of the 1960s for his failed attempts to soften socialism and let in outside influence, returned to Prague on this day and made his first public appearance since 1968. The response to his appearance was overwhelming.

Steven Greenhouse reports in The New York Times on Nov. 25, 1989:

After the news of the resignations of the older leaders spread, there was singing and dancing and scenes of jubliation throughout the center of Prague, where just a week before the police had clubbed demonstrators in a vain effort to put down the protests.

“An old wise man said, ‘If there once was light, why should there be darkness gain?'” Mr. Dubcek had told the crowd. “Let us act in such a way to bring the light back again.”

Havel was no fool. He recognized that the resignation of the old leaders was just “same ol’ same ol”, a condescending smokescreen to try to fool the protestors into thinking it was a concession. There would be no change as long as the Communist Party was still in control. On November 25, that same day, he led protests against the “new” leadership.

R.W. Apple, Jr., reports on the opposition protests in The New York Times:

Opposition leaders redoubled their pressure on the tottering Communist regime in Czechoslovakia today, staging an immense protest rally and insisting that the shuffling of the Politburo on Friday night and further resignations this morning had failed to move the nation far enough toward democracy.

“The new leadership is a trick that was meant to confuse,” said Vaclav Havel, the often-jailed playwright who to many symbolizes political dissent here. “The power remains in or is passing into the hands of the neo-Stalinists.”

“Shame! Shame! Shame!” shouted thousands of his listeners, part of a huge throng of protesters estimated by Czechoslovak officials at 500,000 to 800,000 … Today’s crowd was the largest in the nine straight days of demonstrations …

More than 24 hours after the old regime came apart, it was still not clear whether the Communists were ready for significant changes, including the abandonment of their claim to permanent control of the Government, or whether they were trying to regroup behind a new facade …

A light snow was falling on Mr. Havel and Alexander Dubcek, the 67-year-old Slovak who instituted liberalization crushed by Soviet-led tanks 21 years ago, as they spoke to the vast throng at the stadium.

People in the crowd were in an exuberant if wary mood, their confidence buoyed by the departure of Mr. Jakes. They wore ribbons in red, blue and white, the national colors, and waved Czechoslovak flags as Mr. Havel told them that he was “profoundly disturbed” by the composition of the new Politburo named at 3 a.m. today.

One of the key successes of the velvet revolution was that the workers took up the cause. Czechoslovakia is a country with a long and storied past of intellectual heavyweights. Its literature, art, music, plays is one of its defining characteristics, similar to Ireland’s dominance with the written word. But the velvet revolution, while begun (like so many of the revolutions that heady year) with the students and intellectuals, did not stop there. The worker joined the protests. In many cases (as usual) the industrial workers had more to lose. Retribution would be swift. Their salaries were minimal. They were in a fight just to survive everyday living. But they took up the call to strike, and joined the country-wide protests. Esther Fein, one of the many New York Times reporters stationed in Prague at the time, reported extensively on the workers participation in the protests, and wrote a piece on November 26 that I love – about how this was, in many respects, a “war on walls”. She explains:

If you want to know what is going on in Prague, you have to read the walls, and the windows, and the sidewalks, and the railings, and the bumpers of city buses, all of which are covered with print.

Typed by students on home computers and typewriters, or in some cases hand painted, this “subway samizdat” has been the most effective means of spreading the word about the opposition movement and of informing the public about coming events like today’s human chain, Saturday’s mass at St. Vitus Cathedral and the weekend change of venue for a daily demonstration.

Even the subway workers have got involved. Today, announcers in the stations let people know the time and place of the rally where people were to hold hands and form chains of human solidarity. The announcers, who normally give the routings of trains, added the information that subway workers would be honoring the general strike from noon till 2 p.m. on Monday.

“It’s a war on walls,” said Jan Urban, one of the leaders of Civic Forum, the recently formed umbrella opposition group. “In a system where the state owns and controls the mass media, this is the only way to begin a campaign against the regime.” …

These new forms of expression, which just about two weeks ago would have been cause for arrest, have become so widespread and accepted that a worker who attended the Prague Communist Party meeting on Saturday said he overhead one member of the leadership asking another what time today’s demonstration was scheduled for.

“I don’t know,” the official was heard to say. “Why don’t you go outside and check the wall?”

Fein brings up Vaclav Havel, as all the articles from Prague at that time did:

[Prague’s] best known dissident, Vaclav H avel, is a playwright known for works of irony. Therefore it was not so strange that a longtime resident used the imagery of fiction to explain that for the last forty years, since Communists came to power here, people have become soured, feeling like a woman forced to marry the wrong man.

“It is like a young woman who is very much in love but she is made to marry another man,” said the woman. “But she lives, she has children, and she carries on in a kind of muted way, as if it were a normal life, even though in her heart, she knows it isn’t normal. Then one day she sees her youthful lover on a bridge and suddenly, she comes alive.

“We are like that woman, and our lover may still be on the other side of the bridge, but at least now he is visible.”

On November 27, 1989, the two-hour general strike happened. Shops closed, cafes, factories, schools, everything closed. It had not been clear, until it went down, whether or not the workers would support the students. But everywhere in the nation, people walked off their jobs.

On November 28, Serge Schmemann reported in the New York Times that it was “Czechoslovakia’s moment in time”:

So dizzyingly swift was the downfall of Milos Jakes and his associates in the Communist leadership that when Prime Minister Ladislav Ademec met today with Vaclav Havel and the other opposition leaders of the Civic Forum, the participants seemed to be sweeping away some unpleasant remnants before plunging into the next and far more complex phase in the shaping of a post-Communist Czechoslovakia …

But the vast force of humanity so strikingly mobilized over a week and a half of demonstrations and yesterday’s two-hour general strike – a power manifest in the red, white and blue ribbons worn by every second Czechoslovak, in the flags decorating every house, in the myriad notices plastered to the shop windows of Prague and in the jubilant air pervading the old capital – seemed to preclude any chance of a comeback by the old guard.

21 years earlier, it required Soviet tanks to stifle the Prague Spring reform period. Now the Kremlin seemed almost irrelevant, Russians totally absent from the demonstrations or the slogans except for the rare tribute to Mikhail S. Gorbachev. And without Moscow, the old guard had proven to be only a flimsy facade …

The glow was almost tangible in the streets. People seemed unusually polite, even affectionate toward one another. At an impromptu public discussion in the small Ypsilon studio theater, an actor drew laughs when he said he saw a tram grind to a halt and come back in reverse to pick up a tardy passenger …

Schmemann goes on to write:

How Czechoslovakia would fare in a post-Communist order was, at this stage, impossible to predict. But in comparison with Poland, Hungary and East Germany, at least, it seemed reasonably well positioned.

Czechoslovakia could not boast of East Germany’s special links to a prosperous Western patron. But that also safeguarded it from the rush for West German marks and goods that has seized the East Germans since the border between the two Germanys fell open.

A well-developed industrial base, even one allowed to grow decrepit under forty years of Communist mismanagement, still afforded the Czechoslovaks a disciplined labor force and a base to build on.

With the population at a manageable 15 million and a foreign debt nowhere near the level of Hungary’s or Poland’s, Czechoslovakia seemed free of imminent economic crisis.

And a rich cultural tradition, coupled with a lingering faith in socialism, seemed to preclude any major social problems – at least in the immediate future.

The very swiftness of its revolution seemed to be in Czechoslovakia’s favor. Though the bloodshed during the police attacks on November 17 still hung heavy in the public memory, the subsequent pace of events gave these days an improvisational character that seemed to sustain idealism and a party-like atmosphere.

There was not the fatigue of Poland’s long series of strikes, nor the demoralizing exodus of East Germany. Rather, there was an energy to burn and the glow on the horizon was still bright.

By one of those lovely quirks so prevalent in these heady days, Civic Forum was given the Magic Lantern experimental theater for its temporary headquarters. For their evening news conferences, leaders of the opposition sat before a newly built set representing the last tunnel of the Minotaur – a maze guarded by a mythical creature with the head of a bull and the body of a man – with the light at the end of it glowing behind.

They had not planned it that way, nor had the theater, nor had Czechoslovakia. But in the spirit of the moment, improvisation and destiny seemed to blend in wondrous ways.

On that same day November 28, Serge Schmemann wrote a piece in The NY Times about Vaclav Havel, the character of the man who was very quickly rising to the top of the opposition.

If proof is needed that the pen is mightier than the sword, then Vaclav Havel is a veritable smoking gun. In and out of prisons over the last twenty years, his plays banned in his native land, the playwright today accepted the figurative surrender of his tormentors at a meeting with Prime Minister Ladislav Ademec …

Active in 1968 as chairman of an unsanctioned Club of Independent Writers, he subsequently helped found the Charter 77 dissident movement and through his clashes with the authorities was repeatedly sent to prison.

Mr. Havel was on one of his stints in prison only last May, this time for trying to lay a wreath at the grave of Jan Palach, a student who burned himself to death when the Warsaw Pact forces invaded in 1968. As recently as a month ago, the police dragged Mr. Havel from his sickbed to put him in detention on the eve of anticipated demonstrations marking the October 28 National Day.

Now, at the huge demonstrations that have abruptly routed Czechoslovakia’s neo-Stalinist regime, the crowds have chanted “Havel! Havel!” as the writer has proclaimed the demise of the system he fought with pen in hand and his willingness to join a government that would guide Czechoslovakia to democracy.

“If someone spends his life writing the truth without caring for the consequences, he inevitably becomes a political authority in a totalitarian regime” Mr. Havel said in the magazine interview [with Speigel]. “I am willing, and may be able, to assume a role for a short time. This transitional phase may need symbolic representatives, who are not politicians but who represent the hopes of society.”

What was good for democracy, however, was not conducive to his art. “I confess I’d like to arrange with the Interior Ministry to be free three days a week and to go to prison for two days a week to take a break from freedom,” he said in the interview.

Always the artist.

By December, things were really falling apart in fascinating ways. Realizing that they were losing power, and perhaps still trying to maintain some moral authority, Communist leaders all over Eastern Europe, were basically competing with one another to make public statements of how bad they had been. It was an orgy of self-deprecating behavior. “We were the worst.” “No, WE were the worst.” What is fascinating about this is, after 70 years of being in control without giving the population a say in events … suddenly they all seemed to care, and desperately, about what their own populations thought of them. “Maybe they’ll like us more if we condemn the Warsaw Pact??” Fascinating. Feeble. Desperate.

On December 1, the new Politburo in Czechoslavakis made a public declaration, condemning the invasion of Czechoslovakia back in 1968. Who could have ever predicted such a turn of events? The Soviet-led invasion of the country was what re-instated the Communists’ moral authority. To then backtrack and say, “That was really bad of us” is, of course, a nice gesture, but these were cynical times. You are trying to hold on to power, and you condemn the very thing that reinforced your power? What country friends is this? After Czecholavakia’s statement of condemnation, the other Warsaw Pact members (Soviet Union, Poland, Bulgaria, East Germany and Hungary) raced to outdo it. They signed a statement, jointly, saying “What we did back then was so wrong and we are so sorry.”

The response of the populace to this statement, which would have been earth-shattering only a couple weeks earlier, was one big yawn. If the Politburo hoped that such an admission would somehow pacify the protesters they were sorely mistaken. If anything, it just increased the intensity. “Thanks for the apology, guys, now you REALLY have to step down.”

And on December 7, 1989, Ladislav Adamec, Prime Minster of Communist Czechoslavakia resigned. He was replaced by his deputy. The pressure from the Civic Forum increased for the whole kit-and-kaboodle to resign – letting them (Vaclav Havel, et al) decide what should be done from there. On that same day, Vaclav Havel made a public statement that he would accept the role of President, if it was offered to him.

Henry Kamm reports from Prague on that day in The NY Times:

In less than a month, the modest 53-year-old writer has gone from being a bookish and persecuted symbol of resistance to totalitarianism to become the acclaimed leader of the Civic Forum mass movement, which is shaking the foundations of a 41-year-old Communist regime…

And tonight, after fencing wittily with several reporters and refusing to deny his availability, he finally owned up to it.

“I have repeatedly said my occupation is writer,” he replied to an American correspondent. “I have no political ambitions. I don’t feel myself to be a professional politician. But I have always placed the public interest above my own.

“And if, God help us, the situation develops in such a way that the only service that I could render my country would be to do this, then of course I would do it.”

And so it came to be. The pressure to stand down got to be too much for the crumbling Communist regime, and so – on December 29, 1989, Vaclav Havel was chosen to be the president of the new democratic Czechoslovakia.

Craig R. Whitney, reporter for The New York Times, reports from Prague, on that day:

Vaclav Havel, the Czechoslovak writer whose insistence on speaking the truth about repression in his country repeatedly cost him his freedom over the last 21 years, was elected President by Parliament today in an event celebrated by the throng outside the chamber as the redemption of their freedom …

Completing the formality, all 323 deputies in the heavily Communist legislature voted for Mr. Havel, Czechoslovakia’s first non-Communist President since 1948.

Mr. Dubcek and Mr. Calfa left the sixteenth-century hall to fetch the new President, somber in a dark blue suit, and swear him in with an oath revised by Parliament on Thursday to delete a promise of loyalty to the cause of socialism.

After a 20-gun salute and a military parade, he addressed the joyous crowd that thronged the castle courtyard.

“Dear friends,” he said, “I promise you I will not betray your confidence. I will lead this country to free elections. This must be done in an honest and calm way, so that the clean face of our revolution is not soiled. That is the task for all of us. Thank you.”

After his short speech, Mr. Havel went into St. Vitus Cathedral, within the castle walls, for a Te Deum mass presided over by 90-year-old Frantisek Cardinal Tomasek, the country’s Roman Catholic Primate and Archbishop of Prague. The Gothic cathedral was jammed witih people of every age. The Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and chor performed Dvorak’s Te Deum.

Whitney writes:

[Havel] is a man who wrote, in a 1984 acceptance speech for a French university award that the Czechoslovak authorities would not allow him to pick up, “The slogan ‘better Red than dead’ does not irritate me as an expression of surrender to the Soviet Union, but it terrifies me as an expression of the renunciation by Western people of any claim to a meaningful life and of their acceptance of impersonal power as such. For what the slogan really says is that nothing is worth giving one’s life for.”

Through much of Mr. Havel’s work runs the thread of what he calls “the absolute horizon” – the moral and philosophical judgments that give human life its meaning. He repeatedly warned his persecutors that by their repression of human freedom they were ultimately undercutting their own existence as well.

And that, my friends, is one of the reasons why Vaclav Havel is one of my personal heroes. He never abdicates personal responsibility, even when it requires a long hard look at oneself in the mirror. The prison guard is AS corrupted and trapped as the prisoner. And what is it in us that accepts the ties that bind, that embraces oppression? The corruption is not just in the leadership. Corruption like that seeps down into the populace as well, and that was what Havel fought against. Through his plays, certainly, but also through his human rights activism and political activity. I’ll get to that in a minute.

In 1975, Vaclav Havel had written a letter to Gustav Husak, then the President of Czechoslavakia. He warned Husak of what could happen when a population is kept down for too long. It wasn’t about politics for Havel – it was about “human dignity”, and how such dignity (such natural God-given gifts – a la “life, liberty, pursuit of happiness”) cannot be bestowed by anyone in power. We already HAVE them. We are born with them. If you deprive people of these things, you, according to Havel in his letter to Husak, create “permanent humiliation of their human dignity.” In this daring letter (for which he was imprisoned), Havel wrote:

I fear the price we are all bound to pay for the drastic suppression of history, the cruel and needless banishment of life into the underground of society and the depths of the human soul, the new compulsory ‘deferral’ of every opportunity for society to live in anything like a natural way … No wonder, then, that when the crust cracks and the lava of life rolls out, there appear not only well-considered attempts to rectify old wrongs, not only searchings for truth and for reforms matching life’s needs, but also symptoms of bilious hatred, vengeful wrath and a kind of feverish desire for immediate compensation for all the endured degradation.

Havel’s genius was his insistence on being “calm”, and for not demanding “immediate compensation”, even though he had been imprisoned repeatedly. What a temperament. How many revolutions go off the rails when they insist on lining up the old guard against the wall and blowing their brains out? It may be satisfactory in a momentary blood-lust kind of way, but that impulse in humanity (while understandable) should not be lauded or praised – unless you feel like Madame Defarge in Tale of Two Cities is a valid role model for your nation. Good luck to you if that is the case. Good luck with ignoring historical precedent. And also good luck to you when the tide inevitably turns, as it always does, and you find yourself facing the firing squad.

Havel’s hat-trick was psychological, in many respects. He had years and years of practice. He lived under censorship and oppression. He retaliated by writing the plays he wanted to write, absurdist ironic masterpieces, which side-stepped literalism and yet left no doubt as to what he was criticizing. He’s an artist. He’s not a politician. He’s a writer. His survival instinct was from a belief in inherent human dignity and also the great make-believe mindset of “as if”. Live in truth. Nobody can tell you how to live. Nobody can say to you that you MUST ignore your basic human dignity, even if the entire political structure appears to be set up that way. Take a leap of faith. Like all actors and artists and writers do on a daily basis – it is their craft. Live AS IF you were free. Truth is not bestowed. It exists in you. Those who sneer at artists often miss the fact that they have a lot to teach regular civilians, about how to live life, and how to survive. Havel is certainly a great example of that.

On January 1, 1990, Havel officially assumed the role of President. He made an acceptance speech on that day that I consider to be one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century (and it is usually included in any such anthology).

Havel’s speech, broadcast on the radio, set the tone for all that was to follow. It is referred to as “the contaminated moral environment” speech. After decades of double-speak, decades of being lied to by their own government, decades of muffling their true sentiments, Vaclav Havel stood up and told the truth. He had been preparing for this moment since the 1960s.

We, as human beings, can recognize truth when we hear it.

Czeslaw Milosz, another famous dissident, brilliant poet, said in his speech accepting the Nobel Prize: “In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.” This is the atmosphere into which Vaclav Havel spoke, on that momentous day in 1990.

We know when we’re being lied to, deceived. Truth is unmistakable, and Havel knew that. However, and this is key, Havel did not let the Czech people off the hook which is another reason why the “velvet revolution” was so amazing. It was not about pointing fingers, screaming, “YOU DID THIS TO US”. Havel encouraged the Czech people to take responsibility for their destinies, to take responsibility for having endured the tyranny for so long, for having internalized oppression, and through that internalization – participated in it. Willingly. The “contaminated moral environment” was, to Havel, not only about the Communist regime. He addressed that comment to every Czech person who had tolerated living under tyranny. No passing the buck, no blame. Take responsibility.

Vaclav Havel’s Speech, Jan. 1, 1990

Our country is not flourishing. The enormous creative and spiritual potential of our nation is not being used sensibly … We have polluted our soil, our rivers and forests, bequeathed to us by our ancestors, and we have today the most contaminated environment in Europe. Adult people in our country die earlier than in most other European countries.

But all this is still not the main problem. The worst thing is that we live in a contaminated moral environment. We fell morally ill because we became used to saying something different from what we thought. We learned not to believe in anything, to ignore each other, to care only about ourselves. Concepts such as love, friendship, compassion, humility, or forgiveness lost their depth and dimensions, and for many of us they represented only psychological peculiarities, or they resembled gone-astray greetings from ancient times, a little ridiculous …

The previous regime — armed with its arrogant and intolerant ideology — reduced man to a force of production and nature to a tool of production … It reduced gifted and autonomous people, skillfully working in their own country, to nuts and bolts of some monstrously huge, noisy, and stinking machine, whose real meaning is not clear to anyone …

When I talk about contaminated moral atmosphere … I am talking about all of us. We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all — though naturally to differing extremes — responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery; none of us is just its victim: we are all also its co-creators …

We have to accept this legacy as a sin we committed against ourselves. If we accept it as such, we will understand that it is up to us all, and up to us only, to do something about it. We cannot blame the previous rulers for everything, not only because it would be untrue but also because it could blunt the duty that each of us faces today, namely, the obligation to act independently, freely, reasonably and quickly … Freedom and democracy include participation and therefore responsibility from us all.

If we realize this, then all the horrors that the new Czechoslovak democracy inherited will cease to appear so terrible. If we realize this, hope will return to our hearts …

In the effort to rectify matters … we have something to lean on. The recent period — and in particular, the last six weeks of our peaceful revolution — has shown the enormous human, moral, and spiritual potential and civil culture that slumbered in our society under the enforced mask of apathy. Whenever someone categorically claimed that we were this or that, I always objected that society is a very mysterious creature and that it is not wise to trust only the face it presents to you. I am happy that I was not mistaken. Everywhere in the world people wonder where those meek, humiliated, skeptical, and seemingly cynical citizens of Czechoslovakia found the marvelous strength to shake from their shoulders in several weeks and in a decent and peaceful way the totalitarian yoke…

There are free elections and an election campaign ahead of us. Let us not allow this struggle to dirty the so far clean face of our gentle revoltuion … It is not really important now which party, club, or group will prevail in the elections. The important thing is that the winners will be the best of us, in the moral, civil, political and professional sense, regardless of their political affiliations …

In conclusion, I would like to say that I want to be a president who will speak less and work more. To be a president who will … always be present among his fellow citizens and listen to them well.

You may ask what kind of republic I dream of. Let me reply: I dream of a republic independent, free, and democratic, of a republic economically prosperous and yet socially just, in short, of a humane republic which serves the individual and which therefore holds the hope that the individual will serve it in turn. Of a republic of well-rounded people, because without such it is impossible to solve any of our problems, human, economic, ecological, social, or political.

People, your government has returned to you!

You changed the world, sir.

Rest in peace.

This entry was posted in RIP, Theatre, writers and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to R.I.P., Vaclav Havel

  1. Jaquandor says:

    Damn…a hero has departed. Sometimes people question to me the efficacy of the arts and artists as forces to make the world truly better, and Havel is a fine, fine example to be able to cite.

    (BTW and FYI, the link that’s supposed to go to the New Yorker doesn’t go there.)

  2. sheila says:

    Doh! Thanks – fixed the link.

    Yes: Integrity. I am just so admiring of him. I’ll miss knowing he is out there.

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  4. MJWeber says:

    I too am very sad today. I knew the day was coming, but the reality always hurts. Bless you Vaclav Havel. The world has been blessed by your words and deeds.
    Also thank you for such an eloquent blog post. I will come back to read more of your thoughts. I would like to share this post about Havel it on Facebook with my friends, many of who are now fighting to save Wisconsin from Scott Walker. We can always use the inspiration.

  5. Catherine says:

    Wonderful post, Sheila. The universe has lost a trio of great, difficult men this week (Havel, Hitch, and George Whitman). The one positive that has come out of Havel’s death is, perhaps, the revival of a conversation about him. In 2011, Havel’s words are prescient and vital. We could all do much worse than to reflect on what he stood for. RIP.

  6. Bruce Reid says:

    “He continued to live “as if”, even as President.”

    There’ll be no finer epitaph forthcoming.

    I make a note.


  7. Bruce Reid says:

    No idea why I signed off, I meant to type Thank you for this.

    And I do.

  8. sheila says:

    // There’ll be no finer epitaph forthcoming. //

    Bruce: Thank you thank you.

    What does one say when faced with someone such as Vaclav Havel?

    He is a HERO.

    and thank you again for your words.

  9. CS says:

    Thank you for this. If you have not been there already, please go, as Prague is an incredible city. It was consolation this morning that I’ve spent some time there.

    “The first surrealist President.”
    Arthur Miller

    My bookshelf has many writers, but two occupy more space than anybody else: Vaclav Havel and Christopher Hitchens.

  10. John Vail says:

    Dear Sheila,

    What a wonderfully eloquent and erudite post on Havel-thank you so much for reposting-it must have taken you ages but it really sings (need to do dig up the Klima book asap). When I was in Prague a few years back, I had the privilege of interviewing some musicians and artists who were involved before 1989 and who, like Havel, did so much to galvanize the incipient protest and one of them took me to the bar where Havel had taken Clinton back in the 1990s when he was visiting as president (making all of the secret service people stand outside). There’s a photo up on the wall of the moment but all the people we were sitting with were keen to let me know just how many beers Clinton had managed to put away that night (8 if I recall correctly) and it was my duty as a fellow Yank to match this total, which I did only to stumble afterwards through the Old Town in search of my hotel. It’s amazing to lose yet another one of the pantheon so soon -hopefully, he and Hitchens are sitting around some cool place smoking fags and critiquing the state of the place.

  11. Bybee says:

    That speech is tough and beautiful.

  12. MsBaroque says:

    Sheila, this is wonderful! You’ve really done it up. This is a shocking death, even though he was 75 and had been ill; some people make such an impression they can never really age in our minds. Havel was a big hero to me in my 20s and I used to seek out books by Klima, too. I seem to recall that their ironic deadpan absurdism made a lot of sense in Thatcher’s Britain, too…

    Anyway I wrote something as well but nothing like this. You’re a star.

    And Arthur Miller, of course: another hero.

  13. Ken says:

    RIP indeed. It’s sort of interesting (I’m not entirely sure why I put the two together, but I do) that Putin is reported (in a few accounts, anyway) this week to be “running scared.”

  14. sheila says:

    Everyone – I am so glad to hear from all of you.

    Ms. Baroque – I loved your piece on Havel. It is true: those who did not experience the Cold War first hand have a hard time actually conceptualizing what the hell this momentous year of 1989 felt like, and what it felt like to have no information of what was going on behind that wall.

    John – Yes – this post took ages to put together! I have a book of the compiled NY Times articles of the years 1988 – 1990 regarding the crumbling of Communism. It is a massive tome, spanning the globe – from Tieneman Square to Siberia to Budapest to the halls of the Kremlin. I certainly remember reading many of these articles when they were originally printed – every day was this massive unfolding exhilarating adventure – and the compiled articles is a book I treasure. I bought it at a second-hand store in Key West for 75 cents. I refer to it often. This is what I used to put together the timeline of events, which still – still – takes my breath away.

    I love your story of Prague. It sounds wonderful!

  15. ted says:

    Your piece makes me want to go out and read the Klima book. Such a hero of our times – a true artist-revolutionary – not just someone who was along for the ride.

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  17. sheila says:

    Ted – it’s such a good book – I love Klima! I should check out his fiction as well. The book is short and sweet, and pulses with the crazy energy of those days.

    Havel is just a hero of mine. Ach. The world will miss him!

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