Havel, Václav Jiří Suk

Václav Havel (1936) is one of the few Czechs who have become internationally famous. He is ranked among the most influential and intellectual politicians in the world, which makes critical evaluation of his thoughts and actions all the more difficult, especially when his life is so full of paradoxical contrasts. We can divide his life into three periods, each one forming a complete and enclosed block. Every biographer begins his task by looking for the inner links which connect individual periods, separated by sharp historical breaks, into one unit. At the same time, the biographer has to find and identify certain contradictions and ruptures in the individual life as a whole. Clearly, this intention cannot be fulfilled in a biographical sketch such as this.

The first period of Václav Havel’s public life consists of the years 1956–1968, when he established himself as a successful playwright and an intellectual involved in public life. The first milestone on the path of his maturity came in 1956. There is a direct connection here with the loosening of the bolts in the Soviet Union (Khrushchev’s exposure of the “Cult of Personality” at the 20th Congress of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union). The same year marked the end of the initial phase of the aggressive and brutal introduction and reinforcement of the communist system in Czechoslovakia; the regime did not weaken, but it became uncertain. This was the beginning of a period of first disenchantments and new illusions, a time when the “roundabout of hope and disappointment, compromised remedies and compromised liquidations, resurrected ideals and their new betrayals” began to turn. The writer and intellectual observed the changes in the inner mechanism and operations of the regime very attentively from the place on the periphery allocated to him by the regime, a place he willingly accepted. The strange, self-absorbed functionary politics of the communist state infiltrated everything and for a sharp observer with a developed sense of reality this was great material for intense perception and contemplation. His personal and family experiences of the past few years, like the world of Kafka’s novels and that of the characters of the French theater of the absurd, focused Havel’s attention on this strange, thoroughly ideologized world. He found in himself a sense of the dramatic and began to perceive the world surrounding him like a theatrum. The age was marked by a monstrous theatricality. No one could escape the pathetic and theatrical images of the regime’s manifestations, its indestructible unity confirmed by “long and stormy applause” at congresses and conventions; no one was able to hide from the perverse staging of political processes and no one was able to avoid the purely formal and boring meetings of all official organizations.

Although Havel was speaking from the periphery, he was saying things that were not normally heard. His testimonies were a reminder that political, cultural, historical, and other criteria laid down as evident by the communist regime were not evident at all; they were simply a screen hiding reality. His point seems trivial today; back then, however, it was provocative, like a daring, almost arrogant, voice from another place sending a message that creative art and public speaking in general need to be based on reality alone, not on ideological prefabrications. A good example is Havel’s first public appearance in November 1956 at a meeting of young writers in the chateau of Dobříš,1 an augury of his personal commitment in the years ahead—1968–1969, 1976–1977, and 1989. The young writers of the regime, associated with the newly founded magazine Květen (“May”), announced their “Everyday Poetry” program with the panache of founders and inventors, not even registering that this had been the interwar program of Karel Čapek’s “Civilism” (Neue Sachlichkeit), and of the artists and writers of Group 42 during World War II. The arrogance and egoism of the regime’s culture was stunning. The 20 year old Havel—shy but conscientious—decided to negate it publicly. He prepared a speech which he delivered in the presence of celebrities of contemporary literature—pillars of socialist realism, laureates of state awards. He expressed an opinion labeled as “sharp and openly critical” and evoked general animosity. At this moment, at the very beginning of his literary life, Václav Havel was born as homo politicus.

This manifested itself during the years 1967–1969 when Havel was intensely involved in the Union of Czechoslovak Writers. Here he tried to gain some territory that the uncertain regime granted, albeit reluctantly, under pressure. During this time Havel formulated his first concept of a confident citizenship that does not flinch from the difficulties placed in its way by an authoritarian state. During the first week of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, from August 21 to August 27, 1968, he actively participated in the civil actions against the occupation. Broadcasting on North Bohemian radio from Liberec, where he was staying at the time, he challenged the nation to a wise and persevering “struggle,” and emphasized that it should be prepared for a long and exhausting “resistance” that would follow as soon as the nationwide euphoria dissipated. Prior to the first anniversary of the invasion in August 1969 he wrote to the leading politician of the Prague Spring, Alexandr Dubček, inviting him to defend the freedom the nation had spontaneously fought for in previous months, and suggesting that it was civil society he should feel responsible for, not the Communist Party. Dubček, however, like most of the reform communists of the Prague Spring, did not take his advice. Freedom was lost, and politics as a public concept became impossible.

The middle stage of Havel’s life is defined by the years 1969 and 1989. As a writer he was banned in Czechoslovakia, his books were not published, and his plays were not performed in the theaters. “From the wreckage of a collapsed world malevolently grew a world that was essentially different—ruthless, dismally serious, and Asia hard.” In the 20 years of “real socialism” under Gustav Husák and Miloš Jakeš, which Havel identified as a posttotalitarian regime in his The Power of the Powerless (1978), a supreme test awaited him. He found himself bearing witness to his concept of “inner freedom” in the aggravated conditions of constant surveillance by the secret police, hazing by bureaucrats, publicly slander, and imprisonment for several years. He became one of the most closely watched opponents of the regime.

The origin of Charter 77, one the most significant antitotalitarian initiatives in the Soviet bloc, was directly connected to an attack by the communist regime on the underground musical band the Plastic People of the Universe in 1976. The long-haired youths who only wanted to live an independent life and play their own music were characterized as rebels by the socialist state system and the authorities decided to crack down on them as criminal elements. The politicians and their police did not expect anyone to defend the idiosyncratic musicians, but they were wrong. Václav Havel and the philosopher Jiří Němec realized that this was not simply getting even with political rivals; it was “an attack by the totalitarian system on life itself and on human freedom and integrity.” The judicial attack on the nonconformist musicians could have become “a precedent for something very bad,” and that was why something had to be done to defend them. Havel and Němec managed to get 70 celebrities to join in their protest; the issue gained widespread international publicity, and the state authorities, caught off guard, had to loosen the reins. A fabricated lawsuit against the Plastic People became a local but significant manifestation of solidarity with the unfairly accused and was a display of active animosity against the regime’s despotism.

After the trial, Havel and Němec realized that a society had come into existence which should not go to waste, since many others shared their view. At the end of 1976 a civic initiative was born, called Charter 77, that unified people who held various opinions and beliefs—democrats of humanist traditions, Christians (Catholics and Protestants), reform communists, activists from the nonconformist underground, famous and not so famous people, those from the center and those from the periphery. In its introductory announcement, the Charter, as a free civic association, identified with human rights as a basis for criticism of President Husák’s regime, which had ratified an international treaty on human rights in 1975 and the following year incorporated it in the Czechoslovak legal code. The aims of the Charter were not political; it was not interested in being an organization with statutes and a program, but rather proclaimed itself to be a “free, informal and open association” that followed and documented cases where the communist regime breached these commitments. Two hundred and forty-two Czechoslovak citizens signed the Charter 77 declaration. There were two spokespersons as well as Václav Havel—the 1968 Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Jiří Hájek and the philosopher Jan Patočka.

The communist regime did not hesitate. It immediately initiated a demagogic campaign against the Charter and its signatories, without the Charter itself having even been published. Every daily newspaper and radio and television broadcast spewed out lies and slander, treacherous programs and reports. Some of the best known are the infamous articles in the communist daily Rudé právo (Red Law) “Wreckers and Usurpers” and “Who is Václav Havel?” The campaign climaxed with a gathering of actors, writers, singers, and other artists in the National Theater where, in front of television cameras, they supported President Husák’s regime by signing the so-called Anti-Charter. Detention, arrests, and other hazing of the signatories by the state security police had already started at the beginning of 1977. Václav Havel and others were detained for the first time on January 6. The ostentatious propaganda of the regime evoked a wave of solidarity, with protests by Western artists, intellectuals, and politicians. For the first time since 1968, shackled Czechoslovakia emerged from the fog of oblivion. The Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted (VONS) was established in April 1977. It was made up of 18 Charter 77 signatories including Václav Havel. Working in VONS demanded daily attention to cases of individual political prisoners. The symbolic significance of Charter 77 and the practical activities of VONS significantly helped Czechoslovakia to return to the consciousness of democratic Europe.

The responsibility for the direction of Charter 77 and the urgent need to clarify the new situation persuaded Havel to write his best-known and apparently most influential “dissident” work, The Power of the Powerless, completed in October 1978. Here he formulated his utopia-like concept of “dissent” as a place of “existential revolution” and of “living in truth,” and as the embryo of the future “postdemocratic society.” What Václav Havel and Charter 77 represented was not rebellion but a moral defiance. It was the defense of a parallel polis of liberty and freedom of speech, unburdened by the baggage of party jargon and communist ideology. Havel was imprisoned in 1977, 1979–1983, and 1989 for his firm opinions and attitude.

The third phase of Havel’s life is connected with his political involvement from 1989–2003. Probably the biggest paradox of his life was the fact that although as a writer and intellectual he had never turned his back on active participation in civil society, he had never entertained ambitions to become a professional politician. This corresponded to his origin and temperament, and the choices he made in life. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and in the first half of the 1980s, this choice was absolutely adequate. However, toward the end of the communist regime in Eastern Europe, it did not correspond to a significantly changed reality. International and domestic distinction and the increasing influence of his words far exceeded the limited prestige of the writer. Czechoslovak society, which for so many long years had been silenced, deviously watched, and threatened, did not have another person of such caliber who would symbolize and unify the movement of the protest being born. Havel faced a dilemma one could hardly imagine—he possessed symbolic power that could not yet be supported by real power. He was constantly being watched by the secret police—any political gesture could have led to his arrest. At the same time it was clear to him that he could not be silent and pull back into seclusion, because that would completely deny his whole life as an involved citizen. He tried to find a way out of the dilemma by tersely reiterating that he would not be “king,” only “kingmaker.” Hence he did not surrender his influence on the res publica, and that is exactly where this conflict lay; because he was basically saying: I will not be a politician, but I will involve myself in politics for a while.

“The year of miracles, 1989” began in Czechoslovakia with the stormy Palach Week (January 15–21).2 For several days, thousands of citizens demonstrated their aversion to the regime in the center of Prague. With one exception, all the gatherings were brutally dispersed. Together with other dissidents and civic activists, Václav Havel was arrested on January 16 and in February sentenced in a show trial to nine months in prison. The state authorities must have been taken aback by the animosity the arrest evoked. Those protesting were no longer just signatories of Charter 77 and other independent initiatives, but also artists, scientists, students, and ordinary people who had theretofore been loyal to the communist regime. Several thousand people signed petitions in February and March. American senators proposed Václav Havel for the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize. The Czechoslovak committee for the support of this proposal collected over 5,000 signatures. The communist regime, falling into international isolation, evidently had no idea what to do. In May 1989, halfway through Havel’s sentence, they released him. Upon his return from prison Havel, with Alexandr Vondra and Jiří Křižan, initiated and organized the civil petition “A Few Sentences.” By November it had been signed by 40,000 citizens who wanted political change. That unleashed the brutal dispersal of the peaceful student demonstration on November 17.

On November 19 the Civic Forum, established and led by Václav Havel, took the lead in the civil unrest. Through the weight of his authority, Havel became a true and respected leader of the Czechoslovak democratic movement. After a week in which the Communist Party waged a persistent but pointless propaganda fight to maintain control over the media, it started to vacate its position and change its strategy of uncompromising “class war” to tactics of survival and adaptation to new circumstances. The day that President Gustáv Husák abdicated, the Civic Forum and Public Against Violence (its Slovak equivalent), announced Václav Havel’s candidature for presidential office. On December 29, 1989, in a ceremonial conference of the Federal Assembly in Prague Castle, Václav Havel was unanimously elected President. In June 1990 he was confirmed in his office for a two-year period. After the separation of Czechoslovakia into two independent states in 1993, he was elected by the Czech parliament as the first President of the Czech Republic, and was once again confirmed in this office in 1998.

At the close of the “year of miracles,” the 53-year-old playwright, author, civic activist, and dissident entered a new chapter of his life. He entered big league politics, even though in September 1989 he had still been resolutely declaring that he would “never set foot on the terrain of politics.”

Havel decided to make the presidential office, which in Husák’s era had only been a distorted decoration and appendage of Communist Party power, a dynamic political institution. He undertook numerous domestic and international visits and was spontaneously and warmly received everywhere—he accepted honorary doctorates at world-renowned universities, politicians, and foundations awarded him with prestigious prizes; he visited the United States, the Soviet Union, Germany, Great Britain, and many other lands. At home, he welcomed the Dalai Lama, the Pope, the President of the USA, and other statesmen. He daringly (and in some cases unfortunately) opened taboo subjects and political and social issues that had been ignored. Havel’s prestige and popularity was so high that in the beginning it was difficult to see beyond it the problems of a transforming society that were beginning to break out. Havel’s political failures may be considered to be the following: questionable decisions and hesitations; the extensive and organizationally mismanaged amnesty of 1990; the unfortunately unconsidered opening of the Czech-Slovak issue; the shifting of the issue of settling with the Communist Party and the past; and perhaps also the fact that despite his will and intentions in Czechoslovakia (and the Czech Republic) he established a party-political system stigmatized by corruption and patronage and in many ways detached from the real problems of the country.

It is normal and human for politicians to make mistakes. And Václav Havel’s situation was twice as difficult. The transfer of Czechoslovak society from a totalitarian to a democratic system was extremely complicated and did not have a precedent. It was impossible to manage it smoothly and without errors. It is always necessary to consider thoroughly the statesman’s share in failure—what he could and what he could not influence, where it was actually him who had failed and where it was somebody else, where something could have been dealt with differently, and where there was no alternative. The second trouble lay in Havel’s prestige and popularity, as mentioned earlier. Completely uncritically, people expected more of him than of an ordinary mortal. That must have made the disappointment that much greater. At the start, after long years of flatness and uniformity of opinion, incapable of critical distance, the newly-awakened society succumbed to admiration of its new President. Only later was it capable of evaluating his politics in a more pragmatic and critical manner. Very often though, the criticism—based on contemporary political battles—came to unreasonable and stupid conclusions, as if all of a sudden it wanted to get rid of the “Havel complex” that it had so enthusiastically acquired to start with. There were times when Havel had once again to face vulgar slander and campaigns as in the past. Despite all this, he was a very successful politician. Not many intellectuals, acting in opposition to a totalitarian regime anywhere in the world, have been able to handle such a complex change. The fundamental political goals that he set as head of the state have been fulfilled—the accession of the Czech Republic to NATO and the European Union.


1 / The chateau of Dobříš, just outside Prague, was a state-sponsored “hotel” where writers could spend a few weeks in conditions conducive to contemplation.

2 / The student Jan Palach set fire to himself on January 16, 1969, as a protest against the increasing apathy of the Czechoslovak people toward the Soviet occupation. He died on January 19.