Václav Havel, who died on December 18 aged 75 , was President of Czechoslovakia and later of the Czech Republic, but enjoyed his finest hour before he attained office when, in December 1989, he led “the Velvet Revolution” which toppled the communist regime in Czechoslovakia.
In those crucial days Havel was able to draw upon the moral authority which he had built up over two decades as a dissident playwright. By contrast, as President of Czechoslovakia between 1990 and 1992 he could not prevent the disintegration of the Czechoslovak federation into its two constituent parts. And after he became President of the Czech Republic in 1993 he was little more than a titular head of state.
Havel, who had always been sceptical of the political process and who had never aimed at office, did not repine at the inevitable limitations of power. To the end of his life he commanded respect — even devotion — as a man who had suffered for his convictions. During the 1970s and 1980s he served several jail sentences, the longest of them four and a half years’ hard labour.
At the root of his protest had been a visceral loathing for what communism had done to Czechoslovakia. In 1990, in one of his early addresses as President, he spoke of the fallen regime as “a monstrous, ramshackle machine” which had bequeathed not merely economic failure but also “a spoiled moral environment”.
“We have become morally ill because we are used to saying one thing and thinking another,” he explained. “We have learned not to believe in anything, not to care about each other. Love, friendship, mercy, humility and forgiveness lost their depth and dimension.”
Havel’s attitude to communism was an extreme form of his scepticism about political parties of all kinds. Having helped to unite the opposition to communism into the Civic Forum, he was unconcerned to see the alliance fall to pieces when communism had been defeated.
In essence he was a liberal, eager to tolerate any opinion so long as it was neither dominant nor all-embracing. When communism in Czechoslovakia ceased to be a totalitarian form of government and became merely another philosophy, he no longer regarded it with hostility. As President he opposed, albeit unsuccessfully, the law under which former communists were debarred from public office.
Havel forgave himself the exercise of office by insisting upon his amateur status. “It’s almost as though I feel an impostor in this job,” he said. “I feel at any moment as though someone will come and divest me of my office and throw me back into prison.” But behind the façade he saw his task with crystal clarity — “to help this country move from totalitarianism to democracy, from satellitehood to independence, from a centrally-directed economy to market economics”.
So successfully did this democratic education proceed that even Slovakia’s secession from the Czechoslovak federation in 1992 — which Havel himself opposed — was carried through with a remarkable lack of recrimination.
“Some say I’m a naive dreamer trying to combine the incompatible: politics and morality,” he wrote in Summer Meditations (1992). “I am convinced that we will never build a democratic state based on law if we do not at the same time build a state that is ... humane, moral, intellectual and spiritual, and cultural.”
Such an aspiration was beyond the grasp of workaday politics. But then Havel was never a politician. It was only by accident, he liked to emphasise, that he had ever become a dissident. “We just happened to,” he explained, “We don’t know how. And we started landing in jails — we also don’t know how. We just did some things that seemed the decent things to do.”
Václav Havel was born on October 5 1936 into the haute bourgeoisie of Prague. His grandfather was an architect and contractor, and his father became a leading property developer. They both cultivated literary connections, and the boy grew up surrounded not merely by books but also, in many cases, by their authors. He himself began writing as soon as he knew his alphabet.
This comfortable existence changed drastically after 1948, when the Stalinists took power in a Moscow-backed coup. As business and industry were nationalised, the family firms were seized. Havel’s father became an office clerk, his mother a tour guide.
At school, Václav and his brother Ivan were persecuted as scions of capitalist privilege, and denied access to education beyond elementary school. In order to finance secondary education at night school, Václav worked for five years as a laboratory technician — though he still found the time to become heavily involved, by the age of 16, in underground literary circles.
From 1955 to 1957 he studied Economics at the Czech College of Technology, and then did his two-year stint of military service, during which he co-founded a regimental theatre company. Afterwards, rejected by the drama school at Prague University, he became a stagehand and general dogsbody at the Theatre on the Balustrade.
The theatre staged his first solo play, The Garden Party, in 1963, a time when liberal reform was being cautiously discussed among intellectuals. The play satirised the grotesque growth of totalitarian bureaucracy — and particularly its language.
The tendency of communist officialdom to evolve modes of communication which masked its true meaning became a constant theme in Havel’s work. In The Memorandum (1965) he created a new language called Ptydepe, which rejected unscientific ways of speaking in favour of a system in which the length of the word was in inverse proportion to the frequency of use. The word for “wombat”, therefore, was 319 letters long.
The Memorandum, Tom Stoppard has observed, is the play “that best shows off the hallmarks of Havel’s gift: the fascination with language; the invention of an absurd society raised only a notch or two above the normal state of bureaucracy; and not least the playfulness, the almost gentle refusal to indulge a sense of grievance, the utter lack of righteousness or petulance or bile”.
Havel’s early plays resulted in the withdrawal of his passport. But it was returned to him as the reform movement gathered support in 1968, and in May of that year he travelled to America for the production of The Memorandum in New York. It was acclaimed there, as was another derisive comedy, The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, in the next year.
But in August 1968 Alexander Dubcek’s dream of giving communism “a human face” disintegrated when the Soviet Union and four other Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia and suppressed the movement. Havel went underground, and from a secret radio station broadcast an appeal for support to Western intellectuals “in the name of all Czech and Slovak writers”.
He also addressed meetings of artists and workers, pleading with them to support the cause of human rights. The communist authorities reacted by once more withdrawing his passport, and by forcing him into menial labour, stacking barrels in a brewery. So frequently was he arrested that he decided to carry an “emergency kit” — a razor, a toothbrush and extra cigarettes — in case the secret police carried him off to prison.
When he did land in jail, Havel discovered that he was viewed with the greatest respect by the other inmates, and even by the warders, who let him know that they were “on his side” and were not responsible for his incarceration.
In 1975 he wrote an open letter to Gustav Husak, the former party leader, attacking the communist system. “The idyllic image is artificial,” he proclaimed. “It is not based on any real beliefs in the regime’s goals, any trust in your government nor even on any vague agreement with your overall policies. Corruption is widespread. There is hardly anyone who does not take bribes — from the ministers down to the plumbers.”
His courageous stand stimulated international interest in his work, not least at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, which frequently performed his plays after 1975. Three one-act pieces date from this period: Audience (1975), Interview (1975) and Protest (1978). In all of them Ferdinand Vanek, a dissident and persecuted writer, confronts those who have found ways of rationalising their conformity to the regime.
Havel was particularly affronted by the arrest of Plastic People of the Universe, a Czechoslovakian rock band that had taken its name from a song by the American singer Frank Zappa, a particular favourite of his.
In January 1977 hundreds of Czechoslovakian intellectuals were arrested for signing Charter 77, a manifesto which protested against the failure of the Slovak Socialist Republic to abide by the Helsinki Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
That May, Havel was jailed for four months, but was released after asking for his freedom in a letter to the public prosecutor. The communist authorities subsequently published his plea as evidence that he had repudiated his opposition to the regime.
The episode caused Havel much agonising. He wrote to his wife that there were “weeks, months, years in fact, of silent desperation, self-castigation, shame, inner humiliation, reproach and uncomprehending questioning”.
In his play Largo Desolato (1984) the leading protagonist suffers similar doubts; while in Temptation (1985) one of the more doubtful characters reflects on the complications of maintaining integrity. “The truth,” he points out, “isn’t merely what we believe, after all, but also why and to whom and under what circumstances.”
By that time Havel had amply salvaged his conscience. In October 1977 he had been given a 14-month sentence for subversion, which had consisted of sending his writings abroad for publication. Then, with other Charter 77 signatories, he formed a branch of the dissident movement called the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted.
For this further example of defiance, and for promoting a petition for the release of political prisoners, Havel was sentenced to four and a half years’ hard labour. After a year in jail he was offered his freedom, on condition he travelled to America, where another of his plays was to be staged in New York. He refused, declaring that so long as his friends stayed in prison, he would prefer to be with them than on Broadway.
The letters he wrote from his prison cell were published in the West as Letters to Olga (1989). In them he asserted that people who do not lose hope and faith in life never come to a bad end.
Freed from prison in 1983, Havel continued his campaign against the government. In 1987 he was among the signatories to a letter supporting reforms in Czechoslovakia, which was sent to Mikhail Gorbachev. In 1988 he became a member of the Czech Helsinki Committee, and in the following January he was back in jail again, sentenced to nine months for organising a rally to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of Jan Palach, the student who burned himself to death in protest against the Soviet invasion of 1968.
Nearly 700 writers, actors, artists, film directors and others signed a letter demanding his release. In Warsaw the Polish prime minister, Mieczyslaw Rakowski, pointedly attended one of Havel’s banned plays. After four months of agitation, the Czech government was forced to free Havel on the ground of his “exemplary conduct” in jail.
Meanwhile, as President Gorbachev initiated reform in the Soviet Union, a wave of democratisation spread over Eastern Europe. In November 1989 Havel took another bold step when he helped to found Civic Forum, which demanded the resignation of hardline communist leaders.
Within a few weeks, in the face of mass defections from the Party and demonstrations on the streets, the government began to crack. Wenceslas Square in Prague became the emotional rallying point for the opposition, and photographs of Havel appeared in shop windows. In December, President Husák resigned; an interim coalition cabinet was formed; and free elections called.
At the end of the month the cabinet unanimously elected Havel interim president. Somewhat to his own surprise, he discovered that he was capable of extempore public speech. “Listen,” he told the crowds, “these are transitory times. Everything’s happening at a mad pace, there are no ready-made politicians of tomorrow able to step in today. So, for a short period, people will have to do with symbols — and they are taking me for one, though God knows why.
“I am only on supply, an amateur standing in for a professional politician. I hope that soon I will be allowed to step down and be a playwright again. I have never dodged what I felt was my responsibility as a writer and my duty as a citizen. A citizen mind you, not a statesman of any kind.”
Havel further emphasised his unconventional approach to power by giving Frank Zappa a position in the Ministry of Culture. He also confessed to enjoying composing motorcades of cars of different colours. He seemed in no hurry to move into the castle above Prague where the presidential staff were housed, preferring to remain in the family apartment close to Wenceslas Square.
He put his reputation to work by travelling abroad — to the United States, to Israel, to France and to Britain. After the elections in June 1990, Parliament confirmed him as President by a majority of 234 to 50. But the honeymoon was drawing to a close.
Havel’s idealistic opposition to the arms industry and to the sale of weapons abroad antagonised many. In Slovakia the desire for independence grew, fuelled by impatience at the government’s hasty privatisation policy. Havel’s espousal of a cautious middle way in economic matters earned him the antagonism of both sides.
The Slovaks accused him of surrounding himself with a Czech-dominated circle of sociologists, philosophers and artists. When he went to Bratislava in October 1991 he was jeered by separatists.
Havel proposed that the issue of Slovakian independence should be settled by a referendum. At the popular level there was strong support for the maintenance of the federation, but politically the union was doomed. The elections of June 1992 gave a Left-wing nationalist Slovakian party the second-biggest representation in the federal parliament, while in Czech regions the Civic Democratic Party, a Right-wing federalist organisation, scored highest.
The result made it impossible to form a federal government save on a provisional basis, pending secession. To emphasise the point, the Slovakian nationalists blocked Havel’s re-election as president. He resigned on July 20 1992, walking out of Prague castle wearing a T-shirt and carrying a backpack. On January 1 1993 the federation was disbanded.
To give the impression of continuity, and to foster relations with the West, Václav Klaus, the prime minister of the Czech Republic, was eager that Havel should be President of the new country — though determined he should be little more than a figurehead.
Havel demanded a final veto over legislation and the right to dissolve parliament, but was obliged to accept office without winning these concessions. In some ways he was out of sympathy with Klaus’s administration and its pursuit of bustling economic success; it had never been his ideal that the Czech Republic should become “the Netherlands of the East”. But where his instincts matched government policy — for example, in the desire that the Czech Republic should be a member of Nato and the European Union — he campaigned with zeal.
Havel gave only occasional vent to his idealism, speaking up, for instance, against the ill treatment of gipsies. But it did not go down well with his countrymen when, anxious to appease Germany, he apologised for the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans after the Second World War.
By the end of his term in office there was increasing criticism of his interference in the day-to-day politics of the Czech Republic. None the less, he still commanded sufficient respect to be re-elected as President in January 1998, albeit scraping through in a second-round vote amid worries about his faltering health (he was formerly a chain smoker, and had several operations for lung cancer); although this continued to cause concern, he completed his term of office.
In May 2008 Havel won a standing ovation at the premiere of his new play Leaving, marking a successful return to theatre after two decades. The play was inspired by King Lear and The Cherry Orchard, and depicts a former ruler whose world falls apart after he leaves office. A film version of the play was released in March this year.
Havel published a memoir of his years as president, To the Castle and Back, in 2007.
In 2003 he was awarded the International Gandhi Peace Prize and received Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award for his work in promoting human rights. In 2004 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Václav Havel married first, in 1964, Olga Splíchalová, who died in 1996; they had no children. He married secondly, in 1997, Dagmar Veskrovna, an actress.
Václav Havel, born October 5 1936, died December 18 2011 - Obituary Source - The Daily Telegraph