Vaclav Havel

It was extraordinary the degree to which everything ultimately revolved around this one man. In almost all the Forum’s major decisions and statements he was the final arbiter, the one person who could somehow balance the very different tendencies and interests in the movement. In this sense, as in Solidarity, many decisions were not made democratically. Yet a less authoritarian personality than Havel it would be hard to imagine.

Timothy Garton Ash

Having learned all those lessons, we should all fight together against arrogant words and keep a weather eye out for any insidious germs of arrogance in words that are seemingly humble.

Obviously this is not just a linguistic task. Responsibility for and toward words is a task which is intrinsically ethical.

Vaclav Havel

The revolutions that broke out across Central and Eastern Europe in the winter of 1989 and afterwards were similar in style and unique in content. Everywhere, economic decline, the absence of Soviet military force and popular protest caused governments to panic and the true face of communism to be seen, discussed and disavowed.

Each nation brought its own characteristics and created its own figureheads. Germany’s revolution was determined by the flood of migrants through the Berlin Wall and Helmut Kohl’s call for reunification, Hungary’s by the assistance of Austria’s embassy – two dissolved marriages back on track, however briefly. Poland was wrenched away from the USSR by a trade union movement and two months of round table negotiations, led by the garrulous shop steward Lech Walesa. Ukraine came into being surprisingly, practically at the whim of corrupt Leonid Kuchma and the new, chaotic Romania was sired by the mob that dragged Ceausescu from his palace and executed him.

Czechoslovakia rode an equally idiosyncratic wave. The last of the major revolutions of 1989, it was also the most intellectually charged. The last major moment of optimist, the Prague Spring, had taken place in 1968, when much of the world was convulsed by protest movements and existentialism was at its height. In 1977 the arrest of the psychedelic rock band Plastic People of the Universe led to the artist’s manifesto Charter 77 and in 1989 it was the students again, who were given the first bloody nose protesting against the regime but continued to go out onto the streets and march.

For Vaclav Havel to emerge as the nucleus of this movement still took a leap of imagination, as surprising as Nelson Mandela’s centrality to the end of apartheid after his many years of imprisonment. Havel had little of Mandela’s personal charisma but had authored not only Charter 77 but other essays that drew attention to the regime’s true nature and had been to jail twice for his beliefs. Only the Czechoslovaks would look to so peculiar a man to coordinate their negotiations with the regime and become their first post-communist president.

Havel’s contribution to 1989 survives in his literature, which will be amply discussed in the wake of his death. His later political career is more complex, but equally interesting in many ways. Havel himself would admit that he was hardly a political man by nature, and by and large he left domestic policy to his long-time Premier, Vaclav Klaus, whose keen Thatcherism he nonetheless disagreed with.

There was always a difficulty in telling whether Havel was an especially serious or playful President. He would lecture audiences on the meaning of truth and openly voice self-doubt. Yet his writer’s eye and sense of spectacle were also a part of the new Czech Republic. The guards wore new uniforms, designed by the costume man from the film Amadeus. Most amusingly, when Havel had a set of mysteriously locked doors in the Prague castle busted open, they found a full communications suite, which he used mischievously to send a New Year’s Greeting to Gorbachev in Moscow.

External relations were Havel’s specialty, which he mastered in his own unique way. It is now easy to see the extension of NATO and the enlargement of the EU as a natural result of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, but Havel played his part in both, winning over a cautious Bill Clinton (with the help of a Lou Reed concert), and in coalition with the heads of Poland, Hungary and Slovakia (the Visegrád group), successfully pounding on the doors of Europe. His celebrity made introductions easy, but he was a shrewd and influential player in European history. Oh, and he convinced Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to pay for new chandeliers on Castle Hill.

*        *       *

Much of the eulogising that has accompanied the news of Vaclav Havel’s death would have embarrassed the playwright dissident, just as the constant acclaim of high office embarrassed him on a frequent basis. A few months after becoming the President of Czechoslovakia, as it then was, Havel told an audience that “The lower I am, the more proper my place seems; and the higher I am the stronger my suspicion is that there has been some mistake.” To the surprise of many, Havel made good on his promise to go back to the theatre and writing after leaving office.

Havel may have stood for a romantic notion of Europe, as some have insinuated. He certainly sought to promote democracy and freedom as a necessary part of the human condition, in thought and deed. Thanks to Havel and at his invitation, Radio Free Europe moved East, to Wenceslas Square. If he was criticised late in his second term for siding with George W. Bush over Iraq, he might have pointed out that non-alignment was a luxury that his part of Europe did not have. His closeness to the Euro-Atlantic alliance, as well as his celebrity, ensured that security in Europe remained a pressing concern, and not merely a token element of complacent speeches.

An artist who exceeds his welcome can be reviled more than an artist who was never popular in the first place. Vaclav Havel never became a figure of contempt like Yeltsin, was never trounced in an election like Walesa or Gorbachev, and for all the worthy eulogies, was and is genuinely missed in Europe.

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