Vaclav Havel, the much-lauded Czech writer and dissident turned President after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, in which “people power” led to a peaceful transition of power after 40 years of communist rule, passed away on December 18. He was 75 years old and died in his sleep at his country house in northern Bohemia with his second wife, actress Dagmar Veškrnová, present. His experience as a dissident who spent years in Communist prisons and his powerful writings — not only his plays with their critique of the regime but even more his open letter to the Communist leader Gustav Husák, his essay “The Power of the Powerless” and his Letters to Olga, written while imprisoned from 1979 to 1983 — seem all the more important to recall now, as we close a year in which popular uprisings have ended the rule of dictators in the Arab world and in which the protester,”occupying” on Wall Street and cities throughout the US, Canada and Europe, has become an emblematic figure.
Born to wealth
Born to a wealthy bourgeoisie family — both his father and grandfather were architect-engineers and his mother’s father was a writer and ambassador — Havel grew up, by his own admission, as a child of privilege. After the Communists came to power in 1948, the family properties were confiscated and in what David Remnick in the New Yorker calls “an act of reverse social engineering” Havel and his brother, Ivan, were not allowed to attend the better schools. Indeed, Havel had to leave school at 15 and worked as a laboratory assistant and served in the engineer corps before entering the world of the theatre and in particular the Theatre on the Balustrade, “a center of bohemian artists” where he was one of the few from a bourgeois family. Havel’s plays from this era — “The Garden Party,” “The Memorandum,” and “The Increased Difficulty of Concentration” — were politically daring (they included satires of “old guard Stalinists“) and won him an international reputation during the 1960s Prague Spring under Party reformer Alexander Dubcek.
Soviet invasion changes everything
But in 1968 the Soviet Union invaded Prague and Havel’s plays were banned in his own country; he then composed one-act plays that were performed covertly in private homes. He also became one of the founders of Charter 77, a movement for democratic change, and of Vons (the Czech acronym of Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted) — and Czechoslovakia’s most famous dissident. Havel was kept under constant surveillance by authorities and jailed for “anti-state activity.” Letters to Olga was written, as Remnick says, “under terrific pressure, including that of a pro-Nazi warden who made sure the letters had no mysterious erasures or codes,” while Havel was working in the prison laundry. As he wrote, he hid the drafts “in mountain of dirty sheets stained by millions of unborn children” and revised them during the noon break.
But by the end 1989, as the BBC recounts, the communist party was “disintegrating.” After 18 days of peaceful protests and strikes — the Velvet Revolution — the communist government was defeated and, by December of 1989, Havel was installed as the head of state in Prague’s Roman Catholic cathedral, an occasion that he afterwards said he had “never felt so absurd” about.
Such contradictions, says WL Webb in the Guardian, were
…the very means by which his life and work hung together with great consistency. Some were more apparent than real, such as the contrasting (as if a falsity was being shrewdly detected) of the deep seriousness of his public, political utterances with the informal gaiety, even glamour, of his refurbishing of the castle above the Vltava.
Within months of his arrival, he had it spectacularly lit at night by Jan Svoboda, Prague’s great set designer, and new costumes for the guard were commissioned from the costume designer of Miloš Forman’s film Amadeus. The young president scuttled along the endless corridors, zooming on a child’s scooter from meeting to meeting, surrounded by vibrant young collaborators from artistic and intellectual life, under walls newly hung with modern paintings.
Major rocker, friend of counterculture
The bohemian playwright who admired the Velvet Underground and the Plastic People of the Universe made the American rock musician Frank Zappa an honorary cultural ambassador. Indeed, Havel covered the side of the castle with a large neon heart, fitting for someone whose slogan during the revolution was that “truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.”
Havel was mocked for his idealism; as Jiri Pehe, his chief political adviser from 1997 to 1999, said, “initially, he had difficulty changing his mentality from being a dissident to a politician” and it was not without some truth that he was said to be more popular aboard than at home. Under Havel, Czechoslovakia made a difficult transition from communism to capitalism with state industries privatized and rising corruption. Yet, continues Pehe, Havel was able to use his “moral authority” and international reputation to good ends, says Webb, “to lay the foundations of a rapprochement between the Czechs and Germany,” as well as making a case for the country’s entry to NATO and the European Union.
This video shows Havel and President Bill Clinton in 1994.
Controversial second marriage
Havel resigned as president in 1992 when Slovakian nationalists campaigned for, and won, their independence. He was then reelected as president of the new Czech Republic in January of 1993 and served until 2003. He won a second presidential term in 1998 by only one vote in Parliament, in part because, in 1997, he had married his second wife, a year after the death from cancer of his first wife Olga. She and Havel had been together for 45 years; Olga was from a poor background and they had married to the intense displeasure of Havel’s mother. Feeling compelled to explain his second marriage to an actress twenty years younger than him whose previous roles included that of a topless vampire, Havel addressed the nation, saying that Olga “is, and always will be, an irreplaceable part of my soul. I married Dasa [Dagmar] not to replace Olga but simply because we love each other and want to live together.”
The criticism about his second marriage was just one instance of Havel’s own assessment of himself, says the New York Times: Havel
“frequently told interviewers that he had unwittingly become a character from a fairy tale, whom he himself did not recognize.”
After his second presidential term ended in 2003, Havel supported human rights activists (including China’s Liu Xiaobo after he had won the Nobel Peace Prize) around the world and returned to writing. He praised the US invasion of Iraq, for ending the rule of a dictator, Saddam Hussein. In 2007, he published a memoir of his presidential years, To the Castle and Back; in 2008, he wrote a new tragicomedy, Leaving, about a former political leader (and a womanizer, which Havel had something of a reputation as) who looks back with less than delight at his previous life in politics.
A smoker for most of his life, Havel’s health was also poor after his years in and out of Communist prisons. He had lung cancer (he almost died during surgery in 1996), blood poisoning, pneumonia, a perforated bowel; he was said to have been suffering from respiratory illnesses since the spring.
In Prague today, Czechs stood in line to pay their last respects to Havel and left candles and flowers on Wenceslas Square, the center of the 1989 Velvet Revolution. His funeral will probably be held on Friday, December 23. A crowd in the square observed a minute of silence as the statue of St. Wenceslas — Wenceslas is English for Vaclav — in black.
As one speaker at a ceremony in honor of Havel said, “Vaclav Havel is dead but his legacy will live on.”
Both of the above photos were taken on December 18 in Prague by David Short.
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