Václav Havel: director of a play that changed history
When the chance came to practise civil resistance, Václav Havel turned this into political theatre of an electrifying kind. Photograph: Lubomir Kotek/AFP/Getty Images
Hands whirring like twin propellers, Václav Havel moved with his characteristic hurried, short-paced walk across the mirrored foyer of the Magic Lantern theatre, the headquarters of the velvet revolution. The slightly stooped, stocky figure, dressed in jeans and sweater, stopped for a moment, began to speak about some "important negotiations"; scarcely three sentences in, he was swept away. He gave an apologetic smile over his shoulder, as if to say "what can a man do?"
Often Havel talked as if he was an ironic critic watching the theatre of life, but there in the Magic Lantern, in 1989, he became the lead actor and director of a play that changed history.
Havel was a defining figure of late 20th-century Europe. He was not just a dissident; he was the epitome of the dissident, as we came to understand that novel term. He was not just the leader of a velvet revolution; he was the leader of the original velvet revolution, the one that gave us a label applied to many other non-violent mass protests since 1989. (He always insisted that a western journalist coined the term.)
Havel was not just a president; he was the founding president of what is now the Czech Republic. He was not just a European; he was a European who, with the eloquence of a professional playwright and the authority of a former political prisoner, reminded us of the historical and moral dimensions of the European project.
Looking at the mess that project is in today, one can only cry: "Havel! Europe hath need of thee."
He was also one of the most engaging human beings I have ever known. I first met him in the early 1980s, when he had just emerged from several years in prison. We spoke in his riverside apartment, with its large writer’s tables and tableau view of Prague. Although the communist secret police then assessed the active core of the Charter 77 movement – probably realistically – at just a few hundred people he insisted that silent popular support was growing. One day, the flickering candles would burn through the ice. It’s important to remember that no one knew when that day would come.
In the event, it came just six years later, but it might have been 22 years, as it has been for Aung San Suu Kyi – whom Havel selflessly nominated for the Nobel peace prize, at a time when he might have won it himself. The dissident’s honour does not come from the political victor’s crown. Havel was the epitome of a dissident because he persisted in this struggle, patiently, non-violently, with dignity and wit, not knowing when or even if the outward victory would come. The success was already in that persistence, in the practice of "antipolitics" – or politics as the art of the impossible. Meanwhile, he analysed the communist system in profound but down-to-earth essays, and in letters from prison to his first wife, Olga.
In his famous parable of the Schweikian greengrocer who puts a sign in his shop window, among the apples and onions, saying "Workers of all countries, Unite!" – although, of course, the man doesn’t believe a word of it – Havel captured the essential insight on which all civil resistance draws: that even the most oppressive regimes depend on some minimal compliance by the people they govern. In a seminal essay, he talked of "the power of the powerless".
When the chance came to practise civil resistance himself, Havel turned this into political theatre of an electrifying kind. Prague’s Wenceslas Square was the stage. A cast of 300, 000 people spoke as one. Cry your eyes out, Cecil B DeMille. No one who was there will ever forget the sight of Havel and Aleksander Dubcek, the hero of 㥡 and the hero of 㥌, appearing side by side on the balcony: ’Dubcek-Havel! Dubcek-Havel!’ Or the sound of 300, 000 keyrings being shaken together, like Chinese bells. Rarely if ever has a tiny minority so rapidly become a large majority. May the same happen soon in Burma.
But Czechoslovakia – as it then still was – had the benefit of coming late to the 1989 party. The Poles, East Germans and Hungarians had done most of the hard work already, seizing the chance Gorbachev offered. When I arrived in Prague, and sought Václav out in his favourite basement pub, I joked that in Poland it had taken 10 years, in Hungary 10 months, in East Germany 10 weeks; perhaps here it would take 10 days. He immediately got me to repeat the quip to an underground video team. In the event, he was president within seven weeks. I vividly remember the moment when homemade badges appeared saying Havel for President. "May I take one?" he politely asked the student badge-peddler.
"People, your government has returned to you!" he declared in his 1990 New Year’s address as newly inaugurated head of state, echoing the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk. Those first weeks in Prague Castle were manic, hilarious, uplifting and chaotic. He showed off the original torture chamber: "I think we will use it for negotiations."
But then the hard slog of undoing communism began. All the poison accumulated over 40 years came seeping out. Harder-nosed political operators, such as Václav Klaus, thrust to the fore. So did nationalism, Slovak and eventually also Czech. Havel fought with all his eloquence to keep together Masaryk’s dream of a civic, multinational republic – in vain.
He came back as the founding president of today’s Czech Republic, which emerged from the so-called velvet divorce from Slovakia.
He felt, with good reason, that he had to be present at the creation. I think he stayed on too long in this role. Less would have been more. In diminished health, he was exhausted by the ceaseless round of ceremonial duties and petty political infighting, and, in time, his people became weary of him.
We had a long-distance argument through the 1990s about whether one could be a practising politician and an independent intellectual and at one and the same time. He insisted one could. But he would also always promise, every time we met, that once he was out of office he would write a play about the comedy of high politics, which he had now observed at first hand. Something about the powerlessness of the powerful.
Over the years, I began to doubt that he ever would. He was, however, as good as his word. "Leaving" – a characteristically ironical play about the loss of power, and the yearning to get it back – has recently been filmed, under his own direction, with his second wife, Dagmar, in a leading role.
Now, far too soon, Havel has taken his final leave. But few have left so much of value behind.
© Timothy Garton Ash