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Vaclav Havel: Pravda Vitezi

The motto of the Czechs- the truth shall prevail- has been used since the time of Jan Hus

Yet for much of that time, the ancient lands of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia have been subjugated to other Crowns. The Czech sensibility- cynical, non conformist and intellectual- is well captured in the English word "Bohemian" and is shaped by resistance to authority. 

Since the fall of the Winter King after the battle of the White Mountain in 1620, Czech leaders have often combined these rebellious qualities. Hus himself had previously embodied some of them, and so did the nineteenth century Czech nationalist, Frantisek Palacky. The writer, Jaroslav Hasek, completely captures the Czech sensibility in his immortal character, the Good Soldier Svejk

All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that most international mourners of Vaclav Havel have not mentioned just how Czech he was. From his gruff, slightly woodwind voice with its strong Prague accent, to his complete determination to use peaceful means to speak to his enemies, Vaclav Havel was in the rich tradition of his Czech predecessors, and especially Tomas Masaryk, the beloved founder of Czechoslovakia.

As a teenager, at the bitter height of the cold war, I read his essays and letters that were smuggled past the Czechoslovak secret police- the StB- with a growing personal awareness that the Communist system was a totalitarian obscenity, if it denied such humane and wise voices. The Power of the Powerless remains a powerful testament to the moral force of the individual, both in totalitarian and democratic systems. Not for the last time, it pointed out the failings of his fellow citizens, as they mouthed the empty ritual of Communist propaganda. For Havel, feted as he later became, was not a comfortable hero. His vision of "the truth shall prevail" was rooted in an uncompromising political morality. 

As the Czechs and Slovaks bent the knee to the system, in the terrible years of "normalisation", after the crushing of the reformer Alexander Dubcek's attempts to lead the country into a more open direction during the Prague Spring, those who chose to dissent from the totalitarian norms- including Dubcek himself- were severely punished. After 1977, those who signed the Charter 77 dissident manifesto, were subjected to the full panoply of informers, harassment, imprisonment and torture. Havel, for all his international fame, was no exception. Only a few hundred signed the document, and dissidents were small in number and isolated by the full weight of Communist oppression. Havel and his friends got to know the inside of Czech prisons all too well. His letters from prison to his first wife Olga, published as Letters to Olga, are a testament to the strength of an extraordinary man- and an extraordinary woman. During his increasingly long and harsh stays in prison, he was regularly beaten, and developed TB, which was untreated for some time- a source of much of the lung problems that beset his later life, of course not mitigated by his Bohemian smoking habit. Others, with whom he was in contact, such as the journalist Ervin Motl, were treated even more harshly, and their lives were shortened even more by the torture they endured..

Even at the beginning of 1989, Vasek remained in gaol, and Olga was under the close surveillance of the StB. Yet the miracle of 1989 saw the revolution, which although nicknamed "velvet" was no less complete for all that. I had stayed in touch with support groups for Charter 77, and it still seemed, that for all the gathering tumult in Hungary and Poland that Czechoslovakia would still remain firmly under the control of the apparat. The reality, as we now know, was far sweeter.

As the demonstrations in East Germany, moved from wir sind das volk -we are the people- to wir sind EIN volk -we are ONE people- the missteps of the StB began to undermine the hated regime of Gustav Husak. The Charter 77 dissidents transmuted themselves into the Civic Forum- an echo, perhaps, of the East German New Forum- and set themselves up in the Laterna Magika theatre, a stone's throw from Vaclavske namesti- Wenceslas Square. In the course of an astonishing couple weeks, Dubcek and Havel appeared on a balcony in the square, the crowds grew beyond the capacity of the square to hold them, and finally the Communist government collapsed. Through it all came the call "Havel na Hrad"- Havel to the castle- a call for him to assume power in Prague Castle as the free leader of a free people.

It was at this time that many chose to view Havel as a kind of secular saint- an attitude which irritated him. At that time, in the inevitable cloud of tobacco smoke, he still preferred to seek out the company of those he knew he could trust, and that remained a fairly small number of people. I met him at the house of one of the Chartists in 1990, where we celebrated in beer and songs- and the inevitable cigarettes- a party that was truly Bohemian. Marta Kubisova, a singer who had been banned under normalisation, sang the song she was best known for in 1968- the prayer for Marta- with its quote from the Czech philosopher Komensky. Havel's eyes were as bright as mine as the timeless words of Czech national yearning held us spellbound in the small room.

Olga Havlova became an unconventional first lady, her office full of her throaty laughter, and she and Vasek sought to place the rapidly changing politics of Czechoslovakia within a broader moral context- not always successfully. Neither could Havel or Dubcek resist the growing divorce between the political lives of Czechs and Slovaks within the increasingly fractious Czecho-Slovak Federation. The illness and death of Olga isolated him, and though he had never wanted for female company, the Czechs were mildly shocked when he remarried relatively soon after Olga's death- and Dagmar, the actress who become his second wife, was forced to endure considerable misunderstanding and even abuse. Despite the break up of the Federation, Havel was offered and accepted the Presidency of the Czech Republic, yet to many Czechs by then his virtues were more symbolic than practically political. His own health, from this time was never sure- cancer of the lung was diagnosed, and he was forced into unpleasant and radical surgery. 

A connoisseur of "Absurdistan", Havel's humour was part of his qualities of endurance and as a writer he appreciated the absurd situations that his position and sudden fame had catapulted him into. He continued to write, and his memoirs - To the Castle and Back- contain many dryly humourous vignettes. For some years, he traveled between his homes in Bohemia and Portugal, and his large and airy flat in Prague,though this year he was clearly increasingly unwell.

In office he revelled in taking dignitaries to the various Czech pivnice which he liked in Prague- and the sense of puckish rebellion which that implied, was not the least of his Bohemian qualities. He appointed Frank Zappa as a cultural ambassador, and continued to be scornful of those who were conformist and narrow minded. For Vaclav Havel, bourgeois appearance was not necessarily the truth, and he had no need for pretence or pretension.

For, whether punished as a dissident or feted as a President, he remained entirely a writer and thinker committed to living in truth- for him, as the quintessential Czech, that ultimately the truth would indeed prevail was not a matter for debate: it was simply a question of what kind of truth it would be.


Western Europe Ambassador, said…
Hi Cicero, it is lovely to learn about how you read Havel's essays and letters as a teenager. Do watch the fish-head movie featuring Vaclav Havel too. .

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