Archive for December 1st, 2014

The man who was “the soul of the Czech nation”

Monday, December 1st, 2014

havel5In an era that is so cynical about its politicians and leaders, it’s nice to know that Václav Havel even existed (we’ve written about him here and here). So we can be grateful to a new biography by Michael Žantovsky, Havel’s former press secretary, advisor, and longtime friend, for reminding us in his new biography Havel: A Life. Publishers Weekly called it “a vivid and intimate biography of the playwright-turned-statesman who came to embody the soul of the Czech nation.” The review continues:

“Though Žantovský claims to have relied on his “dispassionate notes” and training as a clinical psychologist while writing, the unfettered access he enjoyed to Havel during his presidency’s most eventful years undoubtedly accounts for much of the book’s insight into his personality—equal parts self-doubt, stubbornness, and vision. After covering Havel’s riches-to-rags childhood (his family lost its wealth in the 1948 Communist takeover, when Havel was 12 years old) the book focuses on his achievements as a dissident, highlighting the qualities that made him the ideal person to peacefully negotiate an end to Communist rule during the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Žantovský evokes the heady excitement of Havel’s early days as Czechoslovakia’s first popularly elected president, assembling a government of fellow artists and philosophers and pursuing a “continent-wide” agenda to bring his country back into Western Europe. Žantovský lends a more impartial eye to Havel’s subsequent 10-year term as president of the newly formed Czech Republic, when he was no longer at Havel’s side, and to the travails of his last years. This moving, perceptive chronicle succeeds in showing the many dimensions of a towering 20th-century figure.

It also gets high marks in an article by Daniel Johnson in the current issue of Standpoint (hat tip to Dave Lull for this), who remembers the Velvet Revolution:

It happened because Havel understood that those who overthrow a system have a responsibility to prove that they are morally superior to those they have ousted. He was magnanimous in victory: “Those who have for many years engaged in a violent and bloody vengefulness against their opponents are now afraid of us. They should rest easy. We are not like them.”

For journalists who were there — watching and listening to the street theatre in Wenceslas Square, or taking notes at the press conferences held by the Civic Forum in an actual theatre, the Magic Lantern — the pathos of Havel’s performance was unforgettable. Nobody else — not even Alexander Dubček, who had seen the Prague Spring crushed by Russian tanks 20 years before, and who also stood on the balcony in the square — could have brought this drama to its climax. Havel was the Bohemian who personified la Bohème.

Revolutions are often betrayed and end in blood. Since 1989, we have seen the use and abuse of people power many times — most recently in the Arab Spring. Yet the Velvet Revolution remains as an unsurpassed model of peaceful change.

How did Havel do it? Tension had been rising since the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9. On November 17, 1989, the riot police crushed a demonstration in Prague and a student was (falsely) reported killed. Three days later, having set up the “Civic Forum”, Havel appeared before a sea of 150,000 people in Wenceslas Square. Once he had drawn a critical mass of people to the square, the old fear of the secret police vanished. The atmosphere was festive, never menacing, with speakers appealing to the crowds, who answered spontaneously but in unison. They dared to mock Miloš Jakeš, the general secretary of the Communist Party, who had hitherto been a much-feared bogeyman. “Miloš, it’s over,” they chanted.

And it was. Four days later, Jakeš and the rest of the party leadership fell on their swords and resigned. I recall the mood in Wenceslas Square when the news was announced. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” wrote Wordsworth, but the French Revolution was violent from the start. What happened in Prague in 1989 was nothing like Paris in 1789. The peaceful vigils in Wenceslas Square could not have been more different from the storming of the Bastille, let alone the Terror.

Read the whole thing here. And below, Wenceslas Square, just because I love it and miss it and want to go back. (Photo: Andreas Praefcke)