Vaclav Havel: remembering the Czech president, playwright, and peacenik
Vaclav Havel went from being a playwright to a symbol of the new Czech state and democracy in Eastern Europe. Along the way he became Czech's first democratically elected president, nominee and winner of prestigious peace prizes, and one of the world's preeminent anti-communist revolutionaries.
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In the essay, he dissected what he called the "dictatorship of ritual" — the ossified Soviet bloc system under Leonid Brezhnev — and imagined what happens when an ordinary greengrocer stops displaying communist slogans and begins "living in truth," rediscovering "his suppressed identity and dignity."Skip to next paragraph
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Havel knew that suppression firsthand.
Born Oct. 5, 1936, in Prague, the child of a wealthy family which lost extensive property to communist nationalization in 1948, Havel was denied a formal education, eventually earning a degree at night school and starting out in theater as a stagehand.
His political activism began in earnest in January 1977, when he co-authored the human rights manifesto Charter 77, and the cause drew widening attention in the West.
Havel was detained countless times and spent four years in communist jails. His letters from prison to his wife became one of his best-known works. "Letters to Olga" blended deep philosophy with a stream of stern advice to the spouse he saw as his mentor and best friend, and who tolerated his reputed philandering and other foibles.
The events of August 1988 — the 20th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion — first suggested that Haveland his friends might one day replace the faceless apparatchiks who jailed them.
Thousands of mostly young people marched through central Prague, yelling Havel's name and that of the playwright's hero, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the philosopher who was Czechoslovakia's first president after it was founded in 1918.
Havel's arrest in January 1989 at another street protest and his subsequent trial generated anger at home and abroad. Pressure for change was so strong that the communists released him again in May.
That fall, communism began to collapse across Eastern Europe, and in November the Berlin Wall fell. Eight days later, communist police brutally broke up a demonstration by thousands of Prague students.
It was the signal that Havel and his country had awaited. Within 48 hours, a broad new opposition movement was founded, and a day later, hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks took to the streets.
In three heady weeks, communist rule was broken. Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones arrived just as the Soviet army was leaving. Posters in Prague proclaimed: "The tanks are rolling out — the Stones are rolling in."
On Dec. 29, 1989, Havel was elected Czechoslovakia's president by the country's still-communist parliament. Three days later, he told the nation in a televised New Year's address: "Out of gifted and sovereign people, the regime made us little screws in a monstrously big, rattling and stinking machine."
Although he continued to be regarded a moral voice as he decried the shortcomings of his society under democracy, he eventually bent to the dictates of convention and power. His watchwords — "what the heart thinks, the tongue speaks" — had to be modified for day-to-day politics.
In July 1992, it became clear that the Czechoslovak federation was heading for a split. Considering it a personal failure, Havel resigned as president. But he remained popular and was elected president of the new Czech Republic uncontested.
He was small, but his presence and wit could fill a room. Even late in life, he retained a certain impishness and boyish grin, shifting easily from philosophy to jokes or plain old Prague gossip.
In December 1996, just 11 months after his first wife, Olga Havlova, died of cancer, he lost a third of his right lung during surgery to remove a 15-millimeter (half-inch) malignant tumor.
He gave up smoking and married Dagmar Veskrnova, a dashing actress almost 20 years his junior.