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With eloquence and authority, Vaclav Havel changed Europe's history

A portrait of former Czech President Vaclav Havel, with a text that reads: "Havel To The Castle," a popular slogan during the Velvet Revolution of 1989, lies among candles left by mourners at the base of a statue of St. Wenceslas to commemorate Havel's death on December 18, 2011 in Prague, Czech Republic.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images/Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Hands whirring like twin propellers, Vaclav Havel moves 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, stops for a moment, begins to tell me about some "important negotiations"; scarcely three sentences in, he's swept away. He gives me an apologetic smile over his shoulder, as if to say, "What can a man do?" Often he talked as if he were 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.

Mr. 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 successful non-violent mass protests since 1989. (He always insisted that a Western journalist coined the term.) He 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, I can only cry, "Havel! thou should'st be living at this hour: 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.

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The dissident's honour does not come from the political victor's crown. Mr. 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 analyzed the communist system in profound but also 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 – Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Havel and Aleksander Dubcek, the hero of '89 and the hero of '68, appearing side by side on the balcony: 'Dubcek-Havel! Dubcek-Havel!' Or the sound of 300,000 key rings being shaken together, like Chinese bells. Rarely if ever has a tiny minority so rapidly become a large majority.

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 Mikhail Gorbachev offered. When I arrived in Prague and sought Mr. Havel 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 home-made 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 me 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 Vaclav Klaus, thrust to the fore. So did nationalism, Slovak and eventually also Czech. Mr. 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 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.

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Now, far too soon, Havel has taken his final leave. But few have left so much of value behind.

Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European studies at Oxford University, is the author of The Magic Lantern , an eyewitness account of the velvet revolutions of 1989, and several other books about central Europe's journey from communism to the present.

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