Vaclav Havel, who died in Prague shortly before Christmas in 2011, was a great dissident hero and champion of civil liberties who played a vital role in opposing the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. He became a powerful rallying voice in the peaceful overthrow of the totalitarian political system that had for so long seemed indomitable and impervious to change. This remarkable period has gone down in history as the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Up to that point, Havel was first and foremost a playwright. His works had gone underground following the brutal suppression of the Prague Spring, in 1968, when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to put an end to all thoughts of creating “socialism with a human face”. The initial phase of the Velvet Revolution culminated with the breathtaking turnaround whereby Havel, the dissident who had been harassed and often imprisoned by the state, was elected the first post-Communist President. He would go on, improbably, to an important second career as a four-time President and a moral beacon who aspired to a new form of democratic politics that was based on principles of inclusion, tolerance, and full respect for the fundamental rights of all citizens.
Given Havel’s many achievements, including his highly regarded essays on politics and moral conduct, his published speeches and the high standing he obtained in the world , it is quite difficult for we who admire him so greatly to consider his political career to have ended in failure. The initial phase of the Velvet Revolution culminated with the breathtaking turnaround whereby Havel, the dissident who had been harassed and often imprisoned by the state, was elected the first post-Communist President. But one of his biographers, John Keane, in Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts (2000) clearly views his later career to have involved squandered opportunities and concludes that his political vision was not realized. In homage to Havel’s marvellous skills as a dramatist, Keane, a well-known Australian political scientist, has tried his hand at a biography written at least in part as a drama – the drama of Havel’s life against the backdrop of the enormous changes that convulsed Czechoslovakia throughout the twentieth century. Hence, some of the tragedy is really the tragedy of his nation: the Nazi invasion and domination during WWII: the Soviet “liberation” followed by a Communist electoral victory and then liquidation of the democratic order; the Dubcek reforms and the savage suppression of all attempts to liberalize the political order.
The last quarter of the biography makes the argument that Havel’s time as President, after a return to democracy and a free and open society, can also be viewed in many ways as tragic. In this view, the idealism and rhetoric calling for a true participatory democracy can be shown to have failed to lead to tangible benefits and, indeed, has had serious unintended consequences.
Those of us who continue to hope for a progressive politics, committed to a ringing affirmation of fundamental rights and freedoms, will be disposed to think well of the diminutive playwright who helped slay the Communist giants. Havel first came to the attention of the West with his absurdist plays such as The Garden Party and The Memorandum. The latter won a drama award for best foreign play from the New York Theatre Critics in 1968. The Memorandum takes place in an office where bureaucratic excess is clearly the preferred way of doing things. The main character, Managing Director Gross, stares at an office memorandum written in a new language that he can’t possibly grasp. He feverishly endeavours to learn how to understand the papers now written in “Ptydepe” but repeatedly fails to succeed in having them translated. In a classic Catch-22 situation, this can only happen if he makes the request using Pytdepe. The many contradictions and ambiguities that pile up in this absurdist drama help create a dark but scarily hilarious satire of Communist bureaucracy to be sure, but also of power trips in various political organizations and office environments where complete organizational control is attempted. A dazzling production was put on here in Edmonton last year by the Studio Theatre at the University of Alberta, which revelled in the zany plot and was truly relished by those of us who have worked as civil servants and shaken our heads at bafflegab masquerading as communication.
Keane provides us with a striking description of Havel’s unique response to the severe repression of the Communist regime in the years after Prime Minister Dubcek was deposed. Havel’s time as President, after a return to democracy and a free and open society, can also be viewed in many ways as tragic. Havel conceived of a number of inventive but also truly courageous ways of protesting against the loss of civil liberties, including writing open letters to Dubcek and then to the new Communist Party President. Havel gathered with a small number of dissident thinkers to form Charter 77. This happened a short time after a theatrical troupe had surreptitiously organized a performance of Havel’s politically charged adaptation of John Gay’s The Three penny Opera. Once word of the performance got through to the authorities it was only a matter of time before Havel would be arrested and subjected to surveillance and intimidation tactics.
On January 7, 1977, the very day that Havel was re-arrested for a second round of questioning over his subversive activities, the people of Czechoslovakia and around the world awoke to read of the petition known as Charter 77. It was a clarion call for the state to respect the fundamental rights listed in the Helsinki Accord, signed by several hundred prominent dissidents. Havel’s presidency surely started on a strong and exciting note, as he did what he could to make the workings of the President and his staff in the Castle that dominates the skyline of Prague a more hospitable and open place. Havel had been instrumental in writing a draft of the document and then circulating it in search of potential signatories. It was an important blow against the empire and was a key development in the movement of citizens to fight for the end of the totalitarian power exercised by the Soviet-dominated political leaders.
Havel continued to play a leading role in this movement despite continual harassment and several stints in prison; the longest a four- year term. In an interview in this period, he told a BBC reporter that his support for the moral rightness of the Charter would not diminish and that the Charter was having a tangible effect on the Czechoslovak population. It had helped to awaken society’s conscience, he maintained, uniting dissidents with the sleeping giant, which was the ordinary citizenry from whom so much had been concealed.
As Keane tells the story, Havel’s presidency surely started on a strong and exciting note, as he did what he could to make the workings of the President and his staff in the Castle that dominates the skyline of Prague a more hospitable and open place. Early on, for instance, he held a Festival of Democracy on the Castle grounds and a number of musicians, mimes and jugglers entertained ordinary citizens and engaged them in a buoyant celebration of democratic values and freedom of expression. The well-known, strongly leftist playwright Harold Pinter was invited by his friend Havel to Prague to oversee the performance of his play The Caretaker. Efforts were made to encourage and support the arts, as vital to the emerging democratic society.
As time went on, however, Keane records criticisms of Havel’s approach to government. He was said to manipulate others and become rather aloof from former colleagues in the Civic Forum movement. Matters of more substance that Keane explores include the drift towards dissolution of the country itself, leading to the referendum decision by Slovaks to withdraw and form their own nation. Some commentators questioned whether or not he was truly open to the development of parliamentary government, with a significant role for all elected members or whether he tried too hard to maintain a strong executive. After his wife Olga died and he became romantically involved with the talented actress Magdalena Vasaryova, critics claimed she assumed too great an importance in the Castle.
Matters of more substance that Keane explores include the drift towards dissolution of the country itself, leading to the referendum decision by Slovaks to withdraw and form their own nation. This outcome was one Havel fervently wished to avoid, but his powers as President were limited and he was unable to forge strong relations with leading Slovak politicians and intellectuals. His insistence on the need for a new way of engaging in politics, one that was more transparent and based on idealism and good faith, continues to stand as a noble goal worth pursuing… A second matter that veers closer to genuine tragedy was the serious debate about the type of democratic nation the Czech Republic would become. Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, a fierce believer in the absolute power of a free-market, mostly unregulated, economic system seems to have prevailed over the contrary views of Havel. By establishing this as the dominant ideology, Klaus as parliamentary leader created harsh conditions for many citizens lacking bargaining power and influence. Finally, Havel did appear as a rather naïve statesman in his uncritical support of the Bush administration as it pursued its imperialist ambitions in Iraq.
However, on balance it can be said that Havel’s career as President of first Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic was tragicomic in nature. His insistence on the need for a new way of engaging in politics, one that was more transparent and based on idealism and good faith, continues to stand as a noble goal worth pursuing, even if it remains a long way from being fulfilled in the Czech Republic or elsewhere. His career does exhibit an unwavering commitment to human rights and he did initiate policies that affirmed those rights. He was an eloquent defender of the Roma and other minorities. All in all, we can be thankful that such a talented and dedicated individual made such commitments to public service in our time.