Underrated: Václav Havel

A true revolutionary who showed his moral superiority over Communism by his magnanimity in victory

Daniel Johnson

There are plenty of pseudo-revolutionaries in history. Václav Havel was the real thing.

According to the magnificent new biography (Havel: A Life; Atlantic Books, £25) by Michael Zantovsky, who was for many years Havel’s spokesman and is now the Czech Ambassador in London, there was nothing accidental about the apotheosis of the dissident playwright who became the hero of the Velvet Revolution and the first President of a free Czechoslovakia exactly 25 years ago this month. 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.

After the Communist Party had stepped down, its Prime Minister, Ladislav Adamec, sat down with Havel and his friends to negotiate. Adamec had called Havel a “nobody” only weeks before, and so when the two men shook hands the Prime Minister was at a loss as to how to greet his foe: “We haven’t met yet, have we?” Zantovsky brilliantly describes the record of these negotiations, which were shrouded in mystery at the time, as “like the transcript of a chess game between a veteran grandmaster and a line-up of enthusiastic amateurs. The professional keeps confusing his opponents by feigning and disguising his true intentions and sacrificing pawns to bolster his position. The amateurs do not see beyond the next move and are condemned to watch their attacks being parried and frustrated. It would have been no contest were it not for the fact that the professional had lost his queen early in the game. And Havel, ever polite, was still able to see through the duplicity of his opponent and stood ready to call his bluff at a critical moment: ‘Let’s go to the Castle [meaning to the president] and propose someone who will be more understanding . . .'”

“Havel to the Castle!” The cry went up on Wenceslas Square as soon as the threat of a Communist crackdown had receded. Czechs wanted this most unconventional figure to be their head of state in place of Gustav Husák, the ultimate symbol of repression, who had taken over from Dubček after the Soviet invasion of 1968 and now sat quaking in the Hrad, the castle that dominates the Prague skyline.

There was no secret agreement between Havel and the Communists — Zantovsky quashes the rumours to this effect that have circulated ever since. “What had always distinguished Havel from many of his fellow dissidents was his sense of the possible,” writes Zantovsky. He became President by popular acclaim because he had earned it: by spending five years in jail, by keeping alight the Charter 77 movement, by fearlessly satirising the regime in his plays. (Havel was perhaps the only man ever to have deserved both the Nobel Prize for Peace and for Literature. He received neither.) Havel earned his 13 years as head of state by proving that a revolutionary can make the transition to statesman.

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