Vaclav Havel: Dissident playwright who became the first president of the new Czech Republic

 

The Czech president and playwright Vaclav Havel was the most unexpected, and most brilliant, of the new leaders who emerged from east Europe's peaceful revolutions against Communism.

Poland's Lech Walesa matched Havel as a canny guide of anti-Communist opposition, but tarnished his reputation when he became his country's first post-Communist president. By contrast Havel's stature continued to grow after he was chosen head of state in December 1989.

The key to his achievement was an unusual combination of intellect, moral firmness tested by prison and persecution, and natural political savvy. The final ingredient was modesty, essential in a country whose people are famously undeferential. Havel had never aspired to lead the anti-Communist opposition or to become its presidential candidate. He simply emerged, uncontested, from among friends and colleagues whom he considered his equals.

For all his brilliance and seriousness he remained endearingly human. By his own account he was a "cheerful fellow", and certainly no angel. He smoked, drank and was naturally convivial: the attic of his country house was turned into a dormitory for guests to spend the night in after parties. He was also, like many Czech intellectuals, given to affairs of the heart, in spite of a remarkable marriage. Rumpled and shaggy in opposition, he cut his hair and put on a suit and tie when he moved into the presidential palace, but the effect was never quite convincing, like a small boy forced into his Sunday best.

He was driven into politics by a sense of duty. "I shall give all this up," he told a friend, "when we have decent politicians." Perhaps his greatest gift to his country was to restore the tradition of decent politics laid down by Tomas Masaryk, the philosopher-president of Czechoslovakia between the First and Second World Wars.

Vaclav Havel was born in 1936. His father was a successful civil engineer and architect, responsible for the splendid art nouveau Lucarna building in Wenceslas Square, Prague. Havel and his brother Ivan entertained friends in the restaurants of the Lucarna even after it had been nationalised by the Communist government that took power in 1948.

What he called his "pampered childhood" left him with a sense of isolation and inferiority. He was a fat boy – in his own words "a well-fed piglet" – and classmates tormented him by slapping his chubby thighs. The sense of being an interloper and in permanent danger of ridicule lasted many years. At moments of triumph, even when he was world famous, he would imagine his army sergeant raucously putting him back in his proper humble place. But this unease also drove him "to prove myself over and over again".

Abandoned by the West and terrorised by Hitler, post-war Czechoslovakia was readier than Poland or Hungary to accept Soviet tutelage. Many Czech intellectuals turned Communist; Havel was never tempted. Barred from higher education because of his "bourgeois" origins he went to night school, did his two years' military service and ended up, aged 24, a stage hand at Na zabradli ("Theatre on the Balustrade"), the most adventurous theatre in Prague.

Havel had been writing for several years and in 1963 the theatre staged his first play Nahradni Slavost (translated into English as The Garden Party, 1969). Over the next five years he wrote two more, Vyrozumeni (1965, translated as The Memorandum, 1980) and Ztizena Moznost Soustredeni (1968, translated as The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, 1972), establishing his reputation as the leading Czech playwright.

Havel lived and worked outside the Communist cultural system and wrote as though there were no censorship. All his plays, he said, dealt with the theme of human identity in crisis, a crisis particularly evident in a Communist society where rulers as well as ruled were prisoners of the same obfuscating official logic. The Memorandum, in which he invented "Ptidepe", a new government language whose least used words are the longest, was the mostsuccessful demonstration of his talent for the absurd.

In 1964 Havel married Olga Splichalova, whose strong character and working-class background helped liberate him from hang-ups about his own family. He came to think of Olga and himself as "faithful, lifelong fellow travellers". She was the first to read his new work, and he leaned on her heavily in the difficult years ahead.

After the horrors of Stalinism, the 1960s was a time of promise in Czechoslovakia, ending in the reform Communism of the benign Alexander Dubcek. In the spring of 1968 Havel was allowed to go to America for the US premiere of The Memorandum at the New York Shakespeare Festival, where it won the Obie prize. Returning to Prague and doubting the ability of the Communist leopard to change its spots, he championed the creation of a non-Marxist Social Democratic party. A few weeks later the Warsaw Pact invasion ended the Czech experiment.

The new president, Gustav Husak, put a blight on Czechoslovak life. There was no chance that Havel's plays would be performed in public again and, although he went on writing, he was drawn more and more into active opposition to a regime that was dogmatic yet fearful of its own people. In 1969 he co-authored Deset Bodu (Ten Points), one of the first attacks on the new regime, and from then on was under continuous police surveillance. Friends thought the years of pressure told on his creative writing, and that his first plays remained his best.

Havel wanted to avoid a declamatory and utopian opposition and tried to devise tactics for practical resistance. He also sought a philosophical and moral compass for those condemned to live under totalitarian rule. The tactical skills he developed ensured his eventual leadership of Czechoslovakia's peaceful overthrow of Communism; his philosophical struggle produced some of this century's best writing on the preservation of human dignity under dictatorship.

In 1975 he began Edice Expedice, a samizdat publishing house that produced 50 titles in its first three years. The same year he brought out his own essay "Dopis Dr Gustavu Husakovi" ("Letter to Dr Gustav Husak") in which he revealed the emptiness of a regime that by declaring its "socialism" perfect had, in effect, banished history and time (when Havel took over the president's office in 1989 he was not surprised to find it had no clocks). In another essay, "Moc Bezmocnych" ("The Power of the Powerless") he explored how, under Communism, it was still possible to "live in truth" – a phrase of the banned philosopher Jan Patocka who had inspired Havel in his early years at Na zabradli.

Havel used the example of a greengrocer who put in his shop window the slogan "Workers of the world unite". The greengrocer was not expected to believe the slogan, but by displaying it signalled he would give the regime no trouble. He could, though, reclaim his dignity by removing the sign and taking the consequences, though Havel knew this was to ask a lot of most of his fellow citizens. In a play in his Vanek trilogy he has a worker say to the writer hero, "I'm just the manure that makes your fancy principles grow."

Havel shared the average Czech's taste for orderliness and comfort. His spick-and-span farmhouse retreat at Hradecek in north Bohemia might have been on a different planet from the turbulent world of his friends in the Polish opposition. But in January 1977 he condemned himself to turbulence when he helped launch the opposition movement Charter 77, and with Professor Jan Patocka and Dubcek's foreign minister, Jiri Hajek, became one of its first spokesmen. Arrested within days, Havel was released after four months, the government letting it be known that he had agreed to give up opposition activities.

Havel had been tricked, but he was consumed with shame for he admitted prison had terrified him. When a four-and-a-half year sentence followed in 1979 he seized it as a chance to prove "that I am not a lightweight as many may have seen me, that I stand behind what I do". In a series of remarkable letters of sometimes religious intensity to his wife, later published as Dopisy Olze (1985, Letters to Olga), he continued his search for meaning and his battle against despair and resignation. "Those who do not lose hope and faith in life can never come to a bad end."

He was released in February 1983 after a serious bout of pneumonia, his standing immeasurably increased at home and abroad. Resuming his Charter activities in spite of harassment he maintained his message that even in an unfree society one can act as if one is free. Though most Czechs remained sour but silent critics of the regime, unofficial organisations did develop among intellectuals and young people, and Havel was their hero. During a last, short sentence in 1989 even the warders treated him with respect.

When, on 17 November that year, police attacked a demonstration of Prague students, the uproar showed the regime to be as shaky as its counterparts throughout east Europe. Havel hurried back from Hradecek for meetings that produced the opposition coalition Civic Forum, a responsible interlocutor for a by now terrified government. Most of the crowd at the first mammoth protest meeting in Wenceslas Square knew little or nothing about the slightly built man who addressed them hoarsely from a balcony, but within a month Havel had deftly negotiated the Communist surrender and become obvious candidate for president of the restored democratic republic of Czechoslovakia.

Havel never flattered the Czechs. In the 1990 parliamentary elections he reminded them that since a "relatively great part" of the population supported the Communist takeover, anti-Communist zeal ill became them. They should therefore vote for "decent, modest, matter-of-fact people" and avoid fanatics of all kinds. One of his first presidential acts was to apologise for the violence done to Germans expelled from Czech Sudetenland after the war. He would not countenance the argument that Germany's greater crimes against Czechs justified the misdeeds of the latter. He supported an official reconciliation with Germany that was only reached, after much difficulty, in 1996.

He also lectured the West on its slowness in repaying what he believed was its moral debt to the east European countries it first sacrificed to Hitler, and then to the Soviet Union. He campaigned for the early entry of his country into Nato and the European Union.

The divorce of Slovakia from the Czech lands distressed Havel but in 1993 he agreed to serve a new five year-term as president of the now Czech Republic. He was also unhappy with the right-wing economic policies of the Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, a former colleague in the Civic Forum. It was some consolation that while Klaus was eventually voted out Havel remained in office, but after the death of Olga in 1996 and an operation for lung cancer the same year his own reputation began to suffer. His marriage in 1997 to the young actress Dagmar Veskrnova was not popular with the critically minded Czechs, and more operations and ill-health raised doubts about how much longer this once near-magical president should remain in his palace high above the golden city of Prague.

He left the presidency in 2003, to be followed by his old opponent Klaus. In political retirement he published a memoir of his time in office, To the Castle and Back, and wrote his first new plays for almost 20 years. The world bestowed many honours on him, including Germany's Quadriga award in 2009, though when two years later Vladimir Putin received the same prize Havel, ever the honourable dissident, promptly gave his back.

Vaclav Havel, writer and politician: born Prague 5 October 1936; stagehand, Na zabradli, Prague 1960-61, Assistant to Artistic Director 1961-63, Literary Manager 1963-68, Resident Playwright 1968; Co-Founder, Charter 77 1977; Co-Founder, Committee for Defence of Unjustly Prosecuted (VONS) 1978; Co-Founder, Civic Forum 1989; President, Czech and Slovak Federal Republic 1989-92; President, Czech Republic 1993-2003; married 1964 Olga Splichalova (died 1996), 1997 Dagmar Veskrnova; died Hradecek, Czech Republic 18 December 2011.

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