Vaclav Havel: The king of Wenceslas Square

Vaclav Havel did more than anyone to rip down the Iron Curtain. Peter Popham salutes an extraordinary man, who died yesterday

Vaclav Havel hated Communism with a passion, but it was the making of him. The Czech dissident-playwright turned president was a product of Prague's wealthy and cultured haute bourgeoisie, and without the Communist takeover of 1948 and all that followed he would probably have lived a life of charming bohemian privilege, a chip off the old block. But with Stalin's chosen men in Prague Castle, that was never an option: Havel and his ilk were the class enemy, and were never allowed to forget it.

His class origins barred him from further education under the Communists, and he only managed to pay his way through secondary night school by working as a lab technician. His two years of army service were as a sapper – getting young toffs to clear minefields was a useful way of eliminating them.

He was turned down by the drama school at Prague University, and only succeeded in entering his chosen profession through a side door, as a stage hand. After helping set up the small, intellectual dissident group Charter 77 in 1977, to hold the Czech government to the human rights pledges it had signed up to in the Helsinki Accords of 1975, he was repeatedly sent to prison.

But the result of all these grim experiences was that when, in a bizarre twist of history, he became the people's choice for the revolution's president, he had a far more rounded understanding of his nation's realities, and a far closer acquaintance with the people's suffering, than if he had been able to lead his life as he might have chosen. Paul Wilson, the translator of many of his plays, wrote: "Havel had always been an opponent of Communist ideology, but by the time he was arrested in the late 1970s and sentenced to four and a half years in prison, he was the leader of a small but determined human rights movement, and had articulated a revolutionary form of non-violent opposition he called 'living in truth'... Havel believed that when enough people acted in accordance with their conscience, the system would collapse. And he was right." The result was that while in his two terms as president Havel was only fitfully convincing as a politician, he carried unique authority as a moral figure. As such he was one of the few Europeans able to pronounce on the moral dimension of politics with the same sort of conviction as Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama or Aung San Suu Kyi. He had been deprived of freedom for long enough to know its value.

As Communism crumbled he told his compatriots: "We have become morally ill because we are used to saying one thing and thinking another... We have learned not to believe in anything, not to care about one another. Love, friendship, mercy, humility and forgiveness lost their depth and dimension."

The man who became the hero and embodiment of Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution in 1989, brought his dramatist's flair to the office of the head of state: he replaced the dreary socialist realist paintings with landscapes by Czech masters, brought in a psychedelic painter to redecorate his study, and as his assistant hired a red-headed actress called Barbara Stepanova, "a busty hippie in a skin-tight purple minidress with filigreed white stockings", according to Vanity Fair.

He gave the rock musician Frank Zappa, one of his heroes, an honorary post in the Ministry of Culture and had new uniforms for the presidential guard designed by the costume designer on Milos Forman's film Amadeus. When they arrived, according to Vanity Fair, he put one on, brandished a sword and said: "Let's go scare the cooks!"

But if that makes his spell in power sound like the lunatics taking over the asylum, or the arrival of the Yippies in the White House, half a lifetime under the boot of the Stalinists ensured a far more sombre underpinning to both his work and his politics. It is impossible to imagine Franz Kafka or Samuel Beckett being called to high office, but the sudden ascent of Havel – who idolised those blackly comic modernists, and whose plays are full of echoes of their work – was scarcely less improbable.

Having worked in the theatre all his life, he confessed to feeling extreme reluctance at the prospect of becoming president. "I hesitated until the last minute," he revealed in his memoirs, entitled To the Castle and Back. "I had only a few hours to make a decision that would fundamentally change my life."

It was, he said, "the one genuine watershed in my life... You can't spend your whole life criticising something and then, when you have a chance to do it better, refuse to go near it". According to his friend Milos Forman, the two dominant traits in his character were shyness and courage, "both very extreme". Fortunately for his country it was the courage that won out.

As president he soon found himself at odds with his colleague Vaclav Klaus and the whole get-rich-quick culture that infested the new Czechoslovakia. He railed against the widespread hostility to gypsies, deplored but was unable to halt the separation of the Czech Republic from Slovakia, and apologised for the expulsion of Sudeten Germans after World War Two. Despite declining popularity he was voted in for a second presidential term, serving until 2003.

In his first address as president in 1990, he spelled out the code by which he intended to rule. "Let us teach ourselves that politics can be not just the art of the possible," he said, "... but ... the art of the impossible, namely the art of improving ourselves and the world." It was the challenge for which he will be remembered.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Management Trainer

£30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Exciting career opportunity to join East...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Scientist / Research Assistant

£18000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious start-up company b...

Reach Volunteering: Chair of Trustees

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Do you love the Engl...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game