Farewell Vaclav, we need you more than ever

Stephen Weeks has had a ring-side seat for the procession of Czechs mourning the loss of their national hero this week. Here, the author explains what Havel meant to his country – and laments the politicians who have squandered his glorious legacy

I write this from my atelier in a large, gloomy monastery building in Prague's Old Town, close to the famous Charles Bridge. I shall be working late. The only other people in the building tonight are the gatekeeper, who looks after the big baroque doors of the outer courtyard, the body of former and first president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel – lying on his catafalque in the old abbey church – and his honour guard: not stiffly uniformed military figures, but some of his friends.

A charity he set up in the 1990s restored the buildings, and the church found a new use as a conference centre for the various causes he espoused. The list of those who also gave substantial donations includes Madeleine Albright and Robert Redford.

Last month Havel had summoned up the last of his strength to meet and talk with the Dalai Lama – something he could do here without having to ask the present incumbent of Prague Castle (who had scoffed at the "meaningless gesture" of the meeting) for the use of its grand rooms.

During the past few days thousands of Czech citizens have queued for hours to stand briefly before his coffin, each one harbouring a private reason how Havel changed their lives – gave them respect, lifted fear and repression from their day-to-day existence, gave them back their family homes, gave them the right to travel and to meet people from other countries, gave them back the joys of freedom of expression.

These were people saved from the economic catastrophe that was Communism – from a state which could deliver neither oranges nor sanitary towels nor almost anything else for its citizens.

Havel was not a vengeful man. The revolution he sparked was entirely bloodless – the one reported death turned out to have been a lie cooked up by the StB, the secret police. Some people have said that the old Communists should have been jailed – and even the ones who committed overt criminal acts were really never punished.

But Havel didn't and perhaps he was right; almost everyone in the country had had to comply in some way, just to survive.

Having no children to protect, he felt braver than most. His physical torture was to have contracted pneumonia in a damp prison cell and not be allowed treatment, which contributed to his fragile state ever since – but his mental torture lasted daily all his adult life.

Once he recounted how he noticed how light in the centre of his room was flickering, getting some stepladders, he pulled on the cord.

Down came a patch of plaster – complete with the futilely grabbing hand of a StB operative who had been trying to attach some listening device in the attic above.

In the field next to his country cottage – where he died this week – he noticed a strange two-storey building suddenly erected. It turned to be a not terribly subtle full-service surveillance centre of his every movement.

But his life had been one long paradox: a man who came from a bourgeois family was denied higher education, and allotted by the state the job of shifting barrels in a brewery.

By the time he was three years old, Czechoslovakia had been overrun by the Nazis. His father had been forced to sell the family's great asset, Barrandov Film Studios, to the Protectorate, which, out of the range of British bombers, became the major studio for Nazi propaganda films.

The Germans affected to be friendly, however. Reinhard Heydrich, the architect of the Holocaust, had sat him as a toddler on his knee. Then, less than three years after the war, in 1948, came the nightmare of Stalinist Communism, and everything the family still owned was confiscated. Yet despite all these injustices, he still kept the manners of a gentleman.

As the country's first post-Communist president he gave Prague a unique style – offbeat, Bohemian, free-and-easy. Yet his anything goes seemed slightly when compared to the rest of Europe, but this was because the playwright and his band of dissidents were amateurs.

For 40 years the only people who had foreign contacts, knew about real business or international trade were the Communist elite. One of the first things to be done after the Velvet Revolution was the restitution of property back to original owners, or their heirs.

Havel and his brother Ivan got back the huge Lucerna commercial complex on Wenceslas Square originally developed by their grandfather.

But the process suffered with this bunch of romantics, who knew little of commercial contracts and business. The legacy is now one of corruption, with almost every major privatisation tainted in one way or another. Road-building in this country is the most expensive in Europe, despite cheaper labour, because of all the eager pockets which have to be stuffed. The Swiss anti-corruption police have impounded several billion Czech crowns from money laundering accounts, and are amazed that the Czech prosecutors are, to put it mildly, dragging their feet on staking a claim to it.

The present president, Vaclav Klaus, is statesmanlike and a clever economist, but what Czechs really crave is someone to take a moral position on greed and corruption – someone to continue what Havel had begun so well.

Corruption disclosures were so rife this spring that it was thought inevitable that Klaus might finally be forced to move and adopt another policy, beyond his seemingly only stated belief, in "market forces". In April, on an official visit to Chile, he was videoed pocketing the Bulgari pen he used to sign an agreement. That said it all.

All the while that Havel lived, although latterly having no official power, there was a kind of hope that eventually corruption would wind down and end. Now there is an uneasy feeling here: the death of the patron saint, and a protector.

The country is now at the mercy of the slick, professionals who masquerade as politicians and the chances of another gentle. Havel was a unique man, and the world is a poorer place without him.


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