Václav Havel: a biographer’s account

Crowds in Prague mourn the passing of former President and national hero Vaclav Havel. AAP/Singer

Václav Havel has died aged 75. A poet and playwright, a political writer, dissident and a politician, Havel was the tenth and last President of Czechoslovakia, and the first President of the Czech Republic founded in 1993.

The Conversation spoke with Sydney University Professor of Politics John Keane, author of Václav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts about Havel the man, and the legacy he will leave.

Can you describe the Havel you knew?

Havel was intense but witty, a clear-headed thinker and wonderful writer, a courageous individual blessed with a razor-sharp sense of irony; a chain-smoking man of letters whose fate was politics and (most people overlook this) who had a genuine taste for it, and yet who taught the world much about the dangers of unaccountable power. Two-thirds of his life was lived under conditions of dictatorship or totalitarian power. Yet he was a survivor. Then came the so-called Velvet Revolution of 1989. That changed everything in his life.

Would you say there was more than one Havel?

I think there were three: Havel was a playwright dissident, a politician and a statesman. Working backwards, when he finally left political office in 2003, he carved out the role of global statesman. In many obituaries during the past 24 hours, he is described as a giant and compared with figures like Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Václav Havel was admired as a playwright dissident, a politician and a global statesman. AAP/Volfik

The praise is understandable. He was a global champion of democratic virtues. He stood for integrity and he wrote and delivered some memorable speeches on subjects like the environment, globalisation and violence. There were some practical successes – for instance, he directed the Human Rights Foundation in New York – but in his role as global statesman there were also setbacks. His support for the American and British invasion and occupation of Iraq attracted criticism, at home and abroad. There were some fruitless episodes, the chief being his attempt to broker a peace deal between the Palestinians and the state of Israel. It came to nothing.

What about his life as a political leader?

There was a middle period – Havel as politician. The standard story is that he was a reluctant politician; the Guardian in London repeats that line in its obituary, which I show in my biography to be fundamentally mistaken.

He wanted very much to be the helmsman of the new Czechoslovak state. He clung on to power and there were moments when political office served as his aphrodisiac. Four presidencies in two countries over 13 years is proof of that. He arguably stayed too long; it eventually caused an abdication crisis in Czech politics. It’s true that Havel the politician notched up many important achievements. He was the first and the firmest champion of honest and fair-minded reconciliation with Germany over the Sudeten Question. His longstanding wish that Czechoslovakia enter the European Union was granted.

As president, he stood for open-mindedness, for toleration and for civility, especially for humiliated people like the Romany. He had no truck with xenophobia and what he dubbed small-minded “Czech-centrism”. He tried to turn politics into fun, even adding a postmodern touch to politics as president. Within a few months of becoming president, the Prague castle was adorned with red white and blue BMWs, a festival of democracy was staged, blue jeans and t-shirts became cool and personal invitations were extended to Lou Reed and the Rolling Stones. Havel turned himself into what Germans call an “Ichspieler”. He played himself on a political stage before a domestic and global audience. He loved all of that, though it came at a high price. He learned a hard lesson: under democratic conditions, political careers very often end in failure.

A guard commemorates Havel’s death in Prague. EPA/Singer

There was a moment of great honesty when he confessed that being in high politics resembled a prison sentence. He found himself caught up in the rough and tumble of a democratic transition. He had to face foxes like Václav Klaus, who out-performed and out-survived him. When Havel finally left office he was unpopular among sections of the Czech and Slovak publics.

Future historians will tell us that as a politician his achievements were mixed. He made more than a few errors of political judgement, most of which remain unknown outside his country. I’m deeply saddened by his passing, so I certainly don’t wish to be misunderstood when I say, in the spirit of what he called “living in the truth”, that an honest appraisal of Havel’s time as a politician shows that he had great difficulty adjusting to the mechanisms of representative democracy.

In the early days of his first presidency, for instance, he tried to change the constitution by a show of hands in parliament. That was roundly rejected, for good reasons. He later identified with the Greens, but initially had no affection for political parties. For a time, he even thought that in the transition to parliamentary democracy Czechoslovakia could do without a multiparty system. To an embarrassed Chancellor Helmut Kohl, during their first meeting, he proposed the abolition of parties, and the formation of one big party – Europe. His attitude reflected both the unhappy history of political parties in central Europe and his earlier preference for “anti-politics”. But in the context it was pie in the sky.

Was he in some ways happiest and most effective in his early years?

The earliest phase of his political life was Václav Havel as poet, playwright and dissident political writer. Along with his fellow Czechs, he lived through no fewer than eight regime changes during the course of the 20th century. In the face of military occupation, bossing and bullying, he displayed great personal courage, radical honesty and unflagging dedication to the values of a civil society. This is what he meant by “living in the truth”. It was a powerful philosophical idea and inspiring political slogan which helped to prepare the grounds for not only Charter 77, in its resistance to Soviet domination when everything seemed hopeless. It was the poetry for the dramatic Velvet Revolution of the autumn of 1989.

I think this earliest period of Havel’s life is the most inspiring. Much can be learned from the great works it produced. For me, two stand out. One is a play called The Memorandum (1965). Written in the tradition of the Theatre of the Absurd, it’s a toothy satire on the follies and dangers of concentrated total power.

The gist of the play is that the ruling authorities decide that they want more transparent and efficient communication with their subjects, in order better to control them. So they introduce a new language called “ptydepe”. Nobody can understand it; even the official instructors are baffled by its syntax, despite some simple rules, which specify for instance that the more frequently a word is used, the shorter it is. The word “wombat” is 80-odd letters long. When I first saw it performed in Prague after the Revolution, I was struck by the spirited audience reaction. They found the play riotously funny. It was. That’s why the communist authorities had banned it.

Black flags fly at Prague Castle to commemorate Havel’s death. EPA/Singer

Havel’s other achievement during this early period is an astonishing political essay called The Power of the Powerless (1978). I edited its first English edition; a Chinese translation of my book-length account of its significance will be published next year. The essay is widely considered to be the greatest political essay written in Central and Eastern Europe prior to the events of 1989. Beautifully written and theoretically sophisticated, it contains a single but radical insight: the powerful, even if equipped with the most advanced weaponry and means of control, are actually no match for the powerless when they decide to withdraw their consent and non-violently refuse to play the game of the powerful.

So the power of the powerless in any context is their ability to reject current power arrangements, to behave differently, for instance by refusing corruption, lying, bullshit, bribes and the other trimmings and trapping of power. For that thought Havel was awarded a three-and-a-half year prison sentence. When I first met him, in Prague, he had just been released. He was mentally and physically exhausted, constantly on edge, anxious that he would be re-arrested. Yet he took risks, and did so with fearless dignity. He practised what he had written. That earned his essay regional and global fame. Rightly so. It was a trumpet blast in support of the idea that nonviolent resistance of citizens could triumph against any and all forms of top-down power.

How should Havel be remembered?

Democracies shouldn’t immortalise their leaders, past or present. They mustn’t allow anybody to sit on thrones. Yes, they need to preserve memories of stellar figures like Havel, particularly in our darkening times, when more than a few democracies are in trouble. But democrats should try to live without political heroes and myths of great leaders. I doubt whether Václav Havel would want to be put on a pedestal. That’s why I think he’s best remembered as a man who had the misfortune of being born into the 20th century, a figure whose fate was politics, a brave citizen who resisted its excesses, a public intellectual whose life and writings teach us much about the grave dangers of concentrated power - and the ability of humble people to throw off their chains. That’s quite a lot to remember.

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