Playwright led the 'Velvet Revolution' and commanded respect as president of a post-communist Czechoslovakia
Published 25/12/2011 | 05:00
Vaclav Havel, who died last weekend aged 75, was President of Czechoslovakia and later of the Czech Republic, but enjoyed his finest hour before he attained office when, in December 1989, he led the "Velvet Revolution" which toppled the communist regime in Czechoslovakia.
In those crucial days Havel was able to draw upon the moral authority which he had built up over two decades as a dissident playwright. By contrast, as president of Czechoslovakia between 1990 and 1992 he could not prevent the disintegration of the Czechoslovakian federation into its two constituent parts. And after he became president of the Czech Republic in 1993 he was little more than a titular head of state.
Havel, who had always been sceptical of the political process and who had never aimed at office, did not repine at the inevitable limitations of power. To the end of his life he commanded respect -- even devotion -- as a man who had suffered for his convictions. During the Seventies and Eighties he served several jail sentences, the longest of them four and a half years' hard labour.
At the root of his protest had been a visceral loathing for what communism had done to Czechoslovakia. In 1990, in one of his early addresses as president, he spoke of the fallen regime as "a monstrous, ramshackle machine" which had bequeathed not merely economic failure but also "a spoiled moral environment".
"We have become morally ill because we are used to saying one thing and thinking another," he explained. "We have learned not to believe in anything, not to care about each other. Love, friendship, mercy, humility and forgiveness lost their depth."
Havel's attitude to communism was an extreme form of his scepticism about political parties of all kinds. Having helped to unite the opposition to communism in the Civic Forum, he was unconcerned to see the alliance fall to pieces when communism had been defeated.
In essence he was a liberal, eager to tolerate any opinion so long as it was neither dominant nor all-embracing. When communism in Czechoslovakia ceased to be a totalitarian form of government and became merely another philosophy, he no longer regarded it with hostility.
Vaclav Havel was born on October 5, 1936, into the haute bourgeoisie of Prague. His grandfather was an architect and contractor, and his father became a leading property developer. They both cultivated literary connections, and the boy grew up surrounded not merely by books but also, in many cases, by their authors. This comfortable existence changed drastically after 1948, when the Stalinists took power in a Moscow-backed coup.
At school, Vaclav and his brother Ivan were persecuted as scions of capitalist privilege, and denied access to education beyond elementary school. In order to finance secondary education at night school, Vaclav worked for five years as a laboratory technician -- though he still found the time to become heavily involved, by the age of 16, in underground literary circles.
From 1955 to 1957 he studied Economics at the Czech College of Technology, and then did his two-year stint of military service, during which he co-founded a regimental theatre company. Afterwards, rejected by the drama school at Prague University, he became a stagehand and general dogsbody at the Theatre on the Balustrade.
The theatre staged his first solo play, The Garden Party, in 1963, a time when liberal reform was being cautiously discussed among intellectuals. The play satirised the grotesque growth of totalitarian bureaucracy -- and particularly its language.
The tendency of communist officialdom to evolve modes of communication which masked its true meaning became a constant theme in Havel's work. In The Memorandum (1965) he created a new language called Ptydepe, which rejected unscientific ways of speaking in favour of a system in which the length of the word was in inverse proportion to the frequency of use. The word for 'wombat', therefore, was 319 letters long.
Havel's early plays resulted in the withdrawal of his passport. But it was returned to him as the reform movement gathered support in 1968, and in May of that year he travelled to America for the production of The Memorandum in New York.
But in August 1968 Alexander Dubcek's dream of giving communism "a human face" disintegrated when the Soviet Union and four other Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia and suppressed the movement. Havel went underground, and from a secret radio station broadcast an appeal for support to Western intellectuals.
He also addressed meetings of artists and workers, pleading with them to support the cause of human rights. The communist authorities reacted by once more withdrawing his passport, and by forcing him into menial labour, stacking barrels in a brewery.
When he did land in jail, Havel discovered that he was viewed with the greatest respect by the other inmates, and even by the warders, who let him know that they were 'on his side'.
In 1975 he wrote an open letter to Gustav Husak, the former party leader, attacking the communist system. "The idyllic image is artificial," he proclaimed. "It is not based on any real beliefs in the regime's goals, any trust in your government nor even on any vague agreement with your overall policies. Corruption is widespread."
His courageous stand stimulated international interest in his work. Three one-act pieces date from this period: Audience (1975), Interview (1975) and Protest (1978). In all of them Ferdinand Vanek, a dissident and persecuted writer, confronts those who have found ways of rationalising their conformity to the regime.
In January 1977 hundreds of Czechoslovakian intellectuals were arrested for signing Charter 77, a manifesto which protested against the failure of the Slovak Socialist Republic to abide by the Helsinki Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. That May, Havel was jailed for four months, but was released after asking for his freedom in a letter to the public prosecutor.
In October 1977 he had been given a 14-month sentence for subversion, which had consisted of sending his writings abroad for publication. Then, with other Charter 77 signatories, he formed a branch of the dissident movement called the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted.
For this further example of defiance, and for promoting a petition for the release of political prisoners, Havel was sentenced to four and a half years' hard labour.
Freed from prison in 1983, Havel continued his campaign against the government. In the following January he was back in jail again, sentenced to nine months for organising a rally to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the death of Jan Palach, the student who had burned himself to death in protest against the Soviet invasion of 1968.
Nearly 700 writers, actors, artists, film directors and others signed a letter demanding his release. In Warsaw the Polish prime minister, Mieczyslaw Rakowski, pointedly attended one of Havel's banned plays. After four months of agitation, the Czech government was forced to free Havel on the ground of his "exemplary conduct" in jail.
Meanwhile, as Mikhail Gorbachev initiated reform in the Soviet Union, a wave of democratisation spread over Eastern Europe. In November 1989 Havel took another bold step when he helped to found Civic Forum, which demanded the resignation of hardline communist leaders.
Within a few weeks, in the face of mass defections from the Party and demonstrations on the streets, the government began to crack. Wenceslas Square in Prague became the emotional rallying point for the opposition, and photographs of Havel appeared in shop windows. In December, president Gustav Husak resigned.
At the end of the month the cabinet unanimously elected Havel interim president. After the elections in June 1990, parliament confirmed him as president by a majority of 234 to 50. But the honeymoon was drawing to a close.
Havel's idealistic opposition to the arms industry and to the sale of weapons abroad antagonised many. In Slovakia the desire for independence grew, fuelled by impatience at the government's hasty privatisation policy.
Havel proposed that the issue of Slovakian independence should be settled by a referendum. At the popular level there was strong support for the maintenance of the federation, but politically the union was doomed. The elections of June 1992 gave a left-wing nationalist Slovakian party the second-biggest representation in the federal parliament, while in Czech regions the Civic Democratic Party, a right-wing federalist organisation, scored highest.
The result made it impossible to form a federal government save on a provisional basis, pending secession. To emphasise the point, the Slovakian nationalists blocked Havel's re-election as president. He resigned on July 20, 1992. On January 1, 1993, the federation was disbanded.
To give the impression of continuity, and to foster relations with the West, Vaclav Klaus, the prime minister of the Czech Republic, was eager that Havel should be president of the new country -- though determined he should be little more than a figurehead. Havel demanded a final veto over legislation and the right to dissolve parliament, but was obliged to accept office without winning these concessions.
By the end of his term in office there was increasing criticism of his interference in the day-to-day politics of the Czech Republic. None the less, he still commanded sufficient respect to be re-elected as president in January 1998.
In May 2008 Havel won a standing ovation at the premiere of his new play Leaving, marking a successful return to theatre after two decades.
Havel published a memoir of his years as president, To the Castle and Back, in 2007.
In 2003 he was awarded the International Gandhi Peace Prize and received Amnesty International's Ambassador of Conscience Award for his work in promoting human rights. In 2004 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Vaclav Havel married first, in 1964, Olga Splichalova, who died in 1996; they had no children. He married secondly, in 1997, Dagmar Veskrovna, an actress.