Vaclav Havel, Part VI: Havel Na Hrad (Havel to the Castle)
Vaclav Havel was released from his longest prison term in 1983. He was hospitalized for the following month – a fact which alone speaks volumes about the conditions of his confinement. The Czechoslovak regime had tried almost everything it could to silence him, to no avail: internal exile, censorship, constant surveillance and harassment, imprisonment with hard labor, glittering offers to emigrate – nothing worked.
In retrospect, they should have just killed him. They were afraid to do it – in fact, he was released from prison because they thought he was about to die in their custody – because the treatment of dissidents all over the world was, for the first time, being closely monitored internationally under the Helsinki Accords. (In fact, the International Helsinki Foundation was headed by a Czech exile – Karel Schwarzenberg, who eventually became one of Havel’s closest advisors and is currently the Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic). Havel and the other Charter 77 leaders had been shrewd enough to frame their dissent as a celebration of the Helsinki Accords — but it also reflected their fundamental commitment to human rights.
Totalitarian regimes had signed the accords to assure their survival – borders were recognized, aid made available. They did not know it, but they had sown the seeds of their destruction by agreeing, as an afterthought, to tie aid to their treatment of human rights advocates. They could not kill Havel and get aid, so they had to gamble: take the aid and try to control Havel, or kill him and try to survive without the aid. They let him live and lost.
As much of Eastern Europe began to open up following Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascension to power in the Soviet Union, the Czechoslovak regime went in the opposite direction: it cracked down especially hard, much harder in fact than neighbors such as Poland, Hungary and East Germany. Repression increased in Czechoslovakia as it decreased elsewhere. Havel was arrested and imprisoned yet again.
Arrests and searches grew more frequent, which caused some despair among the Charter 77 leaders – but not Havel. He recognized the increasing repression as a sign of weakness in the regime. It was growing afraid because its grip on power depended more and more upon the exercise of its own brute force, since the Soviets had made clear that this time – unlike 1968 – there would be no military invasion.
Students began holding illegal demonstrations and were beaten and arrested. But as totalitarian regimes began to fall around them, more and more Czechs and Slovaks were emboldened to speak out. Released in late 1989, Havel and others formed an umbrella organization, the Civic Forum, that newly emerging dissident organizations joined. As demonstrations increased in late 1989, the regime reacted violently. The revolution in Czechoslovakia is universally called the ‘Velvet Revolution’ but it was only soft in comparison the bloodbath that was feared. You can see it for yourself here, and it is well worth watching.
When the Civic Forum called for a general strike, the regime was shocked to find the country completely paralyzed. Millions of people took to the streets of Prague and other cities around the country and it became undeniably clear that the regime had no popular support at all, and thus no legitimacy.
It was in fact exactly as Havel had predicted years before in The Power of the Powerless: the moment people stopped playing their roles, and lived honestly, the totalitarian power structure would collapse. Members of the regime recognized now that without Soviet military support, their days were numbered unless they could effect a peaceful transition. The regime sought a meeting with Havel and other members of Civic Forum. Within a few days, the regime announced it was resigning. Here is the moment word of the resignation reached the dissidents, including Havel, in their headquarters in (naturally) a theater.
It was a triumphant moment, but it left two enormous, unanswered questions: what would come next? And who could be trusted to lead the country out of 40 years of totalitarian nightmare into a new and terrifying future?
Vaclav Havel never intended to become a political leader. He was a playwright and some time philosopher who simply refused to keep his mouth shut. But, quite suddenly, as Havel had predicted, the regime had collapsed. The cause for which Havel had nearly sacrificed everything – what he called the basic dignity of each person’s right to live in truth and love – stood at the precipice of success. But it would die there unless someone committed to those ideas, who had sufficient popular support, would fill the vacuum of power.There was no one with any political experience to turn to, because all of the leaders of Civic Forum were working as janitors and boiler-feeders, or were in prison.
Havel didn’t want to become President. He wanted to write. He repeatedly laughed off the suggestion until it became clear the revolution would die unless he did it. The suggestions had become pleas. The massive crowds gathering in Wencelaus Square chanted “Havel na Hrad” (“Havel to the Castle”). Years before, in another startling display of prescience, Havel had written that “the real test of a man is not how well he plays the role he has invented for himself, but how well he plays the role that destiny assigned to him.” Now he faced that moment.
There was no road map. No one knew what to do, starting on day one. It was impossible to get the phones to work, let alone to rid the palace of the secret police. But he went his way: simply, and living in truth. His first address as President captured the starkly honest spirit with which he assumed office:
“For forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright prospects were unfolding in front of us. I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.”
As he had written years earlier, “even the toughest truth expressed publicly, in front of everyone else, suddenly becomes liberating.”