Vaclav Havel: The Man Behind the Velvet Revolution
Daniel Kaiser, author of Dissident Vaclav Havel, speaks about the first critical biography of the famed Czech politician and playwright
The historical changes of the late 1980s and early 1990s are often viewed in Central and Eastern Europe as having taken place only yesterday. But time flies, and many of those who inspired these transformations are no longer with us. One key figure in those heady days was Vaclav Havel, the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic. Journalist and historian Daniel Kaiser wrote his book while Havel was still living. He poured over his memoirs, compared them with archival documents and met with his subject multiple times. The Ukrainian Week talked to Kaiser before he set out on a tour across Ukraine to promote the first part of his study – the book Dissident Vaclav Havel which has been translated into Ukrainian and published by Tempora Publishers.
Havel was interesting to me, just as he was to any Czech who cared even the least bit about politics. I began to watch him while I was still a teenager, i.e., in the second half of the 1980s. Because I was so young, I watched him then as an observer.
U.W.: A lot has been written about Havel. How is your book different from others?
I have always respected the man, but as I wrote about him, I decided to resort to a healthy critical method. I am the first person to have compared his old memoirs about trials and imprisonment with material kept in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, i.e., I contrasted Havel’s own testimony with everything I could find about him. No-one else had done that before.
U.W.: You wrote the book Dissident Vaclav Havel in Havel’s lifetime. Did he try to have any kind of impact on your work?
I had several long conversations with him in which he patiently replied to my questions. This was the only time he could have guided me in some direction, which would have been natural. Curiously, he remembered more details from his dissident years, even though they were more distant, and when he spoke about the more recent events during his presidential career, he was at times unsure and hesitated. He helped me in my work. For example, he contacted various people who had his letters, asking them to make them accessible to me. These people often demanded special consent, and he always helped me without hesitation.
U.W.: What do you think is the most important thing he left after himself?
Apart from several plays, Havel is also an example of how a person must conduct himself in difficult times without losing dignity. He indeed did more in the 1970s and the 1980s than during his presidency. His presidency is like repayment of the loan he issued to society when he was a dissident.
U.W.: Looking at Havel from a historical perspective, does he come across as a typical Czech politician? Or did he stand out in some way?
He was typical in only one respect: he wanted to do politics and had advanced power ambitions. But he never showed it on the outside and had to be constantly talked into things. It all had the appearance of being quite a sacrifice on his part. He played this part well. Czech politicians have a somewhat unfortunate trait of sentimentalising. Its roots go back perhaps to the 19th century or even the period of national revival. However, it was very good that Havel went into politics in 1989 and that he stayed there for the entire period that he won for himself. How was he different? Through his courage and honesty with himself.
U.W.: Can the Velvet Revolution be credited to Havel?
It all depends on how you look at it. The Communists would have surrendered power in that period even without the help of Havel or Charter 77. But he gave the Czechoslovakian autumn of 1989 an attractive visage and wrote the script for it. To many eyewitnesses of these events, this is their best memory.
U.W.: Do all Czechs view his political activity in the same way? Or is there some “anti-Havel opposition” in society?
Of course, Havel had many critics, and they included both communists and democrats. In the five-six years before his death, when he was no longer president and rarely appeared in public, even though his presence was somehow felt, a kind of quiet Havel revival took place. Here is a telling example for you. Four years ago I was at a wedding party. The celebration continued well into the night and the police showed up and accused us of being a public nuisance. Jokingly, we began to yell something about human rights and then chanted the slogan “Long live Havel!” This was, of course, a joke, but it had its effect on the police. They laughed, dropped the matter and left. After Havel’s death, Czech society came to a certain consensus: despite all his mistakes and varying attitudes to his policies, Havel was a great personality.
U.W.: He was also known for his bohemian way of life. How do Czechs treat such public figures?
In general, positively. The reputation of a Czech politician will not be seriously shaken if a scandal involving his lover erupts or he is reported to have an large taste for alcohol. Social tolerance to celebrities and their private life is not Havel’s merit, but he proved the rule.
U.W.: Are his plays still relevant today?
Yes, his plays are more important and topical than, for example, his political writings. In my opinion, some of the pieces he wrote in the 1970s are excellent analysis of the communist reaction to the events of 1968 and the way people behave in a totalitarian society.
U.W.: Havel is known to have been apprehensive about signing the law on lustration…
There was at least one person in his inner circle whom the state security service had forced into cooperation. This person did not wrong anyone, and it cost this person extremely great effort to sever connections with the security service. That is why Havel could not see such dramatic goal stories being analysed by MPs who were often young people of rightist persuasions. He was afraid of Jacobinism. However, he signed the law under pressure from his anti-Communist advisors and for the sake of a strategic union with the powerful right.
I believe lustration could have been somewhat more radical, but it was generally beneficial. Initially, Havel rejected lustration laws internally, even though he eventually came to think under pressure from his inner circle that they were necessary. They were first valid for five years but were later prolonged several times and are effective even now. Initially, opponents to this law protested, sometimes even hysterically, but later they put up with it.
U.W.: Do you think decommunisation is complete in the Czech Republic?
In general, yes. My generation, i.e., those who were about 20 in 1989, are coming to power in the economy and public life with politics lagging a bit behind.
U.W.: Are Czechs satisfied with EU membership? How widespread is European skepticism?
Skepticism has been on the rise since the onset of the crisis in the eurozone. Today European skeptics are in the majority. Of course, in the Czech Republic these are not people who would want the country to pull out of the EU. They are simply doubtful about the need to harmonise legislation and oppose the euro and unification of political power. Havel was not able to comprehend this paradigm shift, this crisis of European thought, i.e., the exhaustion of its capabilities. This is a different political world.
U.W.: You were planning to write Havel’s biography in several parts. So far you have published the first volume about his dissident years. When is the continuation coming?
The next book is almost ready. I'm putting the last touches on it and if everything goes well, I will hand over the second part to the publisher this year.