The social memory of small countries is punctuated by dates which recall national defeats. When the students of Prague assembled in the late afternoon of Friday 17 November 1989 in the city’s main thorough-fare, the Narodni Street, the purpose of their officially-sanctioned demonstration was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of one of their comrades, Jan Opletal, murdered by the Germans on 17 November 1939; at the same time they were remembering the death of Jan Palach, the student who, on 16 January 1969, burned himself to death at the foot of the statue of the country’s patron saint, the good King Wenceslas, in protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the armies of the Soviet Union and three other countries of the Communist bloc. Now, for the first time in twenty years, ‘the grown-ups’ were taking the students and actors who joined them seriously: ‘our children shamed us into action.’ By 9 p.m. a crowd of some fifty thousand people were moving towards Wenceslas Square. The violence which the police (white helmets, riot shields and truncheons) used to disperse the crowd led to some broken limbs and numerous concussions, but there were no deaths. This is how Czechoslovakia’s ‘kind of peaceable revolution’ began, and it was over, without any further violence, 24 days later. It was not, to begin with, a nationwide uprising. Both television and radio were slow to give up-to-date news; people had to rely on West German stations and on Radio Freedom in Munich. In the provinces they suspected that these were the cavortings of a few crackpot intellectuals in Prague, most of whom had been in gaol anyway.
Vaclav Havel was not in the city when the levée en masse started: he was staying in northern Bohemia, at his country cottage called ‘Hradecek’ – ‘Little Castle’. On his return to Prague (probably on Saturday morning) he took charge of events from his headquarters in the basement dressing-room of the Laterna Magica Theatre. His leadership seems never to have been in dispute. Though the extent of the popular support for the students took him by surprise, he instantly made their cause his own. His next, decisive step was to call for a two-hour general strike for Monday 27 November. The call-out, which included the critical section of the population, the workers in heavy industry and in the mines, was a complete success. By a strange coincidence, the city happened to be full of people from the countryside who had come to celebrate the canonisation a week earlier, in Rome, of Princess Agnes (1205-1282), the daughter of yet another King Wenceslas. (An old lady whose house lies on the steep way to St Vitus’s Cathedral put a notice in her window: ‘Pilgrims are welcome to a night’s lodging, but I have only two beds, two eiderdowns and four blankets.’) This is the first Czech uprising fully supported by the Catholic Church – a year earlier a petition for religious freedom drawn up by Augustin Navratil, a dispossessed Moravian farmer, and endorsed by the 90-year-old Frantisek Cardinal Tomasek, was signed by half a million people – and an hour after his election as President of the Republic, on 29 December, Havel, no longer in his habitual jeans and pullover but in a neat three-piece suit, attended mass celebrated by the Cardinal in the Cathedral. In a little over a month he had moved from the Little Castle to the big one overlooking the city – z Hradecku ... na Hrad.
The Czechs are a cautious people who have taken a long time to emerge from the traumas of national defeat. Few of them have been ready to face the fact that, to one side of the Munich betrayal of 1938 by the French (and less directly the British), the Czechoslovak Government’s acceptance of the ‘Diktat’ meant a collapse of everything the country had stood for through twenty years of democratic freedom and self-determination. Munich represented the generals’ readiness to surrender a highly-equipped modern army on the first occasion when that army was called upon to fight; it represented a total collapse of what Havel, among the few who saw the past undistorted by apologies and lies, has called ‘the spurious realism’ of Edvard Benes, the President who, though not consulted, accepted the terms of the surrender. The demoralisation which followed the defeat and the harshness and untold humiliations of the German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia (Slovakia chose to become an ‘ally’ of the Germans) explain at least in part the next spiritual defeat – the vengeful fury unleashed by the Czechs on the Sudeten German population after May 1945 as the Benes Government looked the other way. And they also explain the lack of any effective democratic resistance to the Communist putsch of 1948, and the failure of the Prague Spring of 1968. Jaroslav Hasek’s Good Soldier Svejk has often been praised for his resilience and cunning, and his ability to survive under adverse conditions: but in November 1989 the Czechs succeeded (and the Slovaks took their cue from them) precisely because they did not behave like the Good Soldier but chanced their arm, because they behaved like Vaclav Havel.
Moreover, the Czechs were willing to follow the example of their three neighbours, Poland, Hungary and East Germany: to learn from them the lesson that the Soviet Union under Gorbachev was in no mood and in no position to turn Wenceslas Square into Tiananmen Square. That may seem obvious, but Czechoslovakia has had bitter territorial quarrels with all three countries since the peace settlements of Versailles and St Germain, and its relations with them went from bad to worse when all three sent their military forces to take part in the occupation that followed the Prague Spring. For Czechoslovakia with its respectable democratic past to be willing to follow on the road to democracy countries with very different political records suggests a community of political spirit unprecedented in the annals of Central Europe. The self-liberation would not have happened, however, had there not been students and actors who formed its spearhead – enough people with the courage, perseverance and imprudence of Vaclav Havel. It would be nice to be able to say that in his utter decency, good humour and honesty Havel is ‘a true representative of the Czech people’. So he is. But in all representation there is an element of fiction – a fiction which, in the event, encouraged the nation to rise to the moral demands of a charismatic maker of fictions.
Vaclav Havel was born into a bourgeois family in 1936, the year that Tomas Garrigue Masaryk died, and two years before the death of TGM’s creation, the First Czechoslovak Republic. Havel’s grandfather, an enterprising builder, came to Prague from the Moravian town where Havel’s friend Tom Stoppard was born; his father, a civil engineer turned architect and speculative builder, got into debt by putting up one of Prague’s prettiest residential suburbs above the River Vitava, and even after the Communist takeover he was popular enough with his workforce to retain a managerial job in the theatre and leisure complex he had built in the city. The cossetted ‘master’s son’ grew up, first in Prague, then in Moravia, with a feeling of undeserved privilege: ‘It may seem paradoxical,’ he writes in one of his letters from prison to his wife Olga, ‘but I think that because of those early experiences I have always had a heightened sensitivity and aversion towards the various manifestations of social inequality, and to privilege in general.’ [*] This, together with his chubbiness (‘I was just a well-fed piglet’), gave him a feeling of ‘being a bit outside the order of things’, which in turn made him prey to uncertainties about his place in the world, to the fear that there might be a fatal flaw in his character which justified his exclusion from the company of his less privileged schoolmates. But at the point where this self-portrait looks like becoming pure Oblomov, the ‘Czech’ element in his character prevails: his ‘oddness’ (he adds) is not only the source of his self-doubt, but also ‘a lifelong wellspring of energies directed at continually improving my self-definition ... it is also a decisive force behind everything worthwhile I have ever managed to accomplish.’ After forty years spent in the shadow of ‘isms’ – called now ‘Communism’ or ‘Marxism’, then ‘socialism with a human face’ or realny socialismus – he acknowledges in himself ‘that traditional quality of the bourgeoisie, especially in the era of liberalism, which is the ability to take risks, the courage to start all over again from nothing, the ever vital hope and élan to begin new enterprises’.
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[*] Letters to Olga, translated by Paul Wilson (Faber, 397 pp., £7.99, 19 February, 0 571 13702 4).