Underrated: Václav Havel
A true revolutionary: Václav Havel (illustration by Michael Daley)
There are plenty of pseudo-revolutionaries in history. Václav Havel was the real thing.
According to the magnificent new biography (Havel: A Life; Atlantic Books, £25) by Michael Zantovsky, who was for many years Havel's spokesman and is now the Czech Ambassador in London, there was nothing accidental about the apotheosis of the dissident playwright who became the hero of the Velvet Revolution and the first President of a free Czechoslovakia exactly 25 years ago this month. It happened because Havel understood that those who overthrow a system have a responsibility to prove that they are morally superior to those they have ousted. He was magnanimous in victory: "Those who have for many years engaged in a violent and bloody vengefulness against their opponents are now afraid of us. They should rest easy. We are not like them."
For journalists who were there — watching and listening to the street theatre in Wenceslas Square, or taking notes at the press conferences held by the Civic Forum in an actual theatre, the Magic Lantern — the pathos of Havel's performance was unforgettable. Nobody else — not even Alexander Dubček, who had seen the Prague Spring crushed by Russian tanks 20 years before, and who also stood on the balcony in the square — could have brought this drama to its climax. Havel was the Bohemian who personified la Bohème.
Revolutions are often betrayed and end in blood. Since 1989, we have seen the use and abuse of people power many times — most recently in the Arab Spring. Yet the Velvet Revolution remains as an unsurpassed model of peaceful change.
How did Havel do it? Tension had been rising since the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9. On November 17, 1989, the riot police crushed a demonstration in Prague and a student was (falsely) reported killed. Three days later, having set up the "Civic Forum", Havel appeared before a sea of 150,000 people in Wenceslas Square. Once he had drawn a critical mass of people to the square, the old fear of the secret police vanished. The atmosphere was festive, never menacing, with speakers appealing to the crowds, who answered spontaneously but in unison. They dared to mock Miloš Jakeš, the general secretary of the Communist Party, who had hitherto been a much-feared bogeyman. "Miloš, it's over," they chanted.
And it was. Four days later, Jakeš and the rest of the party leadership fell on their swords and resigned. I recall the mood in Wenceslas Square when the news was announced. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive," wrote Wordsworth, but the French Revolution was violent from the start. What happened in Prague in 1989 was nothing like Paris in 1789. The peaceful vigils in Wenceslas Square could not have been more different from the storming of the Bastille, let alone the Terror.