Had he avoided the mistake of dying in 2011, the last and the first post-communist president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of post-divorce Czechia would celebrate his 80th birthday today.
To commemorate, the small but luxurious area inside the National Theater in Prague was renamed "Václav Havel Square" yesterday while here in Pilsen where he spent over a year in the early 1980s, a special metallic plate about his "vacation" was posted in the famous and interesting Bory [Pinewoods, a suburb] prison.
I do think that the name "Václav Havel Prison" would be more appropriate than the "Václav Havel Square" because it isn't a real square; as well as the "Václav Havel Airport" because Havel was afraid of flying.
Václav Havel was born on October 5th, 1936 into one of the wealthiest and most intellectual capitalist families in Prague. His father Václav Maria Havel (the son of Vácslav Havel) owned the Barrandov Terraces, fancy buildings (surrounded by expensive villas) at Barrandov, a neighborhood named after a French geologist and located at the highest hill in Prague. Václav Maria's brother Miloš founded the Barrandov Film Atelier at the same place in 1921. He was a respected uncle of many Czech actors including Lída Baarová. The ateliers remain the headquarters of the Czech TV and film industry and one of Europe's largest film ateliers as of today. Street View.
Václav Havel's maternal grandfather Hugo Vavrečka was an ambassador and a well-known journalist.
In 1948, when Havel was 11.5, the totalitarian communism began. Havel's ancestors didn't quite belong to the working class and be sure that this fact has produced some disadvantages for Václav. He wasn't allowed to study any humanities but they didn't really stop his attraction to the theater. He studied an economics school but became a dropout after two years.
In 1968 when the Czechoslovak communists adopted a human face, his absurd plays were performed in the U.S. After the 1968 Warsaw Pact occupation, he began his intense political activities. He founded a committee for the unjustly prosecuted and was one of the 9 founders of Charter 77. He was arrested several times, had to roll the barrels in a brewery etc., and became a natural intellectual leader of the dissent.
Note that the dissidents were a very special species. Just some 2,000 Czechoslovak citizens out of 15 millions could have been described like that. They were getting some funding from the West, some of them did live a relatively wealthy life (Havel himself has owned several Mercedeses during communism as well as a VW Golf in the 1980s), they were organizing some wild parties, and they spent a disproportionate amount of time in prisons, mostly for reasons that are unjustifiable in a civilized society as we understand it today.
I am not a Havlist today because we tend to vaguely identify "Havlism" with many of the features of the SJW society that we really dislike. But I surely was a Havlist – and a kid or teenage dissident – between 1985 and 1989. Well, I was almost certainly a top 1% Havlist. ;-) Sometime around 1983 when I was 10, I systematically tried to tune all the frequencies on my radio, an exercise I surprisingly wasn't able (or creative enough) to do much earlier. The Radio Free Europe was one of the stations I could catch. Along with the Voice of America and a London radio, I was listening to it systematically up to 1990 or so when these stations became a bit redundant.
Needless to say, Havel was often mentioned on RFE. I don't think that they were talking about "his presidency" often or explicitly but I surely did converge to the idea that Václav Havel should have become a president of Czechoslovakia (instead of the reform communists active in 1968, for example; I agree with Klaus that Havel had the mentality of a reform communist but I would add that he had a "fancier" image). An overwhelming majority of my classmates weren't interested in politics. But even those who were interested thought that I was a complete nutcase to talk about Václav Havel as a future president of Czechoslovakia.
Well, at any rate, I was right and Havel became the Czechoslovak president just 6 weeks after the Velvet Revolution began; he went "almost directly" from a prison to the Prague Castle. (The Czech verse "just yesterday a dissident, tomorrow surely a president" was posted at many places.) My memories of the Velvet Revolution would be enough for several blog posts – and Havel was the most well-known hero of these events, at least at the beginning. It's interesting that my predictions that have worked went well beyond a Havel presidency.
On Monday, November 20th, 1989, three days after the student rally, I made a poll for my classmate to estimate when Miloš Jakeš would be removed as the boss of the communist party; when the leading role of the communist party would be removed from the constitution; and when the federal government would be replaced with one that included non-communists. My own guessed dates were November 24th, November 29th, and December 3rd. These three dates turned out to be exactly correct. I needed quite some knowledge about politics to even "name" these three looming changes. To guess the correct days was a combination of intuition and some extremely good luck – which I am persistently unable to repeat while trading stocks or currencies or anything of the sort LOL.
Seven weeks before the Velvet Revolution began in 1989, we went to our last potato picking brigade (high school students were working as unpaid slaves helping the socialist agriculture). RFE announced the amazing "birthday wish" in Rudé právo (Red Law / Red Right), the most well-known propaganda daily published by the top Czechoslovak communists.
The same newspaper that normally ran bitter articles about Havel's being a drunkard and a kid from a family that co-operated with the Nazis (only years after the Velvet Revolution, I appreciated that "something" was "partially" correct in this communist propaganda) published his photo posted at the top (the editors must have overlooked it) with the wishes from his friends:
On the day 10/5/1989, the birthday was celebrated by Mr Ferdinand Vaněk from the Little Smallcastle. For his difficult work which he has been doing and is still doing, he is being thanked by his collaborators and friends who also wish him good health and additional successes in his business.They were wishing him further successes in undermining the dirty regime of these communist bastards who were in charge of the daily.
Well, just some classmates were as excited by this unusually – but not deliberate – friendly mention of Havel in Rudé právo. Note that Ferdinand Vaněk was a hero from Havel's plays, especially The Audience, representing the playwright himself. Ferdinand Vaněk was an intellectual who worked under a truly down-to-Earth, well, primitive and drunk brewmaster in The Audience, for example. In 1990 or so, along with a classmate of mine, we mostly memorized the play – which is very repetitive but it was entertaining for us.
"Little Smallcastle" (Malý Hrádek) is a different way of saying "Hrádeček" (Tinycastle), the name of Havel's well-known cottage in the mountains ("Hrad" is a castle). Well, Hrádeček is a village in the mountains with 6 houses and he bought one of them for CSK 14k in 1967. Street View.
I must mention that while I don't consider Havel's plays to be the cornerstones of the world literature – and I think that they were partly made famous by the political activities of Havel – I did enjoy them and I think that he was good as a playwright. The Audience was an example of a crazy play you may dismiss as a prank. But e.g. his Beggar's Opera was a rather standard good and entertaining book and film. I sort of liked his Leaving, too.
At any rate, in late 1989, Havel was a hero at some rallies, sometimes featuring over a million of Czechoslovaks. The people got used to him quickly – it was the "trend" that almost no one was really questioning, just like 15 million Czechoslovaks didn't really question communism before that – and he was chosen the president just 6 weeks after the Velvet Revolution started. Crazily enough, the Parliament that did so was mostly made of the communist deputies from a party that was arresting Havel just months earlier. Needless to say, these communist deputies were often intensely bullied by the "Civic Forum, OF" – the all-encompassing movement during the Velvet Revolution whose purpose was nothing else than the transition from communism to something else (the OF was important both at the central and local level and it basically decayed once more well-defined political parties started to be established – the incoherence of OF was obvious to everybody by 1992 or so).
It's still true that Havel's star in Czechoslovakia was never as brightly shining as it was in the West, especially in the U.S. – although only years later, I acknowledged that this star power in the U.S. is an immensely fleeting thing.
In late 1989 and 1990, all the parties basically agreed with Havel's presidency and they supported him. Nevertheless, since early days of 1990, it was clear that there were some actual new battlefronts in which people disagreed. In particular, I think that the somewhat hidden but profound battles between Václav Havel and Václav Klaus became the most important "political conflict" in Czechoslovakia and Czechia of the 1990s.
The official main confrontation between the elections could have taken place between right-wing Klaus and left-wing Zeman. Havel was "above" all the parties. But that was really the main reason why the Klaus-Havel conflict was a more important one. Havel just wanted to be "above everyone else" even without some elections. He believed some values that are self-evidently right and promoted by NGOs and similar groups that don't need to compete with anybody and that don't need to fight for anyone's votes – the "civic society" was his favorite term – should beat everything else. The old political parties were fading away, he believed, and so on.
Klaus was and is a champion of the standard, down-to-Earth, tested-by-history parliamentary democracy, market economy without adjectives (to be contrasted with the social or environmentally-friendly or sustainable or socially responsible... market economy – and there are lots of these adjectives whose purpose is to absolutely bastardize the market economy and turn it into a misleadingly named form of totalitarianism or socialism). Klaus believed that the political ideas should be competing, fighting, and the better one should win. Havel wanted to avoid much of it.
To some mild extent, Havel opposed the methods of liberalization, privatization etc. that were taken and was inventing various slurs for those things. He was also encouraging the Czechs to have the "bad mood" (his favorite words in the mid 1990s). However, formally, he still defended the view that the transition as such was right. It was rather confusing. Except for the years 1989 and perhaps 1990, Havel was mostly confined to his dreams and didn't affect the real-world politics much.
The political problems and disagreements we experience today aren't the same as those during Havel's life. But they're similar in many ways. Because of the influence that Havel has had on the country, many political movements and attitudes and activists are still being framed as pro-Havel or anti-Havel. Russian "opposition artists" gluing their scrotum to the superhighway are "pro-Havel" while some old-fashioned parties and anti-immigration folks etc. are called "anti-Havel". But I am actually not 100% certain that Havel would support the mass migration of Muslims these days and other things that are being automatically ascribed to him.
Havel's health was always rather fragile. Some of it was because Nature wasn't generous enough. Some of it was because of the truly bad conditions in the prisons etc. Some of it was due to his bad lifestyle. He was a fanatical smoker, drank some alcohol, avoided sports, etc. It's pretty amazing that he lived up to the 75 years of age – given the fact that much earlier, he underwent surgeries of lung cancer (half of his right lung was removed already 15 years before he died), abdominal hernia (repeated), holes in the intestines, heart arrhythmia (there were several surgeries meant to fix the heart rate), bronchitis, phlegm in the lobe of the lung,... He was rather close to death many times. He died while sleeping in 2011.
R.I.P., Mr Havel.
He's been an important guy of the Czechoslovak and Czech history. The nation would probably be wealthier materially and morally if much of it could have been avoided, if he could have lived the life of a guy from a rich family in Prague who simply does something important without much hassle and he's not being harassed for that etc. It's not clear to me whether Havel would have been a good manager of their family assets, for example – given the "demo" in the 1990s, probably not. However, the actual history was more interesting.