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Vaclav Havel – 5.10.36-18.12.11

  • December 26th, 2011
  • Posted by 7thmin

havel2.jpgMEMOIR: Thousands have turned out in Prague for the state funeral of the former President Vaclav Havel. He was the leader of the dissident movement and massive street protests that commenced the transition of Czechoslovakia from communist state to membership of the European Union.
Lee Duffield prepared this memoir:

With his life, Vaclav Havel gave the world a lesson on the human spirit.

(He died one day after the death of the North Korean President Kim Jong-il, whose passing created more noise and some consternation; though he would be obviously the lesser man).

When the time came for the communist party to go down in Czechoslovakia, in 1989, somebody had to be the leader, if they could.

By the middle of November the Berlin Wall had been opened (9.11.89) and it was plain there would be no more Soviet tanks trundling into, and despoiling the beautiful city of Prague; but it would take great courage and charisma to get out the government that had nowhere to go.

Vaclav Havel, a literary man said to have come from “good family” before the communist time, had turned his mind to opposing the regime after the Soviet intervention and crushing of the 1968 “Prague Spring”.

He was a leader of Charter 77, the human rights movement that confronted all of the Eastern Bloc heads with their own signing of the “Helsinki” accord with the West, agreeing to preserve human rights; so interested were they in other clauses, guaranteeing non-interference in sovereign rights of states, by outside powers.

Repeatedly picked up and gaoled, with his dissident companions lampooned by Red officialdom as a ratbag, “bohemian” (in Bohemia) and drunk, he shrugged off the insults and kept writing, poems and plays, and kept on campaigning for democratic change.

The end of 1989 was a time of great shock.

After the shock of the “Wall”, came the shock understanding, to this writer as a news correspondent of the time, that the confused man at the Czechoslovak consulate was offering an open media visa to go into the country.

Such a gesture had been unheard of up to that day; “I have no instructions!”, he complained.

wenceslas-sq.jpgLife gravitated to Wenceslas Square, the beating heart of Prague; numbers of people began to grow, ominously for the government of the day.

It was slipped to journalists that we could get information at the tiny Blue Disk theatre, and soon after, the soon-to-be-famous Laterna Magika – the Magic Lantern children’s theatre, where dissident folks would hold forth.

Vaclac Havel would be there each evening, explaining the day’s hard talk with the communist leadership; news media of the world would be present as somewhat astonished witnesses.

hevel-dubcek.jpgWhen the Communist Party central committee did resign (24.11.89), he was there cracking champagne with Alexander Dubcek, the “reform” communist leader from the brief, and inspirational period of liberalisation in 1968, “Prague Spring” – himself taken to Moscow under arrest before being let back into semi-retirement in lesser government jobs. (See picture, Dubcek with Havel, 1989).

This toasting and celebration was another shock; living with legend, and moments of history.

velvet-revolution.jpgHundreds of thousands crowded the Square, later moving to Prague Castle as the numbers got too large.

Impressions would be: the bitter cold out of doors, by late November; the excitement of seeing a people so determined and intent; the enormity of the throng, where once I made an estimate of 500 000, creating some fear of crushing at the doors of the Metro – though this was no football crowd and they acted very patiently.

Vaclav Havel, it transpired as the details came out, was having a hard time.

In his negotiations, words across the table were harsh; there was mutual contempt; his adversaries were used to power, had been using it crudely, and some were frightened.

Late, by the weekend of 25-26.11.89 a new communist Prime Minister was digging in, refusing to let dissidents into the government.

The crowd outside looked solid; they shook millions of keys at any government figure who might get up to speak; causing me to write:

“People turning out in sub-zero temperatures were not there to be elegant; they were reactive, shouting down mentions of the government in retreat; some television viewers in the West reported their impressions of these protestors as rather a wild crowd, sporting their padded jackets and beanies, calling out aggressively. The jingling of keys may have sounded joyous, but could also sound sinister, depending on who heard…” (*)

Still, a group of dissidents was taking the lead, only because they had the courage to do it; civil society was too weak to provide any other leaders not wedded to the regime in power; the spokespersons for the crowds in the street would need to prove-up some power.

The test came with the decision by Havel to announce a general strike at noon on Monday 27.11.89.

His group were getting out their messages through Western news media, well monitored in Czechoslovakia, and through an ingenious poster campaign; but it was full of risk – would people risk stopping work, and go on parade in broad daylight?

They did, and when that moment came, at the stroke of mid-day, a wave of cheering surged across a huge mass jammed into the Square; reports came in that enterprises across the country were closed; public transport workers declared they would keep working – but only to get people to their protests.

It was the master-stroke; change after that was inevitable; equivocation had to cease; Vaclav Havel had proved his metal as a political leader who had got actual power to stiff-arm, and coerce his opponents.

It remained a shock, that before the year’s end, on 29.12.89, the day after Alexander Dubcek  returned to a position of power as chairman of the parliament, Vaclav Havel the persecuted dissident became President of the country.

The street protests that made up the backbone of the “Velvet revolution” had started only six weeks before, with violent police action against a student protest, at a time when dissident leaders had no resources of power, but for some fame, some principles, and the idea of freedom.

“Communism was overthrown”, he would say later (1992), “by life, by thought, by human dignity.”

He secured majorities in free elections early the next year; bystanders who spotted him hurrying in to vote formed a small crowd around the polling station, chanting “Havel! Havel!”.

He could not prevent the fracture of the federal state, into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but in office as federal President, then as Czech President, for altogether 14 years (to February 2003), he would oversee difficult transitions, to democracy and a market economy, laying the groundwork for joining the European Union – which took place the year after he left office.

A lifetime smoker, he had dealt with encroaching ill health through most of the presidency, and died at home in his sleep.

See EUAustralia Online, “Berlin Wall: 20 years on”, 1.3.09.


berlin-book2.jpg(*) Duffield, L (2009), Berlin Wall in the News: Mass media and the fall of the Eastern Bloc in Europe, 1989, Saarbrucken, VDM, p 145.

Pictures  gerryco23, wikipedia