BOOK REVIEW: "Havel: A Life" - by Michael Zantovsky

By bne IntelliNews November 25, 2014

Robert Anderson in Prague -


Václav Havel was an unlikely leader of the Velvet Revolution that brought down Communism in Czechoslovakia 25 years ago this November. Self-critical and self-effacing, Havel looked with a playwright’s eye at his own performance and found it wanting. “I am too polite to be a good dissident,” he once said.

But according to Michael Zantovsky’s definitive new biography, “Havel: A Life”, Havel was also the “only plausible candidate”. He shows how Havel was a “natural born leader” through the quiet force of his personality, and how he networked tirelessly during the deep slumber of Czechoslovakia after the 1968 Russian invasion.

Zantovsky, currently the Czech ambassador to the UK, is perfectly placed to fathom the enigma of Havel. A former dissident himself – who carried Havel’s string bag of possessions when he left prison for the last time in May 1989 – Zantovsky acted as Havel’s spokesman until 1992. He has also been able to draw on the letters and other documents in the Vaclav Havel library, making his biography far richer than previous efforts.

Zantovsky also uses his background as a clinical psychologist and a translator to analyse Havel the man – mostly without psychobabble – and the writer. He shows how Havel was drifting until he finally found his role at Prague’s Theatre on the Balustrade in the 1960s, where he wrote a series of absurdist plays that reflect and in some cases foreshadow his later struggles as a statesman.

Havel only felt compelled to enter politics after the 1968 invasion snuffed out the hope of ‘socialism with a human face’ that had been born in the liberalisation of the Prague Spring. Subsequently, Havel set out what Zantovsky calls his political manifesto in “The Power of the Powerless”, where he argued that citizens could defeat totalitarian regimes by “living in truth” and refusing to give them the empty public approval they crave.

Now blacklisted, Havel patiently pursued this vision throughout the 1970s and 1980s. After the humiliation of being forced to resign under interrogation as one of the spokesmen of the Charter 77 dissident movement, he welcomed the chance to redeem himself by going to prison in 1979 for nearly five years. This cost him his health, making him thereafter susceptible to pneumonia, but earned him the right to be leader later.

Yet Zantovsky exaggerates the importance of the Czech dissident movement, which was more of a counter-culture than a serious threat to the regime before 1989. The Charter 77 petition on human rights only ever succeeded in attracting 1,889 signatories.

By the autumn of 1989, the East Germans, Poles and Hungarians had already had their revolutions and when a student demonstration finally sparked off the uprising in Prague in November that year, Havel was actually relaxing with one of his mistresses at his country cottage.

Nevertheless, once he had rushed back to Prague, he was the natural choice to take charge of the Civic Forum movement and then become president. “The logic of the piece inexorably led him to assume the leading position,” writes Zantovsky. “He finally ‘fell’ into the role.”

Havel’s great achievements were to harness the tidal wave of revolt, and as ­the regime simply crumbled away without Soviet support, to make a peaceful, unified and joyful “velvet” transition to democracy. Afterwards this inevitably disappointed those who wanted a reckoning with the Communists and were disgusted by the way that some apparatchiks were able to smoothly reinvent themselves as capitalists.

Send in the Klaus

Zantovsky is more critical of Havel’s role after the revolution, though he mostly acquits him of blame on the grounds that he was temperamentally unable to do anything different. Zantovsky himself resigned as spokesman because of Havel’s refusal to found – or at least bless – a political party to direct the transition. This allowed Václav Klaus, the technocratic finance minister who was later to become prime minister and then president, to push through a much more narrowly economic agenda. Afterwards Havel only made feeble coded protests while Klaus built capitalism without any of the institutions that should regulate it, leading to rampant asset stripping and corruption.

Havel’s other big failure as president was the division of Czechoslovakia, agreed between Klaus as premier, and his Slovak counterpart Vladimir Meciar in 1992. Here Zantovsky puts up a strong defence of Havel’s futile efforts to find a compromise and his controversial decision not to make a direct appeal to voters to stop the split.

Havel was much more comfortable in the foreign policy arena, where the president has far more power and the right path seemed more straightforward. He used his moral authority with the West to help bring the former Warsaw Pact satellites of Central Europe into Nato, and pressed for greater respect for human rights worldwide.  Zantovsky shows how this also led Havel to give moral backing to the controversial doctrine of humanitarian intervention, first in Kosovo and then in Iraq, which damaged his reputation. On the other side of the ledger, he argues Havel’s hard line against Putin’s Russia – which he said “weds the worst of Communism with the worst of capitalism” – now looks prescient.

Havel probably should have stepped down at the end of his first term as Czech president in 1998. Zantovsky reveals that Havel actually considered resigning mid-term, depressed by recurrent health problems, media hounding of his second wife Dagmar, and his increasingly irrelevant role in the domestic political scene.

Even if Havel’s domestic legacy may be largely invisible now, Zantovsky highlights how the massive outpouring of emotion on his death in December 2011 demonstrates the lasting appeal of his vision. His real legacy remains the gloriously romantic Velvet Revolution, which has become a byword for the model way to bring down even the most implacable dictatorship. 

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