Havel, A Life

The  Book of the Week is “Havel, A Life” by Michael Zantovsky, published in 2014. This is a biographical tome of the late president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel.

Born in 1936, Havel’s family was wealthy prior to the Soviet Communist takeover of 1948. Fortunately, Havel parlayed his talent for writing plays, essays and articles into a lucrative career. His literary works were performed and read internationally, affording him compensation in stable, valuable foreign currencies.

The Soviets could not summarily execute him for his seditious activities, fearing an angry outcry from the international community. So instead, they arrested and jailed him a few times, and had the secret service on his tail, 24/7.

In the early 1970’s, Havel wrote a play in which he commented on the unsurprising but inevitable result of “Prague Spring” of 1968; the Soviets weren’t ready to concede their power to the Czechoslovakians, “In the finale, all the conspirators, after crossing and double-crossing each other, execute the piece de resistance, bringing in the only person who can effectively suppress all the threats, prevent chaos and restore stability: the dictator himself.”

In 1977, Havel and his fellow activists wrote a Charter detailing a democratic system they hoped would be implemented in the future. However, the then-government crushed the opposition with “…harassment, bullying, beatings, blackmail intended to make them leave the country, kidnappings, illegal house raids and searches along with other forms of abuse.”

In 1989, dissatisfaction with Soviet Communist oppression was reaching critical mass. The methods by which thousands of street demonstrators were quelled, was through head-bashing and water cannons. Havel was pushed into becoming a leader for the dissidents because he was one himself and was a talented peacemaker who could bridge the gap between his own artistic crowd and other persecuted citizens of his homeland.

For four decades, Czechoslovakians forced to live under Communism had been told everything was great. In January 1990, Havel truthfully told his countrymen that the nation was in an economically, infrastructurally, environmentally and ethically horrible state. The younger generation who had been born into the Soviet mentality– unless they were dissidents– were obedient robots. So converting people to a capitalist, liberated, honest way of thinking was very difficult.

Sidenote: The author spent an entire chapter on the newly elected Czech president Havel’s visit to the United States (via invitation by President George H.W. Bush) but failed to specify even once, the year in which that occurred, and described events and incidents topically rather than chronologically, making the storyline difficult to follow.

Numerous political parties jockeying for power during Havel’s reelection campaign in 1991(?) included:  the Civic Democratic Alliance, People’s Party, Christian Democratic Party, Social Democrats, and Liberal Democrats.

It took approximately six years to build, from the ground up– a legal system, economy and “…countless institutions that make a free society work and flourish”– the new (democratic) nation of Czech Republic (after its split from Slovakia).

Read the book to learn more about the hardships suffered by the Czechoslovakians including Havel, his and his wife’s marital infidelities, and how he was instrumental in helping build a new nation.