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History of a Public Enemy

Václav Havel, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson

We publish here excerpts from Václav Havel’s book Disturbing the Peace, whose origins are described as follows by Paul Wilson, Havel’s translator:

When the Czech journalist Karel Hvízdala first proposed the idea of a book-length interview to Václav Havel in 1985, Hvízdala was living in West Germany, Havel in Prague, and neither of them could visit the other. Havel liked the idea because it would give him a chance to reflect on his life as he approached fifty; he accepted. They worked on the book over the next year, communicating by underground mail. According to Hvízdala, the first approach, in which Havel sent written responses to the questions, didn’t satisfy either of them: the answers were too much like essays. So Hvízdala sent Havel a batch of about fifty questions, and between Christmas and the New Year, Havel shut himself in a borrowed flat and came out with eleven hours of recorded answers. Hvízdala transcribed and edited them, then sent the manuscript back to Havel with some supplementary questions (“for drama,” Hvízdala says). Havel prepared a final version with some new material in it, completing it in early June 1986.—P.W.

I.

On August 21, 1968, when Soviet forces invaded Czechoslovakia, you were in North Bohemia. What did you do during those first-hectic days of the occupation?

That night I happened to be in the town of Liberec with my wife and Jan Tríska;1 we were staying with friends, and we remained for that whole dramatic week, because our friends brought us into the Liberec resistance, if I can call it that. We worked in the broadcasting station there. I wrote a commentary every day, Jan read them on the air, and we even appeared on television, in a studio that was rigged up on Jested hill. We were also part of the National Committee chairman’s permanent staff.2 We helped coordinate various local activities; I wrote speeches for the chairman, and I even wrote lengthy declarations for the District Committee of the Communist Party, the District National Committee, the District Committee of the National Front, the town National Committee, and so on, which were then broadcast to the population over the street loudspeakers and pasted up everywhere on the walls.

That week was an experience I’ll never forget. I saw Soviet tanks smash down arcades on the main square and bury several people in the rubble. I saw a tank commander start shooting wildly into the crowd. I saw and experienced many things, but what affected me most powerfully was that special phenomenon of solidarity and community which was so typical of that time. People would bring food and flowers and medicine to the radio station, regardless of whether we needed them or not. When Tríska didn’t broadcast for a couple of hours, the station was bombarded with telephone calls asking if we were all right. The radio building was ringed with huge transport trucks loaded down with large cement blocks to prevent us from being taken over. Factories sent us passes that would enable us to conceal ourselves among the workers if we found ourselves in any personal danger.

Clearly, because of the bloody events I’ve mentioned, Liberec was not occupied by a Soviet garrison for that whole period; the troops simply passed through it. This was also why the spontaneous popular resistance in Liberec was able to grow to greater dimensions, and assume more forms, than it could in towns and cities that were occupied. Anti-occupation folklore soon turned the town into a single enormous artifact. There were endless ideas on how to foil the occupation. And things were never more efficient than they were then. The print shop could put out a book in two days, and all kinds of enterprises were able to do almost anything right away.

I remember a typical story: The scourge of Liberec and environs was a gang of about a hundred tough young men called “Tramps” who would go on weekend forays into the countryside. For a long time, the town officials hadn’t been able to put a stop to them. The leader was a fellow they called the Pastor. Shortly after the invasion, the Pastor showed up at the chairman’s office in the town hall and said, “I’m at your disposal, chief.” The chairman was somewhat nonplussed, but he decided to give the gang a trial job: “All right,” he said, “tonight I want you to take down all the street signs, so the occupiers can’t find their way around. It’s not appropriate to have the police do that.” The Pastor nodded, and the next morning all the street signs in Liberec were neatly stacked in front of the town hall steps. Not a single one had been damaged. And there they stayed until they could be put up again.

The Pastor then asked for another job. And thus arose a strange collaboration, one result of which was that for two days members of the Pastor’s gang wore armbands of the auxiliary guard, and three-man patrols walked through the town: a uniformed policeman in the middle with two long-haired Tramps on either side. This gang also did twenty-four-hour sentry duty at the town hall. They guarded the mayor, and checked everyone who entered the building. There were some poignant scenes: for instance, the whole town hall staircase was packed with these fellows on duty, playing their guitars and singing “Massachusetts,” which was a kind of world anthem for hippies then. I saw the whole thing in a special light, because I still had fresh memories of crowds of similar young people in the East Village in New York, singing the same song, but without the tanks in the background.

I’m not one of those people who somehow got mentally stuck in that week of occupation and have then spent the rest of their lives reminiscing about what it was like. And I have no intention of romanticizing that period either. I only think that, taken all together, it made for a unique phenomenon which to this day, as far as I know, has never been analyzed in any depth sociologically, philosophically, psychologically, or politically. But some things were so obvious you could understand them immediately, without any scientific analysis. For example, that society is a very mysterious animal with many faces and hidden potentialities, and that it’s extremely shortsighted to believe that the face society happens to be presenting to you at a given moment is its only true face.

None of us knows all the potentialities that slumber in the spirit of the population, or all the ways in which that population can surprise us when there is the right interplay of events, both visible and invisible. Who would have believed—at a time [in 1967] when the Novotný regime was corroding away because the entire nation was behaving like Svejks—that half a year later [during the Prague Spring of 1968] the same society would display a genuine civic-mindedness, and that a year later this recently apathetic, skeptical, and demoralized society would stand up with such courage and intelligence to a foreign power! And who would have suspected that, after scarcely a year had gone by, this same society would, as swiftly as the wind blows, lapse back into a state of deep demoralization far worse than its original one! After all these experiences, one must be very careful about coming to any conclusions about the way we are, or what can be expected of us.

Something else: that week showed how helpless military power is when confronted by an opponent unlike any that power has been trained to confront; it showed how hard it is to govern a country in which, though it may not defend itself militarily, all the civil structures simply turn their backs on the aggressors. And this is not to mention things like the principal and as yet unrecognized significance of the modern media as a political power in their own right, capable of directing and coordinating all social life. That week in August is a historical experience that cannot be wiped out of the awareness of our nations, though we can’t say yet what it really meant, or what marks it has left on the genetic material of society, and how and when these will manifest themselves.

II.

If you were to describe the 1970s in Czechoslovakia, what would you say about them? What was your experience of that period—say from 1970 until the time of your third arrest, in 1979?

In an interview, John Lennon said that the 1970s weren’t worth a damn. And, indeed, when we look back on them today—I’m thinking now in the world context—they seem, compared with the rich and productive 1960s, to be lacking in significance, style, atmosphere, with no vivid spiritual and cultural movements. The Seventies were bland, boring, and bleak. For me they are symbolized on the one hand by Leonid Brezhnev and his stuffy rule, and on the other hand by the ambiguous figure of President Nixon, with his strange war in Vietnam and its strange end, and the absurd Watergate affair.

In Czechoslovakia, the Seventies were perhaps even gloomier. After the Soviet intervention and its rather caustic aftermath, Husák replaced Dubcek, and a long period of moribund silence began. A new ruling elite, which was in fact much like the old one, quickly formed and carried out all those purges, prohibitions, and liquidations. An exhausted society quickly got used to the fact that everything once declared forever impossible was now possible again, and that an often unmasked and ridiculed absurdity could rule once more. People withdrew into themselves and stopped taking an interest in public affairs. An era of apathy and widespread demoralization began, an era of gray, everyday totalitarian consumerism. Society was atomized, small islands of resistance were destroyed, and a disappointed and exhausted public pretended not to notice. Independent thinking and creation retreated to the trenches of deep privacy.

For me, the first half of the decade is a single, shapeless fog; I can’t say any longer how 1972, for instance, differed from 1973, or what I did in either of those years. Like most of my colleagues, I was driven out of every position I’d once held, I was publicly branded an enemy, and I was even indicted for subversion (there was no trial or prison sentence). Ultimately, I too had no choice but to withdraw into a kind of internal exile. My wife and I spent most of our time at Hrádecek, our cottage in the Krkonose mountains, which we gradually adapted and renovated. I tortured myself writing The Conspirators, the first play I wrote as a banned writer; after the excitement and stimulation of the years before, no play took me longer or was harder to write, and it’s clearly the weakest of my plays. I once compared it to a chicken that had been in the oven for too long and completely dried out. Of course, no one was waiting for the play or pressing me to finish it, so it really was written in a kind of vacuum. As I worked, I spent too much time speculating about how to come to terms with the completely new situation both in society and for myself personally, and, inevitably, almost all the life was squeezed out of it.

  1. 1

    An actor, one of the founders of the Theater Behind the Gate in Prague; since 1979 he has been living in the US.

  2. 2

    National Committees are the local administrative governments.

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