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History of a Public Enemy

Václav Havel, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson

If I remember correctly, our efforts climaxed with an open letter to Heinrich Böll signed by myself and Jaroslav Seifert, Václav Cerný, and Karel Kosík,9 and it ultimately resulted in a large petition [on behalf of the Plastic People] signed by over seventy people. By that time, the case was known internationally and the media were covering it. (Czechoslovakia had been out of the news for some time, and so the excitement around the Plastics attracted even more attention.) The affair became so generally known that, from then on, the campaign more or less looked after itself. Almost as if we had planned it, which we hadn’t, lawyers began to speak up, and finally (which must have been especially shocking for those in high places) even former Party functionaries let themselves be heard through the mouth of Zdenek Mlynár. Thus the spectrum was complete, and though you can’t read this directly from the signatures on those protests, it was here, in some connection with the case of the Plastic People—through newly established contacts and friendships—that the main opposition circles, hitherto isolated from each other, came together informally. Later these same groups became the central core of Charter 77.

The state was caught off guard: obviously no one had expected that the case of the Plastic People would arouse so much response. They had assumed it could be settled routinely, as just another criminal case among thousands of others. First they counterattacked with a defamation campaign (a television program against the Plastics and newspaper articles, in Mladý Svet, a youth weekly); then they retreated. They began releasing people from custody, and the roster of defendants began to shrink until finally (not counting the smaller trial in Pilsen) they only sent four of them to prison, and their sentences were relatively short, enough to cover the time they had spent in detention or a couple of months longer. The exception was Jirous, who naturally got the longest sentence.

The trial was a glorious event. You may be familiar with the essay I wrote about it.10 At that time, people interested in the trial could still gather in the corridors of the courthouse or on the stairways, and you could still see the prisoners being brought in in handcuffs and shout greetings to them. Later these possibilities were removed with a speed that corresponded to the speed of the gathering solidarity.

The people who gathered outside the courtroom were a prefiguration of Charter 77. The same atmosphere that dominated then, of equality, solidarity, conviviality, togetherness, and willingness to help one another, an atmosphere evoked by a common cause and a common threat, was also the atmosphere around Charter 77 during its first few months. Jirí Nemec and I both felt that something had happened here, something that should not be allowed simply to evaporate and disappear but that ought to be transformed into some kind of action which would have a more permanent impact, one which would bring this something out of the air onto solid ground. Naturally we weren’t the only ones who felt this; it was clearly a widespread feeling. We talked to Pavel Kohout about it, and he felt the same way. Zdenek Mlynár, whom we approached through Vendelín Komeda, was thinking along the same lines.11

These probes ultimately led to the first meeting, which was held on December 10, 1976. It was attended by Mlynár, Kohout, Jirí Nemec, me, the owner of the flat where the meeting took place, and Komeda, who organized it. There were two subsequent meetings that also included Petr Uhl,12 Jirí Hájek,13 and Ludvík Vaculík. Please understand me: Charter 77 belongs to all the Chartists, and it’s immaterial which one of them happened to have a hand in preparing the founding document.

If I speak of these meetings at all—and this is the first time I’ve done so—it’s only because I know that memory fades and one day, perhaps, a careful historian might condemn us for having kept these matters secret so long that we eventually forgot the details. In any case, it was at these meetings that the Charter was prepared. Each one of us discussed the matter in general terms with the people in our own circles, so that even in this embryonic phase quite a few people knew about it. The former Communist functionaries around Zdenek Mlynár had discussed the possibility of establishing some kind of committee to monitor human rights, or a Helsinki committee along the lines of the one that had been created in the USSR. But a committee has a necessarily limited number of members who have chosen each other and come to some agreement. The situation here, however, pointed in a different direction, toward the need for a broader and more open association. That was how we came to settle on the notion of a “citizens’ initiative.”

The point is that it was clear from the beginning—it was the reason for these meetings, not the conclusion they came to—that we should be trying for something more permanent. We were not simply here to write a one-shot manifesto. It was also clear to everyone from the beginning that whatever came out of this would be pluralistic in nature. Everyone would be equal, and no group, regardless of how powerful it might be, would play a leading role or impress its own “handwriting” on the Charter. After the first meeting, the outlines of what we were preparing were still not clear. We only agreed that by the next meeting the proposal for an initial declaration would be drafted. I recall that after this meeting Jirí Nemec and I visited [Ladislav] Hejdánek,14 who pointed out that our declaration might be based on the recently issued pacts on human rights. Parallel with that, but also after the first meeting, Mlynár came up with the same idea.

That was how the first draft of the declaration came about. Although I know exactly who wrote it and who added which sentences—or, on the contrary, who struck which sentences out—I don’t think it’s appropriate to reveal this now, on principle: the original declaration of the Charter is the expression of a collective will. Everyone who signed it stands behind it. And it has become a nice tradition now to emphasize this principle symbolically in, among other things, the silence we maintain about its authorship, though it’s clear to everyone that the first signatories could not have written it all at once and together. Perhaps I might say only this, that the name “Charter 77” was Pavel Kohout’s idea.

At the next two meetings, the text was edited, every word was carefully considered, we agreed on who would be the first spokesman, and we also agreed on a method of gathering signatures. It was still not really clear how the Charter would work in practice. As for the spokesmen, it was more or less clear from the outset that Jirí Hájek should be one of them; I understand that, when the ex-Communists were thinking about their own committee, Hájek was thought to be the most appropriate chairman. It was Petr Uhl, I believe, who come up with the idea of having three spokesmen. This was generally agreed upon, not only because it would express the pluralistic nature of the Charter, but for various practical reasons as well.

Petr also suggested that I should be another spokesman, although I understand that it was his wife Anna Sabatova’s idea. I had no way of knowing what being spokesman would involve, though I had justifiable fears that it would fully occupy me for God knows how long and leave me no time to write. I didn’t really want the job—none of the later spokesmen did either—but I had to accept it. I’d have seemed like a fool if I’d refused to devote myself to a cause I felt so strongly about and invested so much energy and enthusiasm in preparing and had helped persuade others to take up.

I don’t know any longer who first suggested Jan Patocka15 as the third spokesman. Perhaps it was Jirí Nemec. I only know that Jirí and I supported his nomination and helped explain why this was an important choice to the others, some of whom were not very familiar with Patocka. It seemed to us that Patocka, who was highly respected in non-Communist circles, not only would be a dignified counterpart to Hájek, but, more than that—and we were almost immediately proved right—we felt that from the outset he, better than anyone else, could impress upon the Charter a moral dimension.

At the time, I paid him several visits, both alone and with Jirí Nemec, and I must say that he hesitated for a long time before accepting. He had never before been directly involved in politics, and had never had any direct, sharp confrontation with the powers that be. In such matters he was reluctant, shy, and reserved. His strategy resembled the strategy of trench warfare: wherever he was, he tried to hold out as long as he could without compromise, but he never went on the attack himself. He was utterly dedicated to philosophy and teaching, and he never modified his opinions, but he did try to avoid things that might have put an end to his work.

At the same time, he felt, or so it seemed to me, that one day he would have to put his thinking to the test in action, as it were, that he couldn’t avoid it or put it off forever, because ultimately this would call his whole philosophy in doubt. He also knew, however, that, if he were to take this final step, he would take it completely, leaving himself no emergency exits, with the same perseverance he devoted to philosophizing. This, of course, might have been another reason for his reluctance. He was certainly not a rash person, and he hesitated a long time before taking any action, but once he had he stood behind it to the end.

I think there were others who tried to persuade him to become a spokesman too—I understand his son played an important role in this—but there were some who tried to dissuade him. I myself was involved in one incident, which perhaps was the decisive one: Patocka confided in me that he was also hesitating because of Václav Cerný. Cerný had been courageously involved in civic affairs all his life, and there were times when he had behaved more directly than Patocka had been able to. He had worked in the underground resistance during the war, and Patocka felt, in short, that Cerný had a greater moral right to be a spokesman, and he believed that Cerný would feel justifiably left out and resentful of Patocka if the position were not offered to him. It was as though Patocka was simply ashamed to do something he thought was more appropriate for Cerný, and he also seemed worried about Cerný’s possible reaction.

  1. 9

    Seifert is a poet and winner of the 1984 Nobel Prize in Literature; Cerný, a literary critic and theorist, was until 1950 a professor at Charles University; Kosík, a philosopher and historian of Czech culture, was a professor at Charles University and a member of the Czechoslovak Central Committee.

  2. 10

    The Trial” (Proces) was written in September 1976.

  3. 11

    Mlynár is a politician and journalist; in 1968 he was first secretary of the Party Central Committee; he has been living in Austria since 1977. Komeda is a historian now living in Germany.

  4. 12

    A student leader and journalist.

  5. 13

    Hájek, a Marxist literary critic, has been a professor at Charles University since 1977.

  6. 14

    A philosopher.

  7. 15

    The distinguished Czech philosopher and scholar. Paul Wilson, in his introduction to Letters to Olga, writes: “The person chiefly responsible for introducing phenomenology to Czech and Slovak intellectuals was the philosopher Jan Patocka, whose life was a living parable of thought in action. He was a student of Husserl and Heidegger and, since the Communist takeover in 1948, had virtually been excluded from university life, with the exception of a brief period from 1968–1972.”

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