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Václav Havel (1936–2011)

Tomki Němec
Václav Havel visiting Ruzyně Prison, where he had once been incarcerated, Prague, March 1990


The five days following Václav Havel’s death on Sunday, December 18, at his country house, Hrádeček (“the little castle”), were unique in modern Czech history. Almost as soon as the news broke, people began gathering spontaneously in public places, not just to pay their respects, but to talk about what it was they had just lost in the passing of this modest, complex, and courageous man who had been their first post-Communist president.

In villages and small towns, the local church was often the gathering place of choice; in larger towns, it was the public squares; in Prague, locales associated with Havel—the plaque on Národní Třída honoring the demonstrators of November 17, 1989, who had set off the Velvet Revolution; Havel’s post-presidential office two blocks away; his villa on Dělostřelecká Street not far from the Prague Castle; the castle itself—became candle-lit shrines. But it was in Wenceslas Square—the locus of so many joyful and tragic events that shook this country over the past centuries—that the largest crowds gathered to lay a sea of flowers and flags and handwritten thank-you notes and votive candles at the foot of the equestrian statue of Saint Wenceslas (Svatý Václav in Czech, the “good king” of the Christmas carol who is also Havel’s namesake).

The mourners—if that’s the proper word to describe them, for there were few displays of outright grief—were of all ages and backgrounds and everyone brought memories of their own. The elderly could look around them and perhaps recall the grim prelude to World War II as, in March 1939, columns of Nazi troops and motorized brigades occupied this very same square, and then the country, when Havel was the two-and-a-half-year-old son of a wealthy Czech property developer. The middle-aged could recall August 1968, when Soviet tanks rumbled through the square, crushing the Prague Spring in which Havel, now a prominent young writer, had been a gadfly to the reformers.

And almost everyone over thirty could remember Wenceslas Square during the events of 1989, which began in January with clashes between protesters and police (when Havel, the dissident, and others had been arrested and imprisoned) and ended in the jubilant November demonstrations that toppled the Communist regime, and thrust this same man into the forefront and, ultimately, into the post of president where he remained, first as head of Czechoslovakia, and then of the Czech Republic, for almost thirteen years.

Since then, on the rocky road to democracy and a working market economy, Havel had been with the Czechs, sometimes an inspiring figure, sometimes an annoying scold, articulating his vision for the country, for Europe, and for the world. It was a vision based on a democratic politics underpinned by a strong civil society and rooted in common decency, morality, and respect for the rule of law and human rights; a politics that sought to transcend racial, cultural, and religious differences by articulating a “moral minimum” that Havel believed existed at the heart of most faiths and cultures and that would provide a basis for agreement and cooperation without sacrificing the unique gifts that each person, each culture, and each “sphere of civilization” could bring to enrich modern life.

His vision held great appeal in the world at large. But in the rough and tumble of domestic politics, Havel’s words, once powerful enough to shake the foundations of the totalitarian state, sometimes seemed helpless to stem the rise of racism and corruption, or to slow the inflation that plagued so many who lived on fixed incomes or pensions, helpless to halt the headlong rush to separation from Slovakia that tore the country apart in 1993.

Since then, the diminished Czech political scene had been dominated by Václav Klaus, a man with a different view of what democracy meant. Freedom, in Klaus’s view, was something bestowed upon the people by their governors and guaranteed by their elected representatives. Citizenship meant voting once every four years and then leaving civic and economic matters for government and the marketplace to sort out. It was a view that to many, including Havel, seemed suspiciously like the old centrist regime dressed up in new, market-minded, quasi-populist rhetoric.

The conflict between these two men and their competing visions dragged on, unresolved, for many years, casting a pall over domestic politics that neither man seemed willing, or able, to dispel. Havel’s second term as Czech president—from 1998 to 2003—was marred by health problems, by scurrilous personal attacks on him and his second wife, Dagmar, and by political missteps that made him seem tired and out of touch. When his mandate ended in 2003, despite his enormous achievements—most notably bringing the Czech Republic into NATO and preparing the ground for its successful entry into the EU—he left office with little fanfare, and few public displays of affection or gratitude.

Thus the crowds that spontaneously filled the streets when he died—the largest since the Velvet Revolution—were all the more astonishing. It was as though the Czechs had only belatedly begun to grasp the magnitude of their loss, and the greatness of the man who had unobtrusively slipped out of their lives.


Toward the end of To the Castle and Back, his unconventional presidential memoir, in a section datelined “Hrádeček, December 5, 2005,” Havel confronts the question of his own death. “I’m running away,” he writes.

What I’m running away from is writing. But it’s more than that. I’m running away from the public, from politics, from people. Perhaps I’m even running away from the woman who saved my life. Above all, I’m probably running away from myself.

He finds himself constantly fretting about the tidiness of the house, as though he were expecting a visit from someone “who will really appreciate that everything is in its proper place and properly aligned.” Why this obsession with order?

I have only one explanation,” he says.

I am constantly preparing for the last judgment, for the highest court from which nothing can be hidden, which will appreciate everything that should be appreciated, and which will, of course, notice anything that is not in its place. I’m obviously assuming that the supreme judge is a stickler like me. But why does this final evaluation matter so much to me? After all, at that point, I shouldn’t care. But I do care, because I’m convinced that my existence—like everything that has ever happened—has ruffled the surface of Being, and that after my little ripple, however marginal, insignificant and ephemeral it may have been, Being is and always will be different from what it was before.

All my life,” he went on,

I have simply believed that what is once done can never be undone and that, in fact, everything remains forever. In short, Being has a memory. And thus, even my insignificance—as a bourgeois child, a laboratory assistant, a soldier, a stagehand, a playwright, a dissident, a prisoner, a president, a pensioner, a public phenomenon, and a hermit, an alleged hero but secretly a bundle of nerves—will remain here forever, or rather not here, but somewhere. But not, however, elsewhere. Somewhere here.

Havel died peacefully in his sleep in the presence of Sister Veritas, one of a small team of nursing nuns—“sisters of mercy”—who took turns looking after him in the final months of his life. Like so many of those who had worked closely with Havel, Sister Veritas had nothing but praise and admiration for the man she was caring for. She told a Czech Web newspaper, Aktuálně.cz, that he was reconciled to being near death, and was determined to die at home. “He’d spent long periods in hospitals,” Sister Veritas explained, “and that environment bothered him. He liked his own things, his own order, his own people around him. He liked flowers and regularly bought gladiolas that he was fond of looking at. They reassured him that he was being well looked after. He wanted some control over his own destiny, and he had that to the very end.”

The day before he died, Havel, ever the stage manager, made elaborate plans to celebrate Christmas at Hrádeček. He went to bed, but had trouble sleeping, and Sister Veritas spoke to him several times during the night. In the morning, they spoke again shortly after 7:00 AM. “The last words I heard him say were: ‘I want to sleep a little longer. Come back in an hour or so.’” About 9:30, Sister Veritas returned to his room and noticed that his breathing had become shallower. “Suddenly, between 9:45 and 9:50 AM, the moment came when he no longer took a breath. It was like a candle going out, so silent.”

Sister Veritas and Havel’s wife, Dagmar, took turns sitting with him until the next morning. A death mask was arranged, and then his body was put in a modest wooden coffin and driven to Prague, where it was placed in a church in Prague’s Old Town that the Havels had renovated as a performance and exhibition space and renamed Prague Crossroads. Here it lay from Monday to Wednesday, the coffin bare and flagless, while an honor guard of friends and colleagues, along with his faithful “pistoleers”—as he called his bodyguards—stood watch as thousands filed by, over two days and two nights, to pay their respects. There was not a whiff of officialdom or high ceremony about this part of the leave-taking. People were saying good-bye to Havel the dissident, the writer, the bon viveur, the friend, the ex-con and ex-president, Havel the man.

All that changed on Wednesday morning, when the casket was transferred to a hearse and slowly driven through the bitterly cold streets, followed first by Dagmar Havlová and her daughter, then Havel’s brother Ivan and his wife, and then by tens of thousands, a crowd so large the central Prague cell-phone network temporarily crashed. The procession wound out of the Old Town, across the Charles Bridge, and up the hill to a square not far from the Prague Castle, where official protocol took over. It was now about Havel the president, Havel the hero, Havel the warrior for human rights, Havel the statesman. The coffin was draped in a large Czech tricolor and placed on the same gun carriage that had borne Czechoslovakia’s first president, Tomáš G. Masaryk, to his grave in September 1937. Then it moved, slowly and ceremonially, drawn by six jet-black horses through the gates and courtyards of the castle to Vladislav Hall, where Havel had first been sworn in as Czechoslovak president twenty-two years before. It was set on a high catafalque, no longer the modest casket, with a uniformed honor guard and surrounded by a sea of large wreathes.

It was here that President Klaus delivered the first of two eulogies, much anticipated because people were genuinely curious about what Havel’s arch rival, who had scarcely uttered a good word about him in the past, would now say over his dead body.

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