History of a Public Enemy

Václav Havel, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson

Václav Havel
Václav Havel; drawing by David Levine

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…


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