On January 29, five days before leaving the public stage, Václav Havel flew to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia and the scene of the greatest political humiliation of his career. At the Prague airport, he seemed anxious and slightly nervous as he told Czech journalists that this visit was meant as a kind of “closing of the circle,” but as it turned out he needn’t have worried. From the time he and his second wife, Dagmar, walked down the red carpet rolled out for him at the Bratislava airport until the final round of drinks in a crowded wine cellar late that evening, Havel met with nothing but warmth and gratitude from the Slovaks who turned out to bid him farewell. Ironically, his final foreign visit as president of the Czech Republic felt more like a homecoming.

The specter of Slovak nationalism had haunted Havel’s first two terms as president of Czechoslovakia, the first from December 29, 1989, to June 1990, and the second until his resignation in July 1992. As president, he had agreed to, and in some cases encouraged, a series of devolutionary concessions—starting with a change in the name of the country—to help satisfy Slovak demands for more autonomy. But each concession seemed only to whet the separatist appetite more. In March 1991, when Havel went to Bratislava to confront a demonstration of Slovak nationalists celebrating the fifty-second anniversary of the founding of the wartime Slovak fascist state, an angry mob shouting “Dost’ bolo Havla!“—“We’ve had enough of Havel!”—threw eggs at him. Critics accused him of deliberately provoking the demonstrators, but many Slovaks were appalled.

Until that point in his presidency, Havel had relied, mostly successfully, on his extraordinary popularity and charisma to prevail in situations where his constitutional powers fell short. But the dangers posed by Slovak nationalism—which by now had become mixed with fears in Slovakia that the pace of economic reforms was too rapid—were of a different order. Havel must have known, certainly after his foray into Bratislava, that neither the constitution nor his personal authority would be enough to save the country. That December, Havel made an eloquent appeal to the Federal Assembly for greater presidential powers to deal with a possible separation crisis. It turned him down.

Then, in the elections of June 1992, parties led by the right-wing economist Václav Klaus in the Czech lands and Vladimír Meciar in Slovakia predictably won enough seats to make it impossible to form a working government without compromises that neither was willing to make. While Havel stood helplessly by, the two men agreed to divide the country. In mid-July, the Slovak National Council declared Slovakia “sovereign” and the same day Havel, arguing that he had taken an oath to preserve the federation and that this was no longer possible, resigned. The two republics became separate countries on January 1, 1993.

In retrospect, it was done efficiently and peacefully (an important achievement at a time when bloody succession wars were raging in the former Yugoslavia), but Havel confessed later that it was the lowest point in his political career, and close associates say he was tormented by it for years.

In the past decade, however, much has changed. After a slow start, Slovakia’s economy is overtaking that of the Czech Republic, although the Slovak crown is still worth less than the Czech crown. Havel became an outspoken critic of developments he considered retrograde in Slovakia, and later lobbied strongly in favor of Slovakia’s membership in both NATO and the European Union. (Both are now pending, with support for membership far stronger in Slovakia than it is in the Czech Republic.) Czech–Slovak relations, I was told, are cordial and upbeat, and a recent study showed that young Czechs and Slovaks are more alike now than when they were part of the same country, although that may simply indicate the extent to which both countries have joined global culture.

“Havel’s influence in Slovakia has been greater in the past ten years than it was before the separation,” Martin Simecka told me over lunch. He is a novelist and now the editor in chief of the independent Slovak daily Sme and, by pedigree, a true Czechoslovak: his father was Czech, his mother Slovak, and he grew up in Bratislava.

After 1989, Simecka said, Havel’s scrupulous insistence on remaining above party politics, at least in public, often prevented him from speaking plainly to the Slovaks at a time when their own politicians were confusing them with populist rhetoric. He also felt that Havel had overreacted to Meciar’s declaration of sovereignty in 1992. But that was all past, Simecka said. Since then, Havel has been able to criticize Slovak politicians like Meciar directly, and to “name things by their proper names.” His angry condemnation of “mafia capitalism,” for instance, though aimed at the Czechs, had found a bracing response in Slovakia. Freed from his constitutional restraints, Simecka concluded, Havel had on the whole had a liberating influence.


So the Slovaks, who lost Havel ten years ago, got him back in a way that has served them well. Havel’s final public event of the day in Bratislava was a gala presentation of a hit musical, Tancíaren (“The Dance Hall”). Adapted from the 1982 Franco-Italian film Le Bal, it tells the Slovak version of the history of Czechoslovakia from the founding of the country in 1918 till the present, but it does so entirely through dance, gesture, and popular music from each period. When the moment of separation comes, late in the second act, the dancers move the tables to form a barrier down the middle of the dance hall. Some try to cross and are rebuffed; others manage to slip through. But the mood turns sour and very sad, and it pretty much stays that way until the end. I was stunned, because for all the brave talk I’d been hearing about how much better it’s been for both sides since the country divided, the play was saying that at some level the Slovaks feel it has all been a terrible mistake.

When the lights came up and the cast emerged for the curtain call, the audience rose to its feet then turned to applaud Havel, who was sitting in the front row of the balcony. As they clapped and cheered, the cast unfurled a banner that stretched the entire width of the stage. In huge letters bracketed by Havel’s trademark heart symbols, it said: “Málo bolo Havla!“—“There’s been too little of Havel!” In one way the circle had indeed been closed.


Ironically, the belief that it was high time for President Havel to leave was held most widely and felt most deeply in his own country. This is hardly surprising, since the Czechs have seen Havel up close for the past thirteen years and have experienced with him every ill wind and faulty tack on the wild voyage from communism to capitalism. They were keenly aware of Havel’s heroic, celebrity-like status in the West and for a time had, in large numbers, believed it themselves. But at home the bloom had faded and while he still had unapologetic fans and an approval rating that hardly ever fell below 50 percent, the domestic view of Havel tended to be more utilitarian.

Even his greatest opponents, like Václav Klaus, could admit that he had made his country “visible” abroad, that his name was still one of the top Czech “brands,” as recognizable as Pilsner beer and Bohemian crystal, still capable of attracting foreign investment and allowing the Czech Republic, as one journalist put it to me, to “play above its weight.” At worst, though, he was seen as a spent force, a sick man in thrall to an ambitious younger wife, embroiled in unseemly financial transactions and family feuds, a remote, destructively ambitious monarchical ruler with no understanding of the democratic process, who had clung to power long past his “sell-by” date.

Some of the many Czechs who still admired him felt that his tarnished reputation at home came from an incorrigible Czech provincialism. Others explained Havel’s continuing good press abroad as a media construct, the product of a certain complacency among Western journalists who sustained Havel’s immensely attractive image from the early 1990s rather than delve into the complexities and contradictions of the man he had become over those thirteen years as president.

In addition to having served for two years as Havel’s spokesman, Michael Zantovskyå« was also the Czech ambassador in Washington from 1992 to 1997. We were having lunch in a restaurant appropriately called the White Lion, a mile or so up the hill from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs where he now works.

“As Speaker O’Neill used to say, all politics is local, and that goes for presidents as well,” Zantovskyå« said. “Havel could never have done what he did for the good name of the country abroad if he had not played a major role in the transformation of the former socialist country to a democratic country, a stable country, a tolerant country, a country that observes human rights, that is a part of the Western political and security structures. Every one of those notions involved a fight, a major fight that had to be fought at home and not abroad, and Havel was active and often instrumental in most of those fights.”

He went on to enumerate some of the battles Havel had fought: he had made his first foreign visit as president to Germany in January 1990, where he first broached the subject—still controversial today—of apologizing for the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans from Czechoslovakia after World War II. He tried to persuade the country—at the risk of alienating Slovakia, where most of the big arms factories were—that it was best not to export weapons to countries with tyrannical or totalitarian regimes. He argued, against considerable local opposition, that the country had to rethink its position in Europe and to move toward integration, first into NATO (it became a member, along with Hungary and Poland, in 1999) and then into the EU, which it is poised to join in 2004.


“These ideas seem almost self-evident now,” Zantovskyå« said, “but they were not self-evident at the time. Many people thought the country should be neutral, that it should be a bridge between the East and the West. Some politicians in Slovakia thought it should emphasize its Slavic rather than its European identity, and there were a number of ideas like that. Even Havel initially thought it would be best to do away with the Warsaw Pact and NATO at the same time, though he soon changed his mind.”

According to Ronald D. Asmus, author of a recent book on NATO expansion,1 Havel and other post-1989 leaders in former Warsaw Pact countries were instrumental in broaching the idea of NATO expansion, but the book offers little evidence of their input in the actual process. Asmus describes how, in April 1993, Havel met with President Clinton. “The issue is not that we are faced with imminent threats,” Havel is reported to have said to Clinton. “Rather, we are in the process of undergoing an image transformation—a reshaping of our identity…. Entry into NATO and the EC is central to expanding democracy, not just to Central Europe, but to the Newly Independent States.” Clinton was won over, and eventually his administration pursued NATO expansion with some enthusiasm. But Havel had a lot of selling to do at home, where the grumbling went on for several more years.

“Havel’s most important contribution is that he’s never given up his insistence on morality in political affairs,” Zantovskyå« concluded. “And that’s a very old-fashioned concept today, one that most Czech politicians reject. Or at best, they claim that morality and politics are two different things and should not be mixed. And at worst, they deny the existence of morality as such.”

“Václav Havel was never a politician,” Petr Pithart said, leaning forward in his chair. “He went straight from being a dissident to being president, leaping over the stage of party politics that most statesmen go through. So he could think and act like a statesman right from the beginning, and that gave him tremendous advantages.”

Pithart is no stranger to politics. He was the Czech premier between 1990 and 1992, and is currently chairman of the Czech Senate. His association with Havel goes back to the 1970s, when they were both dissidents and founding members of the Charter 77 human rights initiative, but before that, during the Prague Spring, he had been a member of the reform wing of the Communist Party, then turned in his Party card after the Soviet invasion in 1968. He is one of the most articulate politicians in public life, and one of the few left with a dissident pedigree.

“However,” Pithart went on, “the flip side of that coin is that Havel never really knew what political parties were like. He never experienced inner party struggles or realized how hard it is to become a party leader. And I think that as a result, as president, he wasn’t as effective at communicating with the parliamentary parties as he should have been.”

Havel’s distaste for party politics is one of the most frequently mentioned aspects of his presidency. It was an attitude he shared with the first Czechoslovak president, Tomás Garrigue Masaryk, who in the 1920s had defined the approach as “nonpolitical politics.” On the one hand, it appeared to allow Havel to stay above the battle, free to criticize and comment on events as he saw fit. On the other hand, it often left him powerless to intervene in the political process except by means that some suspected were very like the politicking he eschewed. He held regular meetings with most political parties (with the exception of the Communists, whom he could never forgive, he said, as long as they refused to apologize for the terrible crimes they had committed), but his role was more that of a moderator than a leader. Before 1989, Pithart said, Havel had asserted his leadership among Czech dissidents through his brilliance at encouraging an atmosphere of mutual respect and dialogue among a sometimes fractious group of strong, opinionated personalities. But tolerance is not the same as consensus and that was Pithart’s point: a parliamentary democracy cannot work properly without the consensus that political parties are designed to create.


Havel’s life is often compared to a play in which he cast himself in the main role. It’s a nice conceit, given Havel’s stature as a playwright, and it played well on the international stage. But the real drama that unfolded—and one that has left a deep imprint on the political culture of the Czech Republic—was one Havel could scarcely have invented. It featured a protagonist who in almost every way was Havel’s polar opposite, a political survivor who has now become president of the country in Havel’s stead.

Under communism, Václav Klaus, a university-educated economist, had been part of what came to be called “the gray zone,” that is, people who had held regular jobs and avoided overt opposition to the regime, though their antipathy to communism often ran as deep as those who resisted openly. For years, despite his well-known view that economic reform within communism was impossible, he worked below the radar in the economic wing of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. In 1989, Klaus brought his expertise in economics to the Civic Forum, the movement that toppled communism. He became finance minister in the first elected post-Communist government, where he made his name as the architect of the plan to privatize the socialist economy. Klaus managed to antagonize many in the Civic Forum movement by insisting that it become more political and better organized, and they even tried to sideline him by having Havel appoint him governor of the Czech National Bank. But Klaus refused the post.

Klaus turned out to be a natural politician. In early 1991 he created a new right-wing political party called the Civic Democratic Party out of the rump of the Civic Forum movement. He built a strong party organization throughout the Czech lands, and tried, with less success, to penetrate Slovakia. He went on to win the elections of 1992 and eventually—after the country split apart—he became prime minister of the new Czech Republic.

Over the course of the next five years, Klaus and Havel conducted a running debate over the future shape of the country. Their disagreement was based on two fundamentally different views of post-Communist political renewal. Havel argued that communism had deliberately destroyed or expropriated civil society—which he defined as dense networks of clubs, churches, schools, universities, unions, foundations, charities, small businesses, and even local governments that lie out-side the sphere of the state—and that rebuilding democracy meant encouraging the rebirth of these networks. He saw this as “the only true foundation of a democratic system,” and believed that parliamentary democracy could only work if it were rooted in an active and independent civil society.

Klaus and his supporters saw Havel’s arguments as an attack on parliamentary democracy, an attempt to emasculate the power of the political parties, which ought to be elected and then left alone to run the country. For most of his mandate, Klaus remained a resolute opponent of decentralization, and was reluctant to pass legislation that would lessen the power of the government, that would free public institutions like schools and hospitals from direct state control, create the legal framework for a network of nonprofit organizations, or transfer powers to regional or municipal governments.

Lubos Dobrovskyå« has a good word for this kind of rule by political parties. He calls it “partyocracy”—stranokracie in Czech—and he says that in the course of his indirect debate with Václav Klaus, Havel gradually refined his arguments against it. Originally a journalist, Dobrovskyå« was Havel’s chief of staff, serving him in the castle from 1992 until 1996. Before that he was minister of defense, and before 1989, like so many of his fellow dissidents, he washed windows and worked in boiler rooms, and knew Havel as a colleague in the human rights movement.

Dobrovskyå« sees the main difference between Klaus and Havel in how they present themselves to the world. “Havel is often accused of being a closet social democrat,” he said, “but he’s a far greater individualist than Václav Klaus. Havel was brave, but he wasn’t brave in order to be ad-mired for it; he was brave because he couldn’t bear the thought of himself as a coward. The fact that in being this way, he became a model for others, was secondary.”

Klaus, on the other hand, Dobrovskyå« felt, did everything to persuade the future voter that in him, the voter had a model to trust and follow. “His great political insight,” Dobrovsky said, “was to understand that very few Czechs were as brave as the dissidents had been, and that if instead of awkward reminders of the past, he offered them visions of a better future, he would win. And win he did.

“Havel doesn’t think about the voter,” Dobrovskyå« went on. “But the moment he became the bearer of, let’s call it constitutional duty, he carried out his responsibilities to others, not by pandering to their narrowness but by offering them his critical view of the situation as a way out of that narrowness. I wouldn’t say that one way is better and the other worse. They are merely two different approaches. Václav Klaus is rightly credited with having created a political party with no connections to the past, and thus, with having made a working parliament possible. The thing is, though, it was very narrow in how it worked and it tended to strengthen the political power of the party members, many of whom belonged to the new class of capitalists. Klaus gave that class a representation in Parliament, and even that was a positive thing, in that it was probably necessary. But at the time it had no framework in law. That’s why there was so much ‘tunneling,’ a Czech expression for a very skillful way of stealing newly privatized property.”

The climax of the Klaus–Havel drama came in 1997, when Havel was recovering from a series of setbacks—the death of his first wife, Olga, in January 1996, then his own near-death experience with lung cancer that December. In January 1997 he married Dagmar Veskrnová, a popular actress who had been his mistress and had been instrumental in saving his life. At the same time, episodes of major “tunneling” were becoming an epidemic, and billions of crowns’ worth of assets were being spirited out of the country, pushing the economy into a slump. Sensing a growing despondency in the public mood, Havel went on the attack.

As the growing economic scandals moved closer to Klaus’s government, Klaus was forced to resign as prime minister, some say as a consequence of behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Havel—a charge Havel denies. In December, Havel almost literally rose from his sickbed to address a joint session of parliament in a concert hall in the center of Prague. Depending on your point of view, this speech (referred to popularly as “The Rudolfinum Speech”2 ) was either Havel’s finest hour or his nadir, since it was seen as an all-out attack on Klaus at a time when Klaus appeared to be a spent political force. However you look at it, the speech is a thundering defense of Havel’s notion of civil society and an indictment of a system in which politicians turn a blind eye to corruption. Havel’s most serious charge was that under the guise of an unregulated market economy, the old bugbear of ideology was creeping back: an ideology that was, ironically, like Marxism in that it considered values like decency and morality as nothing more than “superstructure,” or “icing on the cake,” as he put it.

Four weeks later, Havel named a caretaker government headed by the former governor of the Czech National Bank, Josef Tosovskyå«. His approval rating, which had reached a peak of 87 percent about the time of Olga’s death, continued its decline.


It is generally assumed that Havel’s presidential powers were largely ceremonial, and that whatever influence he had beyond that was due to the force of his personality and his gifts of persuasion. But the truth is somewhat more complicated, for the Czech president has both less, and more, power than it would seem. He has the power to return laws to parliament for reconsideration, but no power of veto. He also appoints the directors of the Czech National Bank and the judges on the Constitutional Court, which is empowered to examine decisions made by all branches of government—including parliamentary legislation—in the light of the constitution. This gives him considerable influence over the economy and the judicial system.

The Constitutional Court was established in 1993 and Havel had to appoint all fifteen judges himself, albeit with parliamentary approval. Unfortunately, the drafters of the constitution set an arbitrary term limit of ten years for Constitutional Court judges, so that in a few months there will suddenly be eleven vacancies for President Klaus to fill, giving him considerable sway over how the laws of the Czech Republic will be interpreted.

One lesson to be learned from the greatest experiment in regime change in the last fifty years is that the new leaders of the emergent democracies find it relatively easy to master the forms of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, but are slower to grasp their substance and spirit. The Czech constitution, for instance, clearly recognizes the principle of the separation of powers, and lays out the requirement of an independent judiciary and public administration, but in practice, over the past ten years, judges and deputy ministers have been regularly subjected to political pressures that they often find hard to resist. To cite just one example, I heard from reliable sources that the last three Czech ministers of justice made a habit of enlisting judges to help them write legislation, a practice that could undermine the idea of the separation of powers. To make matters worse, one of the justice ministers in question was later considered as a potential candidate for president. What this reveals is not so much widespread corruption as a profound ignorance, after thirteen years of democracy, about how the separation of powers is meant to work.

In a sense, Havel’s problem as president was the opposite: he had a profound understanding of the spirit of democracy and the rule of law, but was slower to master their forms. Havel’s frequent appeals to the Constitutional Court—eight in all during his Czech presidency—tell us a lot about his understanding of politics and the principle of separation of powers. When Klaus and Milos Zeman, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, formed a coalition and then tried to amend the electoral law in a way that would favor their parties, Havel appealed to the Constitutional Court, which ruled the changes out of bounds. One of Havel’s most recent challenges involved the new law on the judiciary, which included provisions for judges to be educated and tested by an institution run by the Ministry of Justice. Havel couldn’t veto the offending passages, but he appealed, and the Constitutional Court agreed that they violated the principle of judicial independence and struck them down.

Havel would sometimes argue cases before the court himself, particularly, I was told, if the bench appeared to be evenly divided. That would seem to be a clear case of using his personal authority to sway the court in his direction, but one of the justices, Vladímir Klokocka, denies this. “The Constitutional Court,” he wrote recently in the daily paper Lidové noviny, “never struck down unconstitutional laws to please Václav Havel, but to serve the democratic system. Undoubtedly, it strengthened the president’s authority, but it also preserved the self-respect and the authority of the court itself.”


On the radio in Prague one day in late January, I heard a story about a town in eastern Slovakia where not a single girl has been born since the beginning of 2000. Why was this news? Because there’s an old adage, the announcer said: when more boys than girls are born, there’s going to be a war. The last time I heard anyone mention this superstition was in the 1970s, from a young mother who had just given birth to her second son. But that was in the middle of the cold war, a world of few surprises, and it was an idle comment. Now what was on the announcer’s mind was Iraq.

In fact, the impending war in Iraq was on everyone’s mind, including the outgoing president’s. Officially, the Czech Republic supports the use of force against Saddam Hussein and has in fact sent several hundred troops from a crack chemical warfare unit to the Gulf region, despite a decided reluctance on the part of the public to get involved.

Havel has openly and repeatedly supported the idea of an American-led invasion of Iraq, prompting commentators, particularly American commentators, to ask him to explain his position. How could an exemplar of nonviolent revolt against tyranny also support a preemptive war? Havel frequently says that he has never been a pacifist, and has always believed that in some instances, violence is justified in the struggle against evil, and that Saddam Hussein is clearly evil and must be stopped. But Havel’s position is also based on his personal experience of the dangers of totalitarian rule, both to those who live under it and to the world. (In a recent article in The Washington Post, Martin Palous, the Czech ambassador to Washington and a close friend of Havel’s, said, “We would almost be inclined to say that such a [repressive] system [as Iraq’s] is in itself its own worst weapon of mass destruction.”) Nevertheless, Havel has also said that he believes the Americans should not act alone, that NATO should be involved, and that if, for all the smart weaponry, there are civilian casualties, then “the billions spent on [the weapons] will have been wasted.”

Havel’s most complex statement of his position on Iraq went almost unnoticed. It was buried in a speech that he gave to the Aspen Institute at the NATO summit in Prague last November. Speaking to an audience that included Madeleine Albright, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Henry Kissinger, Havel said that in his lifetime the Czechs had undergone two tragic experiences, the consequences of which had stayed with them for a long time. One was the Western capitulation to Hitler at Munich, which he said most Czechs would understand as an argument for stopping evil before it gets out of hand.

“But,” he went on, “we have another experience: that of being occupied by the Warsaw Pact states in 1968. At the time, the whole country repeated the word ‘sovereignty’ and condemned the official Soviet claim that the invasion was ‘fraternal assistance’ carried out in the name of values higher than state sovereignty: that is, in the name of socialism, which they claimed was threatened here and that thereby, the very hope of mankind for a better life was threatened as well. Almost all of us knew then that it was really about Soviet hegemony and economic exploitation, nothing more. Still, millions of people in the Soviet Union probably believed that our sovereignty was being suppressed in the name of higher values, human values.

“This second experience,” he said, “urges me to great caution…. We have to weigh, again and again, on a delicate apothecary’s scale, whether the issue here is really to help people confronting a criminal regime, and the protection of humanity against its weapons, or whether it just might happen to be another version—far more sophisticated, of course, than the Soviet versions in 1968—of ‘fraternal assistance.'”

When I asked Havel’s advisers about this speech, they tended to downplay its significance. I think, however, that it reveals a profound dislike on Havel’s part for the oversimplifications of pro-war propaganda, and I suspect that we will hear more from him on the subject.

To the inevitable questions about his plans for the future, Havel had a stock answer: that he planned to rest, to do some reading, to let the experiences of the past thirteen years settle into some kind of shape, and then, God and his health permitting, to do some writing. He will be spending time abroad, part of it in the villa he bought by the sea in Olhos d’Água, Portugal, where the air is better for his damaged lungs. He will have a small office in the center of Prague, and he and his wife will run their charitable foundation, Vize 97. He has resolutely rejected any speculation about a return to politics.

In the last week of February, the Czech Parliament debated a bill that would give the outgoing president a pension of about $2,000 a month (Havel’s salary was close to $6,000 a month), an office, the protection of security guards for five years, and the use of a car for life. The bill was opposed by Klaus’s party and the Communists, and was voted down. “In rejecting the bill we made plain our relationship with Václav Havel,” said Cyril Svoboda, a Christian Democrat and current foreign minister.

And now Havel’s place has been taken by the sixty-one-year-old Václav Klaus, the man who most clearly longed to replace him and who won with the support of the Communist Party. In response to a questionnaire the day before he was elected by the Czech parliament, Klaus said he intended to cut back on the “presidential fanfares,” a reference to the musical changing-of-the-guard ceremony instituted by Havel that attracted thousands to the castle precincts every day. Asked if he saw an elder statesman–like role for Havel, Klaus said it wasn’t out of the question, but then couldn’t resist adding: “With a certain Schadenfreude, I would say that hindsight will show whether, without the aureole of the presidency, his opinions will amount to very much. In my judgment, they won’t.”


And so, the ancient Czech habit of tearing down monuments from the previous regime continues. But it’s a fool’s game, because Havel’s legacy is everywhere, engrained now in the political culture of the country and its people, even those who have never read a word he has written. As I watched him on his last afternoon in office, a small and almost lonely figure in a dark blue overcoat, inspecting for the last time the castle guards turned out in the courtyard in their bright blue uniforms while the brass band played a stirring presidential fanfare and a few hundred people who knew and understood what he meant for the millions who were not there, standing beneath the ancient and modern cathedral of St. Vitus while large flakes of snow drifted down and clung to the cobblestones, I thought: for all its flaws, has this not been a wonderful life? What if some guardian angel were to reach down and take this man, so full of high ambition and self-doubt, and lead him by the hand—like Henry Travers leading Jimmy Stewart—back through the sixty-six years he has been on earth, and show him what might have been if he had not existed?

What if he’d been too shy, as a teenager, to visit those banned poets in the Stalinist 1950s and ask them to look at his verse, and then to listen as they recited theirs to him, happy not to be forgotten? If he had not found his way to a community of the like-minded and written his first major plays—The Garden Party, The Memorandum, The Increased Difficulty of Concentration—plays that gave an ever-widening circle of people the sense that the absurdity of their lives could be understood and made sense of? And when the Soviet troops invaded, suppose he’d decided the game was over and withdrawn into a private life? What if he hadn’t written his open letter to Alexander Dubcek in 1969 asking him not to give up, or to President Husák, asking him not to ignore the slow death of his occupied country? What if he had not gone on writing plays that could not be performed, or distributing books that could not be printed, or going to trials of musicians no longer allowed to play?

Suppose he had never written his “The Power of the Powerless” in 1978 and it had never been smuggled into Poland before Solidarity, or into Cuba, now? What if he’d never spearheaded a human rights movement, or decided that going to jail was too much to ask of any man, accepted the secret police’s offer, and left the country? And what if, after the regime came tumbling down in 1989, he had said, “There, I’ve done it. Now I can go home”? What if his—call it a sense of responsibility, call it ambition, call it hubris—had not been large enough? What would the past thirteen years—no, what would the past fifty years—have been without him? There is, of course, no way to answer that, except perhaps to look at some of the vastly deeper problems of transition in countries that have not had Havel’s kind of moral and political leadership.

“Look,” Lubos Dobrovskyå« told me, “It’s too early for any strongly positive evaluations of his presidency. But I’m convinced that in a year or two, there will be analyses demonstrating that we have Havel to thank for the fact that we have a working democracy here. It was Havel who reminded us that we don’t live in an isolated space and that we have to take the world around us into account, and share responsibility for that world.

“Václav Havel did well by his country, and it started long before he ever became president. By acting responsibly, in harmony with his own conscience, he set an example for how to behave in the world.”

—March 11, 2003

This Issue

April 10, 2003