One on One Václav Havel’s decency gave him courage, says his former advisor Jiří Pehe
People in the Czech Republic and around the world hail the late ex-president Václav Havel as a great European, a humanist and a man who stood up to the communist regime, a decent and courageous man who led his country to democracy. In this special edition of One on One, we talk to political commentator Jiří Pehe who served as Václav Havel’s chief political advisor in the late 1990s.
“I think he was inspirational simply because he proved with his life that you can fight authoritarian and totalitarian regimes and human rights abuses with human decency. I think his political programme was just simple human decency; he gave it a name – truth and love – but his programme was really to be decent.”
He forged his major political thoughts in the 1970s, during the oppression that followed the 1968 Soviet invasion of the country. How do you think these ideas translated into practical politics when he became president after the fall of communism?
“When he became president, he was in uncharted territory because he was catapulted into this position by history. I think that in the 1970s and 80s, he was still hoping he would go back to writing in a free society. But he instead became a politician and he had to find his territory and find a way to operate.
“There were certainly some influences which came from the dissident era; for example, in the first two years of his presidency, his concept of ‘anti-political politics’ was quite present in his thinking. There was a certain mistrust of political parties, and although he later embraced them as standard democratic structures, he still put a lot of emphasis on civil society, morality and so, the kinds of things you don’t normally hear about from professional politicians who entered politics through parties and got to the top.”
In one of his last interviews, Václav Havel said he saw a direct link between the Charter 77 human rights movement and a succession of political groups and initiatives that emerged in the 1990s and 2000s. How strong is this political stream once represented by Mr Havel?
“It’s difficult to say because I think that his death has to some extent galvanized the Czech society and we can see a lot of people you would not except to be Václav Havel’s followers are now declaring they have always shared his ideas. So maybe the pro-Havel stream, the stream that follows his ideas, is much stronger than we thought, especially now when many people are dissatisfied with the corrupt nature of Czech politics plagued with clientelism and all the other really pathological phenomena. So we might see a renaissance of Havel’s ideas which could be triggered by his death.”
Why do you think his ideas resounded much less at home than they did abroad?
“You can see this has already begun to change. The outpour of emotions now comes even from politicians who disagreed with him. I think there is even a danger that he could become a myth before his political legacy is really evaluated in a proper analytical and critical context. I see this as a certain problem but at the same time I think it was to be expected because Havel was criticized at home very often for issues that were in my opinion marginal. I think the difference between the pictures of Havel abroad and at home was a result of this. Frankly, looking at Havel from the US or Western Europe was different because they weren’t bogged down in the day-to-day functioning of Czech politics and various other problems.
“But here in the Czech Republic, Havel was very often criticized for doing this or that, and the big picture disappeared. And the big picture was his courage, the fact that he had big ideas, that he fought as one of the few people very courageously against an inhumane regime, and that he was a decent man. I think this got blurred somehow and in some ways even forgotten, and it’s now re-surfacing. I think we are seeing a change here and his domestic perception is now quite quickly nearing his perception abroad.”
In one of the documentaries about his life, Václav Havel complained he had come to embody the conscience of Czechs from the communist era, when he suffered while many people sat at home, did nothing and collaborated with the regime. After 1989, he said, people suddenly did not like the conscience doing things they did not agree with. Is that an accurate description of his position with the Czechs in your opinion?
“Absolutely. In the first few years after the Velvet Revolution, Havel became a symbol of something he couldn’t live up to because in many ways, people projected into him their ambitions and all they would have wanted to be if they had been more courageous. So he quickly became a politician who could not live up to these expectations and when the first problems came, a lot of people suddenly started even hating him because he wasn’t in their eyes the kind of person they thought he should be. Havel was aware of that, he was a very smart man and he was aware of this dangerous role he played.
“He also provoked many people by making moralist appeals and by telling people that they should be politically active, work in civil society, and although he certainly wasn’t arrogant in this sense, occasionally criticizing people didn’t do much during the communist times. All of that contributed to the fact that on the one hand, he was revered by many people but on the other hand, when they actually discovered he was human – particularly when he married the actress Dagmar Veškrnová and disappointed a lot of people who thought he should be a saint after the death of his first wife and all of a sudden, his popularity dropped sharply.”
Where do you think that courage came from? He was already an established playwright whose plays were staged all over the world – why did he throw that away for a life of persecution, surveillance and the occasional prison?
“I think it party comes from his family. He was born into one of the wealthiest families in Czechoslovakia and because of his class origin, as they used to call it, he was persecuted already as a young man, he could not study what he wanted, and so on. So I think very early on, he developed a critical attitude towards the communist regime – despite the fact that he was basically a leftist in his mind throughout his life. He certainly wasn’t a big admirer of capitalism, I think he was a leftist liberal.
“But on a more general level, I think what fuelled Havel’s very courageous behaviour was his decency. He simply didn’t like the communist regime because it was indecent. He was very bright and he didn’t like the communist language, the bureaucracy and all the absurdities of the regime. Because he was a decent man, he found the courage to say these things openly. This is really remarkable because I knew Havel very well and I have to say that by nature, he wasn’t a courageous man. He was shy and timid and had to find a lot of inner strength to openly face the regime.”
Well, he won and the regime lost which was greeted by nearly all Czechs back in 1989. Would you say he was as successful as president as he was as dissident?
“In some ways, he was more successful than the country deserved. I’m saying this because if we take into consideration that the main task of the president is to represent the country abroad, then he succeeded marvellously and maybe even more than he should have. He created an image of the Czech Republic it did not deserve. The outside world knew the Czech Republic through Havel and I met a lot of people abroad who thought we had a lot of people like Havel because where would he from. When he stepped down, the new face of the Czech Republic appeared – very pragmatic, cynical, corrupt and so on. He basically created a facade for the country which it didn’t deserve.
“I remember teasing him a few times when I said, ‘you are engaged in deceptive advertising because through your personal story, you have managed to create an image that is not deserved.”
In its obituary, the New York Times said he personified the soul of the Czech nation. Is that true, in your opinion?
“I would say he personified what is good in the soul of the Czech nation. He personified what the nation aspires to and what many people in the Czech nation would like to be but what an overwhelming majority of them will never be. That was something he had to live with because even during the communist regime, before I left the country, I met a lot of people who were disquieted by the fact that there were people like Havel who opposed the regime and possibly made things more difficult. He was an exceptional man who followed his own route.”
You served as a political advisor to Václav Havel in the 1990s – how do you remember him as a person?
“Actually, his personal side is the most enjoyable memory of my time with Havel. I left my post as the chief political advisor after two years because I didn’t like being part of the bureaucracy and the protocol and things like that but what I really enjoyed was Havel. He was a great boss and colleague, with a great sense of humour and irony. Although I worked with him at a time when he was not well – he had two serious illnesses and almost died in 1998 – he still handled all of this with grace and when he was ok, he was nice to be around. Very intelligent, with a great sense of humour and great ideas – what else can one wish for in his boss?”