Few people were as close to Václav Havel as his secretary of 14 years, Vladimír Hanzel. Originally a music critic and computer programmer, Hanzel was by Havel’s side in his dissident days before serving under him at Prague Castle during four terms as president. He was also the first person in December 2011 to make public the news of the death of the man who led Czechoslovakia to democracy. When we spoke, I began by asking Vladimír Hanzel about his fateful first encounter with Václav Havel.
“There were not so many pubs at that time. There was one around the corner, Na Rybárně. So I was there and she came later.
“I was sitting at a table with a gentleman and lady and Jarmila sat beside me. In a few minutes they left the pub and my wife – my future wife, she was my girlfriend then – said, I think that was Havel.
“I said, No, it’s not possible. Because he had a denim jacket and long hair. And for me Václav Havel was somebody very serious…”
But how did she know his voice?
“She knew his voice because I listened to Radio Free Europe. She said, He had the same voice as the Havel you are listening to very often.
“So the next time I met him, a few days later, I introduced myself…”
In the pub again?
“In the same pub. He introduced himself and we were talking and we ended up talking about music, because it was my hobby, my life, my interest.
“He said he was considered something like an expert on modern music in Charter 77. Because he was a friend of The Plastic People of the Universe and the people in Charter were mainly older and didn’t like this kind of music. But he did.
“He also recommended to me an article about modern folk music in Czechoslovakia. The article was about folk as a political and social phenomenon that was different from folk singers in the West.
“He said it was published in the magazine Obsah and that he would bring it to me. I said, I don’t need it because I already know it. He was very surprised and said, How? I said, Because I wrote it [laughs].”
That’s a great story. In 1989, before the Velvet Revolution, you became Václav Havel’s secretary – what exactly were you doing for him at that time?
“And then I as one person did all these things. I didn’t know how to do it. It wasn’t easy but I had to learn somehow.
“I read letters that Václav Havel received. He got many letters from citizens and had no time to read them and answer them. So I answered, Thank you very much, on behalf of Václav Havel, and so on.
“So I received his post and I even went to the Germany Embassy and the Swedish Embassy to negotiate about his receiving some prizes.
“Because Václav Havel got the German Booksellers’ Prize in Germany, Frankfurt, and the Olof Palme Prize, but he had no passport and was unable to travel to these countries. So I negotiated how he could receive these prizes in Prague.”
What kind of letters was he receiving from members of the public?
“Some of them sent their support. Some of them wanted to sign Charter 77 or other texts or petitions. These kinds of letters.
“Some were from signed ‘workers from a factory’, with no name, saying, You are an enemy of the state and an enemy of our people. So there were anonymous letters but surprisingly there weren’t so many.”
Václav Havel was the leading dissident at that time – was it dangerous for you to work with him, to be associated with him?
“It was. But for me it was a great challenge to be with such a man. He was my hero and I was very happy to be with him.”
I understand that he used you as his guy to fix his computer, you were kind of his IT guy.
“Oh, no. It was rather ridiculous. He had an IBM personal computer at [country house] Hradeček. He was maybe the only person in Czechoslovakia who had a computer at his house. It was impossible, it was banned – I don’t know how he managed it.
“He said that it didn’t work and asked me to repair it. I told him, Václav, I’m a software programme, not a hardware man. And this is hardware, a printer and computer.
“He said, You work with computers, so don’t tell me about software, hardware, I don’t understand these words – but please repair my computer and printer.
“So I came and switched the computer off and switched it on again and did the same thing with the printer. And they started. So, I repaired his computer! That’s how I became his expert on computers [laughs].”
That’s the classic IT advice: Turn it off and turn it on again. And you did it and it worked.
“The classic advice is to look to where your computer is connected to the electricity socket.”
Václav Havel was outside Prague on November 17, 1989 [the day the Velvet Revolution began]. But I believe you were informing him about what was happening here – how did you manage to communicate with him?
“He had no telephone then at Hradeček so he called me from a telephone box or sometimes from a post office. But mostly from a phone box. We had some set time, mostly 9 PM. He would call me then and that was our way of communicating.”
He must have been surprised by the news from you on November 17?
“Not really. Because at around 9 o’clock the most brutal attack was still going on.
“I was at the demonstration from the start, at Albertov, Vyšehrad and Národní třída. And I left Národní třída because I had to go home and receive Václav Havel’s telephone call. So I didn’t know how it ended.
“He phoned me and I told him what I knew. And during the night or in the morning we had information from Radio Free Europe. It was our source of information about what was happening here – even what was happening in the next street.”
You later wrote a book called Zrychlený tep dějin, which I guess translates as The Sped-up Pulse of History. What are your strongest memories of the Velvet Revolution period?
“It wasn’t only one thing – it was step by step. For instance, when there was the first meeting between Václav Havel and his delegation and Prime Minister [Ladislav] Adamec, Havel, who was a very polite man, told him with his very polite voice, Prime Minister, please change the constitution and remove the leading role of the Communist Party from it.
“He asked him to release political prisoners and at the next meeting the prime minister reported that they had been released.
“Václav Havel said, Not all of them, Magor Jirous is still in jail. And the prime minister said, But I’m not at the [prison] gate, I’m not responsible for it but I’ve tried. It was really ridiculous.
“Before there had been nothing like political prisoners in Czechoslovakia – they didn’t exist [officially]. And now they accepted the term political prisoners.
“It was one thing after another which surprised me every day.”
Václav Havel was famously at first reluctant to become president. But was it always logical that he as the leading dissident would become president?
“Why not, when he was the leader of the dissident movement, though he had no function, and he was the best known person in the West.
“We very often joked that Václav Havel would one day become president of Czechoslovakia. But when this change came it was clear to us that he had to be president.
“He was a symbol of this big change. He was a dissident who that year had been in jail. He was in jail for four months. They arrested him in January and released him in the middle of his term, in May.
“So it was a very symbolic thing. And even the Communist Parliament voted for him. I think it was very logical.”
When you, Havel and all his team went to Prague Castle, what conditions did you find there? This was after the presidency of [Gustav] Husák.
“One thing is the conditions at the Castle, another was the people there, in the office, and the third was the furniture and everything in it.
“It was just like from a department store. It was terrible. Everything was like in an apartment in a block of flats.
“It took many, many months and years to change it to the shape that Prague Castle has today.”
Next week in the second part of this interview: How Havel adapted to life as president, what kind of things would make him angry – and an audacious plan to get the remaining Beatles to reform in Prague.
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