Havel: A Life
Grove Press, 2014, 512 pp., $30
Václav Havel, the dissident playwright who became the last President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic, was loved and admired more than understood. His admirers squeezed him into boxes that did not quite fit him. An absurd playwright in the tradition of Ionesco and Becket, Havel would have appreciated the irony of ending up as the main character in somebody else’s funeral.
When Havel died at the end of 2011, he left no final instructions. The politicians were at a loss for ideas. In the ensuing scramble, an historian in an obscure military museum suggested a reenactment of the 1937 funeral of Czechoslovakia’s founder and first President, Tomas G. Masaryk, and so it was: The casket of the artist who pretended to suffer from a mental illness to avoid military service was hauled on a gun carriage serving as a hearse and carried to Prague’s St. Vitus Cathedral. Havel would have appreciated the theatricality as well as the absurdity. The government then proceeded to bestow his name not a theater or a school or a library but on Prague’s international airport. Havel became associated with “international,” so, naturally, one Czech satirist proposed that a galaxy or at least an exoplanet be named after Havel; if he can be international, why not altogether cosmic?
The international great and mighty came to the funeral, by invitation only. Outside the Cathedral, Czechs cosmic and otherwise gathered. Among them stood the daughter of Pavel Landovský, Havel’s favorite actor (perhaps best known internationally for playing the farmer with the pet pig in the movie The Unbearable Lightness of Being), and the daughter of Jan Lopatka, co-founder with Havel of the samizdat publishing house Edice Expedice who edited and published the first edition of Havel’s letters from prison, Letters to Olga. As the two recognized each other and started to converse, an elderly lady of the type who collaborated with the regime before 1989 reprimanded them for disturbing her as she was watching the celebrities and listening to the mass on a screen outside. For all the right reasons, Landovská screamed.
Walking in central Prague at the time reminded me of England after the death of Lady Diana Spencer: People in sorrow for myriad private reasons seized the opportunity to express grief publicly. Others liked the temporary feeling of belonging to something greater and more significant than themselves, here in the form of history and community united by grief.
Havel was a puzzling public figure, difficult to place into traditional categories. As President, he refused to lead or join a political party. Later, he publicly supported the Czech Green Party. In international affairs he was an idealist. He supported anti-Communist leaders such as the Dalai Lama, whom other democratic leaders have shunned for fear of alienating China. Havel was a staunch supporter of humanitarian intervention, from Yugoslavia to Iraq. Philosophically, he considered human rights to be absolute and constitutive of being human, yet he expressed these convictions within the conceptual framework of the notoriously anti-humanistic philosophy of Martin Heidegger. He was primarily an artist, yet he will be remembered mostly as a politician if not a political theorist.
Michael Žantovský, who knew him well, speaks in five voices in his biography of Havel. First speaks the trained clinical psychologist who lays Havel on a metaphorical couch to diagnose and analyze. Second intones the Reuters journalist who carried Havel’s personal belongings when he was released from prison in May 1989 and became his press spokesperson and adviser during his presidency of Czechoslovakia. In this voice Žantovský is an armor bearer who protects his master’s reputation for posterity. Third to speak is the former Czech Ambassador to the United States and Israel, and the current Czech Ambassador to the United Kingdom. But this voice is mute on the two most significant contemporary debates about Havel’s political legacy: the “Havelian” idealist foreign policy and the Czech party-political system. Yet while the diplomatic Žantovský attempts to smooth over internal Czech conflicts and glosses over embarrassing details, the armor bearer Žantovský defends Havel’s side while the clinician leaks embarrassing details from the analysis. The fourth voice is that of Žantovský the man of letters, a noted literary translator to Czech from English and Hebrew, a wordsmith who offers literary analysis of Havel’s plays and impresses the reader with the literary quality of his writing in his second language, English. Fifth and finally comes the voice of a very Czech Žantovský who pokes ironic fun at the pretentions of the previous four “intellectuals” and that other intellectual nominally in charge of the biography: its subject, Havel.
Invasions, Theatres, Coffee Houses, and Sex
Žantovský’s research for this biography benefitted much from interviewing people who knew and worked with Havel. It benefitted, too, from studying some of the documents archived in the Havel presidential library in Prague that Žantovský is due to lead after retiring from the diplomatic service this year.
We learn that Havel was the grandson of a self-made real-estate magnate. An uncle was a founder of the Czech film studios. He spent World War II in the family estate in a village with a nanny, a maid, a cook, and in the company of his mother and younger brother, Ivan. After the war Havel was sent to boarding school in a castle where future film director Miloš Forman was the head boy. The school was disbanded in 1950, two years after the Communist takeover, and Havel’s path to further education was blocked by his class origins.
But since Communism triumphed in Czechoslovakia only in 1948, it had only five years to operate before Stalin died. That turned out to be enough time for the elimination of all alternative political and social elites and for the purging of the Communist Party of Jews, but not enough time for the Party to get around to eliminating the artists, as in the Soviet Union. The connections of the Havel family to artists it supported when it was wealthy lasted into the new era and gave the aspiring young Václav access to leading Czech thinkers and artists who sat at Café Slavia, across from the National Theater on the right bank of the Vltava River. Havel met there his philosophical and artistic mentors and also his future wife Olga.
Havel’s theatrical career started during his compulsory two years of military service in an auxiliary engineering brigade. He directed an amateur performance of a sentimental play by Kohout about a soldier who goes AWOL to visit his pregnant wife. Irony is the Czech cultural knee-jerk reaction to sentimentality, and so Havel wrote a spoof of it about a soldier who falls asleep on guard duty, whose friend uses his rifle to shoot an intruder but gives him credit for this valiant act. The play made it to the finals of the Army Youth Creativity Competition in Mariánské Lázně (Marienbad). When the authorities realized they were being treated to a subtle satire on military discipline, they subjected Havel to disciplinary proceedings. He got off lightly in this first brush with authority: He was convicted only of authoring an unrealistic plot since, as everybody knew, socialist soldiers could never fall asleep during guard duty.
Havel’s breakthrough came in 1963, when his play The Garden Party became a hit in Prague and was then translated and performed internationally. The success of his second play, The Memorandum, about an attempt to replace natural language with a bureaucratically sanctioned artificial language established him at home and abroad as a world-class leading Czech playwright, all before he was thirty. Klaus Juncker of the German publishing house Rowohlt promoted him abroad and Havel was able to travel for productions of his plays in Germany, Austria, England, and, in 1968, New York.
Clearly, Havel was incredibly lucky in the timing of his career debut that coincided with the beginning of the liberalization of the Sixties. Had Havel matured a few years earlier or later, his plays could not have been performed and he would have lived in obscurity. As Žantovský puts it, “it would be hard to grasp the evolution of the Stalinist monolith of the fifties through the Potemkin village of the seventies into the walking dead of the eighties without the seismic anomaly of sixties. . . . [T]he sixties was a period of global fermentation, with the two sides of the Cold War joined in an uneasy two-step, exchanging ideas, nightmares and body fluids.”
It would then go without saying (except that so many people have become suddenly so young) that the liberalization of the Prague Spring was first and foremost a cultural one. It spawned the golden age of Czech cinema, independent theater, and the fiction of authors like Škvorecký, Hrabal, Kohout, Vaculík, and Kundera. Czechs and Slovaks could not choose their government and political system, but they could publicly ridicule them. In Central Europe, done well, the second can be more fun than the first.
In that line of Sixties’ work Havel made his lifelong political and personal alliances and rivalries. He met his future lead actor, Pavel Landovský, “a Rabelaisian force of nature with gargantuan tastes” who “hustled and brawled his way through the Byzantine maze of the Communist system that Havel was trying to out-think and outsmart.” In 1965 Havel made his first political speech to the writers union calling for rehabilitation of modernist non-Communist writers. He also joined then the editorial board of the first and only non-Communist journal, Tvář, and participated in the struggles over its existence and within its editorial board.
Havel’s role in the Prague Spring was minor; he was not a Communist and so could not become a reformed one. He called for multiparty democracy. After the Soviet invasion, Havel took part in the brief debate in 1969 about 1968, before censorship brought it to an early conclusion. Against Milan Kundera and the philosopher Karel Kosík, Havel argued that 1968 was a closed chapter in history because socialism with a human face never had much of a future even without the invasion. Havel recalled the first half of the 1970s as “shapeless fog.” He was barred from publishing and his plays could not be performed. Yet his plays continued to be performed abroad, and they gave him an independent income and a high standard of living in the Communist context. He spent most of the time in the house he and Olga bought in the village of Hrádeček writing and engaging in the decadent sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll lifestyle of the times. Hrádeček continued to be Havel’s refuge for writing and entertaining his close friends until his death. An endearing anecdote told by Žantovský is of a meeting of seven philosophers in Havel’s country house in the 1980s. When one of Havel’s lovers came downstairs, the seven philosophers broke out in song, “Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s home from work we go.”
Havel exited the “fog” in his protest letter to Czechoslovak President Gustav Husak in 1975. The presidential office returned the letter and pretended to ignore its author. But then following a legal “private” performance of Havel’s new version of the Beggar’s Opera in front of 300 people, performers and members of the audience lost jobs and even their driver’s licenses. The regime sought to isolate Havel by turning him “toxic.” Havel reacted by building a coalition of regime opponents. The philosopher Ladislav Hejdánek compared Havel to carbon, an element “able to link with others to create compounds of irresistible strength.”
Indeed, Havel’s considerable social skills allowed him to link people who otherwise would have had nothing in common: renowned artists and intellectuals like himself with the underground art and culture scene, reformed Communists with religious opponents of the regime, Trotskyites with conservatives. The result was Charter 77, united in demanding the implementation of the final act of the Helsinki Covenant on Human Rights from 1975 and the release from prison of the members of the underground rock band Plastic People of the Universe. Havel’s international fame and connections helped the Charter to win the support of a who’s who of the art and letters world in the late 1970s, from Samuel Beckett to Saul Bellow and Leonard Bernstein. It mattered enough for the regime to unleash a wave of repression against the Charter’s signatories.
Eventually, the Communist regime ensured Havel’s leadership by jailing him for more than four years. During his first period of incarceration, though, Havel agreed to sign a letter asking for pardon, promising to abstain from involvement in public affairs in the future. Havel considered it to be his lowest point morally. The regime made the letter public when they released him to humiliate and discredit him. Havel concluded from the incident that he would never again make compromises by justifying them as means to moral ends when dealing with the totalitarian regime.
Philosophers would say that he abandoned consequentialism in favor of deontology, stopped measuring the ethical value of actions by guessing their results and instead followed absolute moral duties. Žantovský, however, psychologizes rather than philosophizes. He reasons that Havel suffered from severe depression compounded with “Stockholm Syndrome.” He quotes from the prison psychologists’ assessment of Havel with approval: “highly intelligent, extroverted personality, self-reliant, with an imaginative inner life, ambitious, perhaps insecure … anxious … sensitive to the approval and disapproval of others, emotionally detached but dependent.” Žantovský’s psychological analysis reaches its limit when he ascribes Havel’s phenomenological reflections on Being in his Letters to Olga, inspired by Heidegger and Levinas, to the effects of monotony and reduced sensory input in prison. As if to reassure the patient, Žantovský adds that the mystical visions stopped when the conditions that gave rise to them passed. Philosophy may not be the cure, but there may be a cure to philosophy.
Elsewhere, Žantovský recognizes the significance for Havel of the “memory of Being” but neglects to mention that Havel invented the term to contrast Heidegger’s “forgetfulness of Being.” While Heidegger pessimistically concluded that we are doomed to alienation and inauthenticity in the modern age, Havel optimistically suggested that in remembering our Being we may return to it.1
Havel’s love life allowed Žantovský to put him on his couch for longer sessions. Havel was, let us say, more of a “Kennedy” than a “Reagan” when it came to women. Žantovský does not spare the reader many details. The fault lies with Žantovský’s analysis of—whom else?—Havel’s overbearing mother. Havel searched all his life for strong dominant women, but when he found them, he attempted to escape. Havel’s wife Olga was an impressive person in her own right, a Czech “Eleanor Roosevelt,” active in samizdat publishing, aid to the families of other imprisoned dissidents, and, after the revolution, in philanthropy. Žantovský describes Havel’s relationship to Olga as that of “a needy petulant child in need of approval.”
But Havel’s sexual mores were not exceptional in his social milieu. Havel’s old friend Karol Sidon, the Orthodox Chief Rabbi of the Czech Republic, stepped down last year after separating from his third wife for a woman whom he met at a class for converts to Judaism and shared numbers with the rabbi: He was 72 and she was 27. But I am not well qualified to review this topic, largely due to my own strategic mistake. When I moved from Washington, DC, to Prague in the early 1990s I was single and I knew that Czechs liked philosophers. I had also read the Prague epilogue to Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Trilogy. So soon after arriving I went to a lecture at Charles University, and then I did something I would have never dared to do in Washington: I approached the most beautiful student in the hall and introduced myself as a Jewish intellectual, which, given the place and time, worked like magic. The problem with the strategy of starting from the top is that there are only two places to go from there: down, or to the town hall. Hence I have gained no knowledge in the process that can help me review Havel’s love life.
When Havel arrived at the presidential office on New Year’s Day 1990, Žantovský tells us, “not only was there no staff, but also the place was locked and it took some time to secure the keys. All that was awaiting him was a delegation of presidential office staffers eager to offer a welcome, report on the establishment of the Prague Castle Civic Forum, and assure Havel of their Loyalty and revolutionary zeal. They did so with all the warmth, spontaneity, and perspiring brows of al-Qaeda’s hostages.” Havel’s team was better suited to run a theater than a state.
But eventually they found a lawyer and an economist to join the team. Havel immediately made several correct but difficult decisions. He instituted a general amnesty of 23,000 of the 31,000 prisoners in Czechoslovak jails; he was willing to let some bad people go free in order to quickly, and hence justly, free many more innocents. Havel’s first foreign trip was to Germany, the historical enemy with the strongest grievances against Czechoslovakia for expelling three million Sudeten Germans after World War II. But Havel knew that, without reconciliation with Germany, there could be no integration with Western Europe. Žantovský retells the famous stories about Havel’s address to a Joint Session of Congress in February 1990 (which he translated simultaneously) that concluded with a lesson in phenomenology: “Consciousness precedes Being.” At a reception in the Czechoslovak embassy a Native American tribe presented Havel with a Peace Pipe. When Havel travelled next to Moscow to meet with Gorbachev, he suggested they smoke together that peace pipe. Artistically tactless fellow that he is, Gorbachev replied that he did not smoke.
A Tale of Two Václavs
Žantovský the diplomat is right to note that the rivalry between the first and second Presidents of the Czech Republic has been exaggerated. Václav Klaus as Prime Minister until 1997 needed Havel’s international prestige to advance the interests of the Czech Republic abroad. Since there was no clean, smooth, and painless way of transforming the economy, Havel was content to leave that responsibility to Klaus, who was also uniquely qualified to serve as a lightning rod for protest. Unlike Havel, Klaus could be decisive, enacting necessary economic policies that he knew could cause pain and would fall short of moral perfection.
Especially at the beginning of the economic transition, Klaus’s decisions were crucial: Against the objections of some of the 1968 reformers he blocked attempts to experiment with a third way between communism and capitalism. As he put it, the “third way” would lead to the Third World. He eliminated market distortions in the form of subsidies and made the Czech crown convertible. In the longer term, his objection to the Czech adoption of the euro proved correct. Once the Slovaks elected in 1992 a populist nationalist government that demanded sincerely or as bargaining position to secede, he did not try to stand in their way and did not offer concessions that would have slowed down the transition and increased corruption. He was also right to provocatively make libertarian public statements because they attracted foreign direct investment, the surest way to develop the post-communist economy.
Political reality was, alas, entirely different, and did not admit of real libertarianism. The primary goal of the economic policies of the Klaus governments was Keynesian full employment, not restructuring. For example, under Communism, mothers had a right to two years of paid maternity leave. Klaus doubled it to four years. Under Communism, like elsewhere, children spent 12 years in school. Klaus extended it to 13; some now graduate from high school when they are almost twenty. He also made it easier to retire earlier than under Communism. But above all, unemployment as low as 2 percent was achieved by preventing creative destruction. Until 1997 no Czech enterprise went bankrupt. This was not just a matter of the absence of legal framework for bankruptcy, but the deliberate use of the government-owned banks to subsidize failing enterprises in the guise of loans that defaulted.
These policies were designed to cushion the transition pains. The Czech government faced the unprecedented task of privatizing a whole economy. Communist Poland had maintained a private agricultural sector and Hungary had allowed small private businesses, but in the Czech lands everything was owned by the state. Economists assume that in a free market the initial distribution of properties is not important. Irrespective of who gets what initially, once free market mechanisms are allowed to do their magic, properties will naturally tend to be owned by those who can derive the optimal utility from them because they would offer higher prices for purchasing them from those who derive lower utility. In Western Europe and North America initial appropriations often resulted from violence and guile rather than labor, yet over time the outcome has been prosperity.
If so, the question of how to privatize was essentially political. From an economic perspective it did not matter if properties were distributed by lottery or, as one Klaus loyalist suggested, by “turning off the lights.” The challenge was to “throw property deeds out of helicopters” in a way that would be politically acceptable. Now, the most efficient and profitable method for privatization would have been to simply sell everything to the highest bidders. It would have also provided the Czech and Slovak governments with the highest revenue. But that was not politically acceptable because, after Communism, only foreigners would have had the kind of capital necessary for buying the large firms, and they could have outbid locals for the small ones as well. Since many of these foreigners would have spoken German, that was simply a non-starter.
So what happened? Small businesses like shops, hotels, and restaurants were sold to Czechs. As Žantovský explains, the buyers were mostly former Communist functionaries and black marketers because they were the only ones who had the capital to participate even in this “small privatization.” However, since the small businesses were left then to sink or swim, it achieved the kind of results the economists hoped for.
Beyond the “small privatization,” some identifiable properties like real estate were restored to their pre-Communist Czech owners. (Germans and Jews were excluded by setting 1948 as the restitution base line, after the Holocaust and the expulsion of three million Sudeten Germans in 1946.) But the main method Klaus and his advisers chose to create private property was through the distribution of vouchers. All Czech adults received vouchers they could use to bid for shares in privatized industries. This method promised to create private ownership immediately, spread it evenly so capitalism would become acceptable in an egalitarian nation, and make the politicians enacting it popular.
This Milton Friedman-inspired transition model would have been successful had a few background assumption been satisfied: Had there been the rule of law, had owners been able to control managers, and had the government then allowed creative destruction to weed out failing firms. But none of these assumptions were in fact satisfied. In continuity with Communism, ownership mattered little because managers rather than owners controlled the properties. So in the name of the owners, the managers sold the assets of the firms they managed to themselves for a song, and then approached the state-owned banks for loans to cover the losses. Since there were no bankruptcies, managers kept receiving loans and kept defaulting on them.
Klaus’s government decided then that the problem with its voucher scheme was that it distributed ownership too broadly, so it attempted to concentrate ownership by allowing investment funds to manage the vouchers for ordinary citizens and invest them. Since many of these funds were owned by Czech banks that were in turn owned by the government, Czech privatization ended up being a method for the government to sell part of its industry to itself, the sort of plot Havel might have come up with in one of his absurd plays. Other investment funds, most notably the largest one, Harvard Investment, owned by Harvard MBA Victor Kožený, did what managers in industry did: stripped the assets, moved the proceeds abroad, and then collapsed the fund.
Meanwhile, the politicians internalized the message that it does not matter how property is generated, and so decided that initial appropriation might as well include them. They then sold state properties to friends and family for fractions of their value or charged commissions on privatized properties. The political result has been the general recognition that Czech capitalism was born in sin.
Worse than political sin was economic dysfunction. The constant infusion of capital from the state to zombie businesses that could not go bankrupt threatened to instead bankrupt the entire state. So, in 1997, Havel participated in bringing down Klaus’s government. Žantovský the bearer of arms denies that Havel was involved due to his bad health, but this is unlikely. Minister of Interior at the time and the main anti-Klaus “rebel,” Jiří Ruml was a former Charter 77 spokesperson; he would not have acted without coordinating with Havel, who seemed ready and unsurprised.
A year later, the Social Democratic government with Klaus’s party support enacted some of the necessary restructuring reforms by selling the banks to foreign banks like Japan’s Nomura, and later the Skoda car factory to Volkswagen, currently the largest employer. This did not end corruption or create the rule of law, but it did allow sufficient restructuring of the market to generate healthy economic growth—a least until the global recession hit the country in 2009.
Klaus, in de facto coalition with the Social Democrats led by Miloš Zeman and with Havel as an isolated President with influence only on foreign policy, moved on with his ideology, attempting to win populist support with nationalism, sometimes of the extreme variety. When Havel left the presidency after the constitutional two terms, he considered his greatest achievements to be the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, Czech admission to NATO and the Czech joining of the European Union that happened shortly after the end of his term in office.
Klaus was then elected by a slim margin to succeed Havel as President. Klaus’s agenda for the next ten years (2003–12) centered on opposition to the European Union, support for Putin’s Russia, and denial of man-made climate change (the main domestic source of energy in the Czech Republic is coal). Still, Klaus’s international libertarian credentials somehow survived his policies and domestic ideology, and upon the end of his presidency he moved to Washington, DC, to become a senior member of the CATO Institute. He was then sent packing once the institute discovered, after twenty very active years, that Klaus was as much of a libertarian as Putin.
The Partying President and Political Parties
In Žantovský’s opinion, Havel’s biggest mistake was his refusal to lead a political party. Without a political party, especially during his decade as Czech President, Havel had nobody to represent him in parliament. In domestic affairs he was reduced to ineffective expressions of moral indignation, which made him appear more like a preacher than a President. In my opinion, the problem has been constitutional more than personal.
Democratic Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic never quite stabilized the role of the President in their constitutions. Since democratic Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic have had a proportional representation with a threshold electoral system, the president has always faced a fragmented parliament and coalition governments. All Czechoslovak and Czech Presidents have been charismatic politicians with a personal claim for being popular “tribunes” that they used to assume real power when coalitions fragmented to appoint a technocratic government of their loyalists until the political parties got their act together. The founding President of Czechoslovakia, the philosopher T. G. Masaryk, who was also not a member of a political party, did it several times. As noted, Havel did it despite Klaus’ protests. But in his turn, Klaus did the same. In 2009, the Czech Republic assumed the revolving six-month presidency of the European Union, so the anti-European Klaus collapsed the government with the help of the opposition Social Democrats. The politicians needed then to agree on a technocratic caretaker government. The country still held the presidency of the European Union, so they needed a polyglot technocrat, fluent in several European languages. The global economy was at the depth of the recession, so they needed a Prime Minister who understood the economy and had superior quantitative skills. Still, the politicians sought somebody so uncharismatic that, even if he developed a taste for high politics, he would be uncompetitive at the polls. So, mazel tov!:The Czech Republic got its first Jewish Prime Minister, Jan Fischer, previously the president of the state Statistical Office. Current President Miloš Zeman was the first to be elected directly in 2013. He used his new powers almost immediately when the police leaked that the Prime Minister’s lover and head of his office used the secret service to spy on his wife while they were going through a divorce. He appointed a government of his loyalists in the second half of 2013.
In this context, Havel’s “anti-politics” fit the Czech constitution and historical tradition. If George Washington avoided becoming a party member because he was concerned about the self-destruction of the Roman Republic though partisanship, Havel was concerned about the Party as an institution that allowed people to relieve themselves of personal responsibility by creating an unaccountable, anonymous bureaucracy. The denouement of the Czech party system after a quarter century of liberal democracy proved that Havel’s fears were not unfounded.
As in other post-totalitarian countries like West Germany and Austria, Czech post-totalitarian mass political parties connected to their electorates through patronage rather than policies and ideologies. Other democracies started like this too, as Francis Fukuyama argues in his most recent book.2 Though there was a formal ideological distinction between the two main Czech parties, the Civic Democrats and the Social Democrats, their policies were quite similar. They differed mainly in regard to which private interests they patronized. Compared to the corporatist patronage systems of Germany and Austria, the Czech system was staffed with marauding rather than stationary political bandits, to borrow Mancur Olson’s distinction. Most politicians did not expect or intend to stay in politics for long, so they attempted to derive the highest utility from politics in the shortest time. Unlike in Germany and Austria too, political corruption has not been limited by the rule of law. In continuity with Communist practice, politicians have been above the law. The patronage system has also not been as extensive as in Germany and Austria. Add to that the effects of the recession and the result has been the rise of populism.
Membership in populist parties is limited to the leader and a handful of trusted deputies. The leader brings in the votes and appoints non-party members to offices so they are entirely dependent and have no constituency of their own. There have been several incarnations of extreme but marginal populist parties in the Czech Republic, often led by characters who looked like Batman villains. The latest such character is Tomio Okamura, a travel agent with a Japanese father and Czech mother who grew up in Japan and acquired there expertise in racism. He claimed to have made his money from Japanese tourism to the Czech Republic, which was somewhat incredible, since one rarely sees any Japanese tourists in Prague. Actually, he used his political career to raid the party coffers by hiring himself as a consultant with the money the party got from the state. The party ideology advocated direct democracy and opposition to Islam and immigration, a particularly pathetic ideology in a country with negligible numbers of Muslim immigrants. Anti-racist activists organized a kebab-eating day in protest. More recently, they started an ironic civic movement against water from Mars, opposing Mars-ist indoctrination in schools, calling for a boycott of Mars bars, and spreading the “Truth” in the form of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Havel would have been amused, no doubt.
The much larger and politically more significant populist party is ANO, the second-largest party in the Czech parliament. It is led by Adrej Babiš, the second wealthiest Czech, who is Minister of Finance and owner of the nation’s two quality newspapers. Apart from opposition to corruption and support for reinstating capital punishment, ANO has no program or ideology. Its oligarch leader, Trump-style, is currently the most popular Czech politician. He promises to run the country as he does his company, and in the meantime appoints his executives to positions in the government and civil service.
After decades of corruption from the established parties and upstart politicians, the average Czech reasons that since Babiš is so rich ($2.7 billion according to Forbes) he does not need to steal. Yet as Minister of Finance and the owner of few hundred companies there are few decisions he can make that do not affect his personal wealth. EU and U.S. leaders try to ignore his existence.
The rise of these populist parties is the result of the corruption of the conventional political parties and the emergence of Czech oligarchs. True, much worse examples of populism can be found in Western Europe today. Arguably, Babiš is Berlusconi without the orgies, or Trump without the hot air. Still, the failure of the post-Communist Czech party system caused the rise of populism in a society where democracy is not entrenched yet and establishment of the rule of law has still a long way to go.
The Dalai Lama or Putin
Havel’s foreign policy achievements undermined themselves. NATO membership assured the Czechs that Russia is not threatening them. As EU members they did not feel obliged to coordinate their foreign policy with the EU. Klaus had valid criticisms of the unaccountability, inefficiency, and bureaucratization of the EU. But his opposition to the EU was aligned with a Russian foreign policy that aimed to fragment Europe so that Russia could deal with each weak country separately, and charge different prices for Russian energy according to each country’s degree of obedience and dependence. Klaus’ successor, first as Prime Minister and currently as President, Miloš Zeman, continues Klaus’s pro-Russian policies. Zeman’s election campaign was partly financed by Russia’s Lukoil. It seems like both Presidents reached a kind of Faustian pact with Putin. Still, Havel’s prestige and appointees in the Czech Foreign office prevented a radical shift in Czech foreign policy, at least until recently.
The current Czech government, a coalition of the Social Democrats with the populist ANO party, is attempting to reassess Havel’s tradition in foreign policy, characterized by support for the Atlantic alliance and idealist support for anti-totalitarian dissidents from Tibet to Cuba. A new geopolitical alliance with Russia and China could fit Czech economic interests, or at least the interests of some of the more influential oligarchs and politicians. So if there is a major change, its sources run below the surface.
Ordinary Czechs are unlikely to object. NATO membership was supposed to be a one-sided protection of the Czechs, so many were quite shocked when a few days after becoming NATO members they found themselves, at least on paper, at war with Serbia. The American political retreat from Europe under the current administration has not helped the survival of Havel’s foreign policy either. The Czechs were incredibly lucky when they had two American Secretaries of State with a sentimental interest in them. As President Clinton put it, the Czech Republic was the only country with two representatives in the UN during Madeleine Albright’s tenure there (though Havel addressed her during their first meeting as Mrs. Fulbright). Condoleezza Rice studied under Albright’s father and in her Ph.D. dissertation compared the Soviet Union with Czechoslovakia But U.S. policy towards the Czech Republic since 2008 has been apolitical. The U.S. Ambassador to Prague has been tasked with improving trade, promoting the bid of Westinghouse for building new atomic reactors in Temelín against Russian counterbids, and promoting LGBT rights (which is quite redundant because, according to the Pew Research Center, only 14 percent of Czech find homosexuality unacceptable, in comparison with 37 percent percent of Americans). In Central Europe, should the United States ever allow a political vacuum, it is certain that Russia will fill it.
Most recently, the Czech government realized that it was shooting itself in the foot when it publicly questioned Havel’s legacy. Without Havel, dead or alive, there is little of interest for the world in the Czech Republic. In the future, if Czech governments attempt to push Czech foreign policy in a more realist, or pro-Russian, direction they will have to do so under the guise of reinterpreting his tradition rather than abandoning it. Only President Zeman still attempts publicly to break with the European Union’s policies and rebalance Czech foreign policy in a more pro-Kremlin direction. He was the only EU head of state to go to Moscow for the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II despite an EU boycott and a public row with the U.S. Ambassador in Prague, Andrew Schapiro.
Twenty years ago, when Zeman was the head of the opposition Social Democrats, he came to the university where I was teaching in Olomouc. At breakfast he had as many shots of liquor and cigarettes as sips of coffee. One of the students asked him about his drinking. He replied: “Teetotaler, I am not. But I am not an alcoholic either.” Decades of this lifestyle have taken their toll on this Falstaffian figure. On radio, in support of Putin’s imprisonment of the members of Pussy Riot, and probably under the influence, he explored the considerable depth of the Czech language in suggesting various possible translations of the name of the band to Czech. This is Havel’s successor: Bohemian to be sure, but no artist.
For my generation of young, now middle-aged Americans who arrived in Prague in the early 1990s—estimates vary between 20,000 and 40,000—Havel was a symbol more than a reality. He stood for the victory of consciousness as well as conscience, for the political relevance of intellectuals, philosophy, and art, and for the potential significance of high culture in a commercial world dominated by technically sophisticated kitsch. The physical geography of the Czech Republic, the baroque aesthetic of the towns and the beauty of Prague, and the glorious cultural history and literature fitted it all well. Reality, cultural as well as political, could not have lived up to the symbolism, especially after half a century of adapting to totalitarian regimes.
Havel was a symbol, not a representation, of his nation. His own self-evaluation was far more critical and severe than that of others. His last play which he filmed after the presidency, Leaving, is about a politician, Chancellor Rieger, who leaves office and has to vacate his official home. Pace Žantovský’s claims to the contrary, the play is clearly about his period as President and is unsparing in its honesty. I have never encountered anything remotely this self-critical by an ex-politician. Consider what Moses could have written about his experiences in power: Yes, he resisted Pharaoh and led his people out of bondage, but what, really, could he show for forty years of leadership? Wandering in the desert, economic stagnation, constant popular dissatisfaction with his leadership, and populist leaders advocating realist foreign policy and a return to Egypt. His people returned to the discredited former ideology and in moral indignation he threw the Ten Commandments at them. Still, the Mosaic tradition survived and defined a nation. Whether they like it or not, the Czechs are the nation of Havel. What they need to work out, with the help of biographies like this one, is what that means.
1For readers interested in Havel’s philosophy I shamelessly recommend my own book: The Philosophy and Politics of Czech Dissidence: From Patočka to Havel, Pittsburgh University Press, 2000.
2Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2014.