Nov 7, 2012

Facts from the Life of Václav Havel and His Family

      Havel’s parents were always in contact with celebrities. They were married by Prague mayor, advocate Baxa, who had excelled in the 1899 famous process against Jew Hilsner accused of a ritual murder, for whose innocence firmly stood the future first Czechoslovak president Thomas Masaryk. After WWI, Havel’s family acquired, by means of well positioned friends, political opportunism, and sheer corruption, a crucial role in the Czechoslovak film industry and a near monopoly on the distribution of the foreign movies. During WWII, the members of Havel family made friends with highest Nazis in Czechia, including members of the
secret service, gestapo, and the protectorate government. The father’s brother, uncle Miloš Havel, even activated the Nazi friends against his competitors. During the Nazi occupation and holocaust, their film studios in Barrandov produced many idyllic movies and comedies. As a boy, Václav Havel admired German uniforms and was running after German soldiers in the streets, as was affectionately noted by his mother in her diary. After the war, it was the communists who won favor with the family. The special relations of the family with the authorities could be seen when Havel’s father managed to keep a good position despite an investigation of his Nazi past, when his grandfather, an indicted Nazi collaborator, was acquited, and when his uncle Miloš “succeeded to escape” from the communist prison and crossed the well-guarded border to West Germany. With the assistance of the secret police (State Security = StB), Miloš opened a successful restaurant near the Radio Free Europe in Munchen, probably instructed by StB. The family tried to cover up the evident police connection, and even invented a fairy tale of miraculous Miloš’ escape from a communist police car. However, the opened archives of StB later showed that Miloš signed a contract with StB. The family connections were helping also later to Václav Havel, for example when he started his theater carrier as a scene shifter, after his father had put in a word for him with the theater manager.
      Beside useful connections, Havel’s father was also distinguished by his sympathies toward socialism, both during the Nazi occupation and after it. The same sympathies passed on to the son, who became a member of the communist youth organization in 1949 – shortly after the communist putsch in Prague. Havel was a passionate defender of socialism and opponent of capitalism from his early years, even during the show trials in Prague in 1952 which ended with many death penalties. These sympathies were always a part of Havel’s opinions, and he claimed to be not a simple socialist but a “moral socialist”, because the word "moral" was his most favorite adjective. Havel’s idealism included, beside enthusiasm for socialism, also efforts to “liberate ourselves from the rule of technology” and to “carry our an existential revolution”. His aversion to technology and exact thinking was surely sincere, but he was too soft to be a real revolutionary. Havel was always “the most polite and mannerly child” when dealing with the authorities, according to the film director and Havel’s schoolmate Miloš Forman; he was “diligent and did not quarrel”, according to the Czech intellectual Ivan Vyskočil; and according to the Czech dissident Peter Uhl, who spent nine years in the communist prisons, Havel’s politeness and manners bordered on servility and cowardice. Havel himself described his willingness to friendly deal with authorities as “shy politeness”. StB contacted Havel as early as in 1954 and kept in touch with him during the whole era of communism in Czechoslovakia. Although in his biographies Havel stated that he was conscripted and could not study, he was admitted to the Czech Technical University, and uninterested left the school. Untypically, he could decide the term of his conscription by himself, and finally he was admitted even to the desired Theater School. The first and the most successful Havel’s play was drafted in the manner of European absurd theater of that time, and curiously it was accepted by the communist authorities positively, and the communist daily Rudé Právo even highly assessed the play, the reason probably being the fact that the absurd play did not formulate a single critical statement against the regime. Havel acquired fame, and travelled abroad in the time when the border was hermetically closed for the normal citizens. Havel pretended to make fun of the authorities, but StB were satisfied with him. For example, in 1965 he reported to StB an anti-communist leaflet he found and helped to police in locating its writer. The main Havel’s secret police file got lost in the StB archives, but saved are records of Havel’s conversations with StB, interrogation records, and bugging records, and these documents show that Havel passed to police the names of acquaintances already in the sixtieths. When he was threatened by imprisonment in 1977, he passed to police the names of his close colleagues. He was imprisoned at last anyway, but he was regularly released and allowed to meet with his wife, which was very unusual in the Czech Gulag. In the prison he was laughed at for obsequiously cooperating with the communist prison authorities. In exchange, StB enabled him to enjoy the dollars from abroad, supposedly royalties for his plays, he was getting from the West by way of his literary agent Klaus Juncker, working for the German publishing company Rowohlt. Juncker had been adjutant of the general Erwin Rommel during the WWII, and for his Nazi past he was an easy prey for recruiting to the East-German secret service Stasi. His contacts with StB seemed very probable. Characteristically, Havel and this former Nazi became friends for whole life. The available documents indict Havel that he capitulated in his relation with StB. There are clear proofs of the Havel’s agreement with StB, and Havel’s biographer Daniel Kaiser denotes Havel’s behavior in 1977 as “a pact with the devil”. Despite his garrulousness, Havel did not much speak about the circumstances of his detention in 1977 and his imprisonment in 1979. This is the least known period in his life.
      After his release from prison in 1983, Havel was allowed to become an unofficial leader of the opposition. As the Gorbachev reform, perestroika, progressed in the Soviet Union, the Czech communist had been preparing for a non-violent transition of power, even though adamant opponents were kept at bay till the end. Havel admitted that the communists contacted him several years before the non-violent power transition of 1989 (called "velvet revolution"). Many dissidents were imprisoned during the velvet revolution, but Havel was ostentatiously ignored by the ruling power. On November 17, 1989, police violently crushed a student demonstration, but Havel was allowed to found a new political organization – Citizens’ Forum – that quickly became a new political party which was accepted by the communists as their new negotiation partner. Havel and his friends negotiated with the communists, and strangely yielded to their conditions in December 1989, when the communist parties had lost their power in most of East-European countries many months ago and when the symbolic Berlin wall had already been torn down. Havel promised there would be no witch hunt, which meant that the communists would not be punished for their crimes. On December 2, 1989, Havel responded to aggressive questions of the communist daily Rudé Právo with his shy politeness and promised to “go by way of love”. On December 15 he led the final negotiations with the communist government, on December 18 he took under his protection the members of communist police and proclaimed himself as a presidential candidate. On December 30, Rudé Právo celebrated the former dissident Havel as the new president, using four times the word “moral” and once even “moral greatness” on the front page. There is no doubt that the communists exchanged their power for impunity and for continuing legal existence. According to Havel’s biographer Eda Kriseová, the negotiations were accompanied not only by fear of StB, but also “by laugh, joy, love, and singing”. The fact is that Havel’s catch-phrases, including his slogans “truth and love will prevail over lies and hatred” or “we will not be like them”, neutralized the efforts for a true and just settlement with the communist regime, so that false love could prevail over truth and justified hatred.
      In a prolog to his biography by Kriseová, Havel sounds like a Czech Louis XIV and gives himself away when saying: “I hope that the book will teach the reader not only about me but also about our country”. We can distinctly hear: “Czechoslovakia – that’s me”. Modesty belonged to Havel’s favorite properties when he tried to build his image, but his colleagues’ recollections show that he never missed any opportunity to promote himself even if that was damaging for the common cause. Havel’s texts are full of ridiculous passages in which his self-admiration overcomes the intended modesty. The comparison of this authorized biography with his other biographies shows that Havel carefully selected what should and what should not be disclosed, and when he included the episode of running after Nazi soldiers in his childhood, it clearly shows that he could not see anything bad about it even in his adulthood. Havel’s self-centeredness is also revealed in his published letters to his wife from prison, “Letters to Olga”. A self-critical person would conceal such letters which never showed any human feelings, but were giving practical instructions to his wife, whom he always deceived, in regard to the types of chocolates to be bought in exclusive shops a sent to him.
      Although Havel liked to write about ethics and moral, he himself suffered from “dissipated moral”, as he jokingly called freer sex and occasional use of drugs. Without shame he went out with the wife of his absent friend. He was not disloyal only to his wife and friends, but also to his colleagues. In regard to his most successful play “Garden Party”, he never acknowledged the contribution to this play by his theater mentor Ivan Vyskočil and by his theater director Jan Grossman, who both helped Havel also in his theater career. The world-known scenic designer Josef Svoboda created a glass decoration to “Garden Party”; Havel did not like it but was afraid to tell it, so he crushed the decoration by a hammer in the night before the premiere; police never found the culprit. He preached forgiving, at least in regard to the communists, but he did not forgive even Karer Kryl, the Czech national bard, who made jokes about Havel’s exaggerated self-esteem. Havel’s texts are crowded with the word “morality”, but in his real life he never exaggerated morality: not when he forced his lover to abort their child which she wanted to keep, and not when he broke his promise to take presidency only for a transitional period of a half year. Neither he exhibited any morality when he used his presidential authority for influencing the privatization process and managed to obtain real estates belonging to his family during the WWII, including the Barrandov complex, even though the property could not belong to him according to the law because, among other reasons, the property had been acquired by and had belonged to collaborators with the Nazi occupation regime. Havel became one of the richest Czechs. As being childless, he promised to “return the money to the nation”, but he transferred tens of millions of dollars to an actress he married after his first wife died. In some situations, Havel seemed to be a Machiavellian, or rather Mephistophelian manipulator, an example being the fact that his friend, Daňa Horáková, whose name he disclosed to police in 1977, started to be unjustly rumored as being StB confident, and was therefore harassed by police and abandoned by friends. His Mephistophelian image is not contradicted by the fact that he employed his own failures as an inspiration for his plays, which by the way were never as successful as his first play. His play Temptation, inspired by his failure to resist the pressures during his police interrogations, blurs the borderline between Mephistopheles and Faust. Still more did Havel suppress his qualms and elevate himself to desired higher moral position in his essay “Power of the Powerless” in 1978, when he denoted his own life as “life in truth”, whereby discreetly appropriating a motto of the Spain philosopher Miguel Unamuno. His arsenal of morality and truth Havel later enriched by Mahatma Gandhi’s maxim “truth and love will prevail”, which he dumbed down by adding “over lies and hatred”. When he later participated, as the Czech president and chief commander, in bombarding Yugoslavia on the side of the Muslim terrorists, he was not ashamed of betraying the slogan of his beloved hippies “Make Love Not War”, as all the attackers were hippies admirers, including the chief European commander Solana, and U.S. president Clinton who tried to divert the world’s attention from his personal scandals. But only Václav Havel was capable to justify the unjust war against Yugoslavia on the side of the Muslim separatists as a moral war, proclaiming in Canadian Ottawa, in his speech of 29 April 1999, that “If it is possible to describe a war as moral or as being waged for ethic reasons, it is this war”.
      Havel was impressed by famous people and wanted to be one of them, so that he was writing and philosophizing. However, in his writings the Western technology is as harmful as the communist terror, and the east-European socialist society was compared to the consumerist West societies, even though everybody knew that normal people had nothing to consume in the socialist regimes, and in some periods even cannibalism appeared. Havel’s inspiration seemed to come from the Orwell’s book “1984”, in which the ministry of police was called “ministry of love” and the ministry of as propaganda was called “ministry of truth”. The communists were happy to see that their dissident called the Western prosperity “the dictate of consumerism” and the Western freedom “destructive flood of information”. In his “Power of the Powerless”, the people “who have decided to live in truth” and “who like to write things”, like himself, belonged to the highest rank in the society. The question is to which rank should belong people who have never put up with such a “life in truth” and did not cooperate with the communist police. An example of such people were brothers Ctirad and Josef Mašín, sons of a hero of Czech anti-Nazi resistance; they started armed anti-Communist resistance after the WWII, and what made them famous was their incredible escape through the Iron Curtain, through all the East Germany Republic to West Berlin, while thousands of East German policemen and Soviet troops were not able to catch them. Understandably, the communist propaganda diabolized them. Mašín brothers, who were incidentally Havel’s schoolmates, never wrote against dictatorship but fought against it. They always behaved differently than Havel – they did not enter the communist youth after the communist putsch and never showed shy politeness toward the communist police, and neither did they admire the Nazis, who had executed their father. While Mašín brothers distinguished the evil quite safely, Havel could not see, in his Power of the Powerless, any difference between the murderous Soviet system and the Western democracy. That is why we are not surprised that the chief secretary of the Prague Nazi police (Gestapo), Willi Abendschön, who led the interrogation and torture of the Mašíns’ father, used to be a respected guest in the Havel family house on Barrandov during WWII. When, before his execution in June 1942, the Mašíns’ father shouted out “long live to Czechoslovakia”, the Havel’s family organized the well-known meeting of Czech artists in the National Theater in support of the German Third Reich. The Czechoslovakia for which Mašíns’ father and many others died, was dissolved under presidency of Václav Havel in 1993.
      Havel’s “life in truth” seems to be more absurd than all his absurd plays together. It was absurd to live in truth and to ignore the real heroes who had fought the communists in the fiftieths and filled the communist concentration camps; their goal had not been to get a chocolate from exclusive shops, but to be able, after tortures, to go in dignity on their own legs and upright to the gallows, as testified by Dagmar Šimková who was imprisoned from 1952 to 1966. It was an absurd phenomenon: a philosopher who, while “undergoing an identity crisis”, lets himself photographed while trying his new jeans trousers or T-shirt, as he frequently did. It was absurd to be a philosopher and to publicly beg for a property once owned by his family which collaborated with the Nazis. Entirely absurd was a hippies admirer who waged a war against civilians of a state traditionally allied with Czechoslovakia. The most absurd is that this philosopher, by thousand-times repeating the word “morality” and “truth”, managed to become a hero and moral example not only for the communist propaganda paper “Rudé Právo”, but also for many credulous people.
      A man who ignored the collaboration of his family with the Nazis and communists has become a moral example – a man who haggled for money which did not belong to him. A man who had a dark past has become a hero, a man who failed and even described his failures in boring plays. Confused and stammering words have been valued higher than reasonable and courageous acts. He said that we would not be like them – but they had entrusted him with his mission to let love and lies prevail over truth and hatred.

Eda Kriseová: Václav Havel, životopis. Atlantis, 1991.
Daniel Kaiser: Disident, Václav Havel 1936-1989. Paseka, 2009.
Lukáš Kašpar: Český hraný film a filmaři za protektorátu. Libri, 2007.
Jožka Pejskar: Útěky železnou oponou. Melantrich, 1992.
Václav Havel: Dálkový výslech. Melantrich, Praha, 1989.
Václav Havel: O lidskou identitu. Rozmluvy, 1990.
Alexandr Jakovlev: Rusko plné křížů. Doplněk, 1999.
Ota Rambousek: Jenom ne strach. Edice RR, Praha, 1990.
Dagmar Šimková: Byli jsme tam taky. Praha, 2011.
Lidové noviny: Václav Havel. Speciál Lidových Novin, Prosicec 2011.
Rudé Právo: Prosinec 1989.
Ottawa speech: