Remembering Václav Havel: the man who wouldn’t be king

19. října 2016 • 15:35

The day of October 5 would have been Václav Havel’s 80th birthday. Photographs of the late Czech president by Oldřich Škácha capture Havel while he was still a private citizen before November 1989. These pictures are supplemented by a collection of testimonials from Havel’s closest friends and associates sourced from the upcoming book Náš Václav Havel [Our Václav Havel] by Jan Dražan and Jan Pergler

Miroslav Masák, architect, advisor to Václav Havel


Hrádeček (a small village in northeastern Bohemia where Havel owned a countryhouse –Ed.) became a crucial sanctuary for Václav Havel. He bought the derelict property in 1967 for peanuts and then set about undertaking renovations. That was during the time when we both spent time there. His life involved being constantly on edge, but while there he could afford to forget his woes. Suddenly he was a slightly different person. This may surprise you, but the daily schedule there was actually quite intensely structured. The mornings were tough, with work taking place until noon; cooking then took place, with lunches usually quite opulent. After that came a lazy afternoon, followed by a rich evening schedule. The central feature of these evenings were Vašek’s philosophical “tomes”, during which he managed to spend two hours engaged in fantastic talk on a subject which we had chosen together. And during these we had to drink at least one crate of his atrocious white wines – he liked wines along the lines of Poezie or Dievčie hrozno... Anyway – then it all ended with a so-called effort to get back to nature. That meant climbing naked among the trees in the old orchards between Hrádeček and the house of Andrej Krob [Czech playwright and director –Ed.]. And each visit started with singing, because Hrádeček had its own hymn – Massachusetts by the Bee Gees. Why this song, I don’t exactly know. And so we had a really good time there.




Michal Horáček, journalist, author, lyricist


We went to tell Olga [Havel’s first wife –Ed.] that the Civic Forum [OF, a pro-democracy umbrella organisation –Ed.) would indeed be nominating him for president, and I wrote his nomination text. And she really was upset. It certainly wasn’t prearranged with her. And Olga said: “Absolutely not. Do you think that Vašek could still go to Rybárna (a local restaurant near Havel’s Prague home –Ed.) if he was up at the Castle? Guys, that Jaroslav Šabata [left-of-centre politician and philosopher –Ed.] would be good.” And so she then seriously tried to present to us the idea of Jaroslav Šabata from Brno and to argue that he would be a super president. So, I have to say, she really wasn’t for the whole idea [of her husband being president].




Marta Kubišová, singer and Charter 77 signatory


“I didn’t meet him until the Tříska wedding [that of Czech-American actor Jan Tříska and Karla Chadimová –Ed.] in 1968. My future husband, Jan Němec [Czech film director –Ed.], was a distant cousin of Václav. And so he took me along to the wedding, saying that he should introduce me to Václav. Only later did my husband reveal that Havel had actually wanted to meet me – and that had he, Jan, not gotten to me first, then Václav would have had me as his girlfriend. I had no idea that Václav Havel had any such ulterior motives. But that would not have worked because from the moment Olga and I laid eyes on each other we liked each other. So we ended up being a kind of trio. The truth is that when I was divorcing Němec [in 1973 –Ed.], then I went and hid out at the Havels’. It was an unusually long divorce given that we didn’t have any children. And he [Havel] was making so many jokes along the lines of: “But she was with a married man!” Of course he didn’t mention that Olga had been there too. Němec then moved to the US, and when he came back after the revolution, we all ended up spending time together again.”


Question: What were your impressions of Havel when you first met him?


“Like a teddy bear. A teddy bear! And I always referred to him as Medvíd [Teddy]. But I would never dare call him that to his face: You are a Teddy. That would be too much.”


Jan Ruml, politician


He said he never wanted to be president, which is nonsense. He did. The role changed him a lot. At the beginning, he believed he would guide the state like Masaryk. That he would invite the heads of the political parties for talks, and would appoint governments according to his whims. He really did appoint the first ones in this manner, and he had considerable influence. But then later he did not. He entirely lost his political influence. Which is why in 1998 people were telling him not to run again, but I think it was a good thing that he did. He still embodied a sense of moral authority. The nation – even though his influence was diminishing – saw in him a kind of line in the sand that could not be overstepped. As long as Havel was alive, then everything would be fine.




Petr Pithart, politician


Since we are on the subject of decent conduct, I will relay one more story. I was chairman of the Senate, he was president, and we wanted to meet up in a pub in Prague’s Malá Strana.  I knew that I naturally could not leave the president waiting for me. That is a kind of obsession of mine – I prefer to always go somewhere early and be the one to wait. I arrived 10 minutes early, and he was already there! So I became flustered as a result, and he saw that and apologised. Six months later we held another meeting. I said to myself: I can’t have a repeat of last time, so I will come 20 minutes beforehand. So I arrived...and he was there again. And once again he apologised. It was awful. But at the same time, one has to admire such decency and even humility. He was the head of state, but he was already there so as to not risk coming late... But perhaps that is not the best approach for power politics, as was later shown in negotiations with Václav Klaus.


Karel Schwarzenberg, 

politician, chancellor to President Havel


The most beautiful day of my life was 29 December, 1989. That was when Václav Havel was elected president. We emerged from [St. Vitus Cathedral within Prague Castle] after the Te Deum [mass] and we talked with friends and attendees. I was popular because it was cold and I pulled out a hip flask from my coat. Then suddenly the president’s secretary appeared and told me I was invited to attend lunch. I felt truly honoured, but the ensuing lunch was truly ghastly, because back then the Castle kitchen was really abysmal. It was a working lunch, and everyone who was there was given some tasks to carry out. And before I had a chance to catch my breath suddenly I had been appointed as a Castle official.




Fedor Gál, politician, sociologist


We grew close very quickly. His term leading the country was so unusual that we would mostly end up meeting in the pub. I remember one such meeting at the Vikarka [a restaurant near the Castle –Ed.]. Václav was sitting at the head of the table, and I was the only one there from Slovakia. Next to me sat Jiří Křižan [late Czech screenwriter –Ed.] and he had this kind of large chequered paper with him, and on it was written “Prime minister, minister of the interior...” etc. The first post-revolution government was being formed there and then.




Luboš Dobrovský, politician, diplomat, journalist

As Dienstbier’s deputy [Jiří Dienstbier, journalist, politician, first post-1989 non-communist foreign minister –Ed.] in October 1990 I headed some talks in Warsaw and Havel called me up and told me to hurry back to Prague. So that night I got into a car, and arrived back in Prague in the morning. And Havel told me that he had decided that he had to fire Vacek [General Miroslav Vacek, transitional communist politician; defence minister 1989-90 –Ed.], and that he wanted me in the post instead. I was shocked as I had no idea he would be making such a request. But in any event, I told myself: He has to know why he is making such decisions. I had some ties to the military, and knew some generals, with whom I had once attended military grammar school before they threw me out after a year... And he said: “So?” and I replied: “I need to think about it?” And he asked: “How long do you need?” I said: “Two or three days, as this is no picnic. I have to talk to the generals that I know, and find out the current situation.” And he said: “That won’t work.” So I asked why, and he said: “Because I have to nominate you at 2pm.” So I said to myself: “Well, if he is so determined, he must know what he is doing.” So I agreed. 



Autor: red
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