A note from Human Rights Watch: Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright who fought communist oppression to become president of his country, passed away on Sunday December 18. Havel inspired the Czech people, and millions more across Eastern Europe, to stand up for democracy and human rights despite seemingly insurmountable odds. He worked closely with Human Rights Watch co-founder Jeri Laber, and when he came to New York for a celebrity-packed day in 1990, he still made time to visit the organization’s offices and personally thanked Human Rights Watch staff for helping bring down the Iron Curtain. “I know very well what you did for us,” he said, “and perhaps without you our revolution would not be.” (If we doubted our ears, we read it the next day in the New York Times.)
On Oct. 18, 1989, Czech security police arrested me and 15 Czech dissidents in order to prevent us from meeting in a public place in Prague. Vaclav Havel was part of our group, but he evaded arrest because he arrived late. Later that day, after most of us had been released from detention, we met informally at the Intercontinental Hotel. In just one month Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution” would begin, though none of us would have predicted it at the time.
But change was in the air. The dissidents were bemoaning what they saw as a lack of leadership for the future. “What we need are real political figures with charisma and a program,” Havel said. “What about you?” I asked. “I will be engaged as an amateur, not as a professional,” he answered, his eyes thoughtfully downcast as they typically were when he spoke. “I’m a writer, not a politician. I would like to be a kingmaker, but not a king.”
I studied Havel — a small man, appealingly shy, wearing a rumpled sweater and jeans, a playwright, not a politician — and I thought: “He really means it.” But history had other plans for him.
In 1976, the arrest of members of a Czech rock group called The Plastic People of the Universe gave birth to the Czechoslovak dissident movement known as Charter 77. So it was no surprise when Havel invited me to join him and his friends at an underground rock concert in 1988. The performers were a group called Midnight, successors to the Plastic People. It was a noisy, smoke-filled, crowded affair, full of people considerably younger than Havel and his contingent. Once inside the strobe-lit hall, I quickly lost touch with Havel, though I could see him from time to time, dancing wildly with the crowd. It was the happiest I’ve ever seen him.
Havel, with his wry, playful humor, was always quick to see life as theater. Unable to leave the country to come to New York in 1988 to be honored by Human Rights Watch as a “human rights monitor,” he sent Jachym Topol, a young, long-haired “beatnik” poet in his stead. Later, as president of the Czech Republic, he appointed a new ambassador to Washington: Rita Klimova, who spoke English with a Bronx accent and nurtured a lifelong passion to revisit the America of her adolescence. Karl Schwarzenberg, a Bohemian prince-turned-dissident, became his chancellor, bringing proper decorum to a Prague castle filled with the tacky plastic furniture of the Communists. His choice of ambassador to the Soviet Union was the dissident Rudolf Slansky, the namesake son of a former head of the Czechoslovak Communist Party who had been executed on directives from Moscow. The rock musician Frank Zappa became Havel’s honorary cultural ambassador.
Havel was uncomfortable with the ceremony of public office. When I first visited him as president in February 1990, he was still wearing his traditional sweater and jeans and was using a scooter to navigate the vast marble corridors of the castle. On a later visit in 1992, he looked more presidential, wearing a suit and a tie, but his modest, self-effacing manner was unchanged.
His job as president had great prestige but little power. He used the office as a moral platform, no matter how unpopular his views might be. In October 2000, I attended the celebration of the Czech Republic’s National Day: The sky over Prague that night was full of fireworks; there were banquet tables throughout the vast, brightly lit castle and its rooms were filled with some 4,000 people, including many former dissidents.
Even on that festive occasion, Havel did not mince words about the negative aspects of the new Czech capitalism. Speaking in the Great Vladimir Hall of Prague Castle, he expressed his despair over the devastation of the Czech landscape, about cities and towns marred by “a banally universal architecture devoid of creativity and imagination,” about broad belts of supermarkets and shopping malls that “defy both town and nature.” He deplored the degeneration of language, the spread of corruption and dishonesty, and the “blood flowing from the [television] screen.”
After leaving the presidency, Havel continued to champion human rights activists and political prisoners around the world, including the Nobel peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and his compatriots in China, whose Charter 08 civil society manifesto was inspired by Charter 77. Havel’s essay “The Power of the Powerless” continues to inspire oppressed people to this day. He longed to return to full-time writing but was plagued in recent years by poor health and the many demands on his time. Always modest, a reluctant hero, he seemed a rather sad figure to me, pressed into an official life he did not seek.
Yet he made an enormous impact on the world, through his writings, his courage and his undeniable moral stature. We will not see someone like him again.
Jeri Laber, a founder of Human Rights Watch, is the author of a memoir, “The Courage of Strangers: Coming of Age with the Human Rights Movement.”