Paying Tribute to a Great Czech: Vaclav Havel's Catholic Ties Included Friends and Fellow Freethinkers

Article excerpt

A party was under way at the apartment on Prague's Engels Embankment. The brother of playwright Vaclav Havel had just got married, and his friends had come back to celebrate, under the watchful eyes of the StB secret police.

It was May 1988, and I sat talking with Havel and Fr. Vaclav Maly, who, like Havel, had been beaten and jailed for signing Charter 77, a human rights declaration, a decade before. Talk of democratization in communist-ruled Czechoslovakia should be treated cautiously, Havel told me. The regime was too fearful to risk introducing reforms.

But he and his friends were determined to "create spaces" for some free activity. Despite the year's repression, ordinary people still had consciences. They knew instinctively that "certain things are right and certain things are wrong."

"It really doesn't matter whether Charter 77 has a thousand or a million signatories," added the playwright, who was being regularly vilified in the state-controlled media. "What's more important is whether or not it has the truth on its side. And the truth exercises an indirect and invisible influence which represents a special kind of power."

Havel was to spend much of the next year back in prison.

But when I met him again in December 1989, everything had changed. Communist rule had collapsed in the face of a mass uprising, the "Velvet Revolution," and Havel and Maly had played key roles in negotiating a peaceful handover of power.

We were in Prague's Magic Lantern theater at an impromptu press conference for a newly formed Civic Forum, which was busy appointing a government out of Charter 77's most trusted supporters.

I saw him again four months later when he came with his wife, Olga, to Maly's first Easter Vigil at St. Anthony's Church down the Vltava River. Maly was overjoyed he could now work openly as a priest again. And Havel, in an extraordinary twist of fate, was now Czechoslovakia's president.

What had made him so exceptional?

Denied a proper education because of his "bourgeois background," Havel had dropped out of Prague's Technical University in 1957 and taken up play-writing after a correspondence course as a theater stagehand in the late 1950s.

He became known internationally in 1968, when his fifth play, "Vyrozu-meni" ("The Memorandum"), was performed at New York's Public Theater. A year later, he and his works were banned from the theater in Czechoslovakia after a short-lived reform movement, the Prague Spring, was crushed by Soviet tanks.

Havel found work at a brewery and continued writing satirical plays. He also became active in dissident circles, serving from January 1977 as a spokesman for Charter 77, alongside a former communist foreign minister, Jiri Hayek, and a liberal philosopher, Jan Patocka, who died that March after a brutal police interrogation.

He also wrote essays, drawing on his own "philosophy of life," that helped articulate a moral framework for opposing communist injustices and-proved influential among dissidents throughout Eastern Europe. His best-known, "The Power of the Powerless" (1978), described life under communist rule as "living within a lie."

Initially, only 247 people dared add their signatures to Havel's on Charter 77, and the movement would have remained marginal if it hadn't attracted widespread sympathy. This owed a lot to the Catholic church.

Lay Catholics such as Vaclav Benda were active in Charter 77, and helped forge a coalition with liberal and ex-Marxist dissidents. So did influential priests such as the Jesuit Fr. Josef Zve-rina. The persecuted church had spawned a network of underground groups that would later break surface with mass protests, backed by the Czech Cardinal Frantisek Tomasek.

This was largely thanks to Pope John Paul II, who brought millions into the streets of neighboring Poland during his first 1979 homecoming, and provided crucial moral guidance for Solidarity, the trade union and social movement that erupted there a year later. …