Jan Urban: Only Havel could have unified the opposition in 1989
When did you first know Václav Havel, or hear the name Václav Havel?
“He was one of the names from 1968 and for the younger generation he was a real hero, because of what he did in August 68 on Liberec radio.
“Later I read his plays and after 1968 I learned of his existence in dissent.”
When did you meet him? And what were your impressions of his personality then?
“I cooperated with Charter 77, under the radar, so to speak, doing even illegal stuff.
“And when my cover broke in 1987, I met him in person.
“It was funny, because his wife Olga hated this endless stream of visitors, so he opened this kind of ‘office’ in the fish restaurant just off the block.
“And that’s when we first met.
“He didn’t care how many secret cops were sitting around. “
“It was quite funny, because on the one hand he was focused and the discussion was quite enriching, but on the other he was totally reckless.
“He didn’t care how many secret cops were sitting around.
“We joked that in the fish restaurant even the doorknob had a contract with the secret police.
“But he doesn’t care.”
How is it that he’s so reckless, or doesn’t care?
“You know, after five and a half years in prison, you have paid the price for fear and you are no longer afraid. “
Did you have any idea how being in jail for so long affected him?
“Once you step into a world like this – and prison is a very specific environment, and the oppression of the secret police can be quite innovative and psychologically depressing at times – you never get over it.
“It gives you a feeling of uniqueness: you are a creator of values.
“You have to be very careful. Sometimes Václav would talk about it himself.
Havel came from a fairly elitist background. His family was important in the First Republic. Was there any evidence in his behavior, how he treated people?
“Not a sign at all.
“We always joked that we were very lucky and grateful to the Communist regime that we were both pushed down, socially, and had to make a living in manual labor, meeting ‘the lowest’ and finding that ‘in reality the gold is at the bottom.
“It doesn’t come with education or a prestigious position within society.
“I liked that side of him a lot.”
Could he get along with all kinds of people? For example, in dissent, you had people underground, you had Christians, you had a lot of ex-communists.
“It was probably the most valuable and admirable part of Václav Havel – in dissent.
“I remember the meetings in our apartment.
“Thirty people would be sitting discussing a problem for three hours and Václav would be sitting there, silent, chain smoking; after three hours there would be an ashtray full of cigarette ends on the floor.
“We called him ‘Little Bear’ – he was really a simple, sweet, friendly and very likeable personality.”
“He would lift his head and speak for three minutes – and every opinion presented in those three hours would be there.
“You could really set it in stone and everyone could agree on that.
“I have never met someone like this.
“Unfortunately, he lost that ability in politics.”
But before entering politics, was he some kind of natural conciliator, or the kind of person who brought others together?
“Absolutely. Like I said, I have never met someone who would have that kind of ability to bring people’s minds together.
“He always said, we need to add up our IQs, not divide them.”
I’m still trying to get a feel for his personality because in some ways he seemed like a quiet and modest man. But he was still obviously able to inspire people, to lead people.
“First of all, I hate this image of Václav Havel as something like a semi-divine figure.
“He wasn’t net. He was perfectly normal. Introspective on one side, extroverted on the other. [laughs].
“He believed in symbols, in gestures, sometimes too much, as we learned in his time in politics, as a politician.
“But we called him ‘Little Bear’ – he was really a simple, sweet, friendly and very likeable personality.
“Of course, on the other hand, he had his demons. But if you knew him, you just had to love him.
If we go to the late 1980s and training [during the 1989 Velvet Revolution] of the Civic Forum, I understand that you played a role in the nomination of the Civic Forum?
“The name [laughs] was developed, so to speak, on a sofa in Václav Havel’s apartment.
“I offered ‘forum’, he added, ‘civic’ and we got it. Two minutes.”
And obviously, it has become sort of iconic. To what extent has Havel shaped the direction taken by the Civic Forum?
“In those rushed and hysterical hours, there was no other figure who could play this role of unifying an extremely fractured opposition to the Communist regime.
“So it just seemed natural for Havel to take on this role.
“Very quickly we learned that this was just too much and that, because with the Civic Forum we were unable to build any power structure or control structure, it became a solo operation with all the resulting repercussions. “
What do you know about his relationship at the time with Alexander Dubček, of whom we know he also wanted to be president?
“His biggest mistake was not wanting to learn politics. “
“It was one of those political and diplomatic hiccups of those crazy times.
“Dubček definitely, with the support of a large part of the population, especially in Slovakia, dreamed of restoring its fame from 1968, not realizing that it was just too far away.
“And Havel didn’t quite know how to diplomatically play out this disagreement.
“So it ended with a pretty bitter feeling on Dubček’s side for a while.”
Did he feel he had been misled?
The course changes happened at an incredible speed. Only six weeks elapsed between the start of the revolution and Havel’s election to the presidency. Up close, did you already see it changing at that time?
“This happened in the first five, six days after November 17th, when he somehow understood the scale of the task and the problems ahead and decided to forget about the Civic Forum and sit down. present to the presidency.
“We had a pretty bitter disagreement at that point, as some of us tried to argue that with its departure the Civic Forum would lose its legitimacy and the revolution, which we believed in at the time, would lose its engine, and you simply cannot rule the country from one place, be it the Presidential Castle.
“At that point, he just understood the world as a big theater stage. He used the phrase, We must run forward.
“He did not understand, unfortunately until the very end of his political career, the importance of political institutions, of Parliament itself.
“And that was the start of his unsuccessful presidency, especially on domestic issues.”
Sometimes I meet people suggesting that Havel was reluctant to become President of Czechoslovakia. Was it true?
“Certainly not. He wanted to.
“Try to imagine that you are sitting in an underground theater, there are 400 foreign journalists, dozens of TV crews, everyone is shouting questions, asking for interviews, you are getting calls from foreign politicians, from planes. packed with members of the US Congress land in Prague every few days.
“And something is happening.
“You lose what saved your life many times in dissent: self-control.
“You believe that your ideas, your capacity as a manager can change the world.
“And, like I said, you are wary of institutions built by communists and with that you wary of all institutions, not understanding that democracy is nothing without institutions.”
Obviously you are criticizing his handling of the presidency when he arrived at Prague Castle. What do you think was his biggest mistake?
“His biggest mistake was not wanting to learn politics.
“He did not understand that politics is a profession.
“He thought he was just going to come up with a plan and it would all follow.”
On the bright side of the ledger, I guess his international fame must have been a big advantage for this country at the time?
“Absolutely. There are few examples or comparable examples, even in the history of the world, of a man coming to a position close to absolute respect and fame.
“He put Czechoslovakia back on the map and for that we have to be grateful forever. “
Many people in this country are not grateful to Havel today. They have this word ‘Havloid’, it’s kind of a hate figure for a large part of the population. Why do you think this happened?
“He was one of the nation’s 15 million people who wrote an open letter to the general secretary of the Communist Party.”
“The guy was asking very difficult moral questions.
“The guy believed in something and paid for it with five and a half years of his life.
“He was one of the nation’s 15 million people who wrote an open letter to the General Secretary of the Communist Party saying: Come on, that’s not what we want.
“So if you were just a coward, you must hate him. Simply because there is an example of courage that you are unable to show.
“Second, as president he was just too playful on domestic issues – he didn’t respect Parliament, he didn’t respect political parties, he was a solo player.
“This made him an easy target for any political opponent and any disgruntled individual in society.
“There is no deeper reasoning for this.”