Regime Change

How Havel Inspired the Velvet Revolution

In an excerpt from his new biography Havel: A Life, Michael Zantovsky describes the myriad ways the Communist era unraveled in 1989.

Joel Robine/AFP/Getty

Every revolution was first a thought in one man’s mind.– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thousands of pages have been written about whether the 1989 November events, which brought the Communist era to a close, were a revolution, an implosion, a negotiated transition, a secret coup, or something else. To anyone who was around at the time, the answer could only be that except for the secret coup it was all of the above. It was something quite unique, impossibly velvet and probably never to be repeated. To say this is not to ignore its radical character, especially in retrospect. It was certainly a revolution, in the sense that it radically and abruptly altered the individual and social consciousness of all involved. What had been unimaginable one day was popular wisdom the next. What had seemed immutable and eternal (“With the Soviet Union forever”) turned out to be a fleeting episode. Overnight people shed their fears, their protective camouflage and their restraints. The only thing they could not shed was their past. Twenty-five years on, in its geographical, geopolitical, economic, cultural or psychological aspect, the face of Central and Eastern Europe has changed beyond recognition.

Another reason to grant the label of revolution to the events of 1989 is that to attach too much importance to the stereotypes about political revolutions as violent upheavals would make them hostage to those who seek to prevent them. The strategy of the opposition movements everywhere in the region was similar, based on civic-minded, non-violent, popular protests. Whether blood would be spilled depended almost exclusively on the powers-that-be and their willingness to use the vast security apparatus at their disposal. If the Communists in Czechoslovakia had decided to use force against the demonstrations on 24 November 1989 as they did in Romania later that year, there would have been bloodshed and martyrs, and the events could be more readily classified as a revolution, but it is doubtful whether the outcome would be more revolutionary.

One thing that continues to amaze, for all the sense of inevitability afterwards, is that nobody saw it coming, not the Kremlinologists, who had built an industry out of reading the tea leaves of sitting arrangements at the First May parades in Red Square, nor the intelligence agencies, who spent fortunes recruiting assets, stealing secrets, and sifting through the verbiage of the censored media, nor the Western media, who sent some of their brightest young people to interview the extremely reticent “reformers” in the nomenklatura as the apparent decision-makers of tomorrow, nor the Western diplomats. According to a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Prague sent a week before the revolution, “widespread popular pressure for it [real political reform] remains muted.” Ambassador Shirley Temple Black attributed this to the “deeply risk-averse psychology of the Czech people.” Thus “the average man, distinct from dissident and intellectual circles, has become more, not less, cautious about change in the face of the GDR developments.” But it would be unfair to single out American diplomats for this ignorance. The Communist government, on the one hand, with its monopoly on taking the temperature of the people through its secret police spies, its mandatory trade union chapters and monitored bar conversations, and the dissidents, on the other, were just as surprised and unprepared as those watching on in the West. Interviewed in a Prague fish restaurant in September 1989, Václav Havel expressed his hope that change was coming, but suggested that “we might not live to see the day,” which at that very moment was some six weeks around the corner. It was not so much an expression of pessimism as to the possibility of things changing, for Havel was always something of an optimist—and at any rate, he was at that very moment busy trying to bring the change about—but rather his sure sense of the unpredictability of history and of the silliness of historical fortune-telling. “I find people who are completely prepared for history rather suspect,” he wrote years later.

On the night of Havel’s release, 17 May, there was an improvised party in his flat, attended, apart from the usual suspects, by Alexander Dubček and the then Time magazine writer Walter Isaacson. Perhaps for the first time in the role I would later assume as Havel’s press secretary, I was serving as phone operator and connecting Havel to friends and media abroad. There was no post-prison depression on this occasion. Neither was there a return to the loyal but small ghetto of Charter 77. Those two petitions demanding his release, which had gathered thousands of signatures within days, persuaded him to “shift up a gear.” The next day he met, in his favorite local restaurant Rybárna (The Fishery), with Saša Vondra, the youngest spokesman of Charter 77 in its twelve-year history, and Jiří Křižan, an organizer of the petition for his release, whose father had been judicially murdered by the Communists. More meetings of the group followed, with a final strategy session at Hrádeček. On 29 June, not yet six weeks after his release from jail—and since he had been released on probation, it was more than enough to put him back in jail—they launched, together with Stanislav Devátý, the radical activist who crawled through the fields to the cemetery in Všetaty, another petition document called “A few sentences.” In retrospect, it was a moderate set of demands, far less challenging than some of the slogans chanted during the January 1989 demonstrations. It called for the immediate release of political prisoners, an unconstrained freedom of assembly, opening the room for independent initiatives, end of censorship, freedom of religion, independent environmental impact assessment of all new major industrial and construction projects and, last but not least, for the opening of a debate about Czechoslovak history, including the Stalinist period, the Prague Spring and the invasion of the five armies of the Warsaw Pact in 1968. The petition, open to any citizen to join, gathered forty thousand signatures in the first three months. This was no longer a dissident cry in the wilderness, but a citizens’ movement on the rise. The names of the signatories were read every night on the Voice of America by its Viennese correspondent, musicologist Ivan Medek, one of President Havel’s future chancellors.

The regime, fearing a new wave of even larger demonstrations, chose not to go for arrests, purges or large-scale interrogations (although dozens of signatories were called in to provide an “explanation”). Indeed, the Communist leadership refused to heed calls from the secret police to prosecute the four initiators. Nor, however, did it opt for opening a dialogue with the civil society. Rudé právo condemned the petition as an antisocialist pamphlet calling for confrontation in an editorial called “Inherit the wind,” no doubt unaware of the biblical allusion. At one of the hastily convened “ideological seminars” of top Party officials on 17 July, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, Miloš Jakeš, aimed to provide guidance for dealing with the crisis. Instead, Jakeš’s keynote speech was the stuff of slapstick comedy. In an effort to show off his perestroika credentials, he made a spectacular concession to private enterprise by saying “why not let them run a pub in the middle of nowhere that the government is losing money on anyway,” accused the ecological activists of idle talk and called on them to “clean that stream themselves,” and mournfully summed up the plight of the Communist Party: “And we are alone like a fence post.” A recording of the meeting was leaked within days and made Jakeš and the whole Party the butt of ribald jokes throughout the summer, boosting the courage of every malcontent in the country.

When the anniversary of the 21 August invasion came, Havel, himself under a house arrest, called on the restive citizens to stay at home this time, as he feared for their safety. Yet thousands made it again to Wenceslas Square, to face off against police batons and the People’s Militias in battle fatigues. Several people were arrested, including two young Hungarians who came to express their solidarity. One of them was Tamás Deutsch, a future minister for FIDESZ in the Hungarian government, today an MEP.

In the meantime, things were happening elsewhere on a larger scale. Already in the spring, the Polish government opened round-table talks with Solidarność, and agreed on a power-sharing scheme, which resulted in the triumph of the independent trade union in the June elections. Protests were spreading around cities and towns in East Germany. Since mid-August many of its citizens headed for the West, first by successfully crossing the once impenetrable border between Hungary and Austria and then by camping in and around the Bundesrepublik Embassy in Prague and demanding free access to the western part of their divided country. By 27 September, there were 1,400 people in the grounds of the embassy, creating a small humanitarian crisis. After several days of negotiations, in which the Czechoslovak government was the least willing party, 6,300 happy East Germans departed Prague on five trains, leaving behind hundreds of the inexpensive Trabant and Wartburg two-stroke engine cars, which were cannibalized within twenty-four hours for spare parts by Czech drivers of the same models. Almost ten thousand more East Germans followed in the next five days. For anyone who cared to watch, the event and its denouement provided a graphic demonstration that the Iron Curtain was crumbling.

Havel, back in Prague on the night the East Germans left, was walking home through the Malá Strana district. He saw the contrasting pictures of people giving a euphoric sendoff to the buses taking the East Germans on their way to freedom, and of thousands of riot police with trucks, armored carriers and water cannons sealing off the whole district, in order to conceal from the rest of the world the humiliation of the regime. The fear was palpable, yet it was no longer the citizens but the regime that was afraid.

For Independence Day on 28 October, the government resorted to tested tactics. The night before, the police came to detain Havel, who had been unwell for most of the previous week and was in bed in his Prague flat. Olga was on guard as always, and categorically refused to open the door unless the police produced a warrant. The two young uniformed policemen on the other side of the door were at a loss as to what to do. “Oh let them in, Olga,” they suddenly heard the voice of Havel, who climbed out of bed in his pajamas. “You could get them fired.” Since he was not particularly keen to re-experience the familiar comforts of state hospitality, he sought, with the grudging consent of the police, refuge in a hospital in central Prague. It was a compromise that suited both sides, and especially the patient, who was rumored to have befriended one of the nurses there. But now everything was a good pretext to vent the rebellious mood. A small crowd of well- wishers gathered in front of the hospital, chanting “Long live Havel.” That same night, Realistické, a large professional theater, ran a scenic montage to celebrate the anniversary of the Independence, which for the first time since 1969 included excerpts from a Havel play, The Garden Party. The rally of over 10,000 people the next day was broken up by the police, who waded in with truncheons, but refrained from causing serious injuries—thanks perhaps to the foreign media observing the event.

The air of suspense was becoming intolerable, as everybody, the opposition, the citizens, the media, and even the police, was waiting for the other shoe to drop. Then, on 9 November, the Berlin Wall fell. Prague was by then full of foreign journalists, busy filing marginal reports and drinking through their per diems, much to the impatience of their editors. Everybody seemed to know it was coming, but nobody had any idea when it would happen. The best bet was the International Day of Human Rights, the first anniversary of the first legal human rights demonstration in Prague, still a month away on 10 December. In fact, Havel and his associates were already planning for a major rally that day on Palacký Square, two hundred metres up the river from his house. But time, which had stood still for so long, was now accelerating exponentially. Nobody could wait that long, and certainly not the students. The seventeenth of November was the fiftieth anniversary of the day when the Nazis arrested more than a thousand Czech students, executed nine leaders of student organizations, and shut down universities and colleges for the duration of the war. The anniversary of this tragic event had been misappropriated by the Communist-run International Student Union and declared “International Students Day.” The student rally was convened by the official Youth Union, but open to the participation of all students, including many of the protesters from the Palach week.

The ambiguity revolving around the event made it a poor candidate for a final showdown. The dissidents had heard about it, but had neither much to do with its organization nor any idea that it could become a trigger for the revolution. It did not particularly appeal to Havel, who was spending the week at Hrádeček. According to some accounts, including his own, he left Prague because he did not want to become the catalyst for a violent suppression of the rally. According to others, he wanted some quality time with Jitka to celebrate her birthday. At any rate, based on an interview given at Hrádeček two days before the fatal date, it is clear that he was pinning his hopes on the Human Rights Day rally at Palacký Square, and had already set the time (2 to 4 p.m.) for the demonstration.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

The leader of the revolution was thus some hundred and fifty kilometers away when the student march of between ten and twenty thousand people deviated from its officially approved course, turned into an anti-government demonstration with chants of “Long Live Havel” among others, and was first surrounded and then brutally attacked by the more than usually frenzied riot police. Hundreds were beaten, scores injured, including elderly passers- by and foreign journalists. A student was reported dead, wrongly as it turned out, by human rights activists, and the news, broadcast back to the country by radio, created shock.

There hardly exists a better proof of the central role Havel played in the opposition to the Communist regime and its overthrow than what transpired in the next 72 hours. Although he was a non-participant in the triggering event of the Revolution, he was firmly in the lead, if not in charge, when Monday came.

On Saturday, amid the confusion following the crackdown of the night before, he rushed to Prague. The grapevine and the international media were alight with the buzz of the student killed by the police during the demonstration. In the afternoon, about a thousand people marched in protest through the largest Prague square, with police nowhere in sight. In the evening, Havel and many of the opposition activists met in the Realisticke Theater. The students were going on strike. The theaters were about to follow. And Havel was pondering integration. On Sunday morning, the meeting continued in his house, partly a debating forum, partly a steering committee. People kept coming and going. Havel suggested the “Civic” label. Jan Urban, a teacher of history, added “Forum,” inspired either by antiquity or by the already rampaging “Neues Forum” in neighboring Germany.

In the end, it was not Havel’s home stage at Balustrade that became the birthplace of the Civic Forum, but its foremost competitor, the Actors’ Studio, made available thanks to the efforts of the actor Vladimír Kratina, a friend of Křižan, and his colleague Petr Čepek. Havel came in early on Sunday afternoon, to avoid detention. As many of the participants observed in retrospect, if the government decided to decapitate the opposition that evening, they would have found it very easy. To all the uninitiated, including the dozens of undercover agents and unmarked police cars patrolling nervously around Wenceslas Square and the adjoining streets, it must have looked as if people, alone, in pairs or in small groups, were walking to catch a show. But there was no show, at least not the kind rehearsed for weeks and advertised in newspapers. On the small stage, with another hundred people in the audience, sat or stood a rather incongruous group of actors. There were Jiří Křižan and Saša Vondra, the co-organizers of “A few sentences,” there was Jan Škoda, Havel’s mate from boarding school and a high official of the fellow-traveling Socialist Party, there was Jiří Svoboda, representing the younger generation in the Communist Party, and, as it later turned out, a sincere though ineffective reformist. There was Milan Hruška, a fiery miner from the North Bohemian coal mines. There was Radim Palouš, the sonorous philosophical godfather of Kampademia. There was Petr Miller, a forgeman from the Prague ČKD plant. And there was Havel. After about two hours of passionate, though unstructured debate, in which he played but a minor part, the meeting adopted the Declaration of the Civic Forum, written by Havel earlier in the day.

The tone of the declaration is radically different from “A few sentences.” It reflects both the anger provoked by the senseless violence two days earlier, and the growing confidence of the opposition. The declaration demanded the immediate resignation of five leading Communist officials who were directly linked to the plan for the invasion of the five Warsaw Pact countries in August 1968, of President Gustáv Husák, and of the Communist officials responsible for the violence against peaceful demonstrators, an independent investigation of these events and the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience, including those detained during the demonstrations. In support of these demands the Civic Forum called for a general strike on 27 November, which had been already proposed by the students.

There were a number of people who could have convened a forum of Charter 77, or meetings with other, smaller opposition groups. There were likewise people who could have mobilized actors, students, reform-minded Communists and even trade unionists. But only Havel could have pulled off a full-length theater performance of disparate individuals, conflicting ideologies, and disjointed narratives with the awareness that it was, at one and the same time, both essential and absurd. Havel, as philosopher Ladislav Hejdánek described him, was the “carbon,” a chemical element capable of linking with many others to create a compound of irresistible strength, filled with contradictions yet stable enough to set in motion the momentous transformation that lay ahead.

The students and the actors had already declared a strike. The declaration adopted by the meeting was a bold step, but it did not a revolution make. Late in the evening, a small group of the participants in the meeting at the Actors’ Studio retired to Havel’s favourite local restaurant Rybárna, to plan the next moves. This was the seed of the “Action Group,” never numbering more than 12 people, who became the spiriti agens of the events of the following weeks and months.

On Monday the dam broke. The international media had been waiting on Wenceslas Square since early afternoon. When the headcount, instead of the usual five, ten and sometimes (hotly contested by the government) twenty thousand, reached a total of 150,000 and kept rising, all that remained was to write the headline: It was all over.

Excerpted from Havel: A Life by Nichael Zantovsky; used with the permission of the publisher, Grove Atlantic, Inc.