Havel’s moral authority "is a thing of the past"

Czech dissident and playwright Vaclav Havel and his first wife Olga in 1989 AFP

Former Czech dissident and playwright Vaclav Havel, whose funeral took place on Friday, was held in high regard around the world for his courage and moral strength.

This content was published on December 23, 2011 minutes

Author Helena Kanyar-Becker, who came to Switzerland in 1969 after the repression of the Prague Spring, is among those who admired Havel. But she says his moral authority had begun to diminish during his years as president.

Havel, who played a key role in the democracy movement in communist Czechoslovakia, was elected president at the end of 1989, following the Velvet Revolution. After the breakup of Czechoslovakia, he served as president of the Czech Republic until 2003.

Havel died on December 18 at the age of 75. You met Vaclav Havel when you were a young student in Prague. What impression did he make on you?

Helena Kanyar-Becker: In the 1960s I regularly visited the Theatre on the Balustrade [in Prague], which was a mecca for us young students. I saw all Vaclav Havel’s plays there. Including “The Garden Party”, an absurd play about functionaries that had a huge impact. I don’t remember how many times I saw it. Describe the atmosphere at these productions.

H.K-B.: It was a very intimate atmosphere. Just getting hold of a ticket required creativity. The foyer was always full of young people smoking, and Havel stood on the stairs, also smoking, and waved to us. His wife Olga, a beautiful, slim woman, was in charge of the cloakroom. She also smoked constantly.

The theatre, which had about 250 seats was always packed, and there was a real understanding between the actors and the public. We laughed a lot.

“The Garden Party” wasn’t just absurd and full of humour, it was also philosophical. Hugo, the conforming ‘hero’, delivers the line: ‘Conformity is the healthy philosophy of the middle classes, without which there is no future.’ Havel was taking a swipe at people who conform. It was exactly what we wanted to hear and see. After the performances, did you go to a restaurant to discuss the pieces with Havel?

H.K-B.: No, there was a kind of divide between Havel and us. We only ever saw him smiling and smoking. We didn’t dare address him; we were too young. He was a kind of saint to us, who we really admired… Havel has been called “the last moral authority in Europe”. His unbending determination to lead a peaceful resistance against the communist authorities is reminiscent of Nelson Mandela. Do you agree?

H.K-B.: He was a great moral authority, and as such a great support to the dissident movement. But following the Velvet Revolution of 1989 he went from being an admired moral authority to a hated moralist. He had to live out his ideas, as other people did. Every Sunday he gave an address when he spoke to people’s consciences. But after the political changes people didn’t want to hear any moral sermons anymore; communism had been replaced by consumerism.

His unshakeable moral viewpoint turned him from the most popular to the least popular politician. Havel suffered from the Gorbachev syndrome: like the last Soviet leader, Havel was idolised in the West but less and less respected at home. The second time he was elected president, he only scraped a majority of one vote. So did the fall of the Iron Curtain mark the end of his moral power?

H.K-B.: Yes, it gradually diminished. When he became ill the people felt for him and prayed for him. But by the end of his presidency in 2003 he had lost that sympathy. The loss of popularity began in 1997 when he married an actress, less than a year after the death of his wife, Olga.  His second wife [Dagmar Veskrnova]… was so unpopular that there was even a poster campaign against her and Havel. What’s more, he was ill and on medication and not the same as before. What is Vaclav Havel’s legacy as a literary and a political figure?

H.K-B.: The Havel myth is being revived following his death. People are mourning his death, they are moved by it, as indeed I am. But times have changed; his moral authority is a thing of the past.

Vaclav Havel

1936 – born in Prague into an upper class family.

1958 – Started work as a stage hand at the Theatre on the Balustrade in Prague.

1963 – first performance there of one of his first plays, “The Garden Party”.

1968 – bloody repression by Warsaw Pact troops of the Prague Spring political changes.

1977 – one of the initiators of Charter 77, a pro-democracy movement. Imprisoned for five years.

1989 – key figure on the Velvet Revolution, which unseated the communist regime. Becomes president of Czechoslovakia.

1993 – Becomes president of Czech Republic following the breakup of Czechoslovakia.

1996 – death of his wife, Olga.

1997 – second marriage.

2003 – end of second period in office.

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Helena Kanyar-Becker

Born 1943.

Studied Czech language, history and literature at the Charles University, Prague. Worked as a journalist.

In 1969 she emigrated to Switzerland, where she studied Slavonic languages, East European history and the history of art at Zurich University.

Works for the Basler Zeitung (1990-2005) and other media. Swiss correspondent for Czech newspapers.

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