Sunday, December 25, 2011

A man for all seasons

War heros play a huge role in a nation's lore. Their images grace currency, stories are written and movies are made about them, pigeon covered monuments dedicated to them adorn parks and public squares. Be they great military leaders or regular grunts who perform heroic deeds, placing the lives of others above their own, they inspire us to greatness and serve as symbols of their country:
  • The Americans have George Washington, Audi Murphy and Chicago's own Milton Olive.
  • The Russians have Aleksandr Nevskii, Gyorgi Zhukov, and Ekaterina Mikhailovna-Demina
  • The Poles have Tadeusz Kościuszko, Casimir Pulaski and Wojtek the Soldier Bear.
  • The Czechs have Josef Švejk.
In case that last name is not familiar to you, don't search through accounts of Czech military history. The Good Soldier Švejk is the eponymous character of a series of satyrical novels written by Jaroslav Hašek, set during World War I. Not your typical war hero, this Josef was an incompetent ne'er-do-well of sorts, on the surface not all that different from the bumbling Marine, Gomer Pyle of the TV series of the same name. Unlike Gomer Pyle, Švejk was a subversive; crazy like a fox, his incompetence, whether intentional or not, served to undermine the military system and the society to which he belonged.

Much has been made of Soldier Švejk's being a symbol of the Czech people. The Czechs and their on again off again brethren, the Moravians and the Slovaks, are goegraphically sandwiched between major powers on the world stage. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany and Russia, all occupied their small country at one time or other over the last several hundred years. The Czech character is built some would say, out of the years of subjugation under oppressive foreign regimes. Much the same can be said for their Slavic cousins the Poles, yet the temperaments of the two nations could not be more different. The Poles by and large are hot blooded, patriotic, and devoutly Catholic. As for the Czechs, well not so much. The Czechs combine irreverence with a strong sense of self-preservation, mixed with a hint of cynicism. The legendary but far outnumbered Polish Army valiantly fought against the Germans in the first days of September, 1939. The Polish Underground was a formidable force in World War II and as a result, their country was devastated by the War. By contrast, the Czechs understood the futility of standing up to the German war machine. Where the Poles were defiant, the Czechs like Soldier Švejk, were subversive in their resistance.

That's not to say that the Czech people did not suffer under Nazi occupation. In May of 1942, the Nazi administrator for Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich was assassinated by Czechoslovak Resistance paratroopers in Prague. To avenge his death, Hitler ordered the annihilation of a town just outside of Prague whose inhabitants were suspected of anti-Reich sentiments and for aiding Heydrich's assassins. On June 9th, 1942, German troops rounded up all 173 men and several women of Lidice, and shot them. The children of the town who were acceptable racial specimens were taken away from their mothers and sent off for adoption to German families. The rest of the women and children were sent to concentration camps where most of them perished. Their town was burned to the ground.

All around the world, you will find streets and towns named Lidice in memory of that tragic city.

Save for a few blocks which were blown up by the Nazis in retaliation for various acts of resistance against them, the city of Prague was not physically damaged during the war. The same cannot be said for its populace. Tens of thousands of citizens of Prague, mostly Jews, were deported to Theresenstadt, the concentration camp that was created by Heydrich.

This was the world of Václav Havel's childhood. My father and Havel (who shared first names), were born in Czechoslovakia during a brief moment in history (between the two world wars) when their country was free and independent. The young Havel would know that independence for all of two years.

With the Munich Agreement of 1938, England and France handed over the western part of Czechoslovakia (the Sudatenland) to Hitler on a silver platter, and by March of the following year, the much weakened country became a protectorate of Germany. In 1940, a Czechoslovak government in exile was formed in London. That government led by President Edvard Beneš, was recognized by the Allied Powers and in 1943, signed a far reaching treaty with the Soviet Union which resulted in the agreement to nationalize heavy industry and create local people's committees in the country at the end of the war.

The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, the KSČ, which was loyal to Moscow, had been in existence since 1921. The Soviet liberation of most of Czechoslovakia from the Nazis, combined with lingering resentment toward the West since the Munich Agreement, resulted in the KSČ gaining considerable support in the 1946 elections, during the brief existence of the Czechoslovak Third Republic after the War. For the three years the tenuous Republic existed, Czechoslovakia was the only neighbor of the Soviet Union that had a democratically elected government. Soon, under pressure from Joseph Stalin and the influence of the Red Army knocking at the door, President Beneš capitulated in February of 1948 (the month and year of my half sister's Eva's birth), and formed a new government with the KSČ squarely in control. By the time the elections rolled around in May of that year, there was only one party on the ballot, the National Front. The National Front would be the only political organization allowed in the country for the next 41 years.

In 1948, Vacláv Havel was twelve years old. As we read in his obituaries last week, he came from an influential upper middle class family in Prague. By the time he came of age in the 1950s, his pedigree did not prove favorable in the new worker's paradise of Communist Czechoslovakia, and his opportunities proved limited. College was not an option for him, so he left school at 15 and before his compulsory military service he worked in various positions in the national service primarily as a laboratory assistant. After the military service ended he enrolled in a correspondence course in drama which led to his next career as a playwright.

The fifties were a difficult time in Czechoslovakia. Havel wrote about the conflicting currents that defined life in those years. The revolution brought with it for some, excitement and hope for the future:
Building sites were swarming with tens of thousands of young enthusiasts of the new faith singing songs of socialist construction.
While at the same time:
In fifties there were enormous concentration camps in Czechoslovakia filled with tens of thousands of innocent people... There were tortures and executions, dramatic flights across borders.
In 1955, my father's departure from his country took place during one of those dramatic flights.

Havel wrote about the harassment Czech citizens endured at the hands of the Secret Police. Any number of excuses sufficed for this treatment but one of the biggest causes for concern were people with relatives living in the West. As we traveled from Paris to České Budějovice in Southern Bohemia in 1993 to meet her mother (my father's first wife), my half sister Eva described to me in great deal what the two of them endured after my father left for greener pastures. For ten years, Eva and her mother were harassed, usually with knocks on the door in the middle of the night by the police trying to glean information about my old man, but mostly to send a message. Even though our father and her mother were divorced and no longer in contact, the two women lived in constant fear as the continuous harassment lasted until her mother remarried. Eva and her mother paid dearly for my father's actions and benefitted nothing. This was a story that would be retold countless times for generations of Czechosloavaks.

As bad as all that was, Havel wrote that at the time, there was at least some sort of meaning to all the madness:
The songs of idealists and fanatics, political criminals on the rampage, the suffering of heroes-these have always been part of history. The fifties were a bad time in Czechoslovakia, but there have been many such times in human history. It still shared something, or at least bore comparison with those other periods; it still resembled history. No one could have said that nothing was happening, or that the age did not have its stories.
An idealist could argue that the atrocities against the people were merely the growing pains of a nascent  society. They were after all driven by a powerful ideology, trying (in vain) to build an ideal society, one where there would no longer be poverty and everyone (theoretically) would be equal. The end justifies the means after all, at least in the mind of an ideologue.

That idealism still existed in the late sixties and came to fruition during the Prague Spring, a brief, wonderful period in 1968. Prague Spring was not at first a grass roots movement but a realization that the economic model set into motion from on high (i.e.; the USSR) did not work as a one size fits all solution. It particularly didn't work in a highly educated and industrially sophisticated Czechoslovakia. Alexander Dubček, a Slovak, was appointed president in early 1968 and immediately set into motion a series of reforms including the lifting of restrictions on speech and the press. He suggested the possibility of a multiple party system, and to bolster the stagnant economy, hinted at a limited free market. This was not meant to be a rejection of Communism. The goal in Dubček's words was: build an advanced socialist society on sound economic foundations ... a socialism that corresponds to the historical democratic traditions of Czechoslovakia, in accordance with the experience of other communist parties.
In other words, again in Dubček's words: "Communism with a human face."

For one brief, shining moment, it was a tremendously liberating experience, as if a veil had been lifted over the eyes of the entire country. The works of many Czech dissident writers including Havel, previously banned, became publicly known in their own country. Dubček's reforms opened up the flood gates for everyone in society with a bone to pick about the government, especially the influence of the Soviet Union, whose leaders were all ears. On the pretext of its right to intervene if a Warsaw Pact nation were to embark on a path toward capitalism, troops from other Warsaw Pact nations, Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary and the Soviet Union, invaded Czechoslovakia on August 20, 1968. Here is a link to a gallery of pictures of the invasion made by the great Czech photographer, Josef Koudelka.

The creation of Prague Spring may not have been a grass roots movement, but the opposition to its fall certainly was. As you can see from the photographs, young people took to the streets in a defiant, if quixotic stance in opposition to the invasion. In some cases, busses were overturned in the streets to prevent the tanks from advancing, other tanks were set ablaze. More creative tactics included the Švejkian removal of all street signs except the ones that pointed the way back to Moscow. 72 Czechoslovaks were killed in the invasion.

After the invasion, life did not exactly return to pre-Spring days. Here is Havel in 1987, contrasting the totalitarianism backed with an ideology of the fifties, with a totalitarianism whose only purpose was self-preservation of the post-Prague Spring:
... the powers that be really did learn a lesson from the Prague Spring. They discovered how far things can go when the door to a plurality of opinions and interests is opened: the totalitarian system itself is jeopardized. Having learned this lesson, political power set itself a single aim: self-preservation. In a process with its own, mindless dynamic, all the mechanisms of direct and indirect manipulation of life began to expand and assume unprecedented forms. Henceforth nothing could be left to chance.
The past twenty years in Czechoslovakia can almost serve as a textbook illustration of how an advanced or late totalitarian system works. Revolutionary ethos and terror have been replaced by dull inertia, pretex-ridden caution, bureaucratic anonymity, and mindless, stereotypical behavior, all of which aim exclusively at becoming more and more what they already are.
The songs of zealots and the cries of the tortured are no longer heard; lawlessness has put on kid gloves and moved from the torture chambers into the upholstered offices of faceless bureaucrats. If the President of the Republic is seen in the street at all, he is behind the bulletproof glass of his limousine as it roars off to the airport, surrounded by a police escort, to meet Colonel Qaddafi.
The twenty one year period between the crush of the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution provided most of the fodder for Václav Havel's diatribes against the Czechoslovak totalitarian state. Havel said that during those years. it was if time stood still.

Havel was no Soldier Švejk. He was as defiant as any Polish Cavalry soldier. The only difference was his choice of weapon was not a gun, but the written word. His plays and essays spelled out in no uncertain terms that the socialist government of Czechoslovakia was an absurd travesty. In an open letter to then President Gustáv Husák in 1973, Havel wrote that although the outward signs of prosperity were evident, the totalitarian system that Husák presided over, undermined general well being and human dignity:
The basic question one must ask is this: Why are people in fact behaving in the way they do? Why do they do all these things that, taken together, form the impressive image of a totally united society giving total support to its government? For any unprejudiced observer, the answer is, I think, selfevident: They are driven to it by fear.
For fear of losing his job, the schoolteacher teaches things he does not believe; fearing for his future, the pupil repeats them after him; for fear of not being allowed to continue his studies, the young man joins the Youth League and participates in whatever of its activities are necessary; fear that, under the monstrous system of political credits, his son or daughter will not acquire the necessary total of points for enrollment at a school leads the father to take on all manner of responsibilities and "voluntarily" to do everything required. Fear of the consequences of refusal leads people to take part in elections, to vote for the proposed candidates, and to pretend that they regard such ceremonies as genuine elections; out of fear for their livelihood, position, or prospects, they go to meetings, vote for every resolution they have to, or at least keep silent: it is fear that carries them through humiliating acts of self-criticism and penance and the dishonest filling out of a mass of degrading questionnaires; fear that someone might inform against them prevents them from giving public, and often even private, expression to their true opinions. It is the fear of suffering financial reverses and the effort to better themselves and ingratiate themselves with the authorities that in most cases makes working men put their names to "work commitments"; indeed, the same motives often lie behind the establishment of Socialist Labor Brigades, in the clear realization that their chief function is to be mentioned in the appropriate reports to higher levels. Fear causes people to attend all those official celebrations, demonstrations, and marches: Fear of being prevented from continuing their work leads many scientists and artists to give allegiance to ideas they do not in fact accept, to write things they do not agree with or khow to be false, to join official organizations or to take part in work of whose value they have the lowest opinion, or to distort and mutilate their own works. In the effort to save themselves, many even report others for doing to them what they themselves have been doing to the people they report.
Life in Czechoslovakia was in fact a lie, according to Havel.

And if the life of the dissident/playwright turned president could be summed up in one word, that word would be, truth.

Václav Havel paid dearly for speaking the truth. He was put in prison on numerous occasions and forced to work in menial jobs to support himself. Havel's work was banned in his own country and he was known to his own people mostly through the government's condemnation of him.

Havel gained international attention in 1977 when he and a group of similar minded political activists wrote and signed Charter 77.  A Bill of Rights of sorts, Charter 77 was a petition, and later a movement that took the petition's name, to "call attention to the systematic violation of human rights and democratic freedoms" that had been already agreed upon during the Helsinki Accords of 1975 (and signed by the Czechoslovak government), the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, and the Czechoslovak constitution.

The primary concern of the petition was the failure to afford its citizens the right to freedom of expression, and the fear of official retribution for expressing personal opinions. Citizens expressing points of view not in accordance with the government's, the charter claims, were routinely denied the right to education, the right to be gainfully employed in one's chosen occupation, and were ostracized from society.

Other rights enumerated by Charter 77 guaranteed in the Czechoslovak constitution but not in reality were:
  • freedom of information
  • freedom of religion
  • the right to legal recourse
  • freedom from unreasonable search
  • freedom of movement
Although Havel in his own writing made no bones about the fact that he did not suscribe to the tenets of Socialism, Charter 77 was not in any way a radical document and it took pains to point out that it did not quarrel with the basic premises of Socialism or advocate political change or social reform.

Still the government came down with a vengeance on the petition's creators and signers. The document proved to be prophetic. As if on cue, the government's reaction was spelled out in detail by the document itself. The creators and those with the courage to sign it were publicly vilified, lost their jobs, they and their children were deprived of educational opportunities, some were forced into exile, others were coerced into becoming secret service informants, and others including Havel, were sent to prison. His five year sentence was reduced by six months because of poor health.

Here is another quote from Charter 77:
In prisons, persons thus sentenced (for political crimes) are treated in a manner violating human dignity, their health is endangered and attempts are made to destroy them morally.
In Havel's case, all of that was true, but the attempts to morally destroy him were unmitigated failures. Nor did the government succeed in silencing him. Despite the perpetual threat of retribution hanging over him, Havel continued to write and speak out against the evils of totalitarianism, right up until the fall of the government and his ascendence to the presidency in 1989.

More words of his would prove prophetic when in 1989, once again in prison, he wrote an essay that was to be delivered at the award ceremony of the German Booksellers Association where he was to be presented with that group's Peace Prize. Appropriately enough, the essay was titled: "A Word about Words."

Havel said in the essay:
Yes, I do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions...
Just as Havel accepted the award in absentia in October of 1989, Havel's and others' words began the revolution that would be resolved in a little over a month, without one shot being fired. Months after being released from prison, Havel became the President of Czechoslovakia.

1989 was a watershed year in the history of the world as it marked the fall of Communism in Europe. None of the dramatic changes that took place in the old Soviet Bloc could have happened without the vision and courage of Mikhail Gorbachev who understood that the price of militarization due to the Cold War came at the cost of feeding its people. The General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union introduced a new openness (glasnost) and economic restructuring (perestroika), all to encourage a dialogue with, and encourage support from the West. Ironically it was the workers in Poland who brought an end to their "workers' paradise."The Solidarity Labor Union and Movement in Poland and its charismatic leader Lech Wałęsa, with the support of the influential Catholic Church of that country, became so powerful that it forced the government to negotiate with it.  In 1989, Gorbachev discarded the Brezhnev Doctrine where the USSR reserved the right to intervene if any of the Warsaw Pact nations got out of line, just as they did in Hungary in 1956 and of course Czechoslovakia in 1968. Poland quickly fell and soon thereafter, Hungary did the same. However the governments of Bulgaria, East Germany, Rumania, and Czechoslovakia remained intent on staying the course.

The government that Husák and his cronies tried so desperately to save, crumbled overnight as there was nothing left to hold it up, its foundation built on a flawed ideology that eventually rotted to the core. In the end it only took a little push from the opposition led in part by Havel and it all came tumbling down on Novermber 28, 1989. Not a drop of blood was spilled, hence the term, Velvet Revolution.

In the following June the first democratic elections were held since 1946. Alexander Dubček was elected speaker of the Federal Parliament and Václav Havel was elected president.

Václav Havel
Photograph by Martin Kozák
With impeccable credentials as a man of truth, Václav Havel was the moral compass for his country. Successful politicians need to determine which battles to fight, they need to understand the art of compromise, and they need to tell people what they want to hear.  Havel was no politician. As president, he knew it was time to turn the attention inward and look at the Czech people themselves. Years of oppression had created what he called "totalitarian nihilism", the systematic dissolution of the public's ability to think, to dream, and to believe. It created a nation of complacent, indifferent cynics, and Havel would have none of that. He insisted that his fellow citizens take a stand and take ownership of their country. He also controversially rejected the movement to prosecute ordinary citizens who snitched on their neighbors to the police. Havel understood that no one should be punished for not acting heroically.

Havel saw his presidency as an obligation rather than a reward. During the Dissolution of Czechoslovakia when Slovakia split from the Republic to form its own government, Havel stepped down from office so as not to preside over the breaking up of his country. He was reinstated shortly thereafter and became the first president of the newly formed Czech Republic, where he remained until 2003.

In the press, Václav Havel was often the neglected stepbrother to his fellow leaders in the freedom movements of the late eighties, and early nineties namely, Wałęsa, Gorbachev, and Nelson Mandela of South Africa. All but Havel received Nobel Peace Prizes, and named in numerous lists as the most important people of the last century.

Even his death was overshadowed by the death on the same day (well, the official announcement of it anyway) of North Korean dictator Kim Jung Il. Death indeed makes for strange bedfellows. My guess is that never before had the two men ever been mentioned together in the same sentence, no two leaders could have been more diametrically opposed. It seemed to me at first that the ultimate indignity to Havel was being upstaged on the day of his death by the death of a tyrant.

Then came the images from their respective countries and it occurred to me that Havel got the last laugh. In Prague's Wenseslaus Square, (appropriately named after Havel's namesake, the famous good king and patron saint of the Czechs), and in cities all over the former Czechoslovakia, there were images of spontaneous gatherings of people who assembled to celebrate the life of the man who helped set the course for the future of their country. Tens of thousands showed up for his funeral in Prague.

In Pyongyang came the images of a clearly not spontaneous gathering of hundreds of North Koreans, beating their chests, some on their hands and knees, appearing like a casting call for the latest telenovela, all in hysterics over the death of their "beloved leader."

The contrast of the two images was stunning. The genuine show of love and respect for Václav Havel versus the absurd theater (which Havel the artist would certainly have appreciated) of a totalitarian regime propagating obvious falsehoods illustrated for me anyway, the victory of truth, morality and humanity over the false promises of ideology. That was exactly what Havel fought for throughout his struggles and his successes.

Now and perhaps for the ages, Václav Havel has replaced Soldier Švejk as the enduring symbol of the resiliency of the Czech people. He fought a heroic battle, defiantly taking on a formidable opponent and winning in no uncertain terms. He stood by his principles without flinching, even if it meant jail or even worse, disfavor from his own people.

He was a bright shining light in a time of great darkness, truly a man for all seasons.

Post script:

Today, Christmas Day, December 25, 2011, marks the twentieth anniversary of Mikhail Gorbachev stepping down from power thereby declaring the official dissolution of the Soviet Union.


Anonymous said...

A myth of Polish Cavalry is an urban legend. Look it up.

James Iska said...

Thank you for your comment. Polish troops fighting on horseback against German tanks is indeed a legend. However the vastly outnumbered Polish Cavalry (as well as other divisions of the Army), fighting against the Germans, and let's not forget the Russians as well, as they invaded their country from two sides in September of 1939, is a fact.

Michael said...

What a wonderful tribute to one of the preeminent figures of the last century. My memories of the Prague spring are vivid. I was I was deeply involved (from a distance) with the events that transpired, memories of which will remain with me forever.