It is Tuesday, November 21, 1989. On Wenceslas Square, 200,000 citizens of Czechoslovakia have assembled to express their opposition to the recent brutal actions of the armed police forces against a peaceful student procession.
Universities across the country have been on strike since the previous day.
Some 4,000 armed members of the People’s Militia are on their way to the capital city. People in the square are jingling their keys. On the balcony of the Melantrich publishing house appears an inconspicuous man with a shy smile, and the crowd begins to chant loudly: Havel to the Castle!
Thus began one of the greatest stories of modern Czech history: the story of the Velvet Revolution and the enormous changes that took place in the former Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s. On Wenceslas Square, dominated by the equestrian statue of St. Wenceslas – the patron saint of the Czech lands – another chapter also began in the life story of Václav Havel, a writer, dissident and lifelong champion of human rights.
On November 29th, at a time when the communist regimes in neighbouring countries had irretrievably collapsed and under pressure from the demonstrators, parliament voted to abolish the leading role of the Communist Party in the state, and the former regime crumbled also in Czechoslovakia. Exactly a month later, Václav Havel walked down the aisle between MPs in the Vladislav Hall of Prague Castle to take the presidential oath and became the first non-communist president in 41 years. The son of a bourgeois family, a former dissident and critic of the regime, was unanimously elected head of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, which was still the official name of the country. He even got the votes of all the communist MPs – the same people who sent him to jail several times and for whom he had been until recently political enemy number one. It was as if he himself had written the storyline for this theatre of the absurd. “What paradoxes, I tell you …”, says the character of the brewer in his play Ferdinand Vaněk, whose plot has some autobiographical elements.
Just like a rolling stone
At Prague Castle, the historic seat of Czech kings and presidents, the atmosphere was completely transformed with the arrival of the eccentric Václav Havel. His assistants rode down the long corridors on scooters, and the castle – and society itself – pulsed with new life.
Events occurred in truly quick succession, and Václav Havel’s path from prison to Wenceslas Square to the castle was like a minor miracle. Havel’s star status attracted to Prague leading global politicians and celebrities, the likes of whom had not been seen in this city for a very long time. The Dalai Lama and rockers from the Rolling Stones became regular visitors to Prague. During his visit to Prague, U.S. President Bill Clinton even played the saxophone at the renowned Reduta jazz club.
Photos: The Rolling Stones in Prague, © ČTK
The revolutionary glee evaporated over time, and life began to set off on more prosaic paths. Thus the exit of Václav Havel from political life took place in an atmosphere that only very remotely resembled the heady days when he stepped out onto that balcony above Wenceslas Square. Havel’s last big gesture while still in office was a huge neon heart, which he had light up over Prague Castle for the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution on November 17, 2002. The symbol of love, which he was in the habit of adding to his signature as a symbol of nonviolent revolution, went dark just before the end of his presidential term, symbolically bringing down the curtain on one of the great stories of modern Czech history.
Photos: Heart over the castle, A final tribute (© ČTK)
Václav Havel died a week before Christmas in 2011. The people who in 1989 rang their keys to call for the end of the communist regime spontaneously gathered on the day of his death at the statue of St. Wenceslas on Wenceslas Square. They lit candles and sang the Czech national anthem. It was one of those moments when it it felt as if his ideals would live on.