(20 September, 1998)
1) I am announcing that I have returned from the USA. I thank all of those who worked in the domestic resistance. Likewise I thank all of us who worked in the foreign resistance.
2) It appears that the visit to the USA turned out well. At least I have fond memories of it. The most demanding moment was the last evening, when I learned at the very last second that I had to speak in English on the most popular television channel about jazz. So I did it, and all the Americans in the White House indicated to me that they understood what I was saying. (. . .)
(. . .) I come back from the United States utterly bewitched, and just before I fall asleep several people tell me that I was viewed on various TV networks by a billion people and that I was ‘magniﬁcent.’ I thank them for the compliment. I’m about to go to sleep, and at that moment Mrs Havránková asks me when I want the water turned off at our house. I reply that at the moment I don’t have a clear opinion about that. I think about it for a while and decide to call Mrs Havránková, and I discover that my telephone doesn’t work. Mr Siemens comes. He looks at it. He says it works. I try the telephone again, and once again I ﬁnd that it doesn’t work. (. . .)
To this day it’s held against you that on your ﬁrst trip on 2 January 1990, you went to both German states, and that journey was perceived as an excessively accommodating gesture to our second most recent occupiers. Why did you not ﬁrst go to the United States, which probably everyone would have recognized as a clear signal of change?
It was impossible to prepare a trip to the United States in the course of three days — that didn’t happen until six weeks later — and, moreover, it would have looked rather embarrassing: previous Czechoslovak pres-idents had always gone to present themselves ﬁrst to Moscow, and I was meant to demonstrate that we were different by traveling to Washing-ton? You must see that that would have been somewhat laughable. But there are other reasons why I wanted to visit some of our neighboring countries ﬁrst. In Poland the president was General Jaruzelski, and understandably I didn’t want to start with him: in Hungary, there was also a communist president serving out his term. In Austria there was Waldheim, so that even if Germany had not been our largest neighbor with the longest border, it was really the only place I could have visited. I certainly didn’t go to visit our second most recent occupier or even our most recent one (i.e., the GDR), but rather to democratic West Germany, and liberated East Germany, and the two reuniting Ger-manys. I considered this uniﬁcation, which I had long supported, to be an essential precondition for the integration of all of Europe that I believed must follow the collapse of the Iron Curtain. It was thus a trip to an important democratic neighbor with a wonderful pres-ident, a journey to a dramatically transforming GDR, intended to support their roundtable discussions, and — symbolically — a trip to a unifying Europe. It was mainly the communists who criticized me at the time, because an anti-German stance, supported by a militant anti-Sudetenism, is a fundamental plank in their platform. And of course, with a public they had massaged with propaganda for years, this always works. But my aim was — among other things — to start breaking down these prejudices from the outset.
When did you abandon your utopian vision of a ‘new’ politics? On your trip to Germany you apparently raised with Kohl the idea of dis-banding all political parties and forming a single European party. What were you thinking about at the time?
If you think that something as foolish as that is ‘a utopian vision of a new politics,’ then I certainly never had to abandon that vision because I never had it. Why, in God’s name, would someone who had struggled for political pluralism all his whole life want to disband all political parties?
Later you also suggested the dissolution of NATO along with the Warsaw Pact.
The question of whether, with the end of communism, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, NATO would lose its raison d’être was discussed before the revolution, among both left- and right-wing politicians and political scientists in the West, but also within our own opposition. Thought was given to the creation of a new Euro-Atlantic security community, one that would include all of Europe and not just half of it and that would have a completely different mission from protecting the world from the spread of communism or from Soviet missiles. Soon, however, the day was won by the reason-able suggestion that instead of creating something new from scratch, the North Atlantic Alliance would simply be transformed.
And this is in fact the way NATO has been going for the last ﬁfteen years, and it’s really only today, after its most recent expansion, and after a thorough transformation of its entire doctrine, and mainly through its actions, that the vision of those days has become a reality. We did a lot to promote this development, and it was quite appropriate, therefore, that perhaps the most important NATO summit on expansion — the one held in 2002 — took place here in Prague, the very city where the Warsaw Pact had been dissolved earlier. When I was in the United States in February 1990, I spoke at length on that subject with President Bush and other politicians and I even referred to it in my speech to Congress. And if you look at that speech you will see that I said more or less the same thing as I’m saying now.
Washington, 26 April 2005
The idea that I wanted to dissolve NATO is something I’ve been hearing for the past ﬁfteen years. I don’t know where it comes from. Perhaps the so-called Prague Appeal (from 1985) or another dissident document that I signed contained the idea of replacing both these opposing pacts in the future with a uniﬁed democratic security structure. In any case, I don’t see anything shameful about that idea.
Far more interesting than the actual origin of that idea, however, is the persistence of the claim that I wanted to dissolve NATO and its broader con-text. That tells us a lot about current Czech circumstances. Shortly after the revolution and the arrival of freedom, a very special kind of anticommunist obsession established itself in public life. It was as though some people — people who had been silent for years, who had voted obediently in communist elections, who had thought only of themselves and had been careful not to get into trouble — now felt the sudden need to compensate in some aggressive way for their earlier humiliation, or for the feeling or suspicion that they might have been found wanting. And so they took aim at the people who least held it against them, that is, the dissidents. They still felt, unconsciously, that the dissidents were the voice of their bad conscience, living proof that you didn’t have to completely knuckle under if you didn’t want to.
It’s interesting that, at a time when dissidents appeared to be a tiny group of crazy Don Quixotes, the aversion to them was not as intense as it was later, when history, as it were, had proven them right. That was too much; that was unforgivable. And paradoxically, the clearer it became that the dissidents themselves blamed no one for anything, nor even less did they hold themselves up as an example to others, the greater the antagonism against them grew. Ultimately, many a new anticommunist vented more anger against the dissi-dents than against the representatives of the old regime.
Out of this was born the strange legend that dissidents were ‘left-wing,’ that they were ‘elitists’ (how can someone who spent ten years in a boiler room or in prison and has never turned his nose up at anyone be considered an elitist?), or that they were insufﬁciently respectful of tried-and-true Western institutions, and so on. For instance, the claim that I was not sufﬁciently enamored of NATO from my youth belongs to this psychological-ideological mind-set.
By the way, this ideology revealed a lot about itself in a recent article claiming that the dissidents played no special role in the fall of communism because communism was brought down by ‘normal’ citizens behaving conventionally, that is, by putting their own private interests ﬁrst, which means that they may have stolen the occasional brick from a building site. That kind of thinking obviously resonates with a large part of the public, which sees it as a conﬁrmation that they made the right choices in life: now, when it’s permissible, we praise capitalism to the skies and condemn everyone who thinks critically about it; earlier, when it was not possible, we marched obediently to the polls to vote for the communists so that we could, in peace and quiet, look after ourselves. And who is constantly stirring things up? The left-wing dissident! I’m glad that Mr Hvízd’ala has inadvertently touched on a theme that I have long been preparing to say something about. I’m only somewhat surprised that when we’re talking about dissolving military pacts, he doesn’t ask me how we dissolved the Warsaw Pact, for that was no simple matter. Perhaps we will still get to that topic.
It is also said that you offered yourself as a mediator between the Arabs and the Jews. Jirí Suk writes that your thinking at the time was not ideological but utopian. Evil tongues have since declared that you were becoming alarmingly cocky. How do you see those efforts today, after almost ﬁfteen years?
In 1990, things were moving toward conﬁdential negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis about a truce and a road to peace in the Middle East. I did not offer myself as a mediator, but in private conversations with both sides I summarized the reasons why I felt that Prague would be an appropriate place for such negotiations to take place. If I remember correctly, both sides were very much in favor of this. In the end, those negotiations took place in Oslo. Unlike their Norwegian counterparts, Czech politicians didn’t want to bother them-selves with someone else’s peace process; they decided that we shouldn’t get mixed up in it, and that it would cost too much money. (For what? Hotels?) I think that was a pity.
If it’s true that I had more self-conﬁdence than I do today, it was a very good thing I did. I managed to do hundreds of things I’d never dare to try now. Many of my initiatives failed, of course, but I don’t know of anything I bungled because of my allegedly overinﬂated self-conﬁdence. I am glad to hear that my policies were not ideological. I don’t know what to make of the claim that they were utopian. If it’s utopian to offer someone a place to negotiate peace, then I’ll happily admit to being utopian.
Washington, 26 April 2005
And here we are once more, on the subject of Czech small-mindedness. Look after Number One, don’t get mixed up in other people’s business, keep your head down, don’t look up — we’re surrounded by mountains and those whirlwinds from the outside world will blow over our heads and we can go on bur-rowing away in our own little backyard.
How many wise essays or books have been written about this domestic self-absorption of ours! My late friend the literary critic Jan Lopatka, who had a chronic illness, collapsed one afternoon on a busy Prague square. He apparently lay there for two hours before someone helped him and called an ambulance. Indifference to others is frequently offered to us as a national program, and many people subscribe to it. Not everyone, of course, and not always; even in the darkest times there have been honorable expressions of solidarity. But that doesn’t change the fact that Czech small-mindedness — cecháckovství, as Professor Václav Cerny called it — is an important phenomenon in public life, and again and again, in some form or another, it keeps popping up in our political life as well. I would claim that it’s not part of the national character, in the sense of something genetically imprinted on our nature, but rather a complex of certain historically formed ways of behavior. I don’t know when it ﬁrst appeared; most likely it was sometime after the Battle of the White Mountain or during the time of Maria Theresa, when the center of empire gradually shifted from Prague to Vienna and when Prague ceased to be an important European city and became a provincial town. The ‘plebeian’ nature of our national awakening probably played a role as well. After all, one of the most important events in the life of the main heroine of Bozena Nemcová’s novel Granny, our national bible, was the moment, in a ﬁeld, when she meets the emperor, that embodiment of ‘foreign domination,’ and he gives her a thaler.
In modern Czech history, a situation repeatedly comes up in which society rises to some great occasion but then its top leaders execute a retreating maneuver, a side step, a compromise; here they capitulate, there they give something up or sacriﬁce something, and they do it all, naturally, to save the nation’s very existence. And society, traumatized at ﬁrst, quickly backs down, ‘understands’ its leaders, and ultimately sinks into apathy or goes straight into a coma. Then a tide of mud inundates public life, the media is taken over by the dregs of society, and only a handful of dissenters or resisters struggle to maintain the continuity of the free spirit and human dignity, and for their pains they are perceived by the majority of the population as provocateurs who are pointlessly dragging the rest of them into danger.
It was that way in the post-Munich period, then between 1939 and 1945 during the Protectorate, then in the 1950s, and ﬁnally in 1968 after the Soviet occupation. First you hear sentences like ‘They betrayed us,’ ‘They sold us out,’ ‘They conspired against us.’ Next you hear things like ‘There’s nothing to be done,’ and it ends in the shouting of nationalistic slogans, and speeches about ‘national interests,’ and silent consent to the persecution of some minority. It’s the triumph of Czech small-mindedness in the worst possible sense of the word.
Unfortunately, I caught a whiff of this atmosphere in our country after it split up. It seems that an eruption of this bitter provincialism, this indifference to others, and this hatred of everyone who thinks differently often precedes a diminution of the state. After Munich, they took the Sudetenland from us; with the breakup of the country, we lost Slovakia. When such events happen, there is inevitably a call for the further homogenization of society: we get rid of Jews, then Germans, then the bourgeoisie, then dissidents, then Slovaks — and who will be next in line? The Roma? Homosexuals? All foreigners? And who will be left? Pure-blooded little Czechs in their own little garden.
It’s not just that such a position or, ultimately, such a policy is immoral, it’s also suicidal. Today, in a completely different and much more sophisticated ideological cocktail, these positions are appearing once more. Their most vis-ible expression is anti-Europeanism. It’s essentially an expression of the same relationship to the world. Why should we have to consult with anyone? Why should we have to listen to anyone? Why should we have to share power with anyone? Why should we have to help someone else? What do we care about their technical norms (of course, a distaste for ‘their’ technical norms conceals a distaste for ‘their’ moral norms as well). ‘We are quite sufﬁcient unto ourselves.’ This is merely the new face of the old familiar Czech small-mindedness. But a word of caution: the small-minded Czech will have the nerve to shout out valiant slogans only if there’s no danger to him; on the con-trary, if he’s facing a powerful and cruel opponent he withdraws and ulti-mately becomes servile. Just like that member of the Council for the Defense of the State who did not want to support Yeltsin after the Moscow putsch because, he said, ‘We don’t know how it’s going to turn out.’
Are you still as suspicious as you once were of the role that political parties play in a democracy?
I think more or less the same as I’ve always thought. It’s just that over the years, and particularly during my presidency, I have reﬁned and moderated my opinions a little. I think that political parties are an important instrument of democratic politics, but they are not its most highly evolved form, nor its ultimate meaning. They should provide a place where people can come together, reﬁne their opinions, encounter the views of experts in public policy; where political personalities are formed and aspects of the political will are articulated. They should not, however, be more important than the key institutions of the state, like the government or parliament. They should not be superior to them but, rather, serve them. They should not be places where brother hoods aimed at seizing power are born, quasi-legal metastructures of the state; instead, they should be the icing on the cake of a richly structured civil society, a place that draws nourishment from that society and gives it a political expression that can then be used in political competition. Only a living civil society can provide spirit to political parties as well, or rather can provide the roots from which they receive their vital nourishment. When civil society languishes, when the life of organizations and voluntary associations is curtailed, then sooner or later political parties will begin to languish as well, until, ultimately, they become degenerate ghettos whose only purpose is to elevate their members into positions of power.
Parties must not be more important than the public interest. They must, on the contrary, serve it. Loyalty to the country, or to the civil service, or to the interests of society, or to one’s personal conscience must always be more important than loyalty to the party, otherwise the parties will produce only nonentities who speak only their own anti-language that people will ultimately ﬁnd repugnant. Partyocracy — that is, government by party secretariats and politburos — has had a great tradition in this country since the nineteenth century, and unfortunately it threatens us today as well. After all, we are close to a situation now in which people are beginning to feel ashamed that they voted for a certain party, or even that they belong to it. This can only lead to the decline of democracy.
And by the way, notice that the more fanatical the party member, the more they suspect that I have nothing good to say about parties or that I don’t want them around at all. At the same time, all I want is for parties to play the creative but modest role that they ought to play, within the bounds of parliamentary democracy. If they do, the public will not ridicule them but, on the contrary, respect them.
photograph © Pavel Matejicek
The above is taken from Václav Havel’s To the Castle and Back. Order your copy here.