Jiří Suk, Politics as the Theatre of the Absurd: Václav Havel 1975–1989. Paseka 2013
Jiří Suk’s “Politics as the Theatre of the Absurd“ captures Václav Havel’s journey from a “powerless“ intellectual, author of an open letter to the Secretary General of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia Central Committee in a “normalized“ and stagnant society to its culmination during the Velvet Revolution, which saw the “powerless“ political prisoner take over the presidential office from the very man to whom his urgent appeal had been addressed fourteen years earlier. Havel wrote this letter at a time when communist bloc representatives attending the Helsinki talks hoped to gain economic concessions, while democratic Europe hoped to achieve some liberalization in the area of human rights. Future developments were to prove fatally wrong the communist representatives‘ claim that “we are the masters in our own yard.“ In this instance, as elsewhere in his book, the author quotes extensively from archive materials, illustrating Havel’s thought processes and the reasons why he chose the open letter format. This, Suk argues, was the point when, whether intentionally or not, Havel stepped onto the political stage. Publishing his account of the state as a normalized society in Western Europe and the émigré media turned him into a sort of informal spokesperson for the nascent opposition.
The investigation and subsequent trial in 1976 of the punk band Plastic People of the Universe presented Havel with a challenge. Would it be possible to mobilize public solidarity with the accused? What strategy would be effective against the powers-that-be, prepared to jail young artists merely because they refused to conform? Havel knew immediately that more was at stake than just the fate of a single banned band. Together with Jiří Němec he set out to organize support and call for the release of the persecuted musicians. He approached Jaroslav Seifert, asking him to speak up on behalf of one of the accused, Svatopluk Karásek. The regime unleashed a barrage of propaganda, vilifying the young musicians as drug addicts and authors of obscene lyrics. However, the trial failed to have the effect its instigators envisaged. Many prosecution witnesses retracted their testimony and the defendants refused to plead guilty. Almost eighty independent intellectuals spoke out in their defense.
Havel realized it would be a mistake not to exploit this potential. The “Plastics“ trial was not to be the only one. As early as April 1975 the State Security (StB) initiated proceedings, codenamed “Káča,“ against sixteen intellectuals and historians suspected of hostile activities; they were charged with “subversion“ under Article 98 of the Criminal Code. Following an investigation, a series of interrogations and twenty-two house searches lasting over a year, a trial was set to begin. However, it never took place, for in November 1976, i.e. one month before the birth of Charter 77, the StB investigators halted the criminal proceedings. “The criminal investigation… failed to secure material that would warrant the pressing of criminal charges…“ It was no accident that this decision coincided with the debacle of the musicians‘ trial: the regime simply could not afford a second judicial failure. One might say, with slight exaggeration, that the relative success of the show of support for the underground musicians provided writers such as Ivan Klíma and Ludvík Vaculík, historian Jan Křen and several other intellectuals with at least temporary protection from imprisonment.
“I support the Charter 77 declaration dated 1 January 1977.“ This magic formula was to alter the history of Czechoslovakia’s opposition. Jiří Suk gives a detailed account of the genesis of the Charter 77 declaration and the role Havel played in the wording of it. Suk mentions a meeting held in Havel‘s flat on 3 January 1977, at which the final strategy for handing over the signatures to the Czechoslovak parliament, the Federal Assembly, was decided. Collecting signatures during the 1976 Christmas holidays proved to be a very fortunate idea. In spite of the fact that the first 242 signatories included five StB agents (Egon Čierný, Josef Hodic, Václav Hyndrák, Jiří Kořínek and Vladimír Škutina), State Security was unable to lay their hands on the text. It is now obvious that the StB informers had signed the Charter in consultation with their controllers. However, the author is mistaken when he claims that “the birth of Charter 77 was kept secret.“ Havel’s flat was quite certainly bugged at the time of the 3 January meeting and the StB had detailed information of the signatories‘ immediate plans. In this case, holding the meeting in his flat, Havel was guilty of a serious breach of conspiracy rules. Based on their surveillance information, the StB was able to plan the subsequent arrest of Charter 77 spokespersons and Jiří Suk is wrong to state that“copies of cards with personal signatures had been inadvertently left in the briefcase seized“ [by the police, Translator’s note]. In fact, the StB had seized the original signatures, and they were included in the Charter 77 investigation file.
Also inaccurate is the statement that “by the end of March every single one of the signatories had been questioned.“ The Communist Party apparatus had compiled a brief list of signatories who were not to be subjected to questioning, including, for example, Jaroslav Seifert. Havel himself discouraged some signatories from joining Charter 77, especially Vlastimil Třešňák and Jaroslav Hutka. The two men were still occasionally able to perform, in spite of harsh censorship, and Havel argued that the opportunity to make public appearances was more important than one or two additional signatures. He was right to predict that the regime would unleash all the resources at its disposal, particularly the StB, against Charter 77. Josef Kafka, the StB officer dealing with Vlasta Třešňák, was particularly brutal, subjecting him to physical torture several times. After Třešňák was made to leave Czechoslovakia his tormentor was promoted to StB‘s intelligence unit. The author thoroughly documents the hate campaign against Charter 77, highlighting the particularly active role writer Tomáš Řezáč played in the slanderous activity. It is a pity though that the author neglects to explain that this man was a communist intelligence officer who had returned to Czechoslovakia after several years in exile, to continue his services as a Judas at home.
Havel was arrested as early as 14 January 1977 and remanded in custody. The regime realized it could not charge a Charter 77 signatory with the attempt to hand in a petition and therefore “linked“ him to the case of Ota Ornest, whom the StB had long had in its sights because of his close contact with Pavel Tigrid. Although their cooperation dated back to the 1960s and Ornest was being quite cautious, he paid the price of Tigrid’s carelessness. The latter had revealed the role played by Ornest to a StB agent, the rheumatologist Václav Rejholec (a.k.a. by the codenames Seagull, Assistent and Kafka) who lived in the same block of flats as Václav Havel and enjoyed Tigrid’s full confidence. This top-ranking agent collaborated with the StB from 1957 until the fall of the communist regime and was introduced to Tigrid in 1959 by Father František Planner.
Several years‘ worth of surveillance and bugging yielded a rather clear picture of Ornest’s activities. With the help of a handful of Western diplomats Tigrid smuggled into Czechoslovakia books including from émigré presses, as well as money and much needed duplicating equipment. The contacts were monitored by the StB. It took StB operatives several years to “plant“ Rejholec on Václav Havel. As someone who regularly travelled to the West this agent became a key link between Havel and Tigrid. The State Security operatives had quite a good overview of Havel‘ s contacts with Tigrid and Jiří Pelikán but were not able to use this information in court. In his memoirs Ota Ornest recalls the smile his mention of Václav Rejholec brought to the interrogator’s face. He says he knew straight away that this was the traitor who put him into jail. In a private conversation, Václav Havel confirmed that he saw through Rejholec’s treachery in 1986 and although he did not warn Pavel Tigrid, the State Security had to find another informer. The role of Havel’s connection was taken over by another neighbor, Milan Sloboda, whom Havel did not manage to unmask. A further explanation for Havel’s discretion regarding agent “Kafka’s“ (Václav Rejholec’s) role may have been the fact that his daughter, also a police informer and codenamed “Ája,“ was Havel’s mistress who passed his messages to Lech Wałęsa during her trips to Poland.
Jiří Suk gives a detailed and thorough account of the StB interrogations and Havel’s appeal to the State Procurator asking to be released from custody. However, Suk‘s reading of the investigating officer’s comment on the StB operatives‘ involvement in the investigation is erroneous: “It meant that Havel would be cross-examined and his mental state would be used to induce him to give more detailed statements.“ In fact, the operatives‘ involvement could have meant one thing alone: the assumption on the part of the investigating officer that Havel was ready to cooperate with the StB. Obviously, the thought of even attempting to recruit Havel had never crossed the mind of the operatives, who knew Havel very well. The investigating officer‘s assumption was wrong. In the 1960s, a file was briefly opened on Havel as a potential secret informer. This, too, was more likely based on an erroneous assumption on the part of the relevant officer than the result of a concentrated effort. It was quite common for StB officers to misinterpret someone’s polite and reticent demeanor as weakness and draw the wrong conclusions from it.
After a few months of detention, a humiliated Václav Havel was released. The detailed account of his last few days in prison before being released is among the most powerful sections of Jiří Suk’s book. He goes on to describe a meeting at Pavel Kohout’s summer residence on the Sázava river. He wrongly assumes that the StB report from the meeting was based on information from one of their agents. In fact it was the transcript of a surveillance tape, as a remark in the document quoted makes clear.
Following his release Václav Havel made a concerted effort to restore his reputation and overcome his blunder. He became actively involved in opposition activities, helping to found the Committee For the Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted (VONS). These activities resulted in several years‘ imprisonment. However, as befits Václav Havel, the key “breakthrough“ moments of his life were also reminiscent of the theatre of the absurd. Having arrested members of VONS, the StB started preparing a fresh political trial. At that point, nobody could have predicted that it would be the last one of the communist era. The only one of those VONS members who were arrested and charged, who responded to the interrogation, was Charter 77 signatory Dana Němcová; she suffered from severe back pain and was worried about her family and young children. The imprisonment of her husband made her situation even more precarious. The State Security intercepted a conversation, in which Havel said he was prepared to “give them five years of his life.“ Otherwise, he would accept the offer to go into exile. Havel‘s state-assigned defence lawyer Josef Lžičař confirmed this information to the StB. When he told Havel that he was likely to be sentenced to 6 or 7 years in prison, Havel said he could not bear six years and would agree to go into exile once the sentence came into force. In this way Havel brought upon himself the most absurd event in his life, ensuring a sentence of four and a half years‘ imprisonment.
The authorities did not want Havel to emigrate because, based on the experience from his previous incarceration, they assumed they could break him and permanently destroy him as a leader of the opposition. They were wrong again. The person they imprisoned now was a completely changed man. The trial had enormous resonance. Jiří Pelikán and Pavel Tigrid did an excellent job of keeping the international community informed. The StB’s foreign intelligence complained that their officers abroad were constantly being questioned about why Charter 77 and VONS activists were being handed down heavy prison sentences if they represented only a handful of isolated enemies publishing the odd document. The Rome branch went as far as to organize an operation codenamed “Aviator.“ The chief intelligence officer’s deputy in Rome arranged for Italian journalist Giuseppe Scanni to visit Prague and file a positive report on the VONS trial. Scanni agreed to report on the trial without attending it provided all other foreign journalists were barred from it to ensure the ruse wasn’t discovered. The foreign intelligence section even intervened with the then Czechoslovak Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bohuš Chňoupek, to help secure Scanni a visa. After returning from Prague, a disgusted Scanni did publish a report in the journal Avanti but informed the StB agents that the sentences were disproportionately high and that the trial was clearly political. Meanwhile, the StB tried to block access to the Italian media by Jiří Pelikán who was attempting to drum up the greatest possible international publicity for the imprisoned defenders of human rights.
Following his early release, Havel rapidly became the leading figure of the opposition. Jiří Suk charts painstakingly and patiently every aspect of his dissident life and the gradual weakening of the communist dictatorship. In the middle of July 1988 Havel gave an interview to Ivan Medek and Pavel Tigrid, who travelled to Vienna specially for this purpose. By pure coincidence the author of the present review [Radek Schovánek, Translator’s note] was in Vienna at the same time and agreed to cooperate with Pavel Tigrid via Hungary, which was more liberal. In an interview that was broadcast later, Pavel Tigrid mentions young people who had just arrived from Czechoslovakia. A few weeks later, Václav Havel made an appearance at the folk festival in Lipnice in southern Bohemia and Voice of America “happened to“ broadcast the prerecorded interview right on the eve of the festival. Havel expressed lively interest in the situation of the exiles and specifically in Pavel Tigrid. His festival appearance was hugely popular and the State Security failed to confiscate a video recording of it. In an article for the communist party daily Rudé Právo Zdeno Pavelka characterized Havel’s first public appearance in nineteen years with the now legendary sentence that was later set to music: “Shame about the blot on an event that was otherwise certainly meaningful.“ The audience at Lipnice clearly thought otherwise.
In early 1989 Václav Havel again found himself in prison. This time the pretext was his attempt to honour the memory of Jan Palach. But it was no longer possible to stem the decline in the public’s fear of the communist dictatorship. The police and the people’s militia, who treated peaceful demonstrators with particular brutality, were met by the chanting of slogans. One of these, which Jiří Suk’s book does not mention, was “Gestapo, Gestapo.“ People were now losing their fear of the authorities.
The book provides a good account of the disagreement between the opposition in exile and abroad, which occurred in the course of 1989. In the middle of August Radio Free Europe broadcast Havel’s declaration, in effect calling off the planned protests to mark the anniversary of the 1968 invasion. Jiří Suk lists the initiatives and individuals who disagreed with Havel. However, he does not mention anyone who actually shared his views. It is obvious that it was particularly former communists— people who had been expelled from the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia after 1968 and never lost hope that the powers-that-be would take them back into the fold—who found it hard to come to terms with the quickening pulse of history. The StB regarded Havel’s defeatist statement as a great victory. However, the future was soon to prove that it was their last. In September 1989, when I phoned Pavel Tigrid in the Paris office of Svědectví, the first thing I heard was the question: “What do you make of this stupid nonsense?“ My baffled response was followed by a 20-minute rant against Havel and assorted Czech dissidents for expecting that someone else would again fight their battle for them, that freedom would drop from heaven on its own accord, that we didn‘t have to make an effort , etc. When Tigrid got over his rage he calmly asked: “Well, what’s new, what have you got for me?” I would never have dreamt that my next encounter with him would be that very Christmas in Prague.
The final section of the book charts Václav Havel’s ascent to the very pinnacle of the power pyramid. It is masterful, as Jiří Suk is absolutely on top of his subject and his account of the Velvet Revolution reads like a detective thriller. In spite of a few minor errors, his book Politics As the Theatre of the Absurd makes for a fantastic read and provides an excellent guide to our recent history.
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