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Ambassador Michael Žantovský on Václav Havel

He was the most unlikely giant. Of less than average height, and not too impressive physique, with a surprisingly low voice both in pitch and volume, and a signature guttural “r,” he was self-effacing to the point of shyness. And yet he was one of the few people I met who knew no fear. In the emotional aftermath of the Velvet Revolution, he came to be mobbed by crowds verging on hysteria wherever he went.

 

 

 

 

He disappeared in the dead of winter:

The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,

And snow disfigured the public statues;

The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.

What instruments we have agree

The day of his death was a dark cold day.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,

An afternoon of nurses and rumours;

The provinces of his body revolted,

The squares of his mind were empty,

Silence invaded the suburbs,

The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

— W. H. Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” (1939)

 

He was the most unlikely giant. Of less than average height, and not too impressive physique, with a surprisingly low voice both in pitch and volume, and a signature guttural “r,” he was self-effacing to the point of shyness. And yet he was one of the few people I met who knew no fear. In the emotional aftermath of the Velvet Revolution, he came to be mobbed by crowds verging on hysteria wherever he went. It was the job for us in his small entourage to help out the beleaguered close security detail and keep him from being literally crushed by affection. There were moments we feared for the worst. He never showed anything more than a slight, somewhat amused curiosity. He was as unperturbed when meeting with emperors, presidents, and prime ministers as he was nervous when addressing a class in an elementary school. The reason was that in the latter situation he thought he ran a greater risk of disappointing.

When, a few weeks into his presidency, he came to be interviewed by an American TV celebrity for one of the main prime-time talk shows, she found him distinctly underwhelming. “He is impossible, he mumbles, and he maintains no eye contact,” she kept complaining, rather loudly, to everybody present. It was impossible to explain to her that maintaining eye contact with and articulating clearly for your interlocutor were poor strategies if you recently spent five years in jail.

Maybe it was because of his unassuming personality that the communist regime, and later some of his adversaries in the newfound democracy, often dismissed him as an impractical dreamer, a bohemian, a mere “artist.” The artist was instrumental in bringing down the Iron Curtain and the communist regime, in changing the country into a full-fledged democracy in six months, in dismantling the Warsaw Pact, in moving the Soviet troops out of Czechoslovakia and Central Europe, in the Czech Republic’s joining NATO and the EU, all the while taking up the cause of freedom and human rights elsewhere in the world, be it in the Balkans, Belarus, Cuba, Burma, China, or the Middle East. There were disappointments as well. In 1992, he failed to keep Czechoslovakia together, but it was not for lack of trying. Rather than oversee the split, he resigned his presidency. For many people, he remained a hero on both sides of the new border.

Despite his becoming an icon, he never turned into a monument. He spent his political capital freely, at times advocating unpopular or controversial causes. As president, he apologized for the forced transfer of ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia at the end of World War II and supported both the bombing of Serbia to stop the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and the 2003 war in Iraq. He never flinched when faced with the argument that a particular action or statement would cause his poll numbers to go down.

But it was his humor, his air of constantly marveling at all of life’s absurd situations, his refusal to take himself or his accolades too seriously (he once told the Queen in the Buckingham Palace, “Ma’am, if that door over there opened and they would come to take me away, I would not be at all surprised”), and his infectious rumbling laughter, coming from somewhere deep inside his badly damaged lungs, that will now make the world seem like such a cold and inhospitable place.

Although he subscribed to no organized religion, he invariably finished any meeting dealing with difficult issues by saying somewhat wistfully, “Lord, have mercy.” I am sure He will.

Michael Zantovsky´s blog at World Affairs Journal.