Michael Žantovský on his new book “Havel”

Michael Žantovský, photo: CTK

Michael Žantovský is the author of a newly published book on the former Czech president simply entitled “Havel” available in both Czech and English. He is one of a few members of the former Civic Forum movement still active in public life, currently serving as the Czech Ambassador to the United Kingdom. Back in 1990, he became a press spokesperson for the new president Václav Havel. From 1992-97, he served as ambassador to the United States. He has also served as Czech Ambassador to Israel, been elected to the Czech Senate, and worked as a translator of both fiction and non-fiction English works. I began by asking Žantovský whether in writing “Havel”, he had aimed to create a subjective memoir or a more objective examination of the life of the former president.

Michael Žantovský, photo: CTK
“It’s the latter. First of all, I didn’t know Václav Havel all of his life. I mean, he was older than me and I only met him in the 1980s. So for the first forty-plus years of his life, we didn’t know each other. And secondly, I did not want to write a personal memoir of my personal impressions because I think that there are more important things about Havel than that. So I tried to take a slightly detached view and describe his life to the best of my abilities and as objectively as I could, drawing on a number of resources and books and documents, so it is not a personal thing.”

And do you recall when you first met Havel having any kind of impression that this was a potentially historic figure?

“Well, he was already then a very important figure. Not nationally perhaps, but in the intellectual circles and in the oppositionist circles. I fist saw his play The Garden Party (1963) when I was 15-years-old in 1964. And I saw it seven or eight times – it was a revelation for people of my generation. And what he did during the 70s – his writings, essays, and finally Charter 77 was enormously influential even for people who were not members of the Charter themselves. So when we first met he was already a personality, today we would say ‘celebrity’, but back then we would never use such a word because that could only bring you trouble. But of course neither he, nor I, could have predicted that in seven or eight years time communism would collapse and that he would be called upon to assume national office. That would have sounded like a slightly crazy dream back then.”

He was famously a very humble, low-key man. And you were there at the time during the Civic Forum and as Havel emerged to become president. What were your observations of him at the time? Was he kind of growing in stature; growing into the role of president? Which, I assume, he was uneasy about at the time.

Václav Havel, photo: archive of Czech Radio
“He was very uneasy about it. And for me this was one of the most unique things about him. As we go through life and as we change environments and roles, we tend to grow into a role, as you put it. And it almost never happened with him. He was still the same Václav Havel whether he was just a friend, or a writer, or an essayist, or a dissident, or a president. He always remained uneasy about himself suddenly being in that elevated position. And as he put it in his own words, he became slightly suspect to himself once he became a statesmen.”

You were Ambassador to the United States from 1992-1997, during the time of Václav Havel’s presidency. This was obviously a key period as Czechoslovakia was forming its pro-Western, pro-NATO new post-communist foreign policy. So what are your observations about how Havel achieved this?

“Well actually it was slightly more complicated that that because I left for the United States in September 1992. As it turned out, I was the last Czechoslovak ambassador. And three months later, the country split, and all of a sudden I was the Czech ambassador and represented two different countries during my tenure. And obviously the first priority for us was to explain what happened, and to promote the new country, because the general awareness of the country in the United States, Britain and in other countries was of ‘Czechoslovakia’. That was the name that rang the bell. But ‘The Czech Republic’ – people didn’t even know what to call it, they called it ‘Czechland’, ‘Czechia’...”

Such confusion still continues to this day...

“Indeed, and I mention in the book that I once received a letter in Washington addressed to ‘The Republic of the Czech Embassy’. So this was the first task at hand. And the second had already begun a year or two before that. We had realised that with things happening around us in the former Soviet Union and in the former Yugoslavia, the war was just starting there. And we realised that security was one of the first priorities because without security it is hard to transform the economy, build institutions, and so forth. And hence the campaign, the drive to join NATO. As the ambassador in Washington, I was more or less spearheading that drive in that country. And Havel was personally involved in this effort. He visited the United states often and developed a very close chemistry with President Clinton. And after that with President [George W.] Bush as well. There are not too many people who managed to befriend both. And he also visited the NATO headquarters in Brussels and personally campaigned for the enlargement. And the evidence of the success of this effort was Clinton’s visit to Prague in January 1994, in which he first publicly announced that the enlargement of NATO is no longer a question of if, but when. And it took another five years after that for us to join NATO, but that was the crucial moment when things changed.”

Photo: Kristýna Maková
It has been three years since Václav Havel’s death. How do you think he would have reacted to the recent comments by Mikhail Gorbachev on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall that we are entering a new Cold War?

“I am rather averse to playing the ‘if’ game. There are no ‘ifs’ in history. So I can only draw on what I know Havel said and did while he was alive. And he made it very clear time and again that we was supportive of the reconciliation between Russia and the West; of the inclusion of the Soviet Union and then Russia in the system of international institutions. And indeed in Havel’s address to the joint session of Congress in February 1990 he said quite remarkably: ‘I didn’t come here to ask for help for ourselves. If you want to help us, help the Soviet Union on its much more difficult and complicated road to democracy.’ And he meant it and was very serious about it and developed a very good relationship with Boris Yeltsin after Gorbachev.

Havel to the US Congress: “When Thomas Jefferson wrote that ‘governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,’ it was a simple and important act of the human spirit. What gave meaning to that act, however, was the fact that the author backed it up with his life. It was not just his words; it was his deeds as well...I will end where I began: history has accelerated. I believe that once again it will be the human mind that will notice this acceleration, give it a name and transform those words into deeds.”

Žantovský continues: “He supported all the parallel steps that the United States and the Western allies took while enlarging NATO to also bring closer Russia and alleviate her fears of the enlargement. And so the concept of the NATO-Russia Council, which originated simultaneously with the enlargement, was designed to include Russia and to make it a part of NATO’s deliberations and planning. The same was the case with its commitments, meaning the ‘three nos’ of NATO: no need, no reason, no intention to deploy nuclear weapons on the territory of the new member countries – and NATO kept this commitment. So I think this all should dispel Gorbachev’s view of recent history, which is radically new, actually. And I have never heard him say that before; nobody has ever heard him say that before. It certainly does seem like lip service to the view of his successor, Mr. Putin. Because this is exactly what Mr. Putin is intimating from time to time.”

Did you find it difficult writing the Havel book whilst also being a serving ambassador [to the United Kingdom]? Did you feel that in certain ways you had to be more diplomatic than you may have been otherwise?

Václav Klaus, Václav Havel, photo: archive of Czech Radio
“Well, that is for the readers to judge. I did not feel I had a very serious problems in this regard because I mostly dealt [in the book] with events of the past. And Havel has been dead for three years so I do not have to comment on current topics or current issues, which could create tensions or a conflict of interest, even. But I was reasonably certain of one thing – and sometimes I really had that feeling as if Havel were looking over my shoulder while I was writing; he would not want me to prettify things. He would not want me to avoid controversial subjects or issues, so...”

Could you tell me about some of those? The mistakes and missteps by Havel that you wrote about.

“There are at least two categories of sensitive points. And I do not dwell on them in detail, because I do not think they are all that important for the public understanding. Some have to do with his personal life, and some of them have to do with his time in office as president. Throughout his presidency, there were issues and stands that created controversy. His apology to the Sudeten Germans, right at the beginning of the presidency; actually several days before he assumed the presidency. Also his support for the international intervention in the former Yugoslavia, and in Kosovo in particular was criticised by many people. Some of his views on domestic issues, in particular the growing differences of views between himself, as the president, and Václav Klaus, as the prime minister, was another issue. And finally there was his support for the US intervention in Iraq. Which I describe and explain in the book, but all these – and I could think of some others – were a matter of some controversy.”

What is evident in Czech society is a tendency on the one hand to deify Václav Havel, and also by other parts of society to do their utmost to belittle him. So how do these two tensions reconcile themselves?

“Well, I know what you mean and I must say that I see this kind of infighting as somewhat silly. My intention certainly has not been to deify Havel. On the contrary, I try to describe him as a very human being, with very human weaknesses, and also who made some mistakes – which everybody does, including him. On the other hand, I think his legacy as the man who led this nation during the revolution; who led it in the first stages of its transformation into a democratic country, market economy and a Western country, so to speak, is beyond dispute. And his reputation globally, I think, is unassailable. I see that wherever I go. So I think that people who are deliberately trying to belittle him are fighting a lost battle. And I can understand some of their feelings and some of their motivations, but I don’t think it is a very useful or helpful way to talk about the current issues. Because what is really happening is that the fight is about current issues and the other side is only borrowing Havel to beat each other over the head with. And I don’t think that this is a very useful way to conduct a political debate.”

You worked for many years as a translator as well. And I understand you wrote your new book in English first, and then translated yourself into Czech. How come you decided to do it that way?

Michael Žantovský, photo: Petr Novák, CC BY-SA 3.0
“There was probably more than one reason. One very practical reason was that the first publisher who took interest in the book was an American and British publisher. So there was immediately the question of translating the text. So I decided I would rather start in English. But there was also a more subtle reason. When I started thinking about the book, I was so afraid that I would get entangled and mired in all these little domestic disputes, which are of not much interest to anybody but us – and not even all of us, just some of us. And so I realised that I would need to take a step back and to take a more detached view. And using English as the vernacular was a device to do that. It is a trick, but it seems to have worked.”

A liberating one.