November 26 is the thirtieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, the peaceful demise of Soviet control over Czechoslovakia. A hundred thousand Czechs and Slovaks gathered in Prague’s Wenceslas Square jangling their keys to celebrate the fall of the Communist government and the promise of a new life. On that remarkable day, Václav Havel and Alexander Dubček, among others, stood on the balcony overlooking the square. Two decades earlier, on April 4, 1968, I was in Prague, traveling with a group of French Catholic students on an Easter trip to Central Europe. Dubček had just been installed at the head of a new government that was trying to shake off the Soviets. The weather, as I recall, was damp and gray, but the Prague Spring mood was ebullient.
That was one of the unforgettable days I associate with the Velvet Revolution. Another was the following August 20. I was traveling on an overnight train from Germany to Paris with my husband and daughter, whose third birthday we had just celebrated, when we got word that Warsaw Pact troops had invaded Czechoslovakia to quash Dubček’s reforms. When we reached Paris, no amount of sleep deprivation could tear us away from the radio and reports of Czech resistance. The invasion was of course followed by the persecution, arrest, and imprisonment of Czechoslovak dissenters, the young Havel among them.
My colleagues at Commonweal used to tease me about my enthusiasm for Havel’s writing. During the 1970s and ’80s, Commonweal was more attuned to dissidents in Poland—Lech Wałęsa, Adam Michnik, and, of course, the new Polish pope. Easy choice: a Czech playwright hardly matched the drama of a rebellion wrapped in a Catholic cloak. What’s more, the friendship between Commonweal and Tygodnik Powszechny, its lay Catholic counterpart in Kraków, had grown over the years with sporadic visits of its editors to the United States. Events in Poland were closely followed by my colleagues.
Czechoslovakia was another story, culturally and religiously. So was Václav Havel, whose plays and essays were addressed to a more secular society steeped in the humanism of Tomáš Masaryk and the rebelliousness (as I liked to imagine) of Jan Hus, the fifteenth-century heretic. My enthusiasm included reading, and frequently quoting from, Havel’s writings: Letters to Olga, “The Power of the Powerless,” “Politics and Conscience,” “The Anatomy of a Reticence,” along with dissenting statements, public appeals, and pithy slogans. New York’s Public Theater translated and mounted several of his plays, a few of which I saw. When British supporters of repressed Czech and Slovak dissidents wished to drum up similar support in the United States, our Manhattan living room became the site of a small group of organizers, including the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor.