When Václav Havel allied himself with the hairy musicians

Source: Radio Praha / www.radio.cz / By Chris Johnstone /

Václav Havel has been the subject of many books and quite a few have been devoted to the so-called Czechoslovak underground, the cultural movement which above all in music but also through literature and art ignored the desires and instructions of the ruling communist party. But while the link between the two has often been made, a new book bluntly argues that without the support of the underground, dissident leader Havel would have been nowhere in creating a coherent opposition.

Vaclav Havel in 1989 Czech Television
Václav Havel in 1989, photo: Czech Television

Kapela – or band – is the title of a newly released book jointly authored by historian Ladislav Kudrna and former underground member, now researcher, František Stárek Čuňas. It carries the sub-title ‘Background of an action which created Charter 77.’ The action in question is one of the many sporadic moves launched by the secret police against independent bands which were seen as challenging and undermining the values of the regime. Ladislav Kudrna explains:

“The action Kapela was announced in November 1985 and went on until November 1989. The target was to eliminate all the ‘negative’ rock bands, that is all the bands that negatively influenced young people. There were a lot more such actions. For their context we have to take into account what phase the Cold War was in at the time. Czechoslovakia as a satellite of the Soviet Union did not have its own independent foreign policy. Domestic policy was often shaped by the state of the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States. At the end of the 1970s, the state security services did not intervene as much against the signatories of Charter 77 as much as they had done in 1976 because they feared the international uproar that would result.”

Being rather prone to conspiracy theories, partly because they were behind conspiracies and plots of their own, the party and secret police saw the underground as part of a wider Western move against them. But the Czech underground was a lot more apolitical than its Western equivalent which was overwhelmingly left-wing orientated and sought to overthrow the establishment. In Czechoslovakia the movement was opposed to the regime, that was a given. But the movement did not seek to challenge the regime but rather wanted to be left alone and operate in parallel outside its wide remit.

Still the underground Czech style was a powerful and potent force and that also helped to fuel the regime’s fears. Ladislav Kudrna again:

He saw that things were starting to stir in society and that if he didn’t want to miss the train then he would have to jump on fast.

“If we are talking about how strong that movement was, in Northern Bohemia – which was a bastion for the underground – in the mid-1970’s the state security service counted around a thousand fans of hippy groups, as they [the police] referred to the underground. If we talk about the overall numbers from the 1970’s and going into the 1980’s then the total number of people in the country could be around 80,000 to 100,000 young people. This is a really big figure. That’s one of the reasons why the state security, which had for so long left the underground to one side, acted. Events like Rudolfov and the Festival for Second Culture shocked the state security services because of the sheer numbers of people who came to such events from all across the country.”

Rudolfov, near České Budějovice, was an illegal concert which was brutally disrupted by the security forces.

And it was the wide youth following and potency of the underground, particularly focused around the band, The Plastic People of the Universe and their one time manager, the outspoken alternative artist and poet, Ivan Martin Jirous, that Havel eventually grasped during the mid-1970s.

According to author Kudrna it was though Jirous not Havel who made the first move to create the link between the underground and the largely intellectual dissenters surrounding Havel. The go between was the cultural historian František Smejkal.

“It was apparently Jirous on his own that sent Dr. Smejkal to Havel. He somehow had the feeling that the underground movement was heading for a confrontation and wanted to search for natural allies where he could. At that time the opposition [to the Communist regime] was very disunited. It would hardly have occurred to anyone in March 1976 that at the end of that year the opposition which consisted of those around Václav Havel, dissident Catholics, former and excluded communists and reformists from 1968 would unite around a common platform, which was Charter 77. People like Professor [Jan] Patočka, Frantisek Riegl, [Jiří] Hájek, the former foreign minister, these people had never heard of the underground, never heard of Jirouš or the band The Plastic People of the Universe. It’s likely that if such people as Pavel Kohout or Professor Patočka or the excellent poet, Seifert, had heard that music, it would not have at all been their cup of tea.”

Jirous was the author in the mid-70s of what became regarded as the manifesto of the Czech underground. And move to reach out to Havel was apparently an opportune one since the dissident playwright was facing a rebuff for his own efforts to stir up resistance to the regime:

Czechoslovak viewers and readers realised from their televisions and press that there was some big trial going on with these strange people.

“As is known, Václav Havel in April 1975 wrote his famous open letter to the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, Gustáv Husák. But the letter did not really stir up things that much in Czechoslovakia, which was then subject to the wave of so-called ‘normalisation.’ The letter was not referred to much and when it was talked about, it was mostly within the circle of Havel’s friends. On the other hand, around a year later in March 1976 there was an unexpected upheaval and that upheaval was prompted by some long haired people playing strange music. Czechoslovak viewers and readers realised from their televisions and press that there was some big trial going on with these strange people. And they began asking themselves what all the fuss was about and why it was happening. The state security agency and government said these were drug addicts and free riders who didn’t work. But people wondered what all the fuss was about over these long haired people who played music.”

The new book is fairly blunt in its assessment that that Charter 77, the main challenge to the communist regime in the following years and the rallying ground for opposition, would probably not have been born without the cooperation of the underground. Without the underground, it says, Havel would have been a general with no troops.

Ivan Martin Jirous, photo: Tomáš VodňanskýIvan Martin Jirous, photo: Tomáš Vodňanský
Overall, those linked to the underground represented around 40 percent of the signatories of Charter 77 and were amongst its main propagators around the country. Historian Kudrna reckons Havel was fairly calculating in all this.

“Havel was never any great connaisseur of music. That doesn’t mean that he did not come to later like the Plastic People of the Universe. What interests us is how at the end of one meeting. let’s say one shared drink, he came to have such an interest in a group of people he had shown no interest in before. It was just one evening with Jirous, all that was very nice, but there were many such evenings. We realise that Vacláv Havel was always very ambitious man – and that’s fine, there is nothing at all wrong in that. And he saw that things were starting to stir in society and that if he didn’t want to miss the train then he would have to jump on fast. He felt, perfectly correctly, that here was a chance to unify the opposition around this common platform. And a lot of these stirring were as a result of the former excluded communists.”

Even so, the united opposition to the communist regime that started to take shape was not always harmonious, far from it. Kudrna says underground leaders resented the fact that they felt to some extent muzzled by the Charter 77 leadership and they wanted a more active and wider role out there in public.

The book draws on many archive sources, both of the communist party and the secret police at Prague headquarters and in the regions. One somewhat paradoxical aspect is the fact that in many cases the official communist youth movement was happy to hold concerts by non-official bands which the police were trying to suppress. And thy also sought to stage their own alternative rock concerts. The crowds and money both type of events could pull in were significant factors:

There was a head on conflict between these old communists, symbolised by Husák, and these new young technocrats.

Profits were also an important aspect, perhaps the primary issue. Members of the youth associations wanted to make a profit. They were frequently in conflict with the leadership of the communist party. The party was constantly seeking some re-evaluation of rock music, the last demand came in 1987. Meanwhile the youth associations were pushing for the creation of their own house of culture, for their own music and publishing businesses, so that they could represent all artists up to 35 years old. So there was a head on conflict between these old communists, symbolised by Husák, and these new young technocrats.”