Chom-chom-chom-chom, whirred a black helicopter overhead as sharpshooters in black patrolled the roofs of the four- and five-story buildings overlooking Wenceslas Square. Several stern-faced Czech police officers swung open a ten-foot section of waist-high steel barricades, whose steel looked so new and shiny it must have been ordered for just this occasion. Rachel and I shuffled ahead, jostled from every direction and swept along with the crowd, through the gap in the make-shift railing. A few people were pulled aside for random searches of their bags.
“My God,” said a Czech lady, recovering her balance as the surge subsided, “there was nowhere near this much security when Gorbachev was here in eighty-seven!”
Now, even with some aggressive pressing forward, we had to settle for a spot half-way up the square. Some young people opted to swing from trees and lampposts for a better view.
The late-afternoon sun lit the face of the National Museum. At the foot of the Wenceslas monument stood a new white structure with blue and red trim, much like a booth at a Fourth-of-July fair, but surrounded by blue-tinted glass, presumably bullet-proof. Czechoslovak and American flags hung from buildings all around.
Suddenly, a group began shoving its way up the square, chanting angrily, carrying a fifteen-foot-long banner stretched between two thin poles: “Velvet Revolution = Puppit Show.”
A goateed man in front of us turned around. “It is Sládek and his crazy followers. They belief that Havel cooperated with communeests, that revolution was all theater.”
“Why would they think that?” I asked, puzzled.
“Well, nobody died in this revolution.” He adjusted the huge glasses on his face. “Sládek people say communeests only pretend to give up power. Now they buy up property and get rich like big capitalists. Sure, some old communeests will get rich, because they have money to invest. But they have no power.” He waved a hand dismissively. “Anyway, don’t listen to Sládek people. They are all styoopid.”
Conspiracy theories held little attraction, but this one unsettled me, even with this guy’s skepticism. Some pupils had told me that one impetus for the revolution had been a rumor that a student had been killed in the previous year’s first demonstration. If it were based—even in part—on a falsehood, it would lose some of its luster.
As I tried to seal these perturbing thoughts off, the bulk of the assemblage shouted down the Sládek mob by chanting “Ať žije Havel!“ “Long live Havel!” Thank you, now we can bask in self-congratulation.
At four, the loudspeakers boomed an announcement in Czech. The tall George H. W. Bush and the much shorter Havel both lay wreaths at the Wenceslas statue, then stepped inside the presidential stand. The spectators, now at a hundred thousand, applauded fervently. Those in front waved tiny Czech and American flags that had been tossed out minutes before from tiny pickups hovering near the crowd-control barriers.
“Dear guests and fellow citizens,” Havel began, pausing every sentence for a Czech woman to interpret into English. “A landslide was set in motion by students who decided last year to recall the memory of Jan Opletal and International Students’ Day in the form of an independent demonstration. What followed is now well known.”
Jubilant cries broke out all around: “Ať žije Havel!” He spoke more smoothly now than in Martin two weeks before; his delivery was more rehearsed.
“A year has passed. And now we stand here a bit embarrassed. We know full well what else remains to be done and yet we ask ourselves why our common task is so difficult: Did we underestimate the legacy of the old regime or did we overestimate ourselves?”
The crowd fell silent, except for isolated jeers from the Sládek faction.
“Nervousness and impatience, in and of themselves, don’t bother me that much.” His voice seemed hesitant now, as if the hecklers had gotten to him. “I’m much more concerned about other things that are becoming more and more common: vengefulness, spitefulness, envy, mutual defamation, hatred and naked ambition. It seems to me that our society is becoming more and more clearly infected with these things.
“Are we such a nation that we can only awaken to life our good qualities only once every twenty years, and even then only for a few months?”
Rachel and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows. So much for the euphoria of the year before. Most of the onlookers took the upbraiding with stony faces. These Havel-style liberals apparently believed the splash of cold water appropriate.
Havel then recalled the weakness of the U.S. Articles of Confederation, the strength of the new constitution of 1787, and the American ability to rise to challenges. “Dear friends,” he concluded, “one year ago the freedom-loving spirit of our nations prevailed over violence and totalitarianism. I believe that the reason, decency and tolerance within each of us will now prevail over envy, selfishness and intolerance.”
Thank God – a high note. Despite the scolding, “Ať žije Havel!” echoed around the square again. I tried to imagine it was 1989 all over again, but it just didn’t work. No keys jingling, no trumpets blowing.
Dusk had begun to fall by the time Bush took the podium. “Thank you, Mr. President, and thank you, my Czech and Slovak friends. It is a tremendous honor to me to be the first sitting American president to visit this proud and beautiful country and to be able to join you on the first anniversary of the extraordinary Velvet Revolution.” The audience whooped, echoing Bush’s optimistic tenor.
“There are no leaves on the trees, and yet it is Prague Spring. There are no flowers in bloom, and yet it is Prague Spring. The calendar says November seventeenth, and yet it is Prague Spring.” More applause roiled from the square. Bush—although known for rather wooden-sounding speeches back home—seemed much more charismatic than Havel. I hoped he wouldn’t hog the limelight, though.
He peppered his address with references to great Czechs of the past: the seventeenth-century Protestant leader Comenius, the first president of Czechoslovakia Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, Alexander Dubček and, finally, Havel, “a man of wisdom, a man of tremendous moral courage. In the dark years, on one side stood the state; on the other side, Havel. On one side, tyranny; on the other, this man of vision and truth. Among the first was Havel, and now there are millions.” More thunderous approval.
Then Bush turned to drumming up support for the looming conflict with Saddam Hussein. “Czechoslovakia was one of the first nations to condemn the outrage in the Persian Gulf It is no coincidence that appeasement’s lonely victim half a century ago,” he said, referring to 1938’s Munich Pact, “should be among the first to understand that there is right and there is wrong, there is good and there is evil, and there are sacrifices worth making.”
I looked back down the square and along both sides. The cheering this time was noticeably subdued; most people looked on with indifference.
I was relieved when Bush next affirmed America’s commitment to the Czechs’ and Slovaks’ political reforms. “We want to help you proclaim your new liberty throughout all this proud and beautiful land, and so today we give to you our last replica of the Liberty Bell. And so I ring it three times: once for your courage, once for your freedom, and once for your children.”
Suddenly three high-pitched peals rent the cold night air. I couldn’t see the bell, but I knew it must be smaller than the original. After a pause, Bush rang it a forth time. People looked around bewildered.
“What was that for?” asked Rachel.
As the last applause faded, the strumming of an acoustic guitar, and the plunking of a string bass filled the square and a Joan Baez-like voice rang out with a Czech version of “We Shall Overcome.” The group, Spirituál kvintet, was known for its renditions of Negro spirituals, as well as Czech-language originals imitating that style. This “religious” music had enjoyed the old regime’s approval for its messages about right-wing oppression. In TV appearances in the mid-1980s the band had addressed causes like the anti-Apartheid crusade. But the previous November, they’d joined the crowds calling for a new government, leading protestors in their hit “I’m waiting till justice returns.”
Now, they alternated between Czech and English stanzas as the crowd sang along. Rachel and I joined in on the English lyrics. Not having been present for the Fall of the Berlin Wall, this was about as close as we would get to a Woodstock of our generation.