Václav Havel (1936–2011), the famous Czech dissident, intellectual, and playwright, was there when half a million people came to Wenceslas Square to demand an end to Communism in 1989. Many came to hear him call for a free Czechoslovakia, for democratic elections, and for a return to Europe. The demonstrators roared when he spoke. “Havel to the castle,” they chanted— meaning Havel for president. And a few weeks later, Havel became a most unusual president. He was sometimes misunderstood and not always popular, but by the time of his death in 2011, the world recognized Havel as one of the most prominent figures of the twentieth century. In this intimate and sweeping portrayal of Havel, David Gilbreath Barton reveals the eccentricities of the last president of Czechoslovakia, and the first president of the Czech Republic.
Barton’s sprightly, readable overview of Havel’s life and work is especially incisive in thinking through Havel’s personality, particularly his shyness, self-doubt and depression and their impact on his sometimes reluctant, sometimes welcome embrace, of a live lived in public. Without judgment, Barton chronicles how Havel’s friendships and relationships molded him as a man and as a thinker.
David Barton has written an expansive and informing portrait of Václav Havel. It is an engrossing read that captures the resilience and eloquence of a man who started as an artist, became a dissident, and eventually a statesman and great leader. The lessons here, restoring democratic ideals in a time of chaos, are more relevant and important now than ever.
The number of books published on Havel, his life and legacy, is proof of his relevance. It also makes it hard to develop a new angle with an approachable and readable form. David Gilbreath Barton has achieved that and gives all one needs to understand Havel’s place in the history of the Czech Republic.
David Gilbreath Barton is an award-winning journalist and associate professor of humanities at Northern New Mexico College. From 1996 to 2001, he was founding editor of The Salt Journal, a finalist in the Utne Reader’s Award for best “small magazine” in the nation. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his wife.