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A Life in Brief
When I came to Prague in June 1996, the Czech Republic had only been in existence for three and a half years and Vaclav Havel was still in his first term as Czech President. I was not really up on politics and central European History at that time but I learned fast and I learned about Vaclav Havel.
Born 1936 into a family considered both entrepreneurial and intellectual it was hardly surprising that Vaclav Havel grew up surrounded by radical ideas, challenging the status quo with his grandfather having been a Czechoslovak Ambassador and well-known journalist. Havel would have been aware of Edvard Benes and the 1948 Communist Coup D’Etat. Shortly after, he became aware of the limitation in his options as young as fourteen. In the early stages of the Communist regime, given his “Capitalist” family history, he was denied access to higher education in Prague. By 1954 aged 18, Vaclav Havel had completed a four year apprenticeship and also got his secondary education certificate via night school but without any option of a Humanities degree he was forced to enroll in an Economics degree which he dropped out of after two years. By 1959 aged 23 and needing to earn his way, Vaclav Havel embarked on his first love and became a stagehand at the ABC Theatre.
By 1963 Havel had begun writing and a succession of plays published between 1963 and 1968 (he married in 1964) raised his profile both in Prague and also in New York where his critically acclaimed play “the Memorandum” was performed. Vaclav Havel rode the reformist wave of early 1968 and his essays, poems and plays were all used to encourage the general population to strive for a less restrictive form of government. During the military invasion after August 20th, Havel went to the northern town of Liberec where he broadcast a resistance narrative via Radio Free Czechoslovakia.
Post 1968, two things changed the course of his life. Firstly, he was blacklisted meaning that the performance of his plays was banned in Prague and secondly he was banned from leaving the country. He turned to politics and his writing became published in the local dissident magazine called “Samizdat” (literally meaning self published). This both circulated his humanitarian narrative to a wider audience, raised his dissident profile and began to mark him out as a dissident leader. This phase of his life includes his open letter “Dear Dr. Husak” written in 1975 in which he challenges the regime to redefine it’s role and how it measures it’s success from a humanitarian aspect. This narrative was further increased when Vaclav Havel became a signatory of the Charter 77 document.
Charter 77 was basically a protest at the Communist regime’s inability to implement humanitarian reforms. It became a criminal offence to distribute the Charter 77 document and Vaclav Havel along with other dissidents were imprisoned for attempting to bring it to the Czech Federal Assembly. Although the original was confiscated, copies found their way out of the country to be broadcast on international radio stations. Charter 77 was more than just a document, it was a doctrine defined as “a loose, informal, and open association of people . . . united by the will to strive individually and collectively for respect for human and civil rights in our country and throughout the world“. This kept them on the right side of the law but still the regime took drastic action against the signatories including exile, work dismissal and other punishments affecting both them and their families. In 1979 Vaclav Havel and other dissident leaders were sentenced to up to 5 years in prison for “subversion”.
Charter 77 was pretty subdued until the late 1980s when the opportunity for change presented itself and although the Charter 77 group never became a political party, it did spawn the “Civic Forum”. The Civic Forum was lead by Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Klaus and could best be described as a “loose grouping of opposition”. It was formed entirely to provide an effective alternative to the failing Communist regime and people could not have believed how soon it would come crashing down with the events of the Velvet Revolution beginning on November 17th and resulting in the resignation of the President only 11 days later. The Civic Forum would only last for two years before splitting into more traditional political parties focused on the right and left but for the purposes of transition from Communism to Democracy it served it’s purpose.
Vaclav Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia on December 28th 1989 and Vaclav Klaus was invited to form a government. From the start there was conflict with Vaclav Klaus the far more right-leaning man. 1992 was a rough year for Vaclav Havel who was on record as saying that he did not want to be President and that political change is best delivered by parliament. Firstly in the Presidential election he was the only candidate yet failed to get the support of many Slovak deputies. This effectively caused a constitutional crises in the country and a Slovak Declaration of Independence (supported by Vaclav Klaus) resulted in plans for Czechoslovakia to split. Secondly, Vaclav Havel resigned as President of Czechoslovakia on July 20th claiming he did not want to preside of the split.
A New Country
The Czech Republic formed on 1st January 1993 and Vaclav Havel was elected as it’s first President. Politically the country was more mature but still tried to switch to a market economy which conflicted with Havel’s “humanitarian” ideals. In 1996 his first wife died and the following year Vaclav Havel remarried. In the same year, he and his new wife established the VIZE97 (Vision97) Foundation whose largest work is undoubtedly the Prague Crossroads. In 1998 Vaclav Havel was again re-elected President and served a full 5 year term until he left office on February 2nd 2003 after which he gave his political support to the Czech Green Party. He published more than 40 works of poetry, essays, plays and books. From 1993 until his death Vaclav Havel received more than 50 private and state honours. Awards were created in his name like the “Vaclav Havel Award for Creative Dissent”.
His “interview-based” question and answer memoir entitled “To the Castle and Back” published in 2007 has a chapter where Vaclav Havel tries to explain his extreme dislike of flying and expressed the desire not to have Prague Airport named after him. He died on December 18th 2011 and on October 5th 2012 less than ten months after his death the Prague Vaclav Havel Airport was inaugurated.