Václav Havel


Václav Havel, GCB, CC, (born October 5, 1936) is a Czech playwright writer and politician. He was the tenth and last President of Czechoslovakia (1989-1992) and the first President of the Czech Republic (1993-2003). He has written over twenty plays and numerous non-fiction works, translated internationally. He has received the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, and the Ambassador of Conscience Award.

Beginning in the 1960s, his work turned to focus on the politics of Czechoslovakia. After the Prague Spring, he became increasingly active. In 1977, his involvement with the human rights manifesto Charter 77 brought him international fame as the leader of the opposition in Czechoslovakia; it also led to his imprisonment. The 1989 "Velvet Revolution" launched Havel into the presidency. In this role he led Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic to multi-party democracy. His thirteen years in office saw radical change in his nation, including its split with Slovakia, which Havel opposed, its accession into NATO and start of the negotiations for membership in the European Union, which was completed in 2004.


Václav Havel was born in Prague. He grew up in a well-known and wealthy entrepreneurial and intellectual family, which was closely linked to the cultural and political events in Czechoslovakia from the 1920s to the 1940s. Because of these links, the Communist regime did not allow Havel to study formally after he had completed his required schooling in 1951. In the first part of the 1950s, the young Havel entered into a four-year apprenticeship as a chemical laboratory assistant and simultaneously took evening classes to complete his secondary education (which he did in 1954). For political reasons, he was not accepted into any post-secondary school with a humanities program; therefore, he opted to study at the Faculty of Economics of Czech Technical University in Prague. He dropped out after two years. In 1964, Havel married proletarian Olga Šplíchalová, which was much to the displeasure of his mother.


The intellectual tradition of his family compelled Václav Havel to pursue the humanitarian values of Czech culture. After military service (1957–59) he worked as a stagehand in Prague (at the Theater On the Balustrade - Divadlo Na zábradlí) and studied drama by correspondence at the Theater Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (DAMU). His first publicly performed full-length play, besides various vaudeville collaborations, was The Garden Party (1963). Presented in a season of Theater of the Absurd, at the Balustrade, it won him international acclaim. It was soon followed by The Memorandum, one of his best known plays, and the The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, all at the Balustrade. In 1968, The Memorandum was also brought to The Public Theater in New York, which helped establish his reputation in the United States. The Public continued to produce his plays over the next years, although after 1968 his plays were banned in his own country and Havel was unable to leave Czechoslovakia to see any foreign performances.


During the first week of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, Havel provided a commentary on the events on Radio Free Czechoslovakia in Liberec. Following the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 he was banned from the theatre and became more politically active. He was forced to take a job in a brewery, an experience he wrote about in his play Audience. This play, along with two other "Vaněk" plays (so-called because of the recurring character Ferdinand Vaněk, a stand in for Havel), became distributed in samizdat form across Czechoslovakia, and greatly added to Havel's reputation of being a leading revolutionary (several other Czech writers later wrote their own plays featuring Vaněk). This reputation was cemented with the publication of the Charter 77 manifesto, written partially in response to the imprisonment of members of the Czech psychedelic band The Plastic People of the Universe. He also co-founded the organization Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted in 1979. His political activities resulted in multiple stays in prison, the longest being four years, and also subjected him to constant government surveillance and harassment. His longest stay in prison, from June 1979 to January 1984, is documented in Letters to Olga, his late wife.

He was also famous for his essays, most particularly for his articulation of “Post-Totalitarianism” (Power of the Powerless), a term used to describe the modern social and political order that enabled people to "live within a lie." A passionate supporter of non-violent resistance, a role in which he has been compared, by former US President Bill Clinton, to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, he became a leading figure in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the bloodless end to communism in Czechoslovakia.


On December 29, 1989, as leader of the Civic Forum, he became president by a unanimous vote of the Federal Assembly — an ironic turn of fate for a man who had long insisted that he was uninterested in politics. In this he joined many dissidents of the period, who argued that political change should happen through civic initiatives autonomous from the state, rather than through the state itself. In 1990, he was awarded the Prize For Freedom of the Liberal International.

After the free elections of 1990 he retained the presidency. Despite increasing tensions, Havel appeared to have supported the retention of the federation of the Czechs and the Slovaks during the breakup of Czechoslovakia. On July 3 1992 the federal parliament did not elect Havel — the only candidate — due to a lack of support from Slovak MPs. After the Slovaks issued their Declaration of Independence, he resigned as president on July 20. July 4, 1990 he hosted a conference in Prague organized by Martin Colman and The National Council To Support The Democracy Movements which brought together the representatives of the democracy movements in order to plan the final collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and the countries it occupied. When the Czech Republic was created, he stood for election as president there on January 26, 1993, and won.

Although Havel has been quite popular throughout his career, his popularity abroad surpassed his popularity at home, and he has been no stranger to controversy and criticism. An extensive general pardon, one of his first acts as a president, was an attempt to both lessen the pressure in overcrowded prisons and release those who may have been falsely imprisoned during the Communist era. It was also based on his feeling that a corrupt court's decisions cannot be trusted, and that most in prison had not been fairly tried. Critics claimed that this amnesty raised the crime rate. However, according to Havel in his most recent memoir To the Castle and Back, the statistics do not support that allegation, especially as most released would have been released within a year.

In an interview with Karel Hvížďala (also included in To the Castle and Back), Havel states that he feels his most important accomplishment as president was the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. This proved quite complicated, as the infrastructure created by the pact was so ingrained in the workings of the countries involved and indeed in their general consciousness. It took two years before the Soviet troops finally fully withdrew from Czechoslovakia. Following a legal dispute with his sister-in-law, Havel decided to sell his 50% stake in the Lucerna Palace on Wenceslas Square, a legendary dance hall built by his grandfather Václav Havel. In a transaction arranged by Marián Čalfa, Havel sold the estate to Václav Junek, a former communist spy in France and leader of soon-to-be-bankrupt conglomerate Chemapol Group, who later openly admitted he bribed politicians of Czech Social Democratic Party.

In December 1996 the chain smoking Havel was diagnosed as having lung cancer. The disease reappeared two years later. He later quit smoking. In 1996, Olga, beloved by the Czech people and his wife of 32 years died of cancer. Less than a year later Havel remarried, to actress Dagmar Veškrnová.

The former political prisoner was instrumental in enabling the transition of NATO from being an anti-Warsaw Pact alliance to its present inclusion of former-Warsaw Pact members, like the Czech Republic. In the interests of his country, he advocated vigorously for the expansion of the military alliance into Eastern Europe, including the Czech Republic.

Havel was re-elected president in 1998 and underwent a colostomy in Innsbruck when his colon ruptured while on holiday in Austria. Havel left office after his second term as Czech president ended on February 2, 2003; Václav Klaus, one of his greatest political opponents, was elected his successor on February 28, 2003. Margaret Thatcher writes of the two men in her foreign policy treatise, Statecraft, reserving greater respect for Havel, whose dedication to democracy and defying the Communists earned her admiration.

Post-presidential career

Since 1997, Havel has hosted a conference entitled Forum 2000. In November and December 2006, Havel spent eight weeks as a visiting artist in residence at Columbia University. The stay was sponsored by the university's Arts Initiative, and featured "lectures, interviews, conversations, classes, performances, and panels center[ing] on his life and ideas", including a public "conversation" with former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Concurrently, the Untitled Theater Company #61 launched a Havel Festival, the first complete festival of his plays in various venues throughout New York City, in celebration of his 70th birthday.

In May 2007, Havel's memoir of his experiences as President, To the Castle and Back, was published. The book mixes an interview in the style of Disturbing the Peace with actual memos he sent to his staff with modern diary entries and recollections.

On August 4, 2007, Havel met with members of the Belarus Free Theatre at his summer cottage in the Czech Republic, in a show of his continuing support, which has been instrumental in its attaining international recognition and its membership in the European Theatrical Convention. Havel's first new play in over 18 years, Leaving (Odcházení), was published in November 2007, to have its world premiere in June 2008 at the Prague theater Divadlo na Vinohradech, but the theater withdrew it in December. The play instead premiered on 22 May 2008 at the Archa Theatre to standing ovations. Havel based the play on King Lear, by William Shakespeare, and on The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov; "Chancellor Vilém Rieger is the central character of Leaving, who faces a crisis after being removed from political power." In September, the play had its English language premiere at the Orange Tree Theatre in London.


On July 4, 1994 Václav Havel was awarded the Philadelphia Liberty Medal. In his acceptance speech, he said: "The idea of human rights and freedoms must be an integral part of any meaningful world order. Yet I think it must be anchored in a different place, and in a different way, than has been the case so far. If it is to be more than just a slogan mocked by half the world, it cannot be expressed in the language of departing era, and it must not be mere froth floating on the subsiding waters of faith in a purely scientific relationship to the world." In 1997 he was the recipient of the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca.

In 2002, he was the third recipient of the Hanno R. Ellenbogen Citizenship Award presented by the Prague Society for International Cooperation. He was awarded in 2003 the International Gandhi Peace Prize, named after Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi by the government of India for his outstanding contribution towards world peace and upholding human rights in most difficult situations through Gandhian means. In 2003, Havel was the inaugural recipient of Amnesty International's Ambassador of Conscience Award for his work in promoting human rights. In 2004, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In January 2008, the Europe-based A Different View cited Havel to be one of the 15 Champions of World Democracy. Other champions mentioned were Nelson Mandela, Lech Wałęsa, and Corazon Aquino. As a former Czech President, Havel is a member of the Club of Madrid.


Collections of poetry

  • Čtyři rané básně
  • Záchvěvy I & II, 1954
  • První úpisy, 1955
  • Prostory a časy (poesie), 1956
  • Na okraji jara (cyklus básní), 1956
  • Anticodes, (Antikódy)


Non-fiction books

Cultural allusions and interests

  • Havel was a major supporter of The Plastic People of the Universe, becoming a close friend of its members, such as its manager Ivan Martin Jirous and guitarist/vocalist Paul Wilson (who later became Havel's English translator and biographer) and a great fan of the rock band The Velvet Underground, sharing mutual respect with the principal singer-songwriter Lou Reed, and is also a lifelong Frank Zappa fan.
  • Havel is also a great supporter and fan of jazz and frequented such Prague clubs as Radost FX and the Reduta Jazz Club, where President Bill Clinton played the saxophone when Havel brought him there.
  • The period involving Havel's role in the Velvet Revolution and his ascendancy to the presidency is dramatized in part in the play Rock 'n' Roll, by Czech-born English playwright Tom Stoppard. One of the characters in the play is called Ferdinand, in honor of Ferdinand Vanӗk, the protagonist of three of Havel's plays and a Havel stand-in.
  • In 1996, due to his contributions to the arts, he was honorably mentioned in the rock opera, RENT during the song La Vie Boheme.


Further reading

Works by Václav Havel

See also

External links

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