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Vaclav Havel 1936-2011: His Life and Legacy
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Vaclav Havel 1936-2011: His Life and Legacy

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Updated: 13 October 2016
Kiran Menon traces the life of Vaclav Havel, one of the defining figures of late 20th century European politics, and an inspirational leader to the Czech people.

The passing away of Vaclav Havel on December 18, 2011 marked the end of an era in European politics.


Havel was born on 5th October 1936 in Prague, to a wealthy and influential family. For this reason, the communist government denied him a chance to attend secondary education citing his ‘bourgeois’ background. He compensated by attending evening classes.


By the time of the Prague Spring, a series of reforms led by Alexander Dubcek in 1968, Havel had already established himself as a playwright. During this period of political liberalization, Havel’s works became available to his own countrymen for the first time and he became a prominent commentator on social issues. However this would not last, as the Soviets saw the Prague Spring as a shift towards ‘Capitalism’ by the Czechoslovakian authorities. On 20th August, 1968, Czechoslovakia was invaded by the Soviet Union.


Dubcek was expelled from the party and was replaced as First Secretary by Gustav Husak. Thus began a period which came to be known as ‘Normalization’. Initial conditions were restored and Havel was banned from theatre and from public life. In 1975 he wrote an open letter to Husak in which he accused the regime of operating under a ‘political apartheid, one that separated the rulers from the ruled’.


At this point of time, personalities like Josef Skvorecky became instrumental in circulating Havel’s work. Skvorecky, who passed away on 3rd January 2012 was a Nobel Prize nominated author with his notable works being The Cowards and The Return of Lieutenant Boruvka. Skvorecky, who had emigrated to Canada with his wife in 1971, published banned works by Havel and other Czech dissidents and then smuggled them back to Czechoslovakia with his publishing house Sixty Eight publishers (referring to the Prague Spring of 1968).


Havel became more active politically and in 1977, along with prominent figures like Jan Patocka, Zdenek Mlynar and Pavel Kohout published Charter 77. The charter exposed the governments’ failings and its dismal human rights record. It criticized the government for violating various national and international agreements it had entered in to, even the existing Constitution of Czechoslovakia.


In 1978 Havel wrote the essay ‘The Power of the Powerless’. This essay on Post-Totalitarianism went on to inspire workers not only in Czechoslovakia, but also in Poland and other socialist countries. Lech Walesa described him as a ‘great man, meritorious man’. By now Havel had become an international figure described as the ‘face of the Czechoslovakian resistance’ and his plays were being featured in theatres worldwide.


Havel’s activities did not escape the notice of the authorities. He was arrested and sentenced to three months in prison. Subversion was his crime. He was rearrested in 1979 and sentenced to four and a half years in prison, again for subversion. In prison, Havel produced what would become one of his memorable works ‘Letters to Olga’, a collection of letters he sent to his wife Olga Havlova.


In 1988 Havel organized a memorial rally for Jan Palach, a Czech student who had committed suicide by self-immolation to protest the Soviet occupation 20 years ago. He was arrested and sentenced to 9 months in prison but international pressure caused his release halfway through the sentence.


In November 1989, Havel led a series of nonviolent revolutions against the regime. The event which, came to be known as ‘The Velvet Revolution’ brought public life to a standstill in the country. After 18 days of peaceful demonstrations, on 10 December 1989,Gustav Husak was forced to resign. The Communist Party relinquished power and Czechoslovakia was transformed into a democracy. In 1990, after holding its first election since 1946, Vaclav Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia. Alexander Dubeck, the proponent of the Prague Spring was elected speaker. Havel immediately issued amnesty to all political prisoners, an act that generated significant controversy. He also negotiated the withdrawal of the last stationed Soviet troops present in Czechoslovakia.


The relative stability was soon interrupted after campaigns by Slovakian nationalist groups for independence. Havel was against the partition of the country and after Slovakia declared independence, resigned from the presidency, explaining that he did not want to preside over the breakup of his nation. On 1 January 1993, Czechoslovakia split forming the Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia.


However Havel decided to stand for election as President of the Czech Republic. He won, and on January 23, 1993 became the first president of the newly formed nation. He soon introduced reforms including greater transparency and a strong democratic structure. He also played a key role in the expansion of NATO to Eastern Europe. Under his presidency, which lasted two terms, the country developed in to a key western ally. By now, Havel’s health had worsened. In 1996, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and in 2003 he was succeeded by Vaclav Klaus.


John Keane, the author of Vaclav Havel, a biography, however notes that Havel often struggled to balance his two personalities, one of a heroic freedom fighter and then as a head of state, often contradicting himself. Keane, who edited ‘The Power of the Powerless’ recalled Havel as a man who could be ’very striking, intense, could be witty, serious and a man of great courage’.


Even though he actively retired from political life, he was still outspoken in his opinions. Havel became a supporter of the movement to Free Tibet and a close friend of the Dalai Lama. In 2009 Havel received the prestigious German Quadriga Award, only to return it in 2011 when it was awarded to Vladimir Putin. 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiabo and his Charter 08 manifesto was inspired by Havel’s Charter 77. Havel continued to oppose all forms of oppression and complained about what he called ‘the old European disease’ — ‘the tendency to make compromises with evil, to close one’s eyes to dictatorship, to practice a politics of appeasement.’


In 2007, he published his memoir entitled To the Castle and Back. Later that year Havel’s first new play in nearly two decades Leaving premiered in Prague. It deals with the life of an old politician and the personal crisis he has to go through after relinquishing power. In 2011, a film adaptation of the play directed by Havel himself was released.


Vaclav Havel passed away on 18 December 2011. He was 75. Havel had been suffering from chronic respiratory problems.


He was an independent and fearless man, a leader of great moral authority. For the Czechs, he personified the spirit of their nation. For the rest of the world he became a symbol of democracy and freedom. Perhaps today, more than ever, his philosophy of ‘living in truth’ is relevant. As a grateful nation bids goodbye to their beloved president, a plaque is erected in Prague. It reads:


Thank You Mr. President


Thank You for Our Future and our Freedom.


By Kiran Menon