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Václav Havel

first President of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, and of the Czech Republic

Vaclav Havel

Václav Havel was born into a prominent and wealthy family in Prague on October 5, 1936. His family's links to cultural and political events of the 1920's and 1940's led to his being banned from attending a formal secondary school, so Havel worked as a chemical laboratory technician while attending evening classes at a high school, from which he graduated in 1954. From 1955 to 1957, he studied at the Economics Faculty of the Czech Technical University, in Prague. He subsequently served in the Czech Army, from 1957 to 1959. In 1964, he married Olga Splichalova.


From 1960 to 1968, Havel worked at Prague's Theatre on the Balustrade, first as a stagehand, and later as assistant director and literary manager. He also took a correspondence course in dramatic art theory from the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, and received his degree in 1966.

Havel began writing plays in the late 1950's, but did not gain recognition until the early 1960's. His first publicly performed full-length play was The Garden Party (1963), for which he won international acclaim. That play was soon followed by The Memorandum and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration. All three of these plays were performed at the Balustrade. A 1968 performance of The Memorandum by The Public Theater in New York established his U.S. reputation. The Public Theater continued to produce his works after they were banned in Czechoslovakia.


Havel became an activist following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 (the so-called Prague Spring). That year he became chairman of the Circle of Independent Writers and a member of the Czech PEN-Center Committee. In July and August he was active in discussions that led to the writing of Ten Points, a manifesto condemning the Warsaw Pact invasion. These activities led to his works being banned in Czechoslovakia, and all works already published being withdrawn from libraries. In defiance of the Communist Party's ban on non-approved cultural activities, he began hosting concerts featuring banned music. In 1970, he was publicly condemned on Czechoslovak television and radio and in the official party newspaper.

Unable to get a real job in Prague, Havel moved to a cottage in North-Eastern Bohemia. There, he continued to write plays, even though they could not be performed publicly in Czechoslovakia. Through a network of contacts, however, he was able to get the plays published in Germany. He also continued his campaign against the Communist government. In 1972, he organized a petition for the release of political prisoners. In 1975, he wrote an open letter to President Gustav Husak in which he openly criticized the government's methods of "convincing" Czechs to support Communism. Those methods usually consisted of depriving a citizen of his right to work at the job of his choice if he did not openly support the government -- a teacher who refused to educate his students along party lines, for example, might be fired from his job at a well-equipped school and forced to work at a school in an impoverished village.

In 1977, Havel, Jan Patocka, and Jiri Hajek co-founded Charter 77, a human rights initiative. Havel was soon arrested and charged with trying to subvert the state. Unable to adjust to prison life, Havel appealed to the authorities for release. When he was told that all of his fellow signatories had abandoned the principles of Charter 77, Havel agreed that he too would disavow himself of it, upon which time he was released from prison. After his release, however, Havel learned that the Charter 77 movement was still alive and well and wrote an article detailing how he had been deceived by the government. From August 1978 he was under constant police supervision, and authorities began harassing him in hopes that he would simply choose to leave the country rather than continue the fight.

Havel refused to give in, however, and in 1978 became a member of the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted (VONS), which was established to help dissidents and their families cope with the consequences of speaking out against the government. One month after its founding, sixteen members of the committee, including Havel, were arrested. Havel was offered the chance to escape prosecution by emigrating to the United States, but he refused the government's offer. In October 1979, he was tried on grounds that VONS was an illegal and anti-socialist organization, and sentenced to four years in prison.

Following his release in 1983, Havel returned to his country cottage, where he wrote his most acclaimed work, Largo Desolato, which deals with post-prison psychosis.

In October 1988, Havel was involved in the writing of Democracy for All, a manifesto calling for an end to the Communist Party's domination of Czechoslovakia. He was arrested on October 27, but released soon after. In January 1989, a group of people were observing the 20th anniversary of the death of Jan Palach, who had burned himself to death as a protest against Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. The Czech police dispersed the observance, but then arrested Havel for being in the area, even though he had not participated in the activities. In February, he was found guilty of "standing in the street" and sentenced to nine months in prison; a massive petition led to his release in May.

President of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic

In 1989, another manifesto calling for reform, A Few Sentences, was signed by 30,000 people. In November of that year, Havel was chosen to lead the Velvet Revolution, which ultimately resulted in the end of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. On December 29, 1989, Havel was elected President of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic by a unanimous vote of Parliament. Ironically, that same Parliament was still dominated by members of the Communist Party.

One of Havel's first acts as President was to organize the first free elections in Czech history. On July 5, 1990, he was re-elected President by the Parliament of the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic. Unfortunately, that same Parliament became divided over the issue of keeping the Czech and Slovak republics united under one government, something Havel felt strongly about. Although he fought hard to keep the two republics together, Havel's efforts ultimately failed. In July of 1992 the Parliament of the Czech Republic elected Havel to another term as President, but the Slovak Republic did not. On July 20, with the federation on the verge of collapse, Havel chose to resign rather than preside over a divided Czechoslovakia.

President of the Czech Republic

Despite his regrets over Czechoslovakia's split into two independent republics, Havel agreed to run for President of the Czech Republic, and was elected to that office on January 26, 1993.

On January 27, 1996, Olga Havel died after a long illness. This tragedy was followed by Havel's own medical problems. In December, the chain-smoker was diagnosed with lung cancer and had a large part of one lung removed. On January 4, 1997, he married Dagmar Veskrnova, a move that many Czechs thought came much too soon after the death of his first wife.

The only real political crisis of Havel's first term came in November of 1997, when the government of Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus collapsed. Havel was able to assemble a caretaker government, but his choices proved unpopular in Parliament. He was re-elected on January 20, 1998, by a majority of only one vote in Parliament.

In March of 1999, the Czech Republic joined NATO. A few weeks later, military attacks were launched against Serbia over the province of Kosovo. Havel's support of those attacks proved unpopular, and he was not a candidate for re-election. He served out his term, and left office on February 2, 2003.

After leaving office, Havel resumed his playwriting career. In 2007, Leaving, his first play in eighteen years, made its debut. He died at his country home in Hrádecek on December 18, 2011.

His Writings

Havel was the author of more than twenty plays, the most important of which are:

Motormorphosis (1960)
An Evening with the Family (1960)
The Garden Party
The Memorandum (1965)
The Increased Difficulty of Concentration (1968)
Butterfly on the Antenna (1968)
Guardian Angels (1968)
Conspirators (1971)
The Beggar's Opera (1975)
Unveiling (1975)
Audience (1975)
Mountain Hotel (1976)
Protest (1978)
Mistake (1983_
Largo Desolato (1984)
Temptation (1985)
Redevelopment (1987)
Tomorrow (1988)
Leaving (2007)

Havel also wrote numerous non-fiction works, including:

The Power of the Powerless (1985)
Living in Truth (1986)
Letters to Olga
Disturbing the Peace (1991)
Open Letters (1991)
Summer Meditations (1992-3)
Towards a Civil Society (1994)
The Art of the Impossible (1998)
To the Castle and Back (autobiography, 2007)

Official Website of Václav Havel

Gustav Husak
Slovak Republic

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The Robinson Library >> Czechoslovak Republic, 1918-1992

This page was last updated on July 20, 2018.