Havel, Václav (Czech Republic)

Reference work entry


Václav Havel served as Czechoslovak President from Dec. 1989 until July 1992, when he became President of the Czech Republic following the dissolution of the Czechoslovak state. He stood down from office in Feb. 2003. He was a poet, playwright and essayist and a leading dissident against Czechoslovakia’s communist regime. As a founder of the Civic Forum movement, he was instrumental in the success of the 1989 Velvet Revolution which precipitated the end of the communist government.

Early Life

Havel was born on 5 Oct. 1936 in Prague, the son of a successful businessman. Much of the family’s wealth was confiscated by the communist government in the late 1940s. As a result of his background, Havel was excluded from higher education. However, while working in a chemical laboratory he attended evening classes and in 1955 he began a degree in economics at Prague’s Czech Technical University.

On completion of his military service, Havel worked in theatre as a stagehand. In 1960 he joined Prague’s Theatre on the Balustrade, where he made his name as a writer, gaining an international reputation with The Garden Party in 1963. Havel was heavily influenced by Kafka and absurdism, and his plays challenged authoritarian society and its detrimental impact on the individual. In 1964 he married Olga Splichalova.

Havel promoted his liberal humanist ideology throughout the 1960s and was a key figure in the Prague Spring, suppressed by Soviet military intervention in 1968. Refusing to moderate his views, Havel suffered a backlash in the ensuing years as Moscow imposed a process of ‘normalization’. His plays were banned, his passport confiscated and his activities closely monitored.

In 1975 Havel wrote an open letter to President Husák criticizing the government. Two years later he was a co-founder of Charter 77, a document signed by 250 intellectuals, artists and religious figures urging the government to conform to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was subsequently placed under house arrest and in 1979 was sentenced to 4 years hard labour. Released in March 1983 he continued his condemnation of the communist regime through his writing.

Havel was again imprisoned for his underground activities in 1989 but, following his release, he became one of the leaders of the Civic Forum, a loose affiliation of liberal and democratic groups. As anti-communist protests spread throughout the Eastern Bloc, Prague became a centre of demonstrations in Nov. 1989.

Career Peak

Following the bloodless Velvet Revolution, the communists agreed to form a coalition with the Civic Forum in Dec. 1989. On 29 Dec. Havel was voted interim president, a job confirmed the following July for 2 years. Although the presidential office was essentially a ceremonial one, with day to day politics in the charge of the prime minister, Havel became one of Europe’s most influential leaders.

As a non-partisan advocating liberal humanist ethics, he met with many of the world’s leaders. He advocated expansion of NATO and the EU to include former Soviet satellites in a bid to bring stability and security to the region. However, when it became apparent in 1992 that Czechoslovakia was on the brink of splitting into its constituent states, Havel resigned. In July 1993 he was elected president of the Czech Republic. His country joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004.

Václav Klaus was elected prime minister and Havel’s moralistic approach to government clashed with Klaus’ desire to implement freemarket reforms. Havel’s wife died in Jan. 1996 and he himself suffered serious ill health during that year. His popularity was dented when he married the former actress Dagmar Veskrnova, 17 years his junior, in Jan. 1997.

Klaus’ government was rocked by a series of personal and economic scandals during 1997. Havel made a speech to parliament in Dec. in which he promoted ethical standards in office and implicitly questioned the previously venerated reforms of Klaus. The Klaus regime subsequently collapsed and in 1998 Havel won narrow re-election to the presidency. Although dogged by ill-health and a lack of executive power, Havel remained one of the most respected figures on the international stage. He retired from the presidency on 2 Feb. 2003, although parliament failed to choose his successor until almost a month later.

Later Life

After leaving the presidency Havel returned to writing and published his memoirs in 2007. Havel also became Chair of the International Council of the Human Rights Foundation. He died on 18 Dec. 2011 aged 75, at his country home in Hrádeček.

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