Vaclav Havel

Background

Czechoslovakia emerges from Second World War as an independent and democratic state, but when the Communist Party engineers a takeover of the government in February 1948 the country becomes a Soviet satellite with a Stalinist political and economic system. More background.

Mini biography

Born on 5 October 1936 in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic), into a wealthy and prominent family. His father is a civil engineer and property developer. He has one brother, Ivan.

1948 - Following their takeover of the government, the communists begin to centralise the political system and nationalise the economy. Political opponents are removed from positions of influence, education is socialised, private ownership of property is limited, all power is centred on the party, and domestic interests are subordinated to those of the Soviet Union.

The wealthy Havel family is declared bourgeois and a "class enemy" by the communist government. Their property is confiscated.

1951 - Havel completes his compulsory schooling but as the son of bourgeois parents is barred by the communist government from pursuing further full-time studies. He takes an apprenticeship as a chemical laboratory technician and attends evening classes at a grammar school, managing to complete his secondary education (in 1954) and to study at the faculty of economics at Czech Technical University (1955-57).

1952 - Purges of the Communist Party culminate in Stalinist-style show trials. Party members who came into contact with the West during the war are especially suspect. The convicted face execution or forced labour in prison camps. Fourteen former party leaders are tried in November. Eleven are sentenced to death.

1955 - Havel starts publishing articles in literary and theatrical magazines.

1957-59 - He undertakes his national service in the Czechoslovak Army, establishing a regimental theatre company while serving.

1959 - After being turned down for drama school, Havel works as a stagehand at the ABC Theatre and, from 1960 to 1969, in the Theatre on the Balustrade (Divadlo Na zabradli), where his first plays are produced.

1960 - The Czechoslovak Socialist Republic is declared under a new constitution that entrenches the authority of the communists. However, during the 1960s the previously robust economy stalls and pressure grows within the party for reform.

1962 - Havel continues his education at the Prague Academy of Art and is subsequently enrolled at the Academy of Dramatic Arts, from which he graduates in 1967.

1964 - Havel marries Olga Splichalova. The couple had first met in 1956. They will have no children.

1965 - A 'New Economic Model' reduces the role of the Communist Party in economic planning. Management is allowed to become involved in decision making and prices and wages are opened to market forces. At the end of the year the party allows some political reform.

1967 - When pressure for further political and economic reform builds the regime baulks and calls on the Soviet Union for assistance. Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev refuses to provide the expected support, initiating the rise of the moderate Alexander Dubcek to the Communist Party leadership and the removal of Stalinists from positions in government, trade unions, mass associations and party branches.

1968 - Dubcek implements and extends the reform program. Plans for a "new model of socialism" that democratises the electoral system and allows freedom of assembly, expression, religion and travel are adopted in April. The reform program is enthusiastically supported by a growing movement. Censorship is lifted and new political groupings begin to emerge.

Havel becomes a prominent participant in this so-called 'Prague Spring', staging topical plays at the Theatre on the Balustrade and writing an article calling for an end to one-party rule. He and his wife Olga also take advantage of the new freedoms to travel to London and New York, where Havel attends the production of one of his plays.

The Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies view the Dubcek reforms with increasing alarm. On 20 August the Soviets react. Czechoslovakia is occupied by Warsaw Pact armies. Leading reformers are forced to travel to the Soviet Union where they are compelled to sign a treaty allowing the stationing of Soviet troops in Czechoslovakia, although it is initially agreed that Dubcek will remain in office and that a program of moderate reform will continue.

1969 - Dubcek is removed from office on 17 April. Later, the Communist Party is purged of all reformist elements, including Dubcek, and a "normalisation" program is introduced to return Czechoslovakia to prereformist conditions. The media is censored and centralised control of the country is restored. Soviet troops remain stationed in the country and political, cultural, and economic ties with Moscow are reaffirmed.

Nonconformist artists, poets and writers are silenced, imprisoned, or sent into exile.

After openly criticising the "normalisation" with the Soviet Union, Havel is publicly condemned on state television and radio and in the press. His plays are banned and his passport confiscated. He is offered several opportunities to leave the country but declines, at one point saying, "The solution of this human situation does not lie in leaving it." Instead, Havel and his wife retreat to the countryside, purchasing a run-down cottage in Hradecek, to the northeast of Prague. They live off the royalties from Havel's plays. When these are blocked, Havel takes a job as a labourer at a nearby brewery.

1972 - When 47 leaders of the Socialist Movement of Czechoslovak Citizens (a protest movement dedicated to the goals of 1968) are arrested and tried, organised dissent is effectively stopped.

1975 - In April Havel writes an open letter to the Czech President Gustav Husak. The letter brings to world attention the social ills affecting the nation.

"So far," the letter says, "you and your government have chosen the easy way out for yourselves, and the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity; of deepening the spiritual and moral crisis of our society, and ceaselessly degrading human dignity, for the puny sake of protecting your own power."

1976 - A new turning point for Havel and the protest movement comes when the regime arrests the four member of the banned Czech rock-group The Plastic People of the Universe for "organised disturbance of the peace."

"Everyone understood that an attack on the Czech musical underground was an attack on a most elementary and important thing, something that in fact bound everyone together," Havel later writes. "It was an attack on the very notion of living within the truth, on the real aims of life."

Havel attends the trial of the four and writes about it extensively.

1977 - Havel is a cofounder and spokesman of Charter 77, a human rights initiative launched as a response to the arrest and trial of The Plastic People. The Charter 77 manifesto is published in West German newspapers on 6 January and is immediately translated and reprinted throughout the world.

The manifesto calls on the Czech Government to adhere to the basic human rights set out in the Final Act of the 1975 Helsinki Agreement. By the end of 1977 it bears over 800 signatures, often to the personal cost of signatories, who risk arrest, interrogation and dismissal from employment. By 1985 nearly 1,200 Czechoslovaks have signed the charter.

1978 - Havel publishes the essay 'The Power of the Powerless' in which he analyses totalitarian oppression and describes the methods used by the communist regime to control society.

The regime becomes increasingly intolerant of Havel's outspokenness. During the 1970s and 1980s he is repeatedly arrested (1977, 1978-79, 1979-83, 1989) and serves almost five years in prison.

1979 - In April Havel helps form the Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted. The committee documents individual cases of government persecution and human rights violations. It will compile over 400 cases records between its formation and 1984.

In May, 16 members of the committee are arrested, including Havel. Havel is sentenced to four years jail. Letters written to his wife Olga during this time are later complied and published under the title 'Letters to Olga'. The book becomes one of Havel's most widely read.

1980s - Opposition to the communist regime is fanned by the activities of underground writers and publishers.

Musicians also advocate a loosening of government controls on cultural pursuits, and music in particular. The jazz section of the Union of Musicians, which promotes nonconformist music like rock and roll, is especially popular with dissidents. It's membership soars to 7,000. The section is closed down by the government in March 1985 because of its "counter-revolutionary activities." When it continues to operate the members of its steering committee are arrested.

1983 - Havel is released from prison on 7 February. He spends much of his time at his cottage in Hradecek, to the northeast of Prague.

1985 - Mikhail Gorbachev becomes the leader of the Soviet Union. His reform polices of "glasnost" and "perestroika" remove the threat of armed Soviet intervention in the affairs of its Eastern European satellites and will eventually lead to the break-up of the Soviet Union. In this new climate, the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia begins to lose its grip.

1988 - In October, Havel participates in the writing of the manifesto 'Democracy for All'. On 10 December he addresses the country's first officially sanctioned demonstration.

1989 - In January, Havel is rearrested and sentenced to nine months in jail. However, he is released in May following national and international outcry.

The movement for social change begins to snowball when a peaceful demonstration by students in Prague on 17 November is broken-up violently by the police. Massive antigovernment demonstrations erupt in Prague. Civic Forum, a coalition of opposition groups pressing for democratic reforms, is established on 19 November. Havel becomes its leading figure.

On 22 November Havel addresses a crowd of half a million people gathered in Wenceslas Square in the centre of Prague. Speaking from the balcony of the Melantrich publishing house, he encourages the crowd to keep on demonstrating against the regime. "Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred," he says.

Civic Forum quickly gains the support of millions of Czechs, as does its Slovak counterpart, Public Against Violence. The so-called 'Velvet Revolution' sees the Communist Party capitulate in early December and form a coalition government with Civic Forum.

Havel is elected interim president of Czechoslovakia on 29 December. His inauguration ceremony at the Prague Castle is witnessed by a crowd of hundreds of thousands.

Former Communist Party leader, Alexander Dubcek, becomes the first speaker of the federal parliament. Havel promises to lead the nation to free and democratic elections.

1990 - The elections take place in June without incident and with more than 95% of the population voting. Civic Forum and Public Against Violence win landslide victories. On 5 July the parliament reelects Havel to the presidency, with a majority of 234 votes to 50.

For the next five to six years, Havel will enjoy more than 80% public support. He encourages social reform and reconciliation, abolishing the death penalty shortly after becoming president but refusing to ban the Communist Party. He also releases all political prisoners and closes the country's arms factories.

Meanwhile, Havel invites the Dalai Lama to Czechoslovakia for an official state visit. He is the first head of state to extend such a invitation to the Dalai Lama. The pair become firm friends.

1991 - Havel nominates Burmese resistance leader Aung San Suu Kyi for the Nobel Peace Prize, saying later that he holds "her, and her nonviolent struggle for democracy, in high regard." On 14 October the Nobel Committee announces that Suu Kyi has been awarded the peace prize "for her nonviolent struggle for democracy and human rights."

"It is people like her who should be awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, as opposed to presidents and other statesmen whose job it is, after all, to uphold peace, freedom and order," Havel later says of Suu Kyi.

1992 - The dissolution of Czechoslovakia into separate Czech and Slovak states comes to the fore as a major political issue. Slovak calls for autonomy are strengthened at the June elections when the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia emerges as Slovakia's leading party. In July the parliament agrees on a split. Negotiations are completed by the end of the year.

Havel opposes the dissolution and resigns from office on 20 July.

1993 - Czechoslovakia formally splits into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on 1 January. Havel is elected president of the Czech Republic on 26 January.

Ten years later, on the eve of his stepping down from a second term as president, Havel has changed his opinion on the break up of Czechoslovakia.

"I cannot but feel that no matter how strangely it happened then, it is a good thing that it happened," he says.

"Czechs and Slovaks may be closer today than ever before ... There's no animosity, and they are united in their goals ... We live in an interconnected world and we - Czechs and Slovaks - walk hand in hand in it."

1996 - Havel's wife, Olga, dies of cancer on 27 January. At the end of the year, Havel's own life is endangered when he is diagnosed with lung cancer.

The former chain-smoker nearly dies after surgery to remove two small tumours and half of his right lung. He will continue to suffer from respiratory problems, including chronic bronchitis, and will require ongoing hospital care.

During his illness, Havel is nursed by his friend, the actress Dagmar Veskernova. The couple marry shortly after his release from hospital in January 1997, scandalising many of his supporters and colleagues and contributing to a decline in his popularity.

1997 - Havel initiates the Forum 2000 conference in Prague, an offshoot of the Forum 2000 Foundation set up the year before by Havel, Japanese philanthropist Yohei Sasakawa and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel.

The Foundation aims "to identify the key issues facing civilisation and to explore ways in which to prevent escalation of conflicts that have religion, culture or ethnicity as their primary components."

Havel, along with his wife Dagmar, also establishes the VIZE 97 Foundation to provide welfare assistance to the socially disadvantaged.

In the political sphere, Havel criticises the free-market economic policies of the Czech coalition government, which is led by Vaclav Klaus of the Civic Democratic Party. When the government collapses at the end of November, Havel assists with the establishment of a caretaker replacement.

On 9 December, Havel continues his attack on Klaus during a speech to both houses of parliament. Havel will later clash with the leadership of the republic's other main political party, the Social Democrats.

As Havel becomes more involved in the daily politics of the republic, his popularity with the Czech electorate begins to slide. By the end of 1998 only 52% of people believe in his ability to rule the country, down from the figure of 82% recorded in 1996.

1998 - Havel is reelected president of the Czech Republic on 20 January. However, the poll, which is restricted to members of parliament, goes to a second round and Havel wins by only one vote. It will be his last stint in the post, as the Czech constitution limits presidents to two consecutive five-year terms.

Havel suffers another health scare during the year, once more coming close to death after two operations on a ruptured intestine.

1999 - With Havel's backing, the Czech Republic joins the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

2002 - In July a fresh bout of bronchitis forces Havel to abandon a trip to France. He spends a week receiving treatment in a Prague military hospital before retiring to the presidential chateau in Lany, outside the capital, to convalesce. His respiratory condition will flare again in October.

In September, Havel focuses his attention on one of the world's last remaining communist regimes, broadcasting a statement into Cuba via a radio station based in the US.

"When the internal crisis of the totalitarian system grows so deep that it becomes clear to everyone, and when more and more people learn to speak their own language and reject the hollow, mendacious language of the powers that be, it means that freedom is remarkably close, if not directly within reach," Havel says in the broadcast.

He also nominates Oswaldo José Payá Sardinas, the founder of the Christian Liberation Movement in Cuba and leader of the 'Varela Project', for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In November, just months before Havel is to step down as president, NATO holds a summit at Prague. Attended by United States President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac, and almost all of Europe's leaders, the summit also functions as an international farewell for Havel.

2003 - Havel makes the final foreign trip of his presidency in January, visiting neighbouring Slovakia. Asked at a press conference if he would consider running for another term as president if the constitution allowed it, he replies, "definitely not."

"I've been president for long enough," he says, "And I'm not in the best of health. I'm feeling somewhat tired, feeling the need to absorb, to experience, to write. Definitely, I would not accept another candidacy. ...

"(I want to) put my thoughts into order, gain perspective, think through a few matters, read, reflect and think of what I may write in the future."

Also in January, Havel declares his support for plans by the US and Britain to disarm Iraq, joining the leaders of Britain, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain to sign an open letter stating that "the Iraqi regime and its weapons of mass destruction represent a clear threat to world security" and insisting that Iraq be disarmed.

Havel's second five-year term as president of the Czech Republic ends on 2 February. He is the last of the dissidents responsible for ending communism in the former Soviet bloc states of Central and Eastern Europe to leave office and the longest serving leader in post-communist Europe.

During his farewell address from Prague Castle he urges Czech politicians to always follow their conscience. "It was not to be continually loved by all that we - I in the past and you more recently - were chosen," he says.

"We were elected in the hope that we would do what, according to our knowledge and our convictions, is in the long-term interests of human society as a whole, what is in the interest of the freedom, security, and dignity of all of us, what is in the interest of our life in peace and prosperity."

In a pre-recorded, five minute address broadcast on state television just hours before his presidency ends, Havel thanks the Czech people for their support and asks their forgiveness for his mistakes.

"To all of you whom I have disappointed in any way, who have not agreed with my actions or who have simply found me hateful, I sincerely apologise and trust that you will forgive me," he says.

"I have been witness and party to many epochal events at home, in Europe and in the entire world. ... I consider this to be a great gift that fate has bestowed on me, for which I shall never cease to be thankful."

Havel is succeeded as president by his former political adversary, Vaclav Klaus.

In retirement Havel continues to comment publicly on political developments in the Czech Republic, arguing that Czechs should vote in favour of joining the European Union in a referendum held in June, despite the government's misgivings. The referendum is passed. The Czech Republic joins the EU in 2004.

He also begins to write a "personal testament."

On 23 July, during a visit to Washington, he is presented with the Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in recognition of his support for US foreign policy.

On 18 September, Havel returns to the subject of political repression in Cuba, publishing an open letter with Lech Walesa, former president of Poland, and Arpad Goncz, former president of Hungary.

Titled 'Building a Free Cuba', the letter states in part, "It is the responsibility of the democratic world to support representatives of the Cuban opposition, regardless of how long the Cuban Stalinists cling to power. The Cuban opposition must have the same international support as did the representatives of political dissent in Europe when it stood divided. Statements of condemnation for the government's repression, combined with specific diplomatic steps coming from Europe, Latin America and the United States, would be suitable means of exerting pressure on the regime in Cuba."

At the same time, Havel founds the International Committee for Democracy in Cuba (ICDC) with the help of former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Polish dissident Adam Michnik and former Russian dissident Elena Bonner.

2004 - One year later, on 18 September, the ICDC holds an international summit in Prague to promote democracy in Cuba.

The summit's final declaration states, "It is inconceivable and unacceptable that people continue to be imprisoned in Cuba because of their ideas and their peaceful politics."

Meanwhile, the Vaclav Havel Library is formally established in Prague on 26 July. The library, inspired by the American model of presidential libraries, is the only one of its kind in Europe.

2005 - In September, Havel and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu release a report detailing reasons why the United Nations (UN) Security Council should pressure the military government of Burma to implement political reforms.

"Based on our review of this report and its recommendations, we strongly urge the UN Security Council to take up the situation of Burma immediately," the two leaders jointly state in the foreword to the 70-page report.

Titled 'Threat to the Peace - A Call for the UN Security Council to Act in Burma', the report was commissioned by Havel and Tutu and prepared by international law firm DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary.

According to Havel, "The situation in Burma is much more severe compared to other countries in which the Security Council has chosen to act in recent years."

2006 - At the start of March, Havel and six others, including Desmond Tutu, publish a denunciation of Russian policy in a Prague daily newspaper. Publication of the article is timed to coincide with a visit to the city by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"How much longer will we play blind as the Russian Government, raising the bogeyman of terrorism, obliterates the freedoms gained after the fall of the Soviet empire?" the article asks.

"A capital (Grozny, the capital of Chechnya) has been destroyed before our eyes, for the first time since Hitler punished Warsaw in 1944. ...

"Such an inhumane act cannot be disguised with the 'war against terrorism' label."

2008 - Havel's first new play in 20 years is premiered at Prague's Archa theatre on 22 May. The play, titled 'Odchazeni' (Leaving), tells the story of the former leader of an unnamed country coming to terms with his loss of power.

Havel says that, rather than being autobiographical, the play "is built on an archetypal experience of a world that is collapsing, of collapsing values, the loss of certainty."

"How is it possible that for some people, power has such charisma that without it, their world collapses?," he asks. "Regardless of me being in politics, this is what interested me."

2009 - On 12 January Havel undergoes minor surgery on this throat. However, his recovery is complicated when his right lung becomes clogged with phlegm. He is said to be in a "serious but stable" condition.

Havel's condition improves. By 29 January he is well enough to be discharged from hospital.

2010 - In July shooting begins on a film version of Havel's play 'Odchazeni'. Havel is to direct the film himself, realising a long-held ambition.

"Actually I have longed to be a film-maker my whole life," Havel says.

"A drama is some kind of half-finished product which the author offers to theatres. I felt the yearning to interpret my work myself at last, moreover in a film which means a kind of internal satisfaction for me."

The film premiers in Prague on 22 March 2011.

2011 - Vaclav Havel dies in his sleep at his cottage in Hradecek on Sunday, 18 December. The Czech prime minister announces a three-day period of national mourning. Tens of thousands pay their respects as his body lies in state.

Havel's state funeral is held at Prague Castle's St Vitus Cathedral on 23 December. Among the thousands in attendance are Czech President Vaclav Klaus, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, former US President Bill Clinton, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron, Lech Walesa and former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

A private funeral for family members follows. The urn containing Havel's ashes is buried at his family's plot at Prague's Vinohrady cemetery, alongside his first wife, Olga.

A rock concert and festival of Havel's plays takes place after the official ceremonies. The concert includes a set by The Plastic People of the Universe.

2012 - The international airport at Prague is renamed to honour Havel on 5 October, the 76th anniversary of the late president's birth.

2016 - A small square by the National Theatre in Prague is named after Havel at a ceremony to mark his 80th birthday.

Comment

Havel is widely considered to have represented the moral core of the movement to establish a true democracy in Czechoslovakia. Despite suffering much personal hardship during the struggle, including years of imprisonment, he refused to temper his criticism of the regime, parrying blunt repression with wit, intelligence and civility. The Czechoslovak people responded.

Any country that can elect a poet and playwright as its president has a lot going for it. Any president who can, as Havel did, attribute his rise to the impact of the Velvet Underground's first album on Czechoslovakia is a truly unique individual.

"All my adult life, I was branded by officials as 'an exponent of the right' who wanted to bring capitalism back to our country," Havel has written. "Today - at a ripe old age - I am suspected by some of being left-wing, if not of harbouring out-and-out socialist tendencies. What, then, is my real position? First and foremost, I have never espoused any ideology, dogma, or doctrine - left-wing, right-wing, or any other closed, ready-made system of presuppositions about the world. On the contrary, I have tried to think independently, using my own powers of reason, and I have always vigorously resisted attempts to pigeonhole me."

Reflecting about his celebrity, Havel told the 'The Independent' newspaper in June 2006, "As far as my 'saint' status is concerned, my becoming a well-known, positive hero, that's something I can be ironic or sceptical about. ...

"But I like to take a balanced view, and appreciate that people can see that an apparently hopeless cause can have a happy ending. That story may seem somewhat like a fairy tale, somewhat kitschy; you can laugh at it, but at the same time it wouldn't be entirely right to laugh at it. It's good when people admire such an outcome. It speaks well of their understanding of values."