Václav Havel: A Life Story

If you want to understand how societies change for the better, you should get to know Václav Havel. He was an artist who used his talent with the written word to pursue truth, peace, and freedom.

Havel was born in Czechoslovakia in 1936. As he turned 2, Hitler’s Germany invaded the country, occupying it until it was liberated by the Soviet Union and the United States at the end of World War II. But this liberation wouldn’t last long. A mere 3 years later, Communist plotters overthrew the democratically elected Czechoslovak government, rendering the country a puppet of Stalin and starting an oppressive reign that wouldn’t end for another 4 decades. The young Havel, in middle school at the time, saw the world around him change rapidly. All non-Communist-approved political and civic discourse was banned, most basic human rights were disregarded by the government, and anyone who spoke up against the new changes in the country was harassed, imprisoned, or killed. The property of Havel’s family was confiscated by the authorities, and Havel himself was rejected from his preferred college because of his family background.

Having completed university, Havel pursued his passion for playwriting and the performing arts, using his creative work to subversively question and criticize the lack of freedom and oppression of the Communist regime. His plays also included commentary on wider Czechoslovak society and government elitism. Especially in a country where most plays and films conformed to the Communist-preferred “Realist” form, Havel’s Absurdist style and dissident status earned him the admiration of his rising generation, which, tired of being marginalized by the government, began to call for change. Soon, change did come, culminating in the Prague Spring of 1968. During this brief period of freedom, a newly hopeful Czechoslovakia opened itself up to the arts and the wider world. American music bands toured the country. Havel’s plays became ever-popular, earning him acclaim across free countries and at home. It seemed that soon, Czechoslovakia would enter a new, freer age. But, unfortunately, this was not to last.

On August 21, 1968, 500,000 troops from the Soviet bloc invaded the country, brutally crushing Czechoslovakia’s hopes for liberty and reform. In the period of “Normalization” that followed, Havel was banned from the theater and forced to write plays clandestinely, distributing his work as samizdat (makeshift publications often written by hand and passed from reader to reader). During this time, Havel and his work also became more directly involved with politics. Some of his most famous plays of the era featured his alter-ego Ferdinand Vaněk, who encounters and observes some of the ugliest aspects of the Communist system, from decadent and uber-wealthy government officials to the tyrannical criminal justice system, under which Havel was imprisoned multiple times for his political dissidence.

In 1977, Havel and several others authored Charter 77, a document which denounced the Communist government for its failure to adhere to its own human rights laws and demanded that it right its wrongs. The ensuing Charter 77 movement and associated groups helped draw international attention to their cause and protect unjustly persecuted people under the regime. With the new reformist approach of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, and with the Czechoslovak economy and living standard in stagnation, the political climate moved once again towards reform. In 1989, other Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe faced massive demonstrations seeking democratization and an end to Soviet influence. Czechoslovakia was no different.

On November 16 and 17, 1989, high school and college students rallied in streets across Czechoslovakia to commemorate International Students’ Day, the anniversary of the storming of Prague universities by Nazi Germany. However, these demonstrations quickly became anti-Communist, leading to mass strikes in cities and towns. Havel and the Charter 77 movement established the Civic Forum, which united reformist groups throughout the country and committed to non-violence. Soon, the first free elections since 1946 were called, and Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia. The democratization process was so peaceful that it garnered the term “Velvet Revolution”.

As the first President of free Czechoslovakia (and later the Czech Republic), Havel swiftly negotiated an end to the Soviet presence in the country and ceased arms sales abroad. He assisted with the nation’s economic recovery and expanded opportunities for young people to work and study. Havel also led the country towards joining NATO and the European Union. His exceptional background as both a writer and world leader led him to become widely popular internationally, and his pro-democracy and pro-human rights voice led him to receive dozens of awards and doctorates from 27 countries and several organizations around the world. Even after his presidency, Havel was still a highly active participant in the nonprofit sector and remained influential in international pro-peace and environmentalist movements.

Although he died on December 18, 2011, Havel’s leadership, written works, and words continue to move people on all parts of the earth. As an example of the pivotal role he played in modern European politics, Havel is one of only two European leaders to be commemorated with a statue in the US Capitol rotunda. Additionally, organizations such as the Václav Havel Library Foundation are committed to celebrating his work and preserving his legacy for future generations, ensuring that his service to justice, peace, and freedom is never forgotten.

Noah Oliva, a student at Friends Seminary High School in New York City
January 2022

The Vaclav Havel Center