Charter 77 was both Czechoslovakia's most important and best-known dissident group and the eponymous document that announced the group's inception. Founded on 1 January 1977, the group brought to light the Czechoslovak communist regime's failures to uphold its international commitments to human rights and its repression of the Charter's signatories, and issued documents on issues of contemporary Czechoslovak and European importance. Several of its signatories also played large roles in the postcommunist Czechoslovak government and legislature.
The creation of Charter 77 should be seen in the context of changes in the international and domestic environments. Internationally, the Czechoslovak communist government had signed the Helsinki Final Act (1975) and had ratified the two United Nations covenants on rights (1976). The initiation of human rights groups in the Soviet Union (1975) and Poland (1976) also form an important backdrop. Domestically, in the years after the Warsaw Pact invasion that signaled the end of the Prague Spring of 1968, communist reformers from 1968 and noncommunists alike had become convinced of the unreformability of the system and increasingly prepared to act. The immediate catalyst that triggered the formation of Charter 77, however, lay in the trials of members of the rock band "The Plastic People of the Universe" and others in 1976. Many future signatories viewed the prosecution as an unwarranted attack on creative expression and on the alternative lifestyles of many young people. In the wake of the sentencing of the young musicians, discussions continued between former communists and noncommunists, focused on creating a broad program based on the one value they all shared: the defense of human rights. In a series of discussions in December of 1976 the text of the Charter was agreed on, then smuggled into West Germany and published there on 6 January 1977.
EXCERPTS FROM THE CHARTER 77 DECLARATION
Responsibility for the maintenance of civic rights in our country naturally devolves in the first place on the political and state authorities. Yet, not only on them: everyone bears his share of responsibility for the conditions that prevail and accordingly also for the observance of legally enshrined agreements, binding on all citizens as well as upon governments. It is this sense of co-responsibility, our belief in the meaning of voluntary citizens' involvement and the general need to give it new and more effective expression that led us to the idea of creating Charter 77, whose inception we today publicly announce. Charter 77 is a free, informal open com munity of people with different convictions, different faiths and different professions united by the will to strive, individually and collectively, for the respect of civic and human rights in our own country and throughout the world—rights accorded to all men by the two mentioned international covenants, by the Final Act of the Helsinki Conference and by numerous other international documents.… Charter 77 is not an organization; it has no rules, permanent bodies or formal membership. It embraces everyone who agrees with its ideas, participates in its work, and supports it. It does not form the basis for any oppositional political activity.
"Charter 77—Declaration." Quoted in Skilling, pp. 211–212.
While, as the Charter's declaration explicitly noted, Charter 77 was not a formal organization, it did authorize three spokespeople to represent it. The initial trio was composed of JiříHájek (foreign minister during the Prague Spring), Václav Havel (internationally known playwright), and Jan Patočka (renowned philosopher). Other luminaries who served as spokespeople included the philosopher Václav Benda, the journalist Jiří Dienstbier, and the singer Marta Kubišová. Generally, the triad included a former Communist, a "nonparty" person, and one person from the world of culture. The spokespeople were not conceived as representing these spheres, but served to indicate that Charter 77 was composed of people holding a wide range of beliefs, yet committed to consensus. Women served as spokespeople on over 70 percent of the slates from 1977 to 1989, and individuals from the religious communities also played a prominent role. This diversity also applied to the signatories as a whole, although Slovaks were clearly underrepresented. From its initial 242 signatories, Charter 77 eventually came to encompass some 2,000 individuals from all walks of life. The vast majority of the members of the Committee to Defend the Unjustly Persecuted (Výbor na obranu nespravidlivě stihaných; VONS, founded 1978), a group that aided victims of state prosecution and their families, were drawn from the ranks of the Chartists. While their numbers, given the levels of repression at the time in Czechoslovakia, bear witness to the courage of many Czechs and Slovaks, one cannot say that the Charter gained the allegiance of large sections of the population.
Charter 77's main sphere of activity lay in the creation of documents, more than 570 of them between its inception and the beginning of the "Velvet Revolution" of 1989. While half of these dealt with the repression of the signatories and internal Charter business, the other half addressed such diverse topics as reform of the political system, freedom of travel, the deteriorating state of the environment, the economy, Czechoslovak history, minority issues, the ongoing discussions of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and other peace issues, developments in other Eastern European countries and, especially, the regime's violations of human rights, including creative freedom and the freedom of religion. In 1978 a group of signatories began publishing these documents and others relating to VONS and underground publication in Information On Charter 77 (Informace o chartě 77). Charter signatories also supported underground publishing of both fiction and nonfiction, and although these latter writings are not official Charter documents they shed much light on the Charter's underlying philosophy. The most famous of these is Václav Havel's "The Power of the Powerless," which is widely held to be the most influential theoretical work produced by Eastern European dissidency.
Charter 77 is notable for many things, but especially for calling attention to the plight of Czechs and Slovaks and revealing the injustices perpetrated by their government. In some sense, the risks the Chartists took, and the harassment and jail sentences they suffered, both served as a badge of honor for the Czech and Slovak peoples and provided visibility for their nations. Further, although the theoretical and analytical value of the Chartists' works may have diminished with the fall of communism, they were exciting and important for their times. Finally, Charter 77 provided a group of people with clean hands when the communist regime fell and new, uncompromised leaders were needed. Several members of the first postcommunist Czechoslovak parliament were Charter signatories, and Jiří Dienstbier and Václav Havel became the state's first postcommunist foreign minister and president, respectively.
See alsoCzechoslovakia; Dissidence; Havel, Václav; Velvet Revolution.
Havel, Václav, et al. The Power of the Powerless: Citizens against the State in Central-Eastern Europe. Edited by John Keane. Armonk, N.Y., 1985. Contains Havel's seminal essay and ten other important essays by Chartists.
Prečan, Vilém.Charta 77: 1977–1989: Od morální k demokratické revoluci. Dokumentace. Prague and Bratislava, 1990. Almost eighty documents about and by the Charter, annotated list of all Charter documents, short biographies of the spokespeople, and a list of signatories. Prec
Falk, Barbara. The Dilemmas of Dissidence in East-Central Europe. Budapest, 2003. Sets Charter 77 in the context of other similar regional movements.
Skilling, H. Gordon. Charter 77 and Human Rights in Czechoslovakia. London, 1981. The standard work. Includes translations of forty Charter-related documents.
Tucker, Aviezer. The Philosophy and Politics of Czech Dissidence from Patocka to Havel. Pittsburgh, Pa., 2000. Exploration of the philosophical underpinnings of the Chartists' ideas.