Havel, Vaclav

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Havel, Vaclav

former president of czechoslovakia1936–

Vaclav Havel is a Czech intellectual, writer, dramatist, and dissident who became the first president of Czechoslovakia after the yoke of the communist dictatorship was discarded as a consequence of the "Velvet Revolution" in 1989. He was viewed by many in Czechoslovakia and in the larger West as one of the founding fathers of democracy in post-Cold War Europe.

Vaclav Havel was born in 1936 to bourgeois parents who would lose much after the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia after World War II (1939–1945). He was apparently a precocious child, and by the time he was fifteen, he was writing poetry, had founded a literary group among his high school friends that organized symposia, and even published a typewritten magazine. Despite his interests in the arts, he was not admitted to the Academy of Performing Arts and, instead, entered the Czechoslovak University of Technology to study economics. After only one year of study, he was conscripted into the military.

Writing was Havel's vocation, and he has written numerous plays, essays and poetry. His work often has a political theme, such as his April 1968 essay, "On the Theme of Opposition," published in Literarni listy, which argued for political pluralism . Publication of that essay coincided with the move toward democratization in Czechoslovakia that Alexander Dubcek (1921–1992), first secretary of the Communist Party, began discussing in 1968. The Soviet Union blunted that initiative, and Soviet tanks invaded and occupied the country beginning in August 1968. Dubcek was removed from office the following April and replaced with hardliner, Gustav Husak (1913–1991). In April 1975, Havel wrote a letter to Husak pleading for an end to the "drastic suppression of history." Husak never responded, but the letter was widely circulated and had an impact on the rise of dissidents in Czechoslovakia.

Havel was a founder of the opposition group Charter 77. Tried in 1977 for allegedly smuggling a colleague's manuscript out of the country, he was convicted and sentenced to fourteen months in prison. He was later arrested in 1989 for allegedly inciting a demonstration, convicted, and imprisoned for another nine months. His release coincided with the beginnings of the Velvet Revolution, which would eventually lead to the retreat of the Soviets from Czechoslovakia and the introduction of democratic institutions. Havel was named by the Czechoslovakian parliament to be the nation's first president before the end of the year.

Havel and his advisors were suspicious of a parliament that included a large contingent of communists; more important, they were writers and intellectuals who understood little about constitutions, legalities, and government. As a result, Havel was often seen as not respecting the role of parliament.

Havel presided over the secession of Slovakia from the nation in 1992 and then resigned as president. The so-called "velvet divorce" of the two nations was official on New Year's Eve 1992. Havel was elected president of the Czech Republic in January 1993. He attempted to move the Czech Republic into the larger, Western world and began negotiations for the Czech Republic to enter the European Union (which occurred in 2005), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. He retired from the presidency in 2003. Notably, he is the author of seven books, two written while he was president, and twelve plays.

See also: Czech Republic.


Havel, Vaclav. Disturbing the Peace: A Conversation with Karel Hvizdala, trans. Paul Wilson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

Havel, Vaclav. Open Letters: Selected Writings 1965–1990. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.

Keane, John. Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Kriseova, Eda. Vaclav Havel: The Authorized Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Mary L. Volcansek

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