Vaclav_havelVaclav Havel was a dissident playwright, the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic. [1] According to Iva K. Naffziger, “He led his country from the defeat of communism in 1989, to its first free elections in 1990, to its economic revival, and to its reincorporation into the international community—into NATO and soon the EU.” [2] Havel was born to a privileged affluent Prague family in 1936, but he lived under persecution for the better part of his years. The Communists expropriated his family’s property, blocked his education, banned his writings, and imprisoned him. [3] However, in his essay “The Power of the Powerless” Havel admitted that under the communist regime citizens were forced to “live within a lie”. Describing his role as a dissident, he noted that he never decided to become a dissident, “We have been transformed into them, without quite knowing how; sometimes we have ended up in prison without precisely knowing how. We simply went ahead and did certain things that we felt we ought to do, and that seemed to us decent to do, nothing more nor less.” [4]

Havel was arrested in 1979 and imprisoned for about 5 years for his participation in a citizens’ initiative called Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted (VONS) and the Charter 77 Movement.   The VONS documented illegal harassment of citizens and issued alerts regarding persons prosecuted and imprisoned for exercising their constitutional rights against the communist regime. Havel believed strongly that citizens should exercise their right to freedom of speech and association even if such behavior was punished by the state.  During his trial, he openly admitted his activities and argued that they were legal. [5] “Dissidenthood” brought Havel three prison sentences, a ban on his plays, and fame and sympathy abroad.   Havel said, “When I remembered the more than 500 times in my life that they tortured me with endless interrogations, how they jailed me, undertook terrorist raids into my apartment, persecuted all my relatives and friends, destroyed my car . . . it is a sad result of all this to receive a piece of paper where someone states that I was not a knowing collaborator.” [6]

Before Havel’s imprisonment, the Czechoslovak secret police followed and watched his every move. The secret police occupied a property next to his house and built a watchtower on it, from which they observed him at all times and even while he walked his dog.  These led to many dissidents escape into exiles, but Havel and a handful of others refused to budge. Havel was later sentenced to long term in prison with hard labor, welding metal gratings and stripping insulation from wires.  Havel said that the work “wasn’t too bad, as long as he could get used to the cold and endless filth”.  However, when he failed to finish his work, he would be punished with reduced rations. Havel and other prisoners were also beaten and threatened with execution; he suffered from pneumonia because of his exposure to cold and would have died if he had stayed longer in prison. He was released as a direct result of international pressure. [7]

Havel wrote to his wife several times while he was in prison, the famous “Letters to Olga” were a collection of up to 150 letters he wrote weekly to his wife. These letters were written by Havel under strict prison rules, he was forbidden from writing about life in prison or making jokes. [8] Before Havel’s trials, he was given the option to emigrate from the country, but he declined and chose to remain in Czechoslovakia.  Havel noted that he did not want to walk away from something from which it was not decent to walk away, and that he would disappoint many people.   He further said that he was not trying to overvalue himself and his importance, but that he was a realist and that so many eyes were watching him  to see his next steps. [9]

Havel’s uncompromising resistance to an oppressive regime constitutes his greatest legacy.  Havel once said, “I came across a fairy-tale hero, a boy who, in the name of the good, beat his head against the wall of a castle inhabited by evil kings, until the wall fell down and he himself became king.” [10] He further noted that “the emperor had no clothes” [11] which explains how his rule replaced his oppressors’ rule. In the “The Power of the Powerless”, Havel underlined that “if the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth” [12]  Havel’s everyday life and work were hindered by the communist authority but he gained courage in the face of hardship. [13] Havel wished to preserve the unity of multi-ethnic Czechoslovakia[14] he resigned as president after Slovaks issued their Declaration of Independence, he did not want to preside over the country’s breakup or confront Slovaks. However, when the Czech Republic was created as one of two successor states, he stood for election and became its first president on 26 January 1993.

 

[1] “Reading Václav Havel from His Jail Cell | FrontPage Magazine,” accessed December 22, 2013, http://www.frontpagemag.com/2011/daniel-flynn/reading-vaclav-havel-from-his-jail-cell/.

[2] “From the Prison to the Castle: The Legacy of Václav Havel | Hoover Institution,” accessed December 22, 2013, http://www.hoover.org/publications/hoover-digest/article/6684.

[3] “Reading Václav Havel from His Jail Cell | FrontPage Magazine.” accessed December 22, 2013, http://www.frontpagemag.com/2011/daniel-flynn/reading-vaclav-havel-from-his-jail-cell/.

[4] “To Reform or Not to Reform, before or after the Election – That Is the Question – The Nation,” accessed December 30, 2013, http://www.nationmultimedia.com/opinion/To-reform-or-not-to-reform-before-or-after-the-ele-30223090.html.

[5]  “From the Prison to the Castle: The Legacy of Václav Havel | Hoover Institution.” accessed December 22, 2013, http://www.hoover.org/publications/hoover-digest/article/6684.

[6]  “From the Prison to the Castle: The Legacy of Václav Havel | Hoover Institution.” accessed December 22, 2013  http://www.hoover.org/publications/hoover-digest/article/6684.

[7]  “Vaclav Havel,” accessed December 22, 2013, http://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/Slavonic/Havel1.htm.

[8]  “Vaclav Havel,” accessed December 22, 2013, http://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/Slavonic/Havel1.htm.

[9]  “From the Prison to the Castle: The Legacy of Václav Havel | Hoover Institution.” accessed December 22, 2013, http://www.hoover.org/publications/hoover-digest/article/6684.

[10]  “From the Prison to the Castle: The Legacy of Václav Havel | Hoover Institution.” accessed December 22, 2013,   http://www.hoover.org/publications/hoover-digest/article/6684.

[11]  “Vaclav Havel: The Emperor Has No Clothes Webcast (Library of Congress),” accessed December 30, 2013, http://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=3697.

[12]  “The Power of the Powerless (Routledge Revivals): Citizens Against the State … – Vaclav Havel – Google Books,” accessed December 30, 2013,

[13]  “From the Prison to the Castle: The Legacy of Václav Havel | Hoover Institution.” accessed December 22, 2013, http://www.hoover.org/publications/hoover-digest/article/6684.

[14]  “Reading Václav Havel from His Jail Cell | FrontPage Magazine.” accessed December 22, 2013, http://www.frontpagemag.com/2011/daniel-flynn/reading-vaclav-havel-from-his-jail-cell/