Václav Havel

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Václav Havel

In office
2 February 1993 – 2 February 2003
Prime Minister Václav Klaus
Josef Tošovský
Miloš Zeman
Vladimír Špidla
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Václav Klaus

In office
29 December 1989 – 20 July 1992
Prime Minister Marián Čalfa
Jan Stráský
Preceded by Marián Čalfa (Acting)
Succeeded by Jan Stráský (Acting)

Born 5 October 1936(1936-10-05)
Prague, Czecho-Slovakia
(now Czech Republic)
Died 18 December 2011 (aged 75)
Hrádeček, Czech Republic
Political party Civic Forum (1989–1993)
Green Party supporter (2004–2011)
Spouse(s) Olga Šplíchalová (1964–1996)
Dagmar Veškrnová (1997–2011)
Alma mater Technical University, Prague
Website www.vaclavhavel.cz

Václav Havel (5 October 1936 – 18 December 2011) was a Czech playwright, essayist, poet, dissident, freemason and politician. He was the tenth and last president of the pseudo-state Czecho-Slovakia (1989–92) and the first President of the Czech Republic (1993–2003). He wrote over 20 plays and numerous non-fiction works, translated internationally. Havel received the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, the Order of Canada, the freedom medal of the Four Freedoms Award, and the Ambassador of Conscience Award and several other distinctions. He was also voted 4th in Prospect magazine's 2005 global poll of the world's top 100 intellectuals.[1] He was a founding signatory of the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism.[2] At the time of his death he was Chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation. Equally, he was the founder of VIZE97 Foundation, and the FORUM 2000 annual global conference.

Beginning in the 1960s, his work turned to focus on the politics of Czecho-Slovakia. After the Prague Spring, he became increasingly active. In 1977, his involvement with the human rights manifesto Charter 77 brought him international fame as the leader of the opposition in Czecho-Slovakia; it also led to his imprisonment. The 1989 Velvet Revolution launched Havel into the presidency. In this role, he led Czecho-Slovakia and later the Czech Republic to multi-party democracy. His thirteen years in office saw radical change in his nation, including its split with Slovakia, which Havel opposed, its accession into NATO and start of the negotiations for membership in the European Union, which was attained in 2004.

Early life

Havel was born in Prague on 5 October 1936.[3] He grew up in a well-known and wealthy entrepreneurial and intellectual family, which was closely linked to the cultural and political events in Czechoslovakia from the 1920s to the 1940s. His father, Václav Maria Havel, was the owner of the suburb Barrandov which was located on the highest point of Prague and of Barrandov film studios. Havel's mother, Božena Vavřečková,[4] came from a well known family; her father was an ambassador and well-known journalist. Because of Havel's bourgeois history, the Communist regime did not allow Havel to study formally after he had completed his required schooling in 1951. In the first part of the 1950s, the young Havel entered into a four-year apprenticeship as a chemical laboratory assistant and simultaneously took evening classes; he completed his secondary education in 1954. For political reasons, he was not accepted into any post-secondary school with a humanities program; therefore, he opted to study at the Faculty of Economics of Czech Technical University in Prague but dropped out after two years.[5] In 1964, Havel married proletarian Olga Šplíchalová, much to the displeasure of his mother.

Early theater career

The intellectual tradition of his family compelled

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Václav Havel to pursue the humanitarian values of Czech culture. After military service (1957–59), he worked as a stagehand in Prague (at the Theater On the Balustrade – Divadlo Na zábradlí) and studied drama by correspondence at the Theater Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (DAMU). His first publicly performed full-length play, besides various vaudeville collaborations, was The Garden Party (1963). Presented in a season of Theater of the Absurd, at the Balustrade, it won him international acclaim. It was soon followed by The Memorandum, one of his best known plays, and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, all at the Balustrade. In 1968, The Memorandum was also brought to The Public Theater in New York, which helped establish his reputation in the United States. The Public continued to produce his plays over the next years, although after 1968 his plays were banned in his own country, Havel was unable to leave Czechoslovakia to see any foreign performances.[6]


During the first week of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czecho-Slovakia, Havel provided a commentary on the events on Radio Free Czecho-Slovakia in Liberec. Following the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968 he was banned from the theatre and became more politically active. He was forced to take a job in a brewery, an experience he wrote about in his play Audience. This play, along with two other "Vaněk" plays (so-called because of the recurring character Ferdinand Vaněk, a stand in for Havel), became distributed in samizdat form across Czecho-Slovakia, and greatly added to Havel's reputation of being a leading revolutionary (several other Czech writers later wrote their own plays featuring Vaněk).[7] This reputation was cemented with the publication of the Charter 77 manifesto, written partially in response to the imprisonment of members of the Czech psychedelic band The Plastic People of the Universe[8] detained for their involvement with the Czech underground. He co-founded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted in 1979. His political activities resulted in multiple stays in prison, and constant government surveillance and questioning. His longest stay in prison, from June 1979 to January 1984, is documented in Letters to Olga, his late wife.

He was famous for his essays, most particularly for his articulation of "Post-Totalitarianism" (Power of the Powerless), a term used to describe the modern social and political order that enabled people to "live within a lie." In this essay Havel took issue with the concept of the 'dissident' as such, arguing that it is mainly a prescription attached to certain practices that are not by their authors categorized as dissident behaviour: one becomes a dissident mainly through the interpretation of one's behaviour by others.[9]

A passionate supporter of non-violent resistance, a role in which he has been compared, by former US President Bill Clinton, to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., he became a leading figure in the Velvet Revolution of 1989, the bloodless end to communism in Czecho-Slovakia.

His motto was "Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate."


Václav Havel and Karol Sidon (left), his friend and later chief Czech Rabbi
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Flag of the President of the Czech Republic: "The Truth Prevails"

On 29 December 1989, while leader of the Civic Forum, he became president by a unanimous vote of the Federal Assembly. This was an ironic turn of fate for a man who had long insisted that he was uninterested in politics. He joined many dissidents of the period arguing that political change should happen through civic initiatives autonomous from the state, rather than through the state itself. He was awarded[10] the Prize For Freedom of the Liberal International in 1990.[11][12]

After the free elections of 1990 he retained his presidency. One of the first acts in office was to issue a wide ranging amnesty releasing many political prisoners. Despite increasing tensions, Havel supported the retention of the federation of the czechs and the slovaks during the breakup of Czecho-Slovakia. On 3 July 1992 the federal parliament did not elect Havel, who was the only candidate – due to a lack of support from Slovak MPs. The largest party, the Civic Democratic Party, let it known that it would not support any other candidate. After the Slovaks issued their Declaration of Independence, he resigned as president on 20 July, saying he would not preside over the country's breakup.

However, when the Czech Republic was created, he stood for election as president on 26 January 1993, and won. Unlike in Czecho-Slovakia, he was not the Czech Republic's chief executive. However, owing to his prestige, he still commanded a good deal of moral authority.

Havel's popularity abroad surpassed his popularity at home[citation needed], and he was no stranger to controversy and criticism. An extensive general pardon, one of his first acts as a president, was an attempt to both lessen the pressure in overcrowded prisons and release those who may have been falsely imprisoned during the Communist era. He had felt that decisions of a corrupt court of the previous regime could not be trusted, and that most in prison had not been fairly tried.[13] Critics claimed that this amnesty raised the crime rate. According to Havel's memoir To the Castle and Back, most of those released had less than a year of their sentence to run. Statistics have not lent clear support to either claim.

In an interview with Karel Hvížďala (also included in To the Castle and Back), Havel stated that he felt his most important accomplishment as president was the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. The dissolution was so complicated, the infrastructure created by the pact was ingrained in the workings of the countries and in their general consciousness, that it took two years for Soviet troops to fully withdraw from Czechoslovakia.

Following a legal dispute with his sister-in-law, Havel decided to sell his 50% stake in the Lucerna Palace on Wenceslas Square, a legendary dance hall built by his grandfather Václav Havel. In a transaction arranged by Marián Čalfa, Havel sold the estate to Václav Junek, a former communist spy in France and leader of the soon-to-be-bankrupt conglomerate Chemapol Group, who later openly admitted he bribed politicians of the Czech Social Democratic Party.[14]

In December 1996 the chain smoking Havel was diagnosed as having lung cancer.[15] The disease reappeared two years later. He quit smoking. In 1996, Olga, his wife of 32 years, died of cancer. Less than a year later Havel remarried, to actress Dagmar Veškrnová.[16]

The former political prisoner was instrumental in enabling the transition of NATO from being an anti-Warsaw Pact alliance to its present inclusion of former-Warsaw Pact members, like the Czech Republic. Havel advocated vigorously for the expansion of the military alliance into Eastern Europe, including the Czech Republic.[17][18]

Havel was re-elected president in 1998. He had to undergo a colostomy in Innsbruck when his colon ruptured while on holiday in Austria.[19] Havel left office after his second term as Czech president ended on 2 February 2003; Václav Klaus, one of his greatest political opponents, was elected his successor on 28 February 2003. Margaret Thatcher wrote of the two men in her foreign policy treatise, Statecraft, reserving greater respect for Havel, whose dedication to democracy and defying the Communists earned her admiration.[20][21][22]

Post-presidential career

From 1997, Havel hosted Forum 2000,[23] an annual conference to "identify the key issues facing civilization and to explore ways to prevent the escalation of conflicts that have religion, culture or ethnicity as their primary components.” In 2005, the former President occupied the Kluge Chair for Modern Culture at the John W. Kluge Center of the United States Library of Congress, where he continued his research in human rights.[24] In November and December 2006, Havel spent eight weeks as a visiting artist in residence at Columbia University. The stay was sponsored by the Columbia Arts Initiative and featured "performances, and panels center[ing] on his life and ideas", including a public "conversation" with former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Concurrently, the Untitled Theater Company No. 61 launched a Havel Festival, the first complete festival of his plays in various venues throughout New York City, including The Brick Theater and the Ohio Theatre, in celebration of his 70th birthday.[25][26][27][28][29][30][31] Havel was a member of the World Future Society and addressed the Society's members on 4 July 1994. His speech was later printed in THE FUTURIST magazine (July, 1995).[32]

Havel's memoir of his experience as President, To the Castle and Back, was published in May 2007. The book mixes an interview in the style of Disturbing the Peace with actual memoranda he sent to his staff with modern diary entries and recollections.[33]

On 4 August 2007, Havel met with members of the Belarus Free Theatre at his summer cottage in the Czech Republic in a show of his continuing support, which has been instrumental in the theatre's attaining international recognition and membership in the European Theatrical Convention.[34][35]

Havel's first new play in over 18 years, Leaving (Odcházení), was published in November 2007, and was to have had its world premiere in June 2008 at the Prague theater Divadlo na Vinohradech,[36] but the theater withdrew it in December as it felt it could not provide the technical support needed to mount the play.[37] The play instead premiered on 22 May 2008 at the Archa Theatre to standing ovations.[38] Havel based the play on King Lear, by William Shakespeare, and on The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov; "Chancellor Vilém Rieger is the central character of Leaving, who faces a crisis after being removed from political power."[36] The play had its English language premiere at the Orange Tree Theatre in London and its American premiere at The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. Havel subsequently directed a film version of the play, which premiered in the Czech Republic on 22 March 2011.[39]

Other new works include the short sketch Pět Tet, a modern sequel to Unveiling, and The Pig, or Václav Havel's Hunt for a Pig, which was premiered in Brno at Theatre Goose on a String and had its English language premiere in June 2011 at the 3LD Art & Technology Center in New York, in a production from Untitled Theater Company #61.[40][41]

In 2008 Havel became Member of the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation, an NGO designed to monitor tolerance in Europe and to prepare practical recommendations on fighting anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia on the continent.

Havel met with U.S. President Barack Obama at the European Union (EU) and United States (US) summit in Prague on 5 April 2009.[42] He had written Obama a letter inviting the president to come to Prague.[43]

Havel was the chair of the International Council of the Human Rights Foundation,[44] and a member of the international advisory council of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.[45]

Václav Havel at Velvet Revolution Memorial (Národní Street, Prague) in 2010

On the national level Havel from 2004 until his death supported Czech Green Party.[46][47][48][49]


Havel died on 18 December 2011 at his country home in Hrádeček.[50][51] A week before his death, he met with fellow dissident and longtime friend, the Dalai Lama, in Prague;[52] Havel appeared in a wheelchair.[51] Within hours Havel's death was met with tributes from numerous world leaders, including US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Polish President Lech Wałęsa. Merkel called Havel "a great European," while Wałęsa said he should have been given the Nobel Peace Prize.[51][53]


Havel with American poet, Hedwig Gorski

Collections of poetry

  • Čtyři rané básně (Four Early Poems)
  • Záchvěvy I & II, 1954 (Quivers I & II)
  • První úpisy, 1955 (First promissory notes)
  • Prostory a časy, 1956 (Spaces and times, poetry)
  • Na okraji jara (cyklus básní), 1956 (At the edge of spring (poetry cycle))
  • Antikódy, 1964 (Anticodes)


Non-fiction books

Fiction books

  • Pizh'duks


  • Odcházení, 2011


  1. Prospect Intellectuals: The 2005 List. Retrieved on 6 April 2010.
  2. Prague Declaration – Declaration Text (3 June 2008). Retrieved on 28 January 2010.
  3. Webb, W. L. (18 December 2011). "Václav Havel obituary". The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/dec/18/vaclav-havel. Retrieved 18 December 2011. 
  4. Havel, Vaclav 1936 – Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved on 2011-12-18.
  5. Vaclav Havel – Biography. The official website of Vaclav Havel . Retrieved 4 June 2008.
  6. Vaclav Havel Obituary. Telegraph. 18 December 2011. Retrieved on 2011-12-19.
  7. Goetz-Stankiewicz, Marketa, The Vanӗk Plays, 1987, University of British Columbia Press
  8. Richie Unterberger, "The Plastic People of the Universe", richieunterberger.com 26 February 2007. Retrieved 29 April 2007.
  9. Vaclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless, in: Vaclav Havel et al The power of the powerless. Citizen against the state in central-eastern Europe, Abingdon, 2010 pp.10–60 ISBN-13: 978-0873327619
  10. Vaclav Havel (1990). Liberal-international.org. Retrieved on 2 December 2011.
  11. Stanger, Richard L. "Václav Havel: Heir to a Spiritual Legacy". The Christian Century (Christian Century Foundation), 11 April 1990: 368–370. Rpt. in religion-online.org ("with permission"; "prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock"). ["Richard L. Stanger is senior minister at Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn, New York."]
  12. Tucker, Scott. "Capitalism with a Human Face?". The Humanist (American Humanist Association), 1 May 1994, "Our Queer World". Rpt. in High Beam Encyclopedia (an online encyclopedia). Accessed 21 December 2007. ["Vaclav Havel's philosophy and musings."]
  13. Havel's New Year's address. Old.hrad.cz. Retrieved on 2 December 2011.
  14. Paul Berman, "The Poet of Democracy and His Burdens", The New York Times Magazine 11 May 1997 (original inc. cover photo), as rpt. in English translation at Newyorske listy (New York Herald). Retrieved 29 April 2007.
  15. "Vaclav Havel: from 'bourgeois reactionary' to president", author not mentioned, Radio Prague (the international service of Czech radio)
  16. "Vaclav Havel: End of an era" by Richard Allen Greene, BBC News online, 9 October 2003
  17. Václav Havel, "NATO: The Safeguard of Stability and Peace In the Euro-Atlantic Region", in European Security: Beginning a New Century, eds. General George A. Joulwan & Roger Weissinger-Baylon, papers from the XIIIth NATO Workshop: On Political-Military Decision Making, Warsaw, Poland, 19–23 June 1996.
  18. Žižek, Slavoj. "Attempts to Escape the Logic of Capitalism". Book review of Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts, by John Keane. the London Review of Books, 28 October 1999. Retrieved 21 December 2007.
  19. Havel's Medical Condition Seems to Worsen, New York Times
  20. Welch, Matt. "Velvet President", Reason (May 2003). Rpt. in Reason Online. Retrieved 21 December 2007.
  21. Václav Havel "Famous Czechs of the Past Century: Václav Havel" – English version of article featured on the official website of the Czech Republic.
  22. "A Revolutionary President" – Feature article on Prague tourism website, prague-life.com. ("Prague Czech Republic Travel Guide Lifeboat Limited UK Registered Company No. 5351515.")
  23. Forum 2000 Foundation – Website of conference founded and hosted by Havel annually in Prague since 1997.
  24. Havel, Václav (24 May 2005). Václav Havel: The Emperor Has No Clothes Library of Congress, John W. Kluge Center. Retrieved on 3 September 2009.
  25. Havel at Columbia; "Celebrating the Life and Art of Václav Havel: New York City, October through December 2006".
  26. Capps, Walter H. "Interpreting Václav Havel". Cross Currents (Association for Religion & Intellectual Life) 47.3 (Fall 1997). Retrieved 21 December 2007.
  27. Biography of Václav Havel hosted by Radio Prague.
  28. Havel at Columbia: Václav Havel: The Artist, The Citizen, The Residency – Multi-media website developed for Havel's seven-week residency at Columbia University, in Fall 2006; features biographies; timelines; interviews; profiles; and bibliographies (See "References" above).
  29. "Honours: Order of Canada: Václav Havel" (Citation). gg.ca. Accessed 21 December 2007. (Search facility.)
  30. "Celebrating the Life and Art of Václav Havel" Biography and "timeline" – The Havel Festival: Václav Havel, Untitled Theater Company (untitledtheater.com), in conjunction with the residency of Havel at Columbia.
  31. (Václav) Havel Festival: Celebrating the life and art of Václav Havel, New York City, October through December 2006 – Official website of this festival of all of Havel's works; includes descriptions of all of Havel's plays.
  32. Vaclav Havel on Transcendence. Wfs.org. Retrieved on 2011-12-19.
  33. Pinder, Ian (16 August 2008). "Czechout". The Guardian (UK). http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/aug/16/biography1. Retrieved 28 August 2008. 
  34. "Belarus Free Theatre Meet Vaclav Havel", press release, Belarus Free Theatre, 13 August 2007. Retrieved 31 August 2007.
  35. Michael Batiukov, "Belarus 'Free Theatre' is Under Attack by Militia in Minsk, Belarus", American Chronicle, 22 August 2007. Retrieved 31 August 2007.
  36. 36.0 36.1 Adam Hetrick, "Václav Havel's Leaving May Arrive in American Theatres", Playbill, 19 November 2007. Retrieved 21 December 2007.
  37. Daniela Lazarová, "Will It Be Third Time Lucky for Václav Havel's 'Leaving'?", Radio Prague, 14 December 2007. Retrieved 21 December 2007.
  38. Everyone loves Havel's Leaving. Archived from the original on 30 May 2008. Retrieved on 23 March 2011.
  39. Feifer, Gregory (23 March 2011). Havel Film Premieres In Prague. Rferl.org. Retrieved on 2 December 2011.
  40. DIVADLO.CZ: Of Pigs and Dissidents. Host.theatre.cz (29 June 2010). Retrieved on 2 December 2011.
  41. Callahan, Dan. Summer Preview: Performance | Theater Reviews | The L Magazine – New York City's Local Event and Arts & Culture Guide. The L Magazine. Retrieved on 2 December 2011.
  42. Havel's gift for Obama to be displayed in Prague gallery | Prague Monitor. Archived from the original on 11 April 2009. Retrieved on 23 March 2011.
  43. "Havel sends letter to Obama inviting him to Prague". České Noviny. 31 March 2009. http://www.ceskenoviny.cz/zpravy/havel-sends-letter-to-obama-inviting-him-to-prague/368550.  [dead link]
  44. Human Rights Foundation, International Council, accessed 13 April 2010
  45. International Advisory Council. Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Archived from the original on 20 May 2011. Retrieved on 20 May 2011.
  46. Zelené podpořil Havel, vymezují se proti TOP 09. Novinky.cz. 6 September 2009. Retrieved on 2011-12-19.
  47. Zelení představili své sympatizanty – Havla, Schwarzenberga a Holubovou. Novinky.cz. 18 May 2009. Retrieved on 2011-12-19.
  48. Havel podpořil zelené. Srovnal továrny s koncentráky. Tn.nova.cz. 18 May 2009. Retrieved on 2011-12-19.
  49. „Jinými slovy: volme zelené!“ (Dopis Václava Havla Straně zelených). zpravy.tiscali.cz. 6 September 2009
  50. "Vaclav Havel, Czech statesman and playwright, dies at 75". AP. Archived from the original on 2012-01-08. http://web.archive.org/web/20120108012301/http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hACp6Ey-cBK46ssuUDqZtPyuy0yA?docId=52b4d44612b846ba98ad0598de3c71ca. 
  51. 51.0 51.1 51.2 "Vaclav Havel, Czech statesman and playwright, dies at 75". BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-16236393. 
  52. "Dalai Lama pays 'friendly' visit to Prague". The Prague Post. http://www.praguepost.com/news/11401-dalai-lama-pays-friendly-visit-to-prague.html. Retrieved 18 December 2011. 
  53. "World Reacts To Vaclav Havel's Death". Radio Free Europe. http://www.rferl.org/content/world_reaction_to_havel_death/24425874.html. Retrieved 18 December 2011. 
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