In Memoriam

Václav Havel

The first President of the Czech Republic

* 5th October 1936 † 18th December 2011



Biography

Back

Vaclav Havel grew up in the environment of a well-known Prague entrepreneur-intellectual family closely connected with the Czech cultural and political scene from the twenties to the forties. Because of this background the Communist powers-that-be refused him the right to a further formal education after he had completed compulsory school attendance in 1951. Therefore in the first half of the fifties young Vaclav Havel embarked on a four-year apprenticeship as a chemistry laboratory assistant while attending grammar-school evening classes (he graduated in 1954). Later, again because of his undesirable family background, he was not admitted to any university faculty of arts and so he decided to study at a technical college. However, after two years he ceased his studies at the Economics Faculty of the Czech Technical University.

The cultural tradition prevalent in his family focussed Havel's attention on humanistic values of Czech culture which were suppressed in the fifties. Having returned from a two-year compulsory military service he worked as a stage-hand, first in the ABC Theatre and as of 1960 in the Theatre on the Balustrades. In 1962 till 1966 he studied dramatic art on an external basis at the Drama Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts and completed his studies with a commentary on the play "Edward" which later formed the basis of the play "The Increased Difficulty of Concentration".

In 1956 he made the acquaintance of Olga Splichalova, and even though each of their family backgrounds differed, they soon became very close. Following an eight-year friendship they married in 1964, and ever since then Olga Havlova stood by her husband's side in the most trying years. Vaclav often later spoke about her as his indispensable life supporter.

From the age of twenty Vaclav Havel published essays and articles in various literary and drama periodicals. His first plays were presented in the Theatre on the Balustrades among which "The Garden Party" (1960) was of basic significance. This performance became a momentous factor in the awakening tendencies in Czechoslovak society in the sixties. The new civic awareness which has gone down in history as the Prague Spring came to a climax in 1968. At that time Vaclav Havel was not only busy writing plays "The Memorandum" (1965), "The Increased Difficulty of Concentration" (1968), but also as the chairman of the Club of Independent Writers and member of the Club of Committed Non-partisans. As of 1965 he was also involved with the non-Marxist monthly Tvar ("The Face").

Following the suppression of the Prague Spring liberalization tendencies when the armies of the Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel spoke out against the political repression characteristic of the years of Communist normalization. In 1975 he wrote an open letter to President Husak in which he drew attention to the accumulation of conflicts in Czechoslovak society. However, he reached the pinnacle of his activities in January 1977 with the publishing of Charta 77, a text which was then adopted as the title to characterize the movement of a section of Czechoslovak citizens. Vaclav Havel was one of the founding members of this initiative and one of the first three spokespersons. In April 1979 he was one of the co-founders of the Committee in Defence of those Unjustly Prosecuted. His community involvement caused him to serve three terms in jail where he spent nearly five years.

At that time the Czechoslovak authorities prevented the publication of all Havel's scripts. However his literary agent, Mr Klaus Juncker, took care of his affairs and had almost his complete works published by the Rowohlt German publishing house in Reibek near Hamburg.

In the second half of the eighties at a time when the Soviet Union was engaged in a dialogue with the Western democracies, in Czechoslovakia too there was a growing overt dissatisfaction with the leaders of the state. The citizens were ever less willing to accept the repressive policy of the Communist regime, and whereas originally only a few hundred people signed Charta 77, tens of thousands of people rallied to sign the petition "A Few Sentences" of which Vaclav Havel was a co-author.

The beginning of social changes was sparked off by a peaceful student demonstration, marking the anniversary of the closing down of Czech Universities by the Nazis in 1939. On November 17, 1989, the Communist regime brutally suppressed the students by ordering the police to charge against the students on Prague's Narodni trida (National Blvd in Prague's centre). Students and the artist community subsequently headed the civic protest movement. An assembly convened in the Cinoherni klub ("Drama Club") on November 19 established the Civic Forum which united individuals and groups who called for fundamental political changes in Czechoslovakia. From the very beginning Vaclav Havel became its leading representative. The social upheaval then came to a climax on December 29, 1989 when Vaclav Havel as a candidate of the Civic Forum was elected Czechoslovak President by the Federal Assembly. In his inauguration address he made a pledge to lead the country toward free elections, which he fulfilled in the summer of 1990. The new Federal Assembly elected Vaclav Havel for a second term in office as President on July 5, 1990.

Vaclav Havel attained a position as a recognized moral authority for his attitude during the years of a totalitarian regime. Thanks to his profound ideas regarding the problems of contemporary civilization and the deep reflections which went into formulating his opinions he became a much respected figure, quite unique among politicians, in his new constitutional function.

However, in the course of his second term in office as President of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic conflicts developed between the Czech and Slovak political representatives with regard to the future legal status of the country, Vaclav Havel was an all out supporter of a federal state of Czechs and Slovaks and in this respect he exerted his political influence. Following the parliamentary elections in June of 1992, however, the political forces who carried weight in society failed to agree on the functional image of a federation and the conflicts between Czech and Slovak politicians became the main reason that in the course of the Presidential elections on July 3, 1992 Vaclav Havel failed to win a sufficient number of votes from the deputies. Bound by law he temporarily remained in office even following this unsuccessful election. He resigned as President of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic on July 20, 1992 on the grounds that he could no longer comply with the promises contained in the oath of allegiance to the Federal Republic in a manner compatible with his character, convictions and conscious.

Having left his office Vaclav Havel retired from public life for a few months. In mid November 1992, at a time when politics were geared toward an independent Czech state, he confirmed that he was willing to stand in the presidential election of the Republic. Four clubs of deputies of the government coalition submitted an official proposal for Havel's candidacy on January 18, 1993. Then on January 26, 1993 the National Assembly elected Vaclav Havel as the first President of an independent Czech Republic.

Olga Havlova, at his side when he was head of state, devoted herself above all to charities. Inspired by her work in the Committee in Defence of Unjustly Persecuted, she established in 1990 the Committee of Good Will, which concentrated on helping the physically and mentally disabled. In January 1996, however, she died of a serious illness.

At the end of 1996 Vaclav Havel experienced yet another grave vital test - cancer of the lung. Thanks to a diagnosis in the initial stage and radical surgery the treatment proved successful. He found support in this crucial situation between life and death in his friend, actress Dagmar Veskrnova whom the Czech President married on being released from hospital in January 1997.

At a time of a complicated home policy situation Vaclav Havel was again elected President on January 20, 1998 by both the Chambers of Parliament of the Czech Republic.

Vaclav Havel was awarded a number of state honours, international prizes and honorary doctorates as recognition of his essays and plays, for his philosophy and lifelong efforts to uphold human rights.

Vaclav Havel's mandate as President terminated on February 2, 2003.