By: Victoria Yates
Born in Prague on October 5th 1936, Havel grew up in a wealthy, intellectual home that was well known in political and social circles. He was the son of the owner of a large film studio and the daughter of a Czechoslovak ambassador and journalist. He worked hard at school, simultaneously completing a four-year apprenticeship in a chemical lab and attending night classes to graduate in 1954. He went on to the Czech Technical University in Prague where he studied economics but dropped out after two years.
Between 1957 and 1959, Havel served his military service. Upon completion, he found work in the Prague theatre scene, first as a stagehand and later as a writer. His debut play ‘The Garden Party’ was staged in 1963 and won international acclaim. His 1968 work ‘The Memorandum’ was even taken to New York, solidifying his reputation abroad. However, his political dissidence in the uprisings of 1968 got him banned from the theatre and prevented him from travelling abroad to performances.
He took a job in a brewery and continued to write plays that were distributed by samizdat, a dissident form of hand reproduction and hand-to-hand distribution. In 1976 he helped write the Charter 77 manifesto, in part a response to the jailing of a psychedelic band. Spreading the work was a political crime under the ruling communist regime. Three years later, he co-founded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted.
These political activities meant several prison stays for Havel, compounded by surveillance and interrogation. His stark experiences were fed into his creativity, with Havel becoming well known for his essays, notably ‘The Power of the Powerless.’ His longest prison stay, from May 1979 to February 1983, was documented in letters to his wife, later published as 'Letters to Olga'.
On December 29th 1989, Havel became the President of Czechoslovakia by unanimous vote of the Federal Assembly. The following year, Czechoslovakia held its first free elections and Havel was re-elected. Despite being the only candidate, Havel, who supported maintaining the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic, lost the election in 1992 because of the lack of Slovak deputies’ support.
He nevertheless returned to politics as the president of the new Czech Republic in 1993. Although the constitution had given much of the real power to the prime minister, Havel still maintained a great deal of authority, particularly with moral matters. Key early moves included giving an extended general amnesty to lessen prison overcrowding and freeing political prisoners, arguing that the unfair court system of the prior regime left many convictions dubious.
In 1996, after the death of his wife of over thirty years, Olga Havlova, from cancer, Havel was diagnosed with lung cancer. It disappeared two years later and he was re-elected, going on to contribute to transitioning NATO away from its roots as an anti-Warsaw Pact alliance. He was reelected again in 1998.
He left office in 2003. He continued his work on human rights, hosting Forum 2000 and working as the Kluge Chair for Modern Culture at the US Library of Congress. In 2006, he served as visiting artist at Columbia University. The next year he published a memoir of his presidency, ‘To the Castle and Back,’ as well as his first play in almost two decades. 2008 saw Havel joined the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation, as well as serving on other international human rights councils and working alongside figures like President Obama and the Dalai Lama.
Havel received much recognition, including the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Gandhi Peace Prize, the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, the Order of Canada, and the Ambassador of Conscience Award.
He died on the 18th December 2011. The Prime Minister announced a national three-day mourning period as international leaders poured tributes into the world media.
With an unswerving proponent of change and fairness, his political and literary legacy has made him one of the 20th centuries great leaders.