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Vaclav Havel biography
Civic Forum

  Vaclav Havel was born on 5th October 1936 in Prague the capital city of Czechoslovakia. The family were well-off through their restaurant business and enjoyed close involvements with artistic and literary circles.

As an outcome of the Second World War Czechoslovakia fell under Soviet Russian and Communist domination in 1948 with serious effects on Havel's family - now seen as being "class enemies" - including a confiscation of their wealth and assignment to low-paid employments. The children of the family were denied access to the state educational system beyond quite elementary levels. Vaclav Havel worked as a laboratory technician and took night classes to finish high school. His applications for liberal arts courses having been denied he then spent two years at a technical university studying economics.

As he grew into manhood he showed signs of dissent against the Czech Communist authorities' ongoing suppression of artistic and literary freedoms. During a period of military service after 1957 he organised theatrical pursuits in his unit. He sought admission to university drama school in Prague in 1959, but was turned down and subsequently found employment as a stage hand at Prague's ABC Theater.

The Prague Spring of 1968 was an episode where Czech intellectuals enthusiastically supported moves, then being sponsored by Alexander Dubcek, for a liberalising reform of the Czech Communist system. By this time Havel, who was also somewhat involved in the movements for reform, had turned to writing plays which were generally critically acclaimed and which had found an appreciative Czech, and indeed European, audience. As a playwright, Havel's works communicate an existential philosophy, and their timing reflects the circumstances of his life.

A Soviet invasion of August 1968 suppressed the Prague Spring. Havel protested with the result that the authorities banned his works. Supporting himself by working in a manual role in a brewery, Havel continued to write numerous articles and essays for unofficial publications which were often distributed secretly. The authorities offered him several opportunities to leave the country but he declined as he had decided to remain in Czechoslovakia and work for change holding the view that "the solution of this human situation does not lie in leaving it."

In 1977 he helped orchestrate and produce Charter 77, a document supported by hundreds of Czech intellectuals, that demanding that Czech citizens be afforded basic human rights such as had seemed to be promised in the Helsinki Agreements. Havel functioned as one of three prominent spokesmen for the group. In 1978 Havel participated in the foundation of a Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted. Later that year he was arrested and tried, convicted and sentenced to 4 years with hard labour for "subversion." During his prison term, authorities distorted one of Havel's letters to make it appear he had betrayed the Charter 77 movement.

He was released in 1983 and, though under constant surveillance, continued to criticize the government through the underground press. He was re-arrested in January 1989 and spent nine months in prison for his various involvements with protests. As that year progressed, Civil Forum - an opposition movement Havel helped form that was dedicated to democratic reforms - gained momentum and culminated in the bloodless Velvet Revolution of 1989. The way for this having been somewhat opened by the new policy emanating from Moscow whereby Mikhail Gorbachev and others now accepted that the Soviet satellites states in eastern Europe had the right to pursue their own courses. Gorbachev was effectively trying to save Communism by liberalizing it but the resulting wave of democratization that swept Eastern Europe instead effectively spurred an end to Communism.

Havel, along with other opposition supporters, demanded the resignation of President Gustav Husak, who ultimately succumbed. In December, 1989, Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia.
He resigned from office briefly in 1992 when the Slovak parliament passed its own constitution. Shortly thereafter, and to Havel's personal regret, Czechoslovakia split into two new states - the Republic of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Havel was elected president of the Czech Republic in 1993.

A notably heavy smoker, surgeons removed half of his right lung and a small malignant tumor in December 1996. He developed severe pneumonia and a high fever after the surgery and said later that he nearly died. Havel gave up smoking but continues to suffer from health problems. While the prime minister manages many of the affairs of state, Havel holds large sway over public opinion and is one of the most-recognized leaders in Europe. He also serves as an inspiration to fighters for democracy, symbolizing the power of one person to change the course of history through non-violent means.

"... in today's multicultural world, the truly reliable path to coexistence, to peaceful coexistence and creative cooperation, must start from what is at the root of all cultures and what lies infinitely deeper in human hearts and minds than political opinion...It must be rooted in self-transcendence. Transcendence as a hand that reaches out to those close to us, to foreigners, to the human community, to all living creatures, to nature, to the universe; transcendence as a deeply and joyously experienced need to be in harmony even with what we ourselves are not..."

Vaclav Havel

Philadelphia 1994

Emerson's "Transcendental" approach to History

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Vaclav Havel biography
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