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Vaclav Havel (1936-2011): Writer, Dissident, Rock Fan, President (video)

Vaclav Havel (1936-2011): Writer, Dissident, Rock Fan, President (video)
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Vaclav Havel, the much-lauded Czech writer and dissident turned President after the 1989 Velvet Revolution, in which “people power” led to a peaceful transition of power after 40 years of communist rule, passed away on December 18. He was 75 years old and died in his sleep at his country house in northern Bohemia with his second wife, actress Dagmar Veškrnová, present. His experience as a dissident who spent years in Communist prisons and his powerful writings — not only his plays with their critique of the regime but even more his open letter to the Communist leader Gustav Husák, his essay “The Power of the Powerless” and his Letters to Olga, written while imprisoned from 1979 to 1983 — seem all the more important to recall now, as we close a year in which popular uprisings have ended the rule of dictators in the Arab world and in which the protester,”occupying” on Wall Street and cities throughout the US, Canada and Europe, has become an emblematic figure.

Havla 1989

Photo of Havel and and demonstrators around flowers in Prague during the Velvet Revolution in November of 1989 by MD via Wikimedia Commons

Born to wealth

Born to a wealthy bourgeoisie family — both his father and grandfather were architect-engineers and his mother’s father was a writer and ambassador — Havel grew up, by his own admission, as a child of privilege. After the Communists came to power in 1948, the family properties were confiscated and in what David Remnick in the New Yorker calls “an act of reverse social engineering”  Havel and his brother, Ivan, were not allowed to attend the better schools.  Indeed, Havel had to leave school at 15 and worked as a laboratory assistant and served in the engineer corps before entering the world of the theatre and in particular the Theatre on the Balustrade, “a center of bohemian artists” where he was one of the few from a bourgeois family. Havel’s plays from this era — “The Garden Party,” “The Memorandum,” and “The Increased Difficulty of Concentration” — were politically daring (they included satires of “old guard Stalinists“) and won him an international reputation during the 1960s Prague Spring under Party reformer Alexander Dubcek.

Soviet invasion changes everything

But in 1968 the Soviet Union invaded Prague and Havel’s plays were banned in his own country; he then composed one-act plays that were performed covertly in private homes. He also became one of the founders of Charter 77, a movement for democratic change, and of Vons (the Czech acronym of Committee for the Defence of the Unjustly Prosecuted) — and Czechoslovakia’s most famous dissident. Havel was kept under constant surveillance by authorities and jailed for “anti-state activity.” Letters to Olga was written, as Remnick says, “under terrific pressure, including that of a pro-Nazi warden who made sure the letters had no mysterious erasures or codes,” while Havel was working in the prison laundry. As he wrote, he hid the drafts “in mountain of dirty sheets stained by millions of unborn children” and revised them during the noon break.

But by the end 1989, as the BBC recounts, the communist party was “disintegrating.” After 18 days of peaceful protests and strikes — the Velvet Revolution — the communist government was defeated and, by December of 1989, Havel was installed as the head of state in Prague’s Roman Catholic cathedral, an occasion that he afterwards said he had “never felt so absurd” about.

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Photo of Havel on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution in 2010 by David Sedlecký via Wikimedia Commons

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17 comments

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4:35PM PDT on Sep 15, 2012

Care2 could've at least gotten the spelling of his first name correct, instead of spelling it THREE different ways..... (the correct way, the url way, and differently in the e-mail in which this appeared...)

8:06PM PST on Dec 21, 2011

He held up a mirror to all other politicians. What a wonderful man, and a true gift of grace to a country that has suffered much.

12:28PM PST on Dec 21, 2011

He was the right leader at the right time. Like a Mandela. My wife and I treasure a CD from years ago of the Dalai Lama chanting for an hour at Havel's hospital bedside.

10:20AM PST on Dec 21, 2011

Praised US invasion (under false pretenses) to Iraq. Not a merit, for a democrat.
45-year marriage and a reputation of a womanizer. He did not fail to combine contradictory things?
"Was more popular abroad than at home" - true, especially at the end of his political career. His team-mates and adherents upset him as they indulged in rivalry, intrigues, profit-making; he himself upset the population with his policy. Czechoslovakia owes its disintegration not only to Slovak nationalists.

10:52PM PST on Dec 20, 2011

The man graced us with an inspiring example of the human spirit -- he prevailed against great cruelty and lived to lead his people into a new dawn. We need a new generation of statesmen like him, more voices of conscience.

7:02PM PST on Dec 20, 2011

A very interesting biography! Not very many people are able to leave the Earth with such a very nice biography!

3:13PM PST on Dec 20, 2011

One of the very few decent politicians. RIP Vaclav

10:30AM PST on Dec 20, 2011

R.I.P., Mr Havel. You were a true bright ray of sunshine and breath of fresh air during a trying time. I hope the young people will learn more about you and pay attention.

9:51AM PST on Dec 20, 2011

R.I.P. Vaclav Havel :(( we will never forget you!

8:50AM PST on Dec 20, 2011

Juliet D. All you can say about this article is the misspelling of his first name. I do hope you read the article.
For you and all the others, a quote from Vaclav Havel:
"I am not an optimist bcause
I am not sure that everything ends well.
Nor am I a pessimist because
I am not sure that everything ends badly.
I just carry hope in my heart.
Hope is a feeling that life and work
have meaning.
You either have it or don't, regardless
of the state of the world around you."
Vaclav Havel
This quote is 1 foot away from my keyboard. It has been there for 10 yrs. I read it every day.

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Kristina Chew Kristina Chew teaches and writes about ancient Greek and Latin and is Online Advocacy and Marketing... more
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