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Interviews : Vaclav Havel

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Interviewed April 2010

Václav Havel (1936-2011) was a playwright and poet who played a leading role in bringing an end to communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Havel served as the last president of Czechoslovakia (1989–92) and the first president of the Czech Republic (1993–2003).

Havel was born into a wealthy, intellectual family. For political reasons he was not accepted into any post-secondary humanities program, but eventually he was able to study drama by correspondence and began publishing articles and plays. In 1968 he was a prominent participant in the “Prague Spring,” a brief period of liberalization that ended when the Warsaw Pact stationed troops in the country.

In 1976 and 1977 Havel helped lead the effort to produce the human rights manifesto known as Charter 77, which criticized the government of Czechoslovakia for failing to abide by its human rights obligations under the Czechoslovak Constitution, the Helsinki Accords, and United Nations covenants. In April 1979, Havel co-founded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted. He was imprisoned three separate times for his activities.

In 1989, Havel played a leading role in the nonviolent “Velvet Revolution” which brought an end to the communist political system in Czechoslovakia. Havel was elected president of the country that year. He led Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic to multi-party democracy and presided over the country's accession into NATO. Since leaving office, Havel has committed himself to the promotion of democracy in other parts of the world such as Cuba and Burma. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2003. 

There were of course many funny, funny stories. I don’t know which one I should mention now. But, maybe, one comes to my mind that might illustrate the situation that was in the everyday fight against the secret police.

I was asked to write a lengthy document for Charter to commemorate its tenth anniversary. That was in nineteen eighty-seven. The document should have been a certain address to citizens, address to society. And I was in a hotel in Český Krumlov where I used to go when I wanted to concentrate on my writing. And there, I was writing the document.

And, I was summoned to an interrogation in Český Krumlov and I was asked about some complete nonsense, whether I knew some French or Italian journalist. And there was silence, he kept on looking at his watch and he kept on trying to get it out of me and I did not know who he was talking about and why. And then, I understood it all. He needed to get me out of my room for an hour so that they could sneak into my room and find out what I was writing there.

Well, they found out that I was writing this document. And, they decided that they would outsmart me. On my way back from Krumlov back to Prague I would have the document with me and they would stop me and search the car and confiscate all the copies. That was evidently their plan, since, indeed, when I was leaving, then I was stopped by traffic police, it was before Christmas, saying, saying that they had to check whether I was not taking a stolen Christmas tree home from the forest.

And I, of course, I anticipated this, and therefore I put several copies in places where I knew they could find them. And, I hid one of the copies in the trunk, under the mat, and I was thinking that the copies they would find would satisfy them and that their eagerness would subside after that. And that was exactly what happened. They took all those copies; they drove me to Budějovice for an interrogation and so on. At night, I arrived in Prague where I forwarded that one hidden copy for duplication, circulation before dawn on the foreign radio et cetera.

And during the next interrogation they were saying, what have you, the policemen were saying, what have you done to us, Mr. President? The whole operation was a failure for them. That operation cost a lot of money; many policemen were involved in it, including the traffic police. 

The Czech Republic is a democratic country in Central Europe with a population of approximately 10.5 million people.

From 1918 until 1993, the territory now comprising the Czech Republic was part of Czechoslovakia, which from 1948 to 1989 was part of the communist bloc controlled by the Soviet Union. During this period, the communist government nationalized industry and imposed a highly repressive political system that included the use of secret police and the imprisonment of individuals who challenged the authority of the state.

In 1968, the First Secretary of the Communist Party, Alexander Dubcek, attempted to relax some of the more oppressive limitations on Czechoslovak citizens by allowing greater freedom of expression and association. This period, which was known as the “Prague Spring,” ended when Warsaw Pact armies led by the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and forced the country to abandon the reforms.

In 1977, a group of dissidents led by playwright Vaclav Havel published a document known as Charter 77, which called attention to abuses of human rights by the Czechoslovak government. The initiative called upon the government to respect its international commitments on human rights as elaborated in the 1975 Helsinki Accords. Charter 77 helped draw international attention to conditions within the country.

The rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union in 1985 began a process of limited reform in the communist bloc. In 1989, Poland held partially free elections that saw the opposition come to power. Hungary’s communist government opened its borders and began a negotiated transition to democracy. And in November 1989, hundreds of thousands of Czechoslovak citizens took to the streets to peacefully protest communist rule in what became known as the “Velvet Revolution.” On November 28, 1989, the Communist Party was forced to announce that it would cede power and allow free elections. The new parliament elected former dissident Vaclav Havel as president on December 29, 1989. As president, Havel made his country a leader in defending and supporting human rights around the world. In 1993, Czechoslovakia peacefully divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, both of which later joined the European Union and NATO.

Since its transition to democracy, the Czech Republic has developed stable and democratic systems of governance and a free market economy. Political power has rotated among several strong and competitive political parties, and free and fair elections are held. In 2013, Miloš Zeman was elected president in the first direct presidential election in the country’s history.

In the most recent Freedom in the World report from Freedom House, the Czech Republic earned a rating of “free.” The country earned the highest possible scores in overall freedom, civil liberties, and political rights.

More from Vaclav Havel

Vaclav Havel: Fighting the Secret Police Recounts a humorous story about evading the secret police. Vaclav Havel: Intimidating Dissidents Recalls attempts by the Communist government to harrass and intimidate dissidents. Vaclav Havel: Charter 77 “Charter 77 was formed to hold a mirror up to the conditions in society.” More + Vaclav Havel: Post-Communism "We all here, who experienced communism, were deformed without even realizing it by the need to constantly cower and take care only of ourselves." Vaclav Havel: Rebuilding After Communism On the challenges of rebuilding society after the fall of communism. Vaclav Havel: The Velvet Revolution “Citizens just lost their patience.” Vaclav Havel: Democratic Transition On the challenges of democratic transitions.