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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. 

I believe that if by success we understand a complete change of conditions in this country, which actually happened not until 1989, that means twelve years after the formation of Charter 77. And the certainty that the conditions would really change, we had sometime around the 20th or 25th of November when it was already clear that the huge demonstrations would not be suppressed by force and the then rulers started to give up power.

I, personally, recall one such large demonstration that took place at the Letná Park where about three quarters of a million people gathered. And, on that day, the Czech Saint Anežka was canonized. And, at that time, I personally felt that we had already, we had crossed the Rubicon and that no counterattack would happen.

Still, there were some hawks in the army who still contemplated that during this very demonstration some aircraft would fly over people’s heads and that would lead to mass psychosis and panic and something would happen and they would, in the name of order, bring back the former conditions.

It is a well-known fact that dictators always carry a banner bearing the words law and order in their hands. Nothing like that happened; they did not have the courage for that anymore. And then, I personally felt that we won.

Well, I think, that the, the entire revolution of ours, we would have to agree on what we understand by the term “revolution.” Some say only coup d’état or change of political conditions and they do not call it revolution.

I think that the entire movement at that time was simply supported mostly not necessarily by the bravery of all citizens or by their desire to sacrifice themselves or risk something, but it was simply supported by the fact that the citizens just lost their patience. And, when the snowball in the form of the alleged death of a student on Národní třída, where students were beaten at a student demonstration during the anniversary of Students’ Day, well, during the Students’ Day. Artists of the theater started to join in and then the others.

We established Civic Forum. Civic Forums started springing up in all companies, all offices, all over the country. They were established as a sort of improvised speaker for the public and their interests. And, what was important was the fact that there were already some, some structures in place.

Well, someone in the center had to negotiate with the power, that could not have been done by random passersby. Some structures had to be here. And that was the important role of Charter and the previous opposition movement. They helped to form Civic Forum and offered some, some, let’s call it improvised, temporary leadership. Because without it, nothing could hardly be transformed into any real changes.

But, at that time already, due to the fact that it was supported by the whole of society, the feeling of personal danger was perhaps not as strong as before. Here, society basically woke up and everything was spreading on a mass scale and it was not so risky. Even though, on the other hand, we have to see, we have to see the ethos and we have to see the outburst that was admirable in its way.

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: The Velvet Revolution “Citizens just lost their patience.” Vaclav Havel: Charter 77 “Charter 77 was formed to hold a mirror up to the conditions in society.” Vaclav Havel: Rebuilding After Communism On the challenges of rebuilding society after the fall of communism. More + Vaclav Havel: Fighting the Secret Police Recounts a humorous story about evading the secret police. 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: Democratic Transition On the challenges of democratic transitions. Vaclav Havel: Intimidating Dissidents Recalls attempts by the Communist government to harrass and intimidate dissidents.