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Themes Why I Became a Dissident » Karel Von Schwarzenberg

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Interviewed April 2010

Karel Von Schwarzenberg was born in Prague into a Bohemian noble family. After the Communist coup d’état in Czechoslovakia in 1948, he and his family fled to Austria. He studied law and forestry, then became active in supporting the resistance movement in Czechoslovakia and in promoting human rights abroad. From 1984 to 1991 he chaired the International Helsinki Committee for Human Rights.

In the fall of 1989 Schwarzenberg returned to Czechoslovakia. From 1990 until 1992 he served as chancellor to the president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel. After managing his family company for a number of years, in November 2004 Schwarzenberg was elected to the Czech Senate. On January 9, 2007, he was named foreign minister of the Czech Republic. 

The unique thing about Charter 77 was that it united a lot of very different opinions. There were people connected with it who were Catholic believers. There were people who were -- in the 1970s, in the Communist Party, left and right, let’s say -- who were very dissenting opinions, diverse opinions and views of the world. But by the systems that were developed, the speakers which were elected and so on, and by the unique ability of Vaclav Havel, who was able – which was what he did his whole life – to bring together groups which otherwise didn’t speak together, and help out at least.

The normalization regime made one fault. They didn’t execute anymore, it’s true, like they did in the 1950s. But they sent a lot of people to prison. And suddenly in the prisons they met people who were, I don’t know, secret priests or people of a solid bourgeois background. Very liberal but liberal in the European sense, not in the American sense. Very open-minded people.

And they were suddenly in the same prison and in maybe in the same room with these people who were still, in the 1970s, members of the Communist Party, who for their whole life were avid communists. Suddenly all these people, very different backgrounds, they think that in jail that the other is not the devil person – that he has no horns on the head, no hoof. And they started to discuss between each other. And that was when the things which made the Charter 77 possible, because then when they got out of jail quite a lot of them signed it. 

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 on this theme from Doan Viet Hoat

Doan Viet Hoat: Imprisoned “After 1975 I decided to stay in the country because we didn’t have war any longer. But then they put me in prison for 12 years without any trial.”

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