Where are they now? Václav Havel

The playwright turned politician who stoked the Velvet Revolution and became the first President of the Czech Republic. Where is he now?

Born into a bourgeois family in Prague in 1936, Václav Havel's father was a property owner and mother an ambassador's daughter. The communist regime at that time prevented the young Václav from studying at tertiary level so in the 1950s he apprenticed as an assistant in a chemistry lab. He took evening classes, attended then dropped out of university, and did his stint when conscripted into military service for four years until 1959

Entering the World of Theatre 

But he loved the arts, working as a stagehand at the Theatre On the Balustrade in Prague while completing a drama correspondence course with the Academy of the Performing Arts. He wrote The Garden Party in 1963 which was performed to international critical acclaim at the Ballustrade. Václav married Olga Havlová, an usherette in the same theatre, in 1964. He went on to write more successful plays: The Memorandum and The Increased Difficulty of Concentration. The former was also performed in New York, giving him considerable fame in American theatrical and intellectual circles. 

The Crushing of The Prague Spring 

From 1968, after the crushing by the Soviets of Alexander Dubček's progressive Prague Spring government,Václav's plays were banned in his own country. But they continued to be performed in secret and in private. 

On August 20 1968, the night before the Warsaw Pact invasion,Václav spoke of the unfolding of events on Radio Free Czechoslavia. He was subsequently prevented by the harsh regime which had assumed power from being involved in any theatre work at all. So he became a dissident. Necessity drove him to take up employment in a brewery (not such a bad move given the quality of Czech beer - have you sampled Budvar?)  However, his love of drama spurred him to continue writing and he retold his experiences in the 'Vaněk' play Audience, where the main character is based on him. In 1977 he and four other dissidents drafted the human rights document Charter 77 which gathered 242 signatories and led to his imprisonment.

After his release he and fellow dissidents formed the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted in 1979. He was variously picked up and imprisoned from time to time, the longest stretch being 1979-1984.

The Velvet Revolution 

He became involved in what was later to be known as the 1989 Velvet Revolution, and his actions, beliefs and influence were internationally and - more vitally - domestically applauded. With his motto "Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate" he acted in a fashion not dissimilar to either Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. 

The Presidency of Czechoslovakia 

Unsurprisingly when the bloodless revolution succeeded in freeing Czechoslavakia, it was Václav Havel to whom the people turned to assume the Presidency. He had formed a Czech political group called Civic Union to peacefully combat authoritarianism. In December 1989 the Czechoslavakian parliament unanimously voted him in as their new head of state.

The Presidency of the Czech Republic 

He held that position until the dissolution of the union and the creation in 1993 of the Czech Republic (Slovakia going its own way). At that point Václav took on the role as Czech President, a post he held until February 2003. His wife Olga had died of cancer in 1996, although Václav continued to carry the weight of his high office.

The year Olga passed away he himself was diagosed with the same illness. Yet he's been successfully treated and survives to this day.

Recent Years 

The European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation, an NGO, asked him to join them in 2008 in their fight against racism and xenophobia. And in 2009 he met up with Barack Obama, whom he'd invited to personally attend at a EU/US summit in Prague. 

In the same year he spoke in Strasbourg to European parliamentarians, whose official site noted "Vaclav Havel delivered a speech to the European Parliament on 11 November to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Iron Curtain in Central and Eastern Europe. In his speech, the former Czech President and freedom fighter Havel called on Europe to unite and show 'clear and unequivocal solidarity with all those confronted by totalitarian or authoritarian regimes wherever they are in the world'." 

In a piece entitled Not Leaving Yet, the The Economist wrote in February 2011: "Václav Havel, is still having fun. Eight years after stepping down as president of the Czech Republic, the 74-year-old playwright, former anti-communist dissident and, for many, greatest living Czech will add a new line to his CV next month with the release of his first feature film. "Leaving" follows the fortunes of a chancellor of an unnamed country dealing with the loss of power after stepping down."

It's true to say that the process and success of Czecholsovakia's Velvet Revolution undoubtedly influenced many protagonists involved in the Arab Awakening, particularly Egyptian intellectuals.

On September 1, Pik TV reported that "a number of influential world public figures, including former Czech President Vaclav Havel and the Dalai Lama, have called on the EU countries to be more active in demanding the release of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, who is currently on trial along with other Ukrainian opposition members."

Clearly, one of Europe's most important and eminent politicians continues to make waves and fight for justice to this very day. Václav Havel turned 75 on 5 October 2011

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Update March 2012:  Havel passed away on 18 December 2011, to global mourning, with numerous heads of states and the entire Czech Republic speaking of his celebrated, transformational and extraordinary life .

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