Vaclav Havel: Biography & Achievements

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Who was Vaclav Havel? In this lesson, we will explore the life, works, and legacy of the 20th-century political and intellectual leader whose life changed Eastern Europe.

Václav Havel

It's one of the great ironies of modern society that our leading intellectuals and political leaders are almost never the same people. So, it's exciting when we get a chance to see it happen. Well, there's possibly no better example of this than Václav Havel, Czech politician and leader, as well as one of the great intellectuals of the 20th century. Havel lived through some of the most formative moments in modern Czech history and was right in the middle of it all. He was awarded various freedom medals and peace prizes for his commitment to democracy, humanitarianism, and truth, but perhaps his most enduring legacies are the lives of free people across Eastern Europe to this day.

Vaclav Havel
Václav Havel

Early Life

Václav Havel, pronounced VAHTS-lav HAH-vell, was born in 1936 to a life of privilege. His father was a prominent real estate developer, but when the Communist Party rose to power over Czechoslovakia in 1948, their properties were seized by the government. This had a few important impacts on Havel's life. For one, the Communist Party denied to people of privilege education past middle school (so no high school or college). Havel was prevented from getting an education, but at the same time this helped him become aware of how unfair his privilege was. Havel developed a deep thirst for equality and a sense of guilt for his privileged upbringing that would define his later political stances.

Having been denied access to further education, in 1951 Havel took a four-year apprenticeship and simultaneously attended night classes. He completed his secondary education in 1954 and eventually even obtained a degree from the Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1967. In 1956, Havel met the actress Olga Splichalova, whom he eventually married in 1964. After a brief stint in the military from 1957 - 1959, Havel started writing plays and in 1960 joined a theater company as a stagehand. It was his entry into a bigger world.


If Václav Havel had not become politically active, then this lesson would focus on his literary achievements, which are numerous. However, since he ended up accomplishing so many other things as well, we only have time to touch on them briefly. In 1963, Havel wrote his first play to be performed publically, called The Garden Party. In it, a young character attends a garden party with a bunch of bureaucrats and has a series of nonsensical conversations. It was a work in the absurdist style, which commented on the dehumanizing aspect of Communism. The Czech people understood the message perfectly, and Havel was skyrocketed to fame. Throughout his career, Havel published over 25 plays and non-fiction books, several collections of poetry, and even a children's book, as well as noteworthy political essays and treatises on human rights.

Havel and Czech Politics

The Garden Party catapulted Havel to fame and introduced him to the intellectual circles where he would become an outspoken opponent of Soviet Communism and an advocate for human rights. His first real chance to articulate his ideas came in 1968, when the USSR formally invaded and took control of Czechoslovakia. That year saw an outpouring of intellectual debate over the nation's future, remembered as the Prague Spring. While many argued that Communism could be a moral force in the country, Havel insisted that human rights and Communism were eternal opposites. By 1970, the Soviet-controlled Czech government labeled him as subversive and banned his writings.

1968 protests against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia
1968 protests

Havel kept writing and in 1977 was one of the founders and authors of Charter 77, a human rights declaration and non-formal movement calling for an end to the restrictions of freedom in the Soviet Bloc, the series of Eastern European nations essentially controlled by the USSR. For his writings, Havel was arrested and served three months in prison. He was arrested again in 1979 on charges of subversion and sentenced to four and a half years, only being released in 1983 because of international pressure against the Czech government.

Havel was arrested yet again in 1989, and his release in that same year is seen as the beginning of the end for Czech communism. Eight days after the Berlin Wall fell in Germany, student protests in Prague were attacked by police, starting what was known as the Velvet Revolution. Havel and other dissidents took the opportunity to establish a council called the Civic Forum which called for the end of Communism in Czechoslovakia. The resulting protests toppled the Communist regime, and the Civic Forum elected Havel as Czechoslovakia's president.

The Velvet Revolution swept Prague in 1989
Velvet Revolution

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