PRAGUE – Long before Czechoslovakia’s communist regime collapsed in 1989, Václav Havel was one of the most remarkable figures in Czech history – already a successful playwright when he became the unofficial leader of the opposition movement. Though he hoped to return to writing, the revolution catapulted him to the presidency of Czechoslovakia, and, after the country split in 1993, he was elected President of the new Czech Republic, serving until 2003.
A political career rooted in historical coincidence made Havel an unusual politician. Not only did he bring to post-1989 politics a certain distrust of political parties; as a former dissident, he considered it essential to emphasize the moral dimension of politics – a stance that steered him onto a collision course with the pragmatists and technologists of power, whose main representative, Václav Klaus, succeeded him as President.
Havel’s public life could be divided into three distinct periods: artist (1956-1969), dissident (1969-1989), and politician (1989-2003) – except that he always combined all three sensibilities in his public activities. As a promising playwright in the 1960s, he was certainly very “political,” focusing on the absurdity of the regime. He was also one of the most vocal critics of censorship and other human-rights violations, which made him a dissident even during the liberal “Prague Spring” of 1968.
Havel was blacklisted and openly persecuted after the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of that year, but he continued to write anti-totalitarian plays. In 1977, he and more than 200 other dissidents founded the human-rights movement Charter 77, which quickly established itself as a leading opposition force. Havel was one of the movement’s first three spokesmen.