Václav Havel – one of the best-known Czechs

Václav Havel – one of the best-known Czechs

The dramatic life of the writer, prisoner and president

Václav Havel – one of the best-known Czechs
Václav Havel was one of the most prominent figures of the Czech cultural and political scene in the 20th century. A child hailing from a privileged family as well as a prisoner and labourer, playwright, writer, the last Czechoslovak and the first Czech president, Václav Havel was that all. He was instrumental in restoring freedoms in the Czech Republic, dissolving the communist military Warsaw Pact, in making the Czech Republic becoming involved in the European Union, and in the Czech Republic joining the NATO. He wrote a great number of books, essays as well as several theatre plays. December 2021 marked exactly 10 years since his death. Do you know his life?

A child from a bourgeois family

Václav Havel was born on 5 October 1936 into a family that had already been one of Prague’s privileged classes for several generations. His uncle owned Prague’s Barrandov film studios, which were nicknamed European Hollywood before the Second World War. His grandfather did business in real estate and trade. It seemed that Václav should have a lovely and quiet life. Everything changed after the outbreak of the Second World War and then by the commencement of the communist regime dictated by the Soviet Union. The family had their properties seized, and the young Václav was not allowed to study humanities or pursue occupations he would have chosen himself. During the slight easing of the political situation in the 1960s he became a dramaturge of Prague theatres and began to write theatre plays.

The dashed hopes of spring 1968

The spring of 1968 in Czechoslovakia was marked by gradual democratisation. For example, censorship was cancelled after roughly 20 years and the people had a guarantee of complete freedom of speech! Banned books started to be published and films that had been forbidden until that time began to be screened at cinemas. Václav was in his early thirties and he enjoyed the newly gained freedom. He contributed to magazines, published books and theatre plays. Unluckily, the Soviet tanks put an end to that all on 21 August 1968 and the situation returned to what it was like before. Václav opposed the occupation of Czechoslovakia and the return of old order but that only resulted in his being banned and sacked from work. Afterwards, he worked for some time as a labourer at a brewery in East Bohemia. As a man who loved freedom and the uniqueness of each individual, Václav later got involved in resistance against the communist regime, for which he was imprisoned several times.

The Velvet Revolution and unusual presidency

The communist regime collapsed in late 1989 and Václav Havel was one of the initiators of all the events, which became known as the Velvet Revolution. The adjective “velvet” was used because nobody died during the revolution and the handover of power to democratic authorities was peaceful. Václav Havel became Czechoslovak president at the end of December 1989 and began to reform the regime along with other freedom and democracy fighters. He had never stopped writing and, even as a president, he still considered himself more as a playwright. Also, he surrounded himself more with artists than experienced politicians. Thanks to Václav Havel, for example, Prague Castle is today partly open to the public and the South Gardens have been restored to what they looked like before the Second World War. One could say that during his 13-year presidency term, Václav Havel had always in his mind the motto he came up with during his speech at the times of the Velvet Revolution: Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred. Although he was not to the liking of many politicians, it was his artistic and sensitive perception that shaped the initial years of free Czechoslovakia. After leaving the president’s office he pursued his hobbies, commentated current events and met his friends. One of them was the Tibetan Dalai Lama, who visited Václav in Prague countless times. Václav Havel died on 18 December 2011 at his country home not far from the Krkonoše (Giant) Mountains.

How to remember Václav Havel? Show your socks!

Every year on 18 December, on the day of Václav Havel’s death, people remember him and his legacy by many commemorative events. You don’t have to be somewhere at a memorial and lay wreaths, though. Václav Havel wasn’t like that. In 2012, on the occasion of his 1st death anniversary, an initiative called “Short Trousers for Václav Havel” was set up in an effort to pay tribute to him by a gesture that will be unique, easy to remember and, above all, easy to make. Short trousers recall Václav Havel’s inauguration as president in 1989 with him wearing trousers that were visibly slightly pulled-up by mistake. So, every year on Václav Havel Day, people roll up their trousers, show their socks and commemorate his memory in humorous style that Václav Havel would have definitely appreciated.

Do you know places associated with Václav Havel?

There are a lot of such places. Visit, for example, the Lucerna Palace in Wenceslas Square. It was built by his grandfather and today it belongs to the family again. It houses a still functional cinema, which premiered blockbusters filmed at Barrandov by Václav’s uncle more than 80 years ago, or you can have a cup of coffee in the local café that has been affected almost by no renovation works. Another place linked to Václav Havel is surely Prague Castle, which is not only a magnet for tourists thanks to renovation works initiated by him. What’s more, he also opened the gardens of Lány Chateau, the summer residence of Czech presidents in Central Bohemia, to visitors. At Lány he would also go to the pub to meet up with locals, without his bodyguards. Last but not least, you can see an exhibition on the already historic personality in the Václav Havel Library. The exhibition aims at presenting the life and personality of the first Czech president in a comprehensive form.