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Vaclav Havel: a true democrat

By Allison Orr - posted Friday, 23 December 2011

"People, your government has returned to you!"

With these words, Vaclav Havel closed his inauguration speech as President of Czechoslovakia on New Year's Day 1990.

This statement was a culmination of decades of struggle against a totalitarian regime, and the promise a new kind of government for the Czechoslovak people.


It is unfortunate that the name of Vaclav Havel is not widely known outside Europe and America. And, having the misfortune to die in the same week as Kim Jong Il, his passing will be overshadowed by larger geopolitical concerns.

But the passing of Havel is noteworthy. While the 20th century is most commonly remembered as a violent, dehumanising time, in which we seemed determined to perfect the art of killing, Havel's life reminds us that that century also saw great struggles for freedom and democracy, the rise of human rights as a global issue, and a growing role for civil society. A life like Havel's reminds us that for every oppressor the world produces, it also produces a liberator.

These may seem like strong words, but in a time when the world has grown cynical about our politicians, it is good to be reminded that, occasionally, the system throws up some true heroes.

Havel's life was remarkable. Since its beginnings in Prague 1936, his life has been caught up in the events of 20th Europe and the rise and fall of Czechoslovakia. So much so that it is almost impossible to separate Havel's experiences from the times in which he lived.

Havel's first years were spent under the Nazi occupation, when the fledgling Czechoslovakian democratic parliament was crushed. After this disaster, the short-lived relief of the Soviet liberation turned to despair as it become clear the Soviets had no plans to leave. Czechoslovakia's decline from flourishing, open democracy to oppressive totalitarian state would continue.

Havel's family had been part of the hated bourgeois, and so suffered under the new Stalinist regime. His father had been imprisoned and the family had been banished from Prague. The class discrimination of the Communist regime also prohibited Vaclav from attending formal education beyond the required schooling.


After military service he gained employment as a stagehand in Prague, and studied drama by correspondence.

He soon gained prominence as a playwright, using theatre as a way to expose the limits and hypocrisies of the regime. At a time when state sanctioned plays generally depicted virtuous working class heroes triumphing over class enemies, Havel's plays gained fame all over Europe for their comical assault on the absurdities and the dehumanising effects of totalitarianism. Havel's plays explored the self-delusions and moral compromises people make living under tyrannical regimes.

In 1968 the Soviets brutally cracked down on the Prague Spring, after which Czechoslovakia became the most repressive of the communist satellites. Havel's plays were banned and his passport confiscated. At this point Havel became more politically active.

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About the Author

Allison Orr is Operations Manager and researcher at Per Capita, an independent, progressive think tank. Allison has a PhD in political science.

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