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Biographies Václav Havel

Václav Havel, playwright, poet, political dissident and former president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, occupied the Kluge Chair in Modern Culture from March – June 2005 and December 2006 – March 2007. During his first residency, Havel conducted research on human rights and worked on his final play, “Leaving.” During his second residency he worked on his memoir “To the Castle and Back,” which follows Havel’s transition from playwright to politician and the challenges of governing a young democracy, in addition to his thoughts on the future of the European Union, the reach of the American superpower and the role of national identity in today’s world.

Havel began in his native Prague as a playwright; his satirical, anticommunist plays such as “The Garden Party” and “The Memorandum” mocked life under totalitarian goverment. In 1968, Havel contributed to the agitation for equal rights as chairman for the Circle of Independent Writers, a group representing the interests of non-communist writers. After the Soviet clampdown on Czechoslovakia following the Prague Spring, Havel’s plays were banned and his passport confiscated. Havel continued his involvement in the growing dissident movement that advocated on behalf of human rights in Czechoslovakia as spokesperson for the Charter 77 human rights movement. He was repeatedly arrested for his activities and served nearly five years in prison from 1979–83. He emerged as a leading figure during 1989 antigovernment demonstrations in Prague, and as a result of an agreement between the partners in the bloodless “Velvet Revolution,” Havel was elected to the post of interim president of Czechoslovakia on December 29, 1989. He was reelected to the presidency in July 1990, becoming the country’s first noncommunist leader since 1948. In 1993, he was elected president of the newly-formed Czech Republic. In 1998, he was reelected to a second five-year term.

Havel’s relationship with the Library of Congress began soon after his ascendance to the Presidency. In February 1990, Havel addressed a Joint Session of the U.S. Congress, and during his first presidential visit to the United States in 1991, House and Senate leaders presented Havel with the original manuscript of the Czechoslovakian Declaration of Independence from the year 1918, which had been in the custody of the Library. Hand-written in Czech by the nation’s first president, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the document was likely inspired by the American Declaration of Independence. In 1998, Havel attended the opening of the Library exhibition “The Birth of Czechoslovakia: October 18,” which commemorated the 80th anniversary of the independent Czechoslovak state. During his visit, Havel gifted to the Library audio recordings of four of his plays, read aloud while Havel was still a dissident. Havel also presented two lectures at the Library during his Kluge residency. His May 2005 lecture on human rights, “The Emperor Has No Clothes,” addressed the contradiction between what nations proclaim about human rights and how they actually treat their citizens. In February 2007, during his second residency, Havel conducted a forum on “Dissidents and Freedom,” featuring eight dissidents and activists from around the world.

Havel is the recipient of numerous awards and prizes, including the Erasmus Prize (1986), the Olof Palme Prize (1989), the Simon Bolivar Prize, the UNESCO Prize for the Teaching of Human Rights (1990), the Charlemagne Prize (1991), the Sonning Prize (1991), the Raoul Wallenberg Prize for Human Rights (1991), the Theodor Heuss Prize (1993), the Grand Cross of the Order of the Legion of Honor (1990), the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom (2003), the Ghandi Peace Prize (2003), and many honorary doctorates.

Havel passed away on December 18, 2011.

Selected Publications


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Additional Resources

Selected Works at the Library of Congress