Vaclav Havel: Charter 77

Source: The Freedom Collection /
Interviewed April 2010 /
Václav Havel (1936-2011) was a playwright and poet who played a leading role in bringing an end to communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Havel served as the last president of Czechoslovakia (1989–92) and the first president of the Czech Republic (1993–2003).

Havel was born into a wealthy, intellectual family. For political reasons he was not accepted into any post-secondary humanities program, but eventually he was able to study drama by correspondence and began publishing articles and plays. In 1968 he was a prominent participant in the “Prague Spring,” a brief period of liberalization that ended when the Warsaw Pact stationed troops in the country.

In 1976 and 1977 Havel helped lead the effort to produce the human rights manifesto known as Charter 77, which criticized the government of Czechoslovakia for failing to abide by its human rights obligations under the Czechoslovak Constitution, the Helsinki Accords, and United Nations covenants. In April 1979, Havel co-founded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted. He was imprisoned three separate times for his activities.

In 1989, Havel played a leading role in the nonviolent “Velvet Revolution” which brought an end to the communist political system in Czechoslovakia. Havel was elected president of the country that year. He led Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic to multi-party democracy and presided over the country’s accession into NATO. Since leaving office, Havel has committed himself to the promotion of democracy in other parts of the world such as Cuba and Burma. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2003.

Charter 77 was formed long before, as a collection of basic human-legal requirements, as a kind of, we could say, opposition community similar to analogical groups in other communist countries and its purpose was to hold the mirror up to the conditions. At least one voice had to be heard, regardless of all the consequences that would be brought about, that would identify the situation. And that is what Charter 77 did, without calculating what it would lead to or what would be achieved. But later, it became apparent how important that was.

But even during those years under communism it was important, because it was clear that, that the state of the country was not such as all those official tools were presenting it to be.

This voice was important not only in regards to the democratic world, but also within society, since, with the help of these foreign stations [ed.: international broadcasters such as Radio Free Europe], the citizens were learning about this. And, these were the most listened to programs, the ones that mentioned the work of Charter. Charter published documents. It published several hundred of them, on various aspects of life, where it mapped the situation.

The major weakness was probably something that is a weakness of every democracy. The fact that we were constantly arguing about something and we had squabbles. But, it is necessary to say, that facing the common oppressor or enemy we were, after all, able to pull together, pull together, and always find a compromise in a way.

The political culture at that time was actually better than it is nowadays under free conditions.

The Vaclav Havel Center