Five Things You Should Know About Václav Havel Václav Havel's Life Lessons

Posted by Cord Jefferson

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Václav Havel died yesterday, but you might have missed it amidst all the Kim Jong Il news. Havel lived a life envied and appreciated by many, with stints as a playwright, activist, and politician, but he wasn't well known or hotly discussed the way North Korea's Dear Leader had been, even in death. That's a shame, especially because Havel, who was 75, helped lay the foundation for many of the global uprisings we're seeing today. Here are the top five things you should know about him.

1. He was wealthy but self-educated. Though he was born into one of Czechoslovakia's wealthiest families in 1936, by 1951, Havel, like everyone from the bourgeois class, was excluded from formal education by the communist regime. This led him to pursue work as a chemistry lab apprentice and, later, to enroll at an economics technical college. Alas, what Havel really wanted to study was the humanities, and he dropped out of the tech school after only two years. Eventually he found work as a stagehand at a theater in Prague, where he taught himself to write plays via correspondence courses.

2. His politics were built on creativity. His work in theater was the launching pad for his future success. Following the suppression of the Prague Spring, which had sought to grant Czech citizens more autonomy under Soviet rule, Havel and artistic contemporaries like Milan Kundera began a creative steak that would find them on the wrong side of the law for decades to come. Kundera's books were banned, and Havel was forced to quit theater and take a job in a brewery. Havel often—and wisely—drew creative inspiration from the worst parts of his life, and his time at the brewery was no different: His one-act play Audition follows the life and trials of Ferdinand Vanek, a political dissident forced to work in the foreman's office at a brewery.

3. His most famous dissident work is Charter '77.  Havel eventually began writing major political op-eds and essays against the communist government, most notably Charter '77 [PDF], a petition railing against the Czech government's human-rights violations (dissident imprisonment, censorship, media suppression, etc.). In a country of millions, only 242 people were brave enough to initially sign the charter. Charter '77 immediately became an illegal document, and Havel would be imprisoned for a total of five years for his involvement with the work.

4. He led the revolution that toppled Czechoslovakia's Communist regime. After decades of tireless work on behalf of the Czech people, Havel led thousands in 1989's Velvet Revolution, the six-week uprising that finally toppled the nation's communist regime. Havel was immediately elected president of Czechoslovakia, which he led until that country's dissolution in 1993; he was the tenth and final president of Czechoslovakia. Havel was then elected to be the first president of the Czech Republic, a position he held until 2003.

5. His motto was "Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred." He used it as a sort of compass to guide his entire existence. To honor Havel is easy: Dispense love and tell the truth.  

Photo via (cc) Flickr user kadel