(b. Prague, 5 Oct. 1936; d. Hradecek, Czech Republic, 18 Dec. 2011)
Czech; President of Czechoslovakia 1989–93, President of the Czech Republic 1993–2003 Havel was born into a family of upper-middle-class origin—his grandfather had been a well-known architect. He was denied entry into university because of his ‘bourgeois’ origins and attended evening classes at Prague Technical University while working as a laboratory assistant and taxi-driver. He started his career as a writer in 1961. In 1963 his first play was produced: The Garden Party was a satire on the Novotný regime. Havel graduated from the Prague theatrical academy in 1967. He worked in Prague for the ‘Theatre on the Balustrade’ which flourished in the years 1967–8. He wrote plays for this theatre and worked as a stage-hand. In 1968, during the ‘Prague Spring’ he became chairman of the Czechoslovak Writer's Union. Performance of his work was banned in 1969, but he continued to write and his plays were popular in the West. In April 1975 he wrote an Open Letter to President Husák criticizing the regime. He was a founder member of the human rights group Charter 77 whose programme was announced on 1 January 1977. He was gaoled from January to May 1977 and put under house arrest until 1979, when he was again imprisoned. He was released on grounds of health in 1983. In January 1989 he was sent back to gaol, despite an outcry in the West, and released in May 1989. In November 1989 during the ‘Velvet Revolution’ he played a pivotal role in co-ordinating the popular rising against the Communist regime and in articulating an opposition programme. One month later he was elected President by the Czechoslovak Assembly after Husák's resignation and confirmed in office by popular vote in 1990. Havel regretted the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1992 but believed that there was no way to prevent it. In January 1993 he was elected President of the new Czech Republic. While the real political power was held by the Prime Minister (from 1993 to 1997, the right-wing Václav *Klaus), Havel was an immensely popular and somewhat unorthodox head of state. He was re-elected to a second term in 1998. When he resigned in 2003, he was the last of the East European dissidents to step down from power. He long campaigned for the abolition of the Warsaw Pact and for Western Europe to look eastwards. He was instrumental in the Czech Republic joining NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004. Ten years after the splitting up of Czechoslovakia, he recognized that it had been good for both countries. Since stepping down as President (to be replaced by Václav Klaus) he has remained involved in international affairs and has found time to write again, publishing in 2007 To the Castle and Back, a memoir of his years as President, and completing his first play for twenty years, the tragicomedy Leaving, in 2008, featuring the reflections of a retiring President of a country who is being replaced by an old opponent (who happens to have the same initials as Václav Klaus).