#100PENMembers No. 22: Václav Havel

Former Czechoslovakian President Václav Havel was one of PEN’s most high-profile members during and after the end of the Cold War and also the subject of one of its most longstanding campaigns.

Václav Havel
Photo: Prague Morning

He was famed for saying that in 1947 as the Iron Curtain descended on Europe, the clocks had stopped in his half of Europe and had only begun ticking again in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin wall.

Within PEN, cold war tensions between Soviet bloc writers’ centres and writers in exile who had been persecuted by Communist states often split apart Congresses. At the 1967 PEN Congress in Dublin, there was acrimonious disagreement between the Prague PEN Centre and the Writers in Exile Center, who had responded to distress signals from Czech writers by proposing a resolution opposing the literary censorship and surveillance of the government run Union of Czechoslovakian Writers. Members of the Prague PEN Centre, most of whom were broadly supportive of the Communist government, criticised the resolution, arguing that it did not reflect their experience as Czech writers. 

The close connections between politics and literature were impossible to ignore for many Eastern bloc writers. The following year, during the Prague Spring of 1968, Havel was not only banned from Czech theatres, he also became the de-facto leader of the resistance movement. In January 1977, he and a civic collective of activists penned a document ‘Charter 77’ which was highly critical of Czechoslovakia’s communist regime.

The document and its signatories were declared traitors to the Czechoslovak nation. Even circulating the document was illegal, although it was published widely abroad in newspapers such as The TimesLe Monde, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the New York Times.

Signatories were targeted by the government, often facing detention, trial, imprisonment, forced exile, loss of citizenship and even losing their jobs and families. During this period, PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee campaigned strenuously on Havel’s behalf.

In 1979, telegrams were sent from PEN International’s Rio de Janeiro Congress to members of the Czech government and to governments across the world condemning the imprisonment of Havel and other dissenters ‘for their opinions.’ It stated clearly that ‘freedom of opinion is a basic principle of International PEN and we protest against the trial which is soon to open in Prague.’ Their protests were fruitless and Havel remained in prison until February 1983. 

However in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin wall, Prague was plastered with a poster emblazoned ‘Havel na Hrad’ (Havel to the Castle, referring to Hradčany, the President’s castle in central Prague). The crowds of protestors who gathered in the streets did not give up until Havel was in the castle, serving as the new President of a reborn Czechoslovakia republic.

Addressing the Prague World Congress of PEN International in 1994 he told the delegates: ‘Let us admit that most of us writers feel an essential aversion to politics. By taking such a position, however, we accept the perverted principle of specialization, according to which some are paid to write about the horrors of the world and human responsibility and others to deal with those horrors and bear the human responsibility for them.’

In 2009, he and his fellow Charter 77 signatories wrote to request a fair trial for Liu Xiaobo – who had recently published his Charter 08 requesting democratic reform in China – stating that the harsh sentence given to such a ‘prominent citizen of your country merely for thinking and speaking critically about various political and social issues was chiefly meant as a stern warning to others not to follow his path.’

On Havel’s death in 2011, International Secretary of PEN International, Hori Takeaki said, “Václav Havel was the most courageous fighter for the freedom of speech. He trusted and believed in the ‘power of the powerless’ in the most democratic sense. So many spiritual seeds were planted by him all over the world. He changed the paradigm of global society with his fight for democracy and freedom of speech.”