On this day in 1989, Czech writer and activist Václav Havel was elected president of Czechoslovakia (now Czechia) in that country’s first free, post-communist election. The Central European country had just recently removed itself from the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) in the Velvet Revolution – so named because it was a silky smooth, bloodless transition of power – and as such required new leadership. The Czech Federal Assembly unanimously voted for Havel, an outspoken critic of his country’s Soviet puppet government during the Cold War.
Havel was an immensely popular figure in his country. In the 1960s after finishing his military service, he began working as a playwright until his overtly political works such as The Memorandum got him kicked off stage. After the Prague Spring of 1968 – during which peaceful protests in Czechoslovakia’s capital were violently suppressed by invading Soviet troops – Havel recognized the need for more explicit political commentary, and began writing and organizing activist meetings. One of his most significant works, Dear Dr. Husak, addressed to the leader of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, was published in 1975; in it, Havel condemned the ruling party for its complicity in the decline of Czech culture and social freedom. By 1975, Havel argued, the Soviet puppet government in Czechoslovakia had gone too far towards totalitarianism and controlled nearly every aspect of Czech society; since all elements of art and culture were artificial, he argued, Czechoslovakia had ceased to be a real country with a history of its own. Time had effectively stopped for the Czechs, and for Havel’s fellow Europeans behind the “Iron Curtain”.
As a quiet, unassuming freedom fighter, Havel preferred to be behind the typewriter than on the podium. But his inflammatory rhetoric and inspired critiques of his country’s dictators – and his humanitarian approach to leadership as Czechoslovakia’s president – led many to name him as one of the most significant intellectuals of the 20th century.