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After 1953: Destalinisation
1968: Prague Spring
1981:Poland and Solidarity
Towards 1989: Year of Revolution
1989-2000: after communism
Further reading

Central and Eastern European States -
Dramatis Personae 1945-2000


Vaclav Havel was born into a prominent, wealthy family in Prague, in 1936 and as a child experienced the disasters of the Nazi occupation. To the post-war communist regime, families such as Havel's were class enemies and were made to suffer the confiscation of property, exclusion from education and harassment. Despite these obstacles, Havel pursued his interests in the arts, in Czech culture and in particular the theatre. He carved out a career as a playwright, using membership of officially sanctioned writers' groups to push the bounds of censorship. His plays often contained thinly veiled criticisms of the absurdities of Communism and in 1971 they were banned. In 1975 Havel wrote an Open Letter to President Husak criticising the regime for its cynical oppression... "..for fear of losing his job, the schoolteacher teaches things he does not believe; fearing for his future, the pupil repeats them after him...Fear of the consequences of refusal leads people to take part in elections and to pretend that such ceremonies are genuine elections...fear that someone might inform against them prevents them from giving expression to their true opinions." 
In 1976 the regime provided an example of how it would use this 'fear' to enforce conformity when members of a rock group, The Plastic People of the Universe, were put on trial accused of deviancy, hooliganism and disturbing the peace. To Havel, this was more than the harassment of a few hippy prog-rockers, but an attack on art, youth, and freedom, "an attack by the totalitarian system on life itself" and provided the motivation to form the Charter 77 group (see below). Despite the risks, Havel exemplified his own moral exhortation to "live in truth" even as government propaganda strove to portray him as a self-indulgent, bourgeois dilettante out of touch with the real concerns of the working class. He faced repeated harassment, arrest, and imprisonment. By 1989, as the regime came under increasing pressure, Havel's consistent defiance, public profile and organisational skills, made him the obvious leader of the Civic Forum opposition group. Havel had begun the year with yet another spell in prison but in December 1989, the Federal Assembly unanimously elected him to be President of Czechoslovakia. He was unable to prevent the 'Velvet Divorce' of 1993, when the country split up, and he resigned but was re-elected President of the new Czech Republic. He remained in this role until his retirement in 2003. Havel died in December 2011.

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Lech Wałęsa was born in Popowo, Poland in 1943. His father was a carpenter who died soon after the war, as a result of injuries sustained in a Nazi concentration camp. A devout Catholic and Polish patriot, Wałęsa and his brothers and sisters were raised by his mother, aunt and uncle. After school he trained as an electrician and got a job at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdańsk.  He was elected a member of the illegal strike committee in 1970 and was sacked for his trade union activities in 1976.  In June 1978, he joined the illegal underground Free Trade Unions of the Coast.  In August 1980 Wałęsa became leader of the occupational strike at the Lenin Shipyards. The spread of the strike led to the establishment of the free trade union, Solidarity, which elected Wałęsa as leader. He was arrested again on December 13th 1981 and imprisoned for nearly a year as Poland suffered under martial law. In 1983 he received the Nobel Peace Prize, but as part of the continual harassment he now suffered, he was unable to attend the prize-giving ceremony. 
From 1987 Wałęsa organised and led, the Temporary Executive Committee of Solidarity.  His brokerage of the deal that set up the 1989 roundtable discussions between Solidarity and the communist government was one of the most significant personal interventions in the history of communism’s fall. Against the advice of his closest advisors, he backed his personal authority in an example of exquisite political timing.  The resulting June elections marked the beginning of the end for communist rule in Poland. In 1990 increasingly isolated and without a position in the Solidarity led government, Wałęsa was elected President. His five year term was marked by political instability during a difficult transition from a planned to free-market economy. He was narrowly defeated in the 1995 presidential election. Wałęsa gained a reputation for high-handedness both in his leadership of Solidarity and later, Poland. But in the face of criticisms of his style of leadership he asked, ‘Can you steer a ship through a stormy sea in a wholly democratic way?’ 

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Alexander Dubcek

Born 1921, in Uhrovec, Slovakia. His parents were idealistic communists.  In 1925, the family moved to the Soviet Union as volunteers to help build communism. He learned fluent Russian.  Dubcek returned to Czechoslovakia in 1938. He joined the partisans resisting Nazi control and fought bravely in the Slovak National Uprising of 1944.  After the War, he rose through the Party ranks, becoming First Secretary in January 1968.  He initiated a series of reforms known as the Prague Spring.  Following the Soviet-led invasion of August 1968 he was demoted.  He was appointed Ambassador to Turkey, 1969-70. He was then expelled from the Party, removed from public life and further demoted to a minor role in the Slovak Forestry Commission.  April 1989 - Dubcek was interviewed on Hungarian television. He publicly condemned Brezhnev's invasion and the years of deceit that followed.  November 1989 - Dubcek appeared at mass rallies in Bratislava and, with Vaclav Havel, in Prague in support of the Velvet Revolution.  December 1989 - He was elected Head of the Federal Assembly, under Havel's presidency.  Dubcek died in November, 1992, as a result of injuries sustained in a car crash.


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Wojciech Jaruzelski

Born in 1923 into a privileged Polish family, he was deported during WWII to a labour camp in the Soviet Union.  He was trained as a Soviet officer and fought for the First Polish Army. He joined the Communist Party in 1947. He became Minister of Defence in 1968 and led the Polish army’s intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968.  In 1981 he became leader of both the party and the state and declared martial law in December 1981; something he has always claimed was done to avoid a Soviet invasion. Jaruzelski played a significant conciliatory role during the Round Table discussions and became President with the help of Solidarity in 1989. He was replaced by Lech Wałęsa in 1990.  In 2007, Jaruzelski faced prosecution for ‘communist crimes’ and the illegal imposition of martial law. Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski compared Jaruzelski to Nazi official Adolf Eichmann who planned the extermination of the Jews. He was defended in court by Lech Wałęsa who said, ‘it is known that I have always opposed Jaruzelski, but I must say he was under no obligation to come to an agreement with Solidarity, but he did.'

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