Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Charter 77

The most significant postwar dissident movement in Czechoslovakia, comprising some 2,000 members who in 1977 called on the communist government to respect human rights. Charter 77 signatories comprised three groups: former elite "reformed communists" who had supported Alexander Dubček's 1968 Prague Spring attempt to liberalize communism; artists, writers, and philosophers; and religious personages and clergy. The Charter 77 movement had at any given time three spokespersons representing each of the three groups. Each spokesperson was appointed for one year (or until arrested) and then replaced by another from the same group. The first three spokespersons were the philosopher Jan Patočka, the playwright Václav Havel, and the reformed communist and former foreign minister Jiří Hájek.

The immediate catalyst for the drafting of the Charter 77 document in January 1977 had been the 1976 arrest and trial of the rock group Plastic People of the Universe. The text of the Charter document demanded that the Czech government abide by its own laws and, above all, uphold international human rights agreements, most notably the Helsinki Final Act. Besides the first three spokespersons, Zdeněk Mlynář and author Pavel Kohout participated in preparing the charter document. To remain within the constraints of the law that prohibited political parties apart from the Communist Party and to accommodate dissidents who spanned the political spectrum, the document specifically stated the nonpolitical nature of the charter. Patočka's philosophy of "living in truth" through sacrifice for "things worth suffering for" offered a nonpolitical foundation in phenomenology. Perhaps because of the influence of reformed communists, the document also called for negotiations with the communist leadership.

President Gustáv Husák had no interest in negotiations with Charter 77 members, however. Instead, the document unleashed repression and reprisals, including arrests, imprisonments, harassment, job losses, and the restriction of educational opportunities. Patočka died following a police interrogation in March 1977. Havel and other spokespersons and signatories were imprisoned. Still others were pressured to emigrate. The regime even initiated an opposing petition, known as the Anti-Charter, to prove the loyalty of its own artists and supporters.

Despite the dreams of some signatories to create a parallel polis, a term taken from the title of spokesperson Václav Benda's famous 1978 essay, the Charter 77 movement was effective only in garnering international support and in preserving Czech high culture through the dreary period of so-called normalization. However, Charter 77 signatories provided most of the leadership for the Civic Forum that negotiated the end of communism in 1989. Consequently, Havel became the president of Czechoslovakia, spokesperson Jiří Dienstbier became its foreign minister, and signatory Petr Pithart became Czech prime minister. Thus, in the end Charter 77 played a profoundly important role in modern Czech history.

Aviezer Tucker


Further Reading
Tucker, Aviezer. The Philosophy and Politics of Czech Dissidence from Patočka to Havel. Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh University Press, 2000.
 

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