On January 6, 1977, motivated by the arrest of members of the psychedelic band Plastic People of the Universe, the Charter 77 manifesto criticizing the Communist government for failing to implement human rights provisions in Czechoslovakia was published.
Following the Prague Spring of 1968 and the subsequent Warsaw Pact invasion, a program of “Normalization” was initiated in Czechoslovakia during which the Communist authorities reversed the Prague Spring’s reforms, purged the party of its liberal members, and dismissed from public office professional and intellectual elites who openly expressed disagreement with the political transformation.
But throughout the 1970s, the regime’s emphasis on obedience, conformity, and the preservation of the status quo was challenged by individuals and organized groups aspiring to independent thinking and activity, which was viewed by the regime as a defiance of the party’s control over all aspects of Czechoslovak life. The Communist authorities’ response to such activity was harassment, persecution, and, in some instances, imprisonment.
Motivated in part by the arrest of members of the psychedelic band Plastic People of the Universe, who had been convicted of “disturbance of the peace”, the first organized opposition emerged under the umbrella of Charter 77, an informal civic initiative founded by Czech and Slovak artists, writers and intellectuals, which included the diplomat Jiří Hájek, the novelist Pavel Kohout, and the dissident playwright Václav Havel.
After secretly gathering more than 240 signatures, among them artists, former public officials, and other prominent figures, the “Chartists” published their political manifesto in January 1977, with the intention of holding the government accountable not only to its own laws, but also to international agreements to which it was a signatory, such the United Nations Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Czechoslovakia had signed in 1968 in the context of international detente.
Although the original manifesto was confiscated by the Communist authorities and Václav Havel, Ludvík Vaculík and Pavel Landovský were arrested by the secret police while trying to bring the charter to the Federal Assembly, the Chartists had already arranged for publication of their manifesto in the Western press. And on January 7, translations of Charter 77 were featured in major articles in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Corriere della Sera, The Times, and Le Monde.
The Communist regime responded with fury to the publication of Charter 77, which was never published in the official media. Spreading the text of the document became a political crime and signatories were arrested and interrogated. The Czechoslovak press launched vicious attacks against the manifesto while the public was mobilized to sign either individual condemnations or various forms of “anti-Charters.”
But this didn’t stop the manifesto from circulating underground and by the end of 1977, the Charter had gathered over 800 signatures, including workers and youth. Prompted by the treatment of the signatories, the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted was formed in 1978 with the specific goal of documenting individual cases of government persecution and human rights violations. The following year, six leaders of Charter 77, including Václav Havel, were tried for subversion and sentenced to prison terms of up to five years.
On a larger scale, independent activity was expressed through underground writing and publishing and hundreds of books, journals, essays, and short stories were published and distributed, despite the fact that mere possession of “samizdat” (handmade reproductions of censored publications) could be the basis for harassment, loss of employment, arrest and imprisonment. Dissent also extended to music as the persecution of rock musicians and their fans led a number of musicians to sign the Charter.
Throughout the 1980s, members of Charter 77 became more involved in organizing opposition against the ruling authority and played a big part in the Velvet Revolution of 1989 and the collapse of the Communist regime. As a result, Charter 77 is seen as a watershed moment in human rights and dissent in Czechoslovakia in particular, and the Eastern Bloc more broadly.
Many of the signatories then went to to play important roles in Czech and Slovak politics. Václav Havel became the 10th President of Czechoslovakia and the first non-Communist to lead the nation since 1948. He presided over Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic until 2003.
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