Czechs prepare to mark the 40th anniversary of Charter 77

Photo: Czech Television

Czechs will mark the upcoming 40th anniversary of the Charter 77 human rights manifesto. The text, signed by dissidents such as playwright Václav Havel, philosopher Jan Patočka and writer Pavel Kohout in January 1977, criticized Czechoslovakia’s communist regime for failing to implement human rights provisions of agreements it itself had signed. These included the Czechoslovak Constitution and the Helsinki Accords.

Some of Czechoslovak dissidents, photo: Czech Television
The original Charter 77 was signed by just 242 people (although that would swell to over a thousand later), criticising Czechoslovakia’s communist regime for failing to respect human rights. The famous manifesto was prepared in advance and disseminated on January 6th, 1977. On the day, Václav Havel, writer Ludvík Vaculík and actor Pavel Landovsky, were detained in Prague 6 trying to bring the charter to the country’s Federal Assembly. While the charter was confiscated, illegal copies, known as samizdat, were disseminated and the text was published the next day in leading western newspapers including the New York Times. Milan Bárta, an historian at the Czech Republic’s Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, says reaction by the regime was immediate.

Jan Patočka, photo: Jindřich Přibík, archive of Jan Patočka, CC 3.0
“Czechoslovakia’s secret police, the StB, indeed the whole regime, reacted quickly. The first step was to limit the spread of the Charter and to persecute the signatories… Charges were put forward against as yet unknown perpetrators and on the 7th of January, it was ordered for Václav Havel to be put under surveillance, as were Hájek and Patočka later.”

Signatory Jan Patočka, a prominent philosopher who had been a pupil of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger was one of the Charters main spokesmen. At 69, he was also the first casualty of the regime’s intensified repression. Historian Milan Bárta again:

“He was truly the first victim. He died on March 13, 1977, of heart failure after interrogation by the StB which lasted for ten hours. Patočka, his writings, his statements and philosophy, were central for the Charter 77 movement. Even his funeral became a demonstration against the regime.”

Milan Bárta, photo: archive of Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes
Others, such as Václav Havel, would later receive prison sentences for their political involvement or were otherwise persecuted. Numerous events are planned to mark the 40th anniversary of Charter 77 and to highlight the contributions of some its signatories and main spokespersons. Signatories of the manifesto are also to mark the anniversary at a remembrance meeting at Prague’s Lucerna Palác complex.