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Vaclav Benda 1946 - 1999

one of the most active members of the Charter '77

Vaclav Benda

Vaclav Benda

Vaclav Benda was born in Prague; after high school, he studied Philosophy, History and Bohemian Culture at Charles University. In 1968 he took an active part in the Student Movement, became chairman of the Philosophy faculty Students’ Council and founded the Young Catholics Club. 

In 1970 he obtained a doctorate in Philosophy, and then studied Maths and Physics, graduating in the Theory of Cybernetics. His dissertation supervisor was Ivan Havel, Vaclav Havel’s brother, thanks to whom he came into contact with opposition circles. 

In the early Seventies he organized meetings with Catholic activists who rejected the so-called “normalization” process and asked for greater civil and religious rights. On finishing his mathematical studies, he worked as a programmer at the Railways Research Institute. He married the mathematician Kamila Neubauerova and had six children. 

In 1976 he took part in meetings that were to lead to Charter ’77, of which Benda became one of the most active members. In his article Parallel polis he proposed setting up structures of civil society independent of totalitarian power, “capable, even to a limited extent, of performing a function that is useful for everyone” and he also asked for already existing structures to be changed from within, as far as possible. He indicated underground cultural organizations as the model for creating the “parallel polis” with schools, scientific circles and free information centres, hoping that even the partial success of these initiatives could change the face of Czechoslovak society. For signing Charter ’77 he was sacked from the Institute and obtained a job as a stoker. 

In April 1978 he was co-founder of the Committee in Defence of the Unjustly Persecuted (VONS). On 1 February 1978 he became spokesperson for Charter ’77. In May he was arrested, along with nine other VONS members and accused of anti-State activities, for which he served a four-year prison sentence. He was released on 29 May 1983 and immediately resumed his work in Charter ’77 and in the VONS. From 1 January 1984 to the beginning of 1985 he was again spokesperson for Charter ’77: his contribution was fundamental for the development of the movement, weakened by the imprisonment or exile of many of its signatories. In 1985 he started the underground publication of the Christian magazine “Paraf”. 

In addition to articles and political essays, Benda wrote philosophical and literary texts, fairy stories for children and books on mathematics and cybernetics. In 1988 he took part in drawing up the Democracy for all manifesto, which set out the Czechoslovak opposition’s political goals and was to be the platform for the rise, in 1989, of the Civil Rights Movement, of which Benda was a founding member. In November 1989 he set up the Christian Democrat Party (KDS) and became its first chairman. In 1990 he was elected a Member of Parliament. From 1994 to 1998 he was the head of the Bureau of Investigation into the Crimes of Communism. 

In November 1996 he became a senator. He died in Prague on 1 June 1999 after a long illness.

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Dissidents of totalitarianism

in Central Europe's communist regimes

The so called "dissent" in the communist regimes of Eastern Europe cannot be just reduced to the simple notion of an "opposition" as its definition would suggest, but it should be above all considered as an attempt to build a "parallel polis" based on the responsibility of every citizen and aimed at occupying the spaces where cultural, social and human freedom are allowed, as wrenched from the totalitarian rule over the social fabric. Members of Charter 77 and Solidarnosc, such as Vaclav Havel, Radim Palous, Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik, have always underlined that “the power of the powerless” consists in winning over fear through the empowerment made possible through a collective assumption of responsibility, witnessed by the exhortation to "live the truth" within a society based on lie. Ver often their "dissent" consisted in a way to claim the enforcement of laws, such as the ones about freedom of conscience, or the international agreements subscribed by their countries, such as the Helsinki Accords. This was the origin of a broad movement that was able to condition the behaviour and mentality of the public opinion, up to the point in which, letting aside Romania, the totalitarian rule was overthrown in a peaceful way, without shedding blood, with the rise of a new leading class recognized by the majority of the population and ready to take on government responsibilities.