Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who served time in Czechoslovakia’s communist prisons before leading a revolution that ushered democracy into central Europe and hoisted him into the Czech presidency, has died. He was 75.
Havel, who suffered a long illness, passed away in his sleep at his weekend cottage in Hradecek, northern Czech Republic, said former spokesman Ladislav Spacek by phone in Prague today. Leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama, EU Commission President Jose Barroso and German Chancellor Angela Merkel offered tributes.
Havel was an international symbol for his opposition to totalitarian regimes in the former Soviet bloc, culminating in the 1989 Velvet Revolution. He held the nation’s highest office for almost 13 years. Along with Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa, he was seen as an emblem of democracy for millions worldwide.
“His peaceful resistance shook the foundations of an empire, exposed the emptiness of a repressive ideology, and proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon,” said Obama in a statement from the White House. “He also embodied the aspirations of half a continent that had been cut off by the Iron Curtain, and helped unleash tides of history that led to a united and democratic Europe.”
As Czech government leaders planned meetings to discuss holding a state funeral, thousands of Czech turned out to pay tribute. More than a 1,000 converged on Wenceslas Square, where Havel helped rally people during the 1989 Velvet Revolution, to light candles and lay flowers.
A chain smoker until the mid-1990s, Havel had a history of lung problems dating back to his time in prison, where he didn’t receive proper treatment. He suffered repeated bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia and underwent an operation in December 1996 that removed a small malignant tumor along with a part of his lung.
Havel served as president of Czechoslovakia from the end of 1989 until 1992. In 1993, he became president of the Czech Republic, which was founded after the split of Czechoslovakia into two countries, a move he opposed.
“Vaclav Havel leaves our world better for having been a part of it,” said Czech-born Madeleine K. Albright, who was Secretary of State to former President Bill Clinton, in a statement. “He was among the handful of true democratic champions, an artist more than a politician, but an ambassador of the human conscience above all.”
Havel was re-elected for his second and final term in early 1998 and left office in 2003.
“His dedication to freedom and democracy remains as unforgotten as does his great humaneness,” said Merkel in a letter to President Vaclav Klaus, Havel’s successor. “We Germans, especially owe much to him. Together with you, we are mourning the loss of a great European.”
While his official authority as president was limited by the Czech constitution, Havel used the presidency as a platform for building what he called a “civil society.”
As one of history’s only philosopher-presidents, he sought to educate his fellow citizens in speeches and regular radio addresses about how a democracy was supposed to function.
“As ridiculous or quixotic as it may sound these days, it is my responsibility to emphasize, again and again, the moral origin of all genuine politics,” Havel wrote in “Summer Meditations,” a book of essays published in 1991, one year into his presidency.
Finally free of foreign occupation, Czechoslovakia must cultivate “higher responsibility,” or “things will turn out very badly indeed,” Havel wrote. In 2009, he lambasted the consumerism embraced by his fellow Czechs in recent years and described Mafiosi and back-street money-changers as the new economic elite.
“We are living in the first truly atheistic society, and there’s no feeling that there is any kind of moral anchor,” he said in a Bloomberg interview published June 18, 2009.
In the years after the fall of communism in 1989, Havel’s reputation and his ideas brought international renown to his new country. He was a strong advocate for expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. Under his presidency, the Czech Republic became a NATO member in March 1999 and joined the EU in 2004.
“Vaclav Havel was a pioneer of the European reunification. The rise of democracy in central and eastern Europe would have been unthinkable without him and his courageous words,” said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in an e-mailed statement. “I bow before this great champion for democracy and freedom. We mourn with the Czech people.”
Havel belonged to no party and his most important domestic political role was as a broker, helping negotiate the formation of an interim government after the collapse in late 1997 of the government of then-Premier Klaus amid corruption allegations against his party.
Frequently referred to as “the two Vaclavs,” Havel and Klaus often sparred over the direction of the Czech Republic’s political and economic destiny. Havel suggested at times that he considered Klaus’s politics to be too materialistic and lenient with regard to white-collar crime following numerous cases of asset-stripping during the 1990s.
In his most critical remarks on Klaus’s outgoing government, in December 1997, Havel said the economic transformation “stopped halfway” because of the leaders’ egotism and overstated sense of success.
Havel criticized Klaus’s government for letting the country slide into a moral crisis, leading many Czechs to feel that “it pays off in this country to lie and to steal; that many politicians and civil servants are corruptible.”
When Klaus’s Civic Democratic Party went into opposition, Havel continued to protest as Klaus swayed Prime Minister Milos Zeman’s Czech Social Democratic Party to support legislation making it difficult for smaller parties to enter parliament and efforts to change the constitution to limit presidential powers.
Havel also clashed with Klaus on moral principles when Havel invited Salman Rushdie, a British writer condemned to death by Ayatollah Khomeini for a book that the one-time Iranian religious leader considered disrespectful to Islam, to visit the Czech Republic. Klaus has said the invitation might hurt the Czech trade with Arab countries.
“Citizen Havel,” a documentary from 2008, shows the two jousting in private meetings and Havel’s team discussing how best to handle Klaus and other politicians who were trying to push their own agendas on the president. In “To the Castle and Back,” his 2007 autobiography, Havel noted that he eventually dreaded having to deal with Klaus and would seek ways of avoiding him if possible.
“Because of my innate sense of courtesy and my distaste for confrontation, I was often the loser, but fortunately never in anything of importance,” Havel wrote, recounting Klaus’s anger at Havel’s support for NATO, the EU, the United Nations and international meetings with personalities such as musicians Frank Zappa and the Rolling Stones.
In another expression of support to those oppressed by totalitarian regimes, Havel invited the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader. He also supported a NATO bombing campaign that drove Serbian troops out of Kosovo in 1999, saying steps need to be taken to ensure “putting a halt to the killings of Kosovo citizens and them being driven from their homes.”
Havel, who won more than a dozen international prizes for his political and peacemaking efforts as well as his writings, was imprisoned three times for opposing the communist regime in Czechoslovakia and altogether spent almost five years behind bars. He was one of the first three spokesmen of a 1977 movement called Charter 77, in which a group of Czech intellectuals called on the communist government to respect human rights.
Havel was born into a prominent Prague family. The communist regime kept him from studying where he wanted to, so he attended a technical university. He left his studies in 1957 and became a propsman in a Prague theater after completing his military service.
He was eventually accepted to the Prague DAMU theater academy. After the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Havel worked various jobs, including as a laborer in a brewery, a job that went on to inspire his play “Audience.”
Music, and specifically rock ‘n’ roll, played an important part in Havel’s personal and political life. A fan of the Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones, Havel took inspiration from their music, filled with personal expression, irreverence of convention and rebelliousness, and was a regular visitor to major concerts in Prague.
Writer Tom Stoppard’s play “Rock & Roll,” which debuted in London in 2006, used rock music as a metaphor for his play about life in 1970s-era Czechoslovakia.
“What I found extremely interesting in Stoppard’s tale is how, in the conditions of a totalitarian system, every instance of free expression somehow ends up in conflict with the system,” Havel told the Daily Telegraph in July 2006 after the premiere. “That original confrontation needn’t have necessarily been over rock music; it might have easily have been over microbiology, for instance.”
From 1960 to 1988, Havel wrote 17 plays, many of which were performed on stages around the world. During the same period, Havel became known for his political essays, which included “The Power of the Powerless” and “Politics and Conscience.”
The letters from prison to his wife, Olga, were later published as “Letters to Olga.”
His autobiography eschewed a conventional retelling of his life in favor of interviews, personal observations and notes about his time in power and a sabbatical spent in the U.S.
“If I’ve made any mistakes, then they probably all derive from my awkwardness, my indecisiveness, politeness that slips easily into compromise,” Havel wrote. “I didn’t know how to make proper use of the authority I had, particularly in that first period and I didn’t know how to maintain that authority.”
His health problems, dislike for the trappings of public office and endless battles with politicians featured greatly in his autobiography, and Havel said he sometimes felt as alone and trapped as when he was locked in a prison cell.
“He is inscrutable, and this may be his genius,” writer Paul Berman said. “Inscrutability transforms him into an enigmatic symbol, capable somehow of summoning other people to project upon him their own best hopes and ideals. And yet his own frailties turn out to be his largest theme.”
His final years were dominated by “Leaving,” a play about a politician who finds difficulty relinquishing the power he had come to enjoy. A film based on the play was released on March 22, 2011, and Havel attended the premier in Prague.
He also worked on assembling his personal papers for a library, which is in the planning stages in a building near the castle he used to occupy as president.
Havel, who didn’t have children, married a popular Czech actress, Dagmar Veskrnova, in January 1997, a year after Olga’s death from cancer. She was at the cottage with him when he died, along with a nurse who had been caring for him.