Czech former President Vaclav Havel, whose resistance to totalitarian regimes helped topple Communism in 1989, was remembered at a mass attended by world leaders, including David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Bells tolled across the Czech Republic at noon as citizens paused to observe a minute of silence for Havel, a dissident playwright who died in his sleep on Dec. 18 at the age of 75 after a long illness. Thousands began gathering before sunrise in a light drizzle at Prague’s St. Vitus Cathedral inside Hradcany Castle.
Havel’s widow, Dagmar Havlova, clad in a black veil, was seated next to Czech President Vaclav Klaus and Havel’s brother, Ivan, in the front pew as the Czech National Philharmonic played selections from Antonin Dvorak’s Requiem and Handel’s Messiah. A message from Pope Benedict XVI was read as hundreds who weren’t able to be seated in the church, the country’s largest, watched on large plasma screens outside.
“He breathed new life, not only into this country, but also deeply into the roots of the tradition of humanism,” Madeleine Albright, the Czech-born former U.S. Secretary of State, told the packed cathedral in Czech. “He reminded us of what we should be concerned with. He was one of the most-respected men on the planet in the 20th century. Still, he was never satisfied that he did all he could do.”
Period of Mourning
The largest state funeral in decades caps a three-day period of mourning in the country of 10 million. People waited for hours to view Havel’s plain wooden casket covered in the Czech tri-colored flag in the Vladislav Hall inside the castle grounds before it was moved to the Gothic cathedral earlier today.
Havel was president for almost 13 years, first as head of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic after the peaceful split of the country with Slovakia in 1993. He counted figures including Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa, who was present for today’s funeral, as friends.
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.
As one of history’s only philosopher-presidents who also loved the theater of the absurd, he sought to educate his fellow citizens in speeches and regular radio addresses about how a democracy was supposed to function.
“I came because I am a veteran from Narodni Trida where it all started in 1989,” said Jiri Cerny, an economist from Prague, referring to a confrontation with police that sparked the Velvet Revolution in November 1989. “I came to honor and thank the man who became a moral authority and whose reputation stretches far beyond the Czech Republic. This is the symbolic end of what happened in 1989.”
Havel’s remains were taken following the ceremony to a crematorium for a private ceremony and will be interred along with first wife, Olga, and family relatives in the Vinohradsky cemetery in a suburb of Prague, not far from the grave of writer Franz Kafka.
In the evening, Havel’s friends are planning a celebration in Prague’s Lucerna Hall, where many of the ex-president’s favorite musicians and actors may appear, including singer Suzanne Vega and the Plastic People of the Universe, the band that Havel championed in the 1970s and ultimately served time in jail for defending.
“Europe owes Vaclav Havel a profound debt,” Cameron said before departing from London. “Havel led the Czech people out of tyranny ... and he helped bring freedom and democracy to our entire continent.”
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.”
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.
“With the death of Vaclav Havel, a lot is leaving us, but a lot remains with us because of his lifelong convictions,” said Klaus during the Mass. Havel leaves the world with “the thought that freedom is something we can lose when we don’t take care of it enough, and that only democracy allows the freedom for individuals and countries to live in prosperity and spiritualism.”