PRAGUE — The end of Czechoslovakia’s totalitarian regime was called the Velvet Revolution because of how smooth the transition seemed: Communism dead in a matter of weeks, without a shot fired. But for Vaclav Havel, it was a moment he helped pay for with decades of suffering and struggle.
The dissident playwright spent years in jail but never lost his defiance, or his eloquence, and the government’s attempts to crush his will ended up expanding his influence. He became a source of inspiration to Czechs, and to all of Eastern Europe. He went from prisoner to president in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell and communism crumbled across the region.
Havel died Sunday morning at his weekend home in the northern Czech Republic. The 75-year-old former chain-smoker had a history of chronic respiratory problems dating back to his time in prison.
Shy and bookish, with a wispy mustache and unkempt hair, Havel helped draw the world’s attention to the anger and frustration spilling over behind the Iron Curtain. While he was president, the Czech Republic split from Slovakia, but it also made dramatic gains in economic might.
“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 President Barack Obama. “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.”
Mourners laid flowers and lit candles at Havel’s villa in Prague. A black flag of mourning flew over Prague Castle, the presidential seat, and Havel was also remembered at a monument to the revolution in the capital’s downtown. “Mr. President, thank you for democracy,” one note read.
Lech Walesa, former Polish president and the Nobel Peace Prize-winning founder of the country’s anti-communist Solidarity movement, called Havel “a great fighter for the freedom of nations and for democracy.”
“Amid the turbulence of modern Europe, his voice was the most consistent and compelling — endlessly searching for the best in himself and in each of us,” said former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who is of Czech origin.
Havel was his country’s first democratically elected president, leading it through the early challenges of democracy and its peaceful 1993 breakup into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, though his image suffered as his people discovered the difficulties of transforming their society.
He was an avowed peacenik who was close friends with members of the Plastic People of the Universe, a nonconformist rock band banned by the communist regime, and whose heroes included rockers such as Frank Zappa. He never quite shed his flower-child past and often signed his name with a small heart as a flourish.
“Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred,” Havel famously said. It became his revolutionary motto, which he said he always strove to live by.
“It’s interesting that I had an adventurous life, even though I am not an adventurer by nature. It was fate and history that caused my life to be adventurous rather than me as someone who seeks adventure,” he once told Czech radio.
Havel first made a name for himself after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion that crushed the Prague Spring reforms of Alexander Dubcek and other liberally minded communists in what was then Czechoslovakia.
Havel’s plays were banned as hard-liners installed by Moscow snuffed out every whiff of rebellion. But he continued to write, producing a series of underground essays that stand with the work of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov as the most incisive and eloquent analyses of what communism did to society and the individual.
One of his best-known essays, “The Power of the Powerless,” was written in 1978. It borrowed slyly from the opening line of the mid-19th century Communist Manifesto, writing: “A specter is haunting eastern Europe: the specter of what in the West is called ‘dissent.”’
In the essay, he dissected what he called the “dictatorship of ritual” — the ossified Soviet bloc system under Leonid Brezhnev — and imagined what happens when an ordinary greengrocer stops displaying communist slogans and begins “living in truth,” rediscovering “his suppressed identity and dignity.”
Havel knew that suppression firsthand.
He was born Oct. 5, 1936, in Prague, the child of a wealthy family that lost extensive property to communist nationalization in 1948. Havel was denied a formal education, eventually earning a degree at night school and starting out in theater as a stagehand.
His political activism began in earnest in January 1977, when he co-authored the human rights manifesto Charter 77, and the cause drew widening attention in the West.
Havel was detained countless times and spent four years in communist jails. His letters from prison to his wife were among his best-known works. “Letters to Olga” blended deep philosophy with a stream of stern advice to the spouse he saw as his mentor and best friend, and who tolerated his reputed philandering and other foibles.
The events of August 1988 — the 20th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion — first suggested that Havel and his friends might one day replace the apparatchiks who jailed them.
Thousands of mostly young people marched through central Prague, yelling Havel’s name and that of the playwright’s hero, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the philosopher who was Czechoslovakia’s first president after it was founded in 1918.
Havel’s arrest in January 1989 at another street protest and his subsequent trial generated anger at home and abroad. Pressure for change was so strong that the communists released him in May.
That fall, communism began to collapse across Eastern Europe, and in November the Berlin Wall fell. Eight days later, police brutally broke up a demonstration by thousands of Prague students.
It was the signal that Havel and his countrymen had awaited. Within 48 hours, a broad new opposition movement was founded, and a day later, hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks took to the streets.
In three heady weeks, communist rule was broken. Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones arrived just as the Soviet army was leaving. Posters in Prague proclaimed: “The tanks are rolling out — the Stones are rolling in.”
On Dec. 29, 1989, Havel was elected Czechoslovakia’s president by the country’s still-communist parliament. Three days later, he told the nation in a televised New Year’s address: “Out of gifted and sovereign people, the regime made us little screws in a monstrously big, rattling and stinking machine.”
He continued to be regarded a moral voice as he decried the shortcomings of his society under democracy, but eventually bent to the dictates of convention and power. His watchwords — “what the heart thinks, the tongue speaks” — had to be modified for day-to-day politics.
In July 1992, it became clear that the Czechoslovak federation was heading for a split. He considered the breakup a personal failure, though years later he would conclude that it was for the best. Havel resigned as president, but he remained popular and was elected president of the new Czech Republic uncontested.
The job held great immense prestige but little power. The Czech Republic underwent major promarket reforms while Havel was president, but those have been credited mainly to his political archrival Vaclav Klaus, who was prime minister at the time and is the current president.
Havel’s attempts to reconcile rival politicians were considered by many as unconstitutional intrusions, and his pleas for political leaders to build a “civic society” based on respect, tolerance and individual responsibility went largely unanswered.
Media criticism, once unthinkable, became unrelenting. Serious newspapers questioned his political visions; tabloids focused mainly on his private life.
Havel left office in 2003, months before the Czech Republic and Slovakia joined the European Union. He was credited with laying the groundwork that brought his country in 2004 into what is now a 27-nation bloc, and was president when it joined NATO in 1999 — a moment of pride for him.
“I can’t stop rejoicing that I live in this time and can participate in it,” Havel exulted.
Havel was small, but his presence and wit could fill a room. Even late in life, he retained a certain impishness and boyish grin, shifting easily from philosophy to jokes or plain old Prague gossip.
In December 1996, just 11 months after his first wife, Olga Havlova, died of cancer, he lost a third of his right lung during surgery to remove a malignant tumor.
He gave up smoking and married Dagmar Veskrnova, a dashing actress almost 20 years his junior. She, and a nun who had been caring for him the last few months of his life, were by his side when he died, his assistant Sabina Tancevova said.
Even out of office, Havel remained a world figure. Among his many honors were Sweden’s prestigious Olof Palme Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian award, bestowed on him by President George W. Bush for being “one of liberty’s great heroes.”
Havel was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, and collected dozens of other accolades worldwide for his efforts as a global ambassador of conscience, defending the downtrodden from Darfur to Myanmar.
In recent years, Havel saw the global economic crisis as a warning not to abandon basic human values in the scramble to prosper.
“It’s a warning against the idea that we understand the world, that we know how everything works,” he told The Associated Press in his office in Prague in 2008. The cramped work space was packed with his books, plays and rock memorabilia.
By then Havel had returned to his first love: the stage. He published a new play, “Leaving,” about the struggles of a leader on his way out of office, and the work gained critical acclaim.