Prague: Vaclav Havel, a dissident playwright who was jailed by Communists and then went on to lead the bloodless “Velvet Revolution” and become Czech president, died at 75 on Sunday.
The former chain smoker survived several operations for lung cancer and a burst intestine in the late 1990s that nearly killed him and left him frail for the rest of his life.
Political struggle: Much of Havel’s term was cast as a struggle for the soul of democratic reforms against right-wing economist Vaclav Klaus, who replaced him as president in 2003. By Petr Josek/Reuters
Havel was with his wife Dagmara and a nun who had been caring for him when he died at his country home, north of Prague. “Today Vaclav Havel has left us,” his secretary, Sabina Tancevova, said in a statement.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said on Twitter, “Vaclav Havel was one of the greatest Europeans of our age. His voice for freedom paved way for a Europe whole and free.”
“We will remember his commitment to freedom and democracy just as much as his great humanity,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “We Germans especially have much to thank him for.”
The diminutive playwright, who once took Bill Clinton to a Prague jazz club and was also a friend of Mick Jagger, rose to fame by facing down Prague’s communist regime when he demanded that they respect at least their own human rights pledges.
Just half a year after completing his last jail sentence, he led the peaceful uprising that ended Soviet-backed rule in Prague and emerged in charge at the mediaeval Prague castle.
“I am extremely moved,” an emotional Prime Minister Petr Necas told Czech Television when told of Havel’s death.
“He was a symbol and the face of our republic, and he is one of the most prominent figures of the politics of the last and the start of this century. His departure is a huge loss. He still had a lot to say in political and social life.”
Havel became a guarantee of peaceful transition to democracy and allowed the small country of 10 million to punch well above its weight in international politics.
“Truth and love will overcome lies and hatred” was Havel’s slogan that Czechs remember from the Velvet Revolution days.
But at home, Havel lost some of his allure in the later years of his presidency.
Struggle for the soul
Much of his presidential term was cast as a struggle for the soul of democratic reforms against right-wing economist Vaclav Klaus, who replaced Havel as president in 2003.
“In the Czech Republic, he was not only a prophet recognized worldwide, but also a concrete politician who made concrete political mistakes,” Havel’s ex-adviser, Jiri Pehe, said.
Havel returned to writing, and published a new play, Leaving, which won rave reviews and premiered in 2008.
When asked in a magazine interview that year if he wanted to be remembered as a politician or playwright, he said, “I would like it to say that I was a playwright who acted as a citizen, and thanks to that, he later spent a part of his life in a political position,” he said.
Born in 1936, the son of a rich building contractor, Havel was denied a good education after the communists seized power in 1948 and stripped the family of its wealth.
On 3 December 1963, his first play, Garden Party premiered at a Prague theatre, lampooning the communist system.
Havel was barred by communist leaders from his job as a writer/editor after the suppression of the Prague Spring reforms of 1968 and he was forced to work as a manual labourer. He became the first spokesman for the Charter 77 dissident group that strongly criticized communist officials.
Havel was sentenced in 1979 to four-and-a-half years in prison for “subversion” against the state. In 1983, he was released from prison amid immense foreign, diplomatic pressure after falling seriously ill with pneumonia.
Chosen as Czechoslovak president following the 1989 November collapse of the communist regime, he left office in 1992 ahead of the break-up of Czechoslovakia. On 26 January 1993, he was elected president of the newly emerged and independent Czech Republic.