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 only expanded 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.
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.
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 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.
Havel first made a name for himself after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion that crushed the Prague Spring reforms of Alexander Dubcek and other liberal-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.
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.
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.
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.
Havel’s arrest in January 1989 at a 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.
On Dec. 29, 1989, he was elected Czechoslovakia’s president by the country’s still-communist parliament.
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,” he exulted.