Vaclav Havel: Moral beacon and leader of Velvet Revolution

Vaclav Havel, from dissident playwright to president, left a legacy of courage. Czech admirers are paying their respects today  to Vaclav Havel in Prague

(AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
Mourners line up to pay respect to former Czech president Vaclav Havel in Prague, Czech Republic, Monday, Dec. 19, 2011. Havel died Sunday.

Vaclav Havel never stopped fighting for what he thought was right, an approach that helped topple communism and made him an international symbol of freedom even as it later led to clashes with the democratic forces that followed his lead.

The son of a wealthy developer who toiled as a lab assistant and lowly brewery worker after being denied a higher education, Havel's works earned him five years in communist jails, where the chain smoking writer fell ill with chronic lung problems that eventually contributed to his death on Sunday at 75.

A playwright whose work was banned following the 1968 Soviet invasion of then-Czechoslovakia, he rose from political prisoner to become a president-philosopher who continued to fight for human rights until the end of his life.

Friends say he was an unfailingly polite, humble man who was not cowed by the threat of imprisonment.

"Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance," he wrote in a letter to Czechoslovak President Alexander Dubcek in 1968.

Jailed in the 1970's for criticising the government's human rights record and twice later, he eventually led some 300,000 protesters to topple it in the Velvet Revolution.


Denied the further education he wanted by the communists because of his bourgeois origin, he completed his studies in night classes after leaving school at 15.

He began writing literary criticism in 1955. His first play debuted in 1963 and he married his first wife Olga a year later.

Known as a freedom supporter, he was fired from a theatre where he worked following the Soviet invasion and became a dissident, organising people who did not support the regime.

In perhaps his most famous work, the essay "Power of the Powerless", Havel explained why.

"You do not become a "dissident" just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances," he wrote in 1978. "You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society."

Havel's contemporaries said he played a big role in underground newspaper "tvar", which set off the dissident movement in the 1960s, but not only because of his literary prowess.

"He was the only one among us who owned a car, which obviously helped a lot," said fellow dissident Bohumil Dolezal.

In 1976, there was a crackdown on the rock group The Plastic People. That triggered the Charter 77 movement, which criticised the government for failing to uphold human rights.

Havel's wife Olga began organizing gatherings at their weekend house north of Prague, where bands played in the barn, and police erected an observation point in a neighbouring plot.

According to Dolezal, he and Havel parted ways after 1968 because of diverging of views, but they met again in October 1988, when they had both been arrested and held for four days.

"There we were," he said. "Everything confiscated from us, including shoe laces, so that we would not commit suicide, and we talked about politics, which we probably otherwise would not have had a chance to do."


Friend and fellow Charter 77 member Petruska Sustrova recalled how Havell usually had the last word on what they published but refused to acknowledge his influence. That unassuming nature came to the fore when it became clear he would be president.

"He did not want to be a president," she said. "Ideally, he wanted to sit in a pub and reconcile quarrels. He was not very keen to enter politics, he thought it would cut him off from the normal world."

Havel brought his love of music and counter-culture straight into Prague Castle. Finding it too vast to negotiate on foot, he used a scooter to get around its halls and he invited rocker Frank Zappa to be a cultural advisor in 1990.

He later arranged for the Plastic People to play with his friend Lou Reed at the White House in front of Bill Clinton, whom he had earlier coaxed into playing saxophone at a smoky jazz club in gritty, post-communist Prague.

And he invited the Rolling Stones to the castle and later to play in a Prague park. No one had money to pay them, but for Havel they played for free and put on a show that many Czechs still remember today as definitive confirmation that communism was over.

He was also close to the Dalai Lama, who visited him earlier this month and together signed a declaration supporting dissidents in China, North Korea, Syria, and other countries.

Many Czechs still remember Havel's 1990 New Year's speech, which again showed a stark departure from the four decades of rhetoric and propaganda feed to them under communism.

"For forty years you have heard from my predecessors on this date in various forms the same thing: how our country flourishes... how happy we all are," he said. "I suppose you have not nominated me for this office so that I lie to you too."

The coming years would win him fame abroad but he repeatedly clashed with his main rival, Vaclav Klaus, a right-wing economist whose government Havel criticised for an economic transition rife with murky deals and corruption.

When the Klaus government was forced to quit in 1997 over a party financing scandal, Havel bemoaned the absence of the democratic "civil society" sought by many dissidents.

"If I blame those who are now's not so much for any concrete flaw...(but) an apathetic, almost hostile attitude toward everything that bears even a distant resemblance to a civil society," he said at the time.

But many Czechs saw this statement as too critical and his image also suffered when he married his second wife Dagmar, an attractive blonde film actress, a year after the death of his first wife Olga.

Havel largely retreated from public view after Klaus succeeded him in 2003 but published a new play, "Leaving", which won rave reviews at home was when released in 2008 and was later turned into a film. (Reporting by Michael Winfrey; Editing by Ben Harding)

IN PICTURES: Vaclav Havel remembered

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Vaclav Havel: Moral beacon and leader of Velvet Revolution
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today