Vaclav Havel RIP

Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011
Czechs’ Dissident Conscience, Turned President
Published: December 18, 2011

Vaclav Havel, the Czech writer and dissident whose eloquent
dissections of Communist rule helped to destroy it in revolutions that
brought down the Berlin Wall and swept Mr. Havel himself into power,
died on Sunday. He was 75.

On Dec. 29, 1989, Vaclav Havel was elected Czechoslovakia’s president
by the country’s still-communist parliament. More Photos »

His assistant, Sabina Tancevova, said Mr. Havel died at his country
house in northern Bohemia.

A Czech Embassy spokesman in Paris, Michal Dvorak, said in a statement
that Mr. Havel, a heavy smoker for decades who almost died during
treatment for lung cancer in 1996, had been suffering from severe
respiratory ailments since the spring.

A shy yet resilient, unfailingly polite but dogged man who articulated
the power of the powerless, Mr. Havel spent five years in and out of
Communist prisons, lived for two decades under close secret-police
surveillance and endured the suppression of his plays and essays. He
served 14 years as president, wrote 19 plays, inspired a film and a
rap song and remained one of his generation’s most seductively
nonconformist writers.

All the while, Mr. Havel came to personify the soul of the Czech nation.

His moral authority and his moving use of the Czech language cast him
as the dominant figure during Prague street demonstrations in 1989 and
as the chief behind-the-scenes negotiator who brought about the end of
more than 40 years of Communist rule and the peaceful transfer of
power known as the Velvet Revolution, a revolt so smooth that it took
just weeks to complete, without a single shot fired.

He was chosen as post-Communist Czechoslovakia’s first president — a
role he insisted was more duty than aspiration — and after the country
split in January 1993, he became president of the Czech Republic. He
linked the country firmly to the West, clearing the way for the Czech
Republic to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999 and
the European Union five years later.

Both as a dissident and as a national leader, Mr. Havel impressed the
West as one of the most important political thinkers in Central
Europe. He rejected the notion, posited by reform-minded Communist
leaders like Alexander Dubcek in his own country, and years later by
Mikhail S. Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, that Communist rule could be
made more humane.

His star status and personal interests drew world leaders to Prague,
including the Dalai Lama, with whom Mr. Havel meditated for hours, and
President Bill Clinton, who, during a state visit in 1994, joined a
saxophone jam session at Mr. Havel’s favorite jazz club.

Even after Mr. Havel retired in 2003, leaders sought him out,
including President Obama. At their meeting in March 2009, Mr. Havel
warned of the perils of limitless hope being projected onto a leader.
Disappointment, he noted, could boil over into anger and resentment.
Mr. Obama replied that he was becoming acutely aware of the

Mr. Obama said that he was deeply saddened by Mr. Havel’s death. “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,” he said Sunday in a statement.

Articulating Discontent

It was as a dissident that Mr. Havel most clearly championed the
ideals of a civil society. He helped found Charter 77, the longest
enduring human rights movement in the former Soviet bloc, and keenly
articulated the lasting humiliations that Communism imposed on the

In his now iconic 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” which
circulated in underground editions in Czechoslovakia and was smuggled
to other Warsaw Pact countries and to the West, Mr. Havel foresaw that
the opposition could eventually prevail against the totalitarian

Mr. Havel, a child of bourgeois privilege whose family lost its wealth
when the Communists came to power in 1948, first became active in the
Writers Union in Czechoslovakia in the mid-1960s, when his chief
target was not Communism so much as it was the “reform Communism” that
many were seeking.

During the Prague Spring of 1968, the brief period when reform
Communists, led by Mr. Dubcek, believed that “socialism with a human
face” was possible, Mr. Havel argued that Communism could never be

He wrote an article, “On the Theme of an Opposition,” that advocated
the end of single-party rule, a bold idea at the time. In May 1968, he
was invited by the American theater producer Joseph Papp to see the
New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of his second play, “The

It was the last time Mr. Havel was allowed out of the country under
Communist rule; the visit contributed to an abiding affection for New

After the Soviets sent tanks to suppress the Prague reforms in August
1968, Mr. Havel persisted in the fight for political freedom. In
August 1969 he organized a petition of 10 points that repudiated the
politics of “normalization” with the Soviet Union. He was accused of
subversion, and in 1970 was vilified on state television and banned as
a writer.

At the time, tens of thousands of Communists were expelled from the
party, deemed too sympathetic to the Dubcek reforms that were being
reversed by the Czechoslovak leader Gustav Husak. Mr. Havel kept
writing, and in 1975, in an open letter to Mr. Husak — the leader he
eventually replaced — he attacked the regime, arguing that
Czechoslovakia operated under “political apartheid” that separated the
rulers from the ruled.

The government, Mr. Havel wrote, had chosen “the most dangerous road
for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward
appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity.”

In 1977, Mr. Havel was one of three leading organizers of Charter 77,
a group of 242 signers who called for the human rights guaranteed
under the 1975 Helsinki accords. Mr. Havel was quickly arrested, tried
and convicted of subversion; he served three months in prison. He was
arrested again in May 1979 on a charge of subversion and was sentenced
to four and a half years.

The severity of this sentence brought protests from the Communist
parties in France, Italy and Spain. Mr. Havel was eventually released
in February 1983, suffering from pneumonia.

In prison, he was prohibited from writing anything but letters about
“family matters” to his wife. These missives, he said, enabled him to
make some sense of his incarceration. One of his themes was a warning
to his persecutors that by their repression of human freedom, they
were ultimately undercutting their own existence.

His refusal to break with Charter 77 led to other, briefer periods of
detention as his celebrity status grew abroad. In January 1989, he was
detained and tried after defying police orders to stay away from a

His release in May that year represented the beginning of the end for
Czechoslovakia’s Communist government, which was badly out of step
with reforms under way in neighboring Poland and Hungary and, under
the leadership of Mr. Gorbachev, in the Soviet Union itself.

During the 1980s, Mr. Havel refused government pressure to emigrate.
Not widely known at home outside dissident and intellectual circles in
Prague, he became a focus for some Western diplomats and visitors, who
would tramp up to the top-floor apartment of a six-story house that
his father had built and philosophize with Mr. Havel while gazing
across the Vltava River at the Prague Castle, long the seat of the
country’s rulers.

He earned virtually nothing from the menial job he was forced to take
at a brewery, but had money from the royalties of publications
overseas. He bought a Mercedes-Benz and decorated his book-crammed
apartment with abstract paintings. He also owned the cottage at
Hradecek where he died.

Velvet Revolution

Mr. Havel’s chance at power came in November 1989, eight days after
the Berlin Wall fell.

A tentative dialogue had already started when the police broke up an
officially sanctioned student demonstration on Nov. 17, beating many
demonstrators and arresting others.

Two days later, Mr. Havel convened a meeting in the Magic Lantern, a
Prague theater, and he and other dissidents established the Civic
Forum. It called for the resignation of the leading Communists,
investigation of the police action and the release of all political

The next day, about 200,000 people took to the streets in Prague, the
first of several demonstrations that ended Communist domination.

It was in the theater’s smoke-filled rooms that Mr. Havel mapped the
strategy and proclamations that finally undermined Communist rule. “It
was extraordinary the degree to which everything ultimately revolved
around this one man,” wrote the historian Timothy Garton Ash, who was

“In almost all the forum’s major decisions and statements,” Mr. Garton
Ash added, “he was the final arbiter, the one person who could somehow
balance the very different tendencies and interests in the movement.”

Once installed at the Castle, Mr. Havel gradually discarded crumpled
jeans and sweaters for crisp shirts and somber suits, although he
often seemed more at home in the counterculture. On a trip abroad in
1995, he ignored awaiting dignitaries and lingered on an airport
tarmac for a chat with Mick Jagger.

In the first months of his presidency, visitors to the labyrinthine
Castle included Frank Zappa and the Rolling Stones. Mr. Havel covered
a side of the building with a large neon-red heart, and pedaled the
corridors with a child’s scooter.

“Initially, he had difficulty changing his mentality from being a
dissident to a politician,” said Jiri Pehe, who was his chief
political adviser from 1997 to 1999. But Mr. Pehe argued that Mr.
Havel had been a better president than many had expected.

“Because of his moral authority, he was able to stretch a weak
presidency beyond what was written in the Constitution,” Mr. Pehe

But critics said Mr. Havel, a self-professed reluctant leader, learned
to like power a little too much. Many Czechs were also disappointed
that he refused to outlaw the Communist Party or to put on trial the
system that had allowed neighbors to send one another to labor camps.

In July 1992, as Czechoslovakia began to break up, Mr. Havel resigned
as president rather than preside over the split. He spoke then of the
difficult metamorphosis from philosopher to politician.

“Putting into practice the ideals to which I have adhered all my life,
which guided me in the dissident years, becomes much more difficult in
practical politics,” he said, before being later elected president of
the new Czech Republic.

As soon as he came to power, Mr. Havel steered his country toward the
West. On his first visit to the United States as president, in
February 1990, Mr. Havel stressed that American financial aid was not
as important as technical assistance to help his country —
historically an industrial power — compete again in the international

Days later, he met Mr. Gorbachev in Moscow and swiftly negotiated the
withdrawal of 70,000 Soviet troops stationed in Czechoslovakia.

At home, Mr. Havel’s role evolved into one of educator and moral
persuader. In weekly radio talks, he often addressed human rights,
touching on issues that were delicate in Czech society. He championed,
for instance, the rights of Gypsies, or Roma, despite surveys that
showed that most Czechs would not want a Gypsy as a neighbor.

Early in his presidency, he also went against popular sentiment when
he formed a commission to inquire into the expulsion of three million
Sudeten Germans after World War II.

Political ideas, not economics, interested him. His country, widely
considered to have made a smooth transition from Communism to market
democracy, came in for his devastating critique in December 1997, when
he attacked corruption and the sell-off of government-run industries
in a thinly veiled barb at his political nemesis, the longtime prime
minister — and now president — Vaclav Klaus.

Expressing disdain for what had happened to Czech society under Mr.
Klaus — an ally of convenience in the days of the 1989 revolution —
Mr. Havel told Parliament that a “post-Communist morass” had allowed
“the most immoral people” to achieve financial success at the expense
of others.

Mr. Klaus, a right-wing maverick who espouses the untrammeled
capitalism that Mr. Havel disliked, succeeded Mr. Havel as president
in 2003. On Sunday, Mr. Klaus paid tribute to Mr. Havel, calling him
“the symbol of the new era of the Czech state.”

While many in the West worshiped Mr. Havel, in his native country he
was regarded with deep affection but also ambivalence, and even scorn.
His slogan during the revolution that truth and love must prevail over
lies and hatred was mocked by foes, who accused him of naïveté. But he
never lost his childlike idealism and would sign his name with a small

Mr. Havel’s standing with Czechs faltered somewhat in 1997, after his
surprise marriage to Dagmar Veskrnova — a flamboyant and outspoken
actress who had once played a topless vampire in a film — only a year
after the death of his much-admired first wife of 31 years, Olga. In
January 1998 Parliament, resentful of what was seen as Mr. Havel’s
arrogant behavior with his new wife and his meddling in political
affairs, elected him to a second presidential term by only one vote.
Erik Tabery, a Czech journalist and the author of a book on the Czech
presidency, said some Czechs resented Mr. Havel for holding up an
uncomfortable mirror to their history of passivity. “While the
Communists ruled for 40 years, most Czechs stayed at home and did
nothing,” Mr. Tabery said. “Havel did something.”

Mr. Havel had his own theory. He frequently told interviewers that he
had unwittingly become a character from a fairy tale, whom he himself
did not recognize.

A Child of Privilege

Born on Oct. 5, 1936, Mr. Havel was one of two sons of Bozena and
Vaclav Havel. His father, a civil engineer, was a major commercial
real estate developer who acquired important property. When the
Communists took power three years after World War II, the family
holdings were taken over by the state. After Communist rule ended, Mr.
Havel and his brother, Ivan, won back much of the property.

Mr. Havel would later write that his privileged upbringing heightened
his sensitivity to inequality.

“I was different from my schoolmates whose families did not have
domestics, nurses or chauffeurs,” he wrote. “But I experienced these
differences as a disadvantage; I felt excluded from the company of my

He started writing, he said, to overcome his feeling of being an
outsider. Because of his background, the Communists blocked him from
going to college, and at age 15 he started work as a technician in a
chemistry lab.

Mr. Havel was called up for military service in 1957, and wrote a
satirical play while in the army. In 1960, he joined the Theater on
the Balustrade as a stagehand. In 1963 he wrote his first publicly
performed play, “The Garden Party,” about a person who has lost his
sense of identity to such a degree that he goes to look for himself in
his own apartment.

In 1956 Mr. Havel met Olga Splichalova, a lively, dashing actress,
whom he married in 1964. A working-class heroine for many Czechs, she
helped to inspire the collection of essays, written as letters from
prison, and published as “Letters to Olga.” In dissident circles and
beyond, Mr. Havel was a celebrated womanizer. Mrs. Havlova, who was
fiercely defensive of her husband, was said by friends to have a
certain reassurance when he was in prison, because “at least she knew
where he was.”

When Mr. Havel became president, his wife seldom took part in formal
events, but used her new platform to campaign for the handicapped. She
died of cancer in January 1996. They had no children. Mr. Havel is
survived by his second wife, Dagmar, and his brother, Ivan.

After stepping down as president in 2003, Mr. Havel, ailing and tired,
returned to writing, insisting he was happy with a peaceful life. In
his memoir, “To the Castle and Back,” published in 2007, he called his
political rise an accident of history. Post-Communist society
disappointed him, he said.

In 2008, Mr. Havel re-emerged as a playwright with a new absurdist
tragic-comedy, “Leaving,” depicting a womanizing former political
leader who grudgingly confronts life outside of politics.

He never stopped preaching that the fight for political freedom needed
to outlive the end of the cold war. He praised the American invasion
of Iraq for deposing a dictator, Saddam Hussein.

He continued to worry about what he called “the old European disease”
— “the tendency to make compromises with evil, to close one’s eyes to
dictatorship, to practice a politics of appeasement.”