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Vaclav Havel Dead At 75

Czechs Pay Respects To Vaclav Haveli
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December 18, 2011
As news spread of the death of former President Vaclav Havel, Czech citizens lit candles and placed flowers on Prague's Wenceslas Square and at the memorial on Narodni Street for the student demonstrations that ushered in the Velvet Revolution. Czech flutist Jiří Stivín made an impromptu appearance in Havel's honor.
Watch: Czechs pay tribute to Vaclav Havel at impromptu memorials in Prague.

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Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright-turned-president and the leading figure in the peaceful revolution that toppled communism in Czechoslovakia, has died. He was 75.

His office said Havel died early on December 18 at his country cottage in the village of Hradecek, in northern Bohemia, after a long illness. 

Under communism, Havel's plays were banned, and he spent five years in jail for standing up to the regime.

On November 23, 1989, Havel addressed a crowd of more than 300,000 on Prague's Wenceslas Square. "We want to live in a free, democratic, and prosperous Czechoslovakia," he said. "We want to return to Europe, and we shall never give up our ideals, regardless of whatever happens in the coming days."

Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution had begun six days earlier, with a peaceful student protest that was broken up violently by police. In the following days, hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks took to the streets in peaceful demonstrations.

Havel, a dissident playwright who had once described himself as a "confused intellectual," emerged as the revolution's key figure, addressing the huge crowds and leading the talks that negotiated a peaceful end to communist rule.

By the end of that year, Havel had been elected president of a free Czechoslovakia. Four decades of communism were over.

World Reacts To Vaclav Havel's Death

Vaclav Havel was born on October 5, 1936, to an affluent family.

The communists that came to power in a 1948 coup confiscated most of the family's property and largely barred Havel from higher education.

After military service, he gravitated to the theater, first as a stagehand and then, in the 1960s, writing plays that often dealt with the absurdities of life under communism.

Then, in 1968, Soviet-led Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia to put down the Prague Spring reform movement. Havel's plays were banned, and he was put under constant police surveillance.

Vaclav Havel waves to wellwishers shortly after he took the oath as president of Czechoslovakia on December 29, 1989.
Vaclav Havel waves to wellwishers shortly after he took the oath as president of Czechoslovakia on December 29, 1989.

In 1976, he co-authored Charter 77, a petition that called on the communist government to respect the international treaties on civil rights it had signed. Charter signatories were persecuted; Havel was jailed for 3 1/2 years.

On the eve of its 10th anniversary, Havel reflected on the manifesto's significance, saying that in many ways today it had "gone surprisingly beyond its original intentions. Not that the Charter has become something else than it wanted to be -- it continues to maintain its original purpose, to show openly the violations of human rights, demand that laws be respected in practice. That's still the main line of its work."

Czechoslovak, Then Czech President

In 1989, the Soviet-bloc countries of Eastern Europe were on the brink of tumultuous change. In September of that year, thousands of East Germans began streaming into the Czech capital in an attempt to flee to the West. Two months later, the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

On November 17, the police cracked down on a student demonstration in Prague. It sparked the mass outpouring of public sympathy that became known as the Velvet Revolution. Havel was the leading figure in that revolution, as one of the founders of the civic opposition group Civic Forum.

Vaclav Havel at his cottage in Hradecek in the early 1970sVaclav Havel at his cottage in Hradecek in the early 1970s
Vaclav Havel at his cottage in Hradecek in the early 1970s
Vaclav Havel at his cottage in Hradecek in the early 1970s
With the communist regime quickly crumbling, Havel launched his campaign for the presidency on December 10 -- International Human Rights Day.

"Let's not allow anyone in any way to sully this beautiful face of our peaceful revolution," he said. "Truth and love must triumph over lies and hatred."

Havel was elected president on December 29, 1989, less than six weeks after the first mass demonstrations calling for change.

After his reelection in 1990, Havel spent much of his time trying to preserve the Czechoslovak federation from breaking up over demands for autonomy by Slovak nationalists.

He failed, and resigned in 1992. But after Czechoslovakia's so-called Velvet Divorce, he was elected president of a newly independent Czech Republic in 1993 -- and again in 1998.

By the time Havel retired in 2003, the Czech Republic was a member of NATO and was on the verge of joining the European Union.

WATCH: Important moments from Vaclav Havel's life (AP video, natural sound):
Vaclav Havel, Former Czech President, Has Diedi
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December 18, 2011
Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright-turned-president and the leading figure in the peaceful Velvet Revolution that toppled communism in Czechoslovakia, has died. (AP video)

Outspoken Advocate

In his later years, he was dogged by ill-health. In 1996, the year his first wife, Olga, died of lung cancer, Havel had surgery to remove a cancerous lung tumor. Two years later, he nearly died after an operation for a ruptured colon.

But he remained an outspoken advocate for human rights and democracy in places such as Cuba, Russia, China, or Belarus.

In one of his last interviews with RFE/RL, Havel looked back, 20 years later, at the events of November 1989. He said it had become clear that sooner or later change would come, the only question was when. And that the student demonstration of November 17 had provided the trigger.

"They couldn't foresee how it would all turn out and that this would be the snowball that would trigger an avalanche. Of course, we didn't know it either. By 'we' I mean the signers of Charter 77, the dissidents," Havel said.

Vaclav Havel with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama (center) and Rabiya Kadeer, head of the World Uyghur Congress, at a human rights conference in Prague in 2009.
Vaclav Havel with Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama (center) and Rabiya Kadeer, head of the World Uyghur Congress, at a human rights conference in Prague in 2009.

"What was clear, however -- and I've spoken or written about this before -- was that sooner or later a snowball would start rolling and turn into an avalanche. No one knew what that snowball would be and when it would happen precisely. We weren't soothsayers. But it was clear that sooner or later it had to happen."

Throughout his public life, Havel pleaded for a "civil society" founded on honesty and humanism. As the years went on, he often came into conflict with more pragmatic politicians, who rarely enjoyed his frequent reproofs.

Havel oversaw his country's peaceful transition to democracy, and guided it through its critical infancy, reanchoring Czechs in the Western family of nations.

He is likely to be remembered by the world and by his compatriots for those singular achievements.

PHOTO GALLERY: Vaclav Havel -- A Life In Pictures:
  • Vaclav Havel, a leading member of the Czechoslovak opposition, waves to the crowd of demonstrators on Wenceslas Square in Prague on December 10, 1989.
  • Newly elected Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel meets citizens after being elected at Prague Castle on December 29, 1989.
  • Havel at his cottage in Hradecek in the early 1970s
  • Havel (right) addresses a crowd of demonstrators celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declarations of Human Rights in Prague on December 10, 1988.
  • Pope John Paul II (right) holds a private audience with Havel at the Vatican in Rome in September 1990.
  • Havel (center) sits between his first wife, Olga, and the Prague Spring's Alexander Dubcek in Prague listening to Pope John Paul during his visit to Czechoslovakia.
  • Czech President Havel (left) and former Polish President Lech Walesa joke in a Warsaw pub in March 1998.
  • Former Czech President Havel, Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama (center), and Rebiya Kadeer, head of the World Uyghur Congress, at the Peace, Democracy, and Human Rights in Asia conference in Prague in September 2009.
  • Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (left) joins Havel at his Forum 2000 Conference in Prague in October 2007.
  • Havel (left) lights candles at the students' memorial on National Avenue in Prague on November 17, 2009.
  • Havel watches on set during the shooting of his film ''Leaving'' in the village of Ceska Skalice in July 2010.
  • Havel waves to the audience after a premiere of his new movie "Leaving" in Prague in March 2011.
  • Havel smiles next to his second wife, Dagmar, in March 2011.
  • Vaclav Havel looks on at the 15th Forum 2000 Conference in Prague in October 2011.

compiled by Kathleen Moore and former RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele
This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Pietro A. Shakarian from: USA
December 18, 2011 16:13
Havel was an extraordinarily brave individual who stood up for beliefs and ideas in a society where neither were tolerated outside the official state dogma. Like MLK, Gandhi, and others before him, he was a peaceful revolutionary who inspired people not by violence and guns, but by words and letters. May he rest in peace and continue to inspire future generations to come.

by: Kathleen Cole from: Denver, Colorado, U.S.A.
December 18, 2011 17:58
May we all be similarly confused. Some people can never die in the hearts and memories of a people. He was extraordinary.

by: andreas drexler from: mattoon, IL
December 18, 2011 17:58
such greatness from such a small country -- we need more havels everywhere. czechoslovakia was lucky to have him waiting to lead it to sanity in 1989, so many countries lack someone like that during their critical moment

by: Kimmo E Laine from: Joensuu, Finland
December 18, 2011 19:57
St. Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia "arose from the dead" for a while, according to an old legend during a difficult period of his nation. Václav Havel was a great European named after him: the last President of Czechoslovakia, 1st President of the Czech Republic, a writer who was ready to suffer for his convictions. He has left us. Anyway: "Pravda vítězí"! 'Truth prevails!'

by: Robert Gillette from: Cambridge, MA US
December 18, 2011 21:55
It is fitting that RFE/RL should publish this fine tribute to Vaclav Havel. Were it not for Havel’s personal intervention and sustained support, RFE/RL would have ceased to exist in the early 1990s.

Already in February, 1990, a movement was afoot in the first Bush Administration to terminate the radios, on the specious ground that if Europe were now free, there was no need for Radio Free Europe. Havel and other leaders of the emerging new democracies strongly disagreed.

On a visit to Prague that month, Pavel Pehacek, then director of RFE’s Czechoslovak service and a life-long friend of Havel’s, and a member of the Radios’ American management, visited the newly elected President Havel in his still-chaotic office in the Castle to seek his support.

“Would you like a petition with a million signatures?” Havel asked, with a dead-serious expression that left no doubt that would make it happen if the Radios wished.

No, his visitors replied. One signature would suffice – yours, on a letter to the U.S. President. It was promptly forthcoming.

Then in 1993, when advisors to the incoming Clinton Administration proposed terminating the Radios as a budget-saving measure – and Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) later pressed through Congress legislation slashing the Radios’ funding – Pavel Pechacek, Vaclav Havel and then prime minister Vaclav Klaus – spent a long weekend together outside Prague, from which emerged a formal invitation to the Radios to relocate from Munich to Prague, a move that enabled the Radios to maintain their full broadcast schedule while saving millions of dollars in operating costs.

The rest, as they say, is history.
In Response

by: William Courtney from: Wasington
December 19, 2011 13:56
Bob, Very helpful reminder of Havel's important role. Today, not having RFERL is almost unthinkable. Take good care, Bill
In Response

by: Robert Gillette from: Cambridge MA
December 19, 2011 16:20

Thank you, I agree. Good to hear from you. My best wishes,

In Response

by: Paul Currier from: San Francisco
December 20, 2011 07:59

by: Katka from: Czech republic
December 19, 2011 01:28
Thanks to him I live in a free country and I am very grateful. More grateful than I can describe.

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