Accessibility links

Breaking News

Vaclav Havel Dead At 75

Czechs Pay Respects To Vaclav Havel
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:02:30 0:00

Watch: Czechs pay tribute to Vaclav Havel at impromptu memorials in Prague.

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 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 Died
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:01:04 0:00

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:

compiled by Kathleen Moore and former RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele
  • 16x9 Image


    RFE/RL journalists report the news in 27 languages in 23 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established. We provide what many people cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate.

See comments (9)

This forum has been closed.