Vaclav Havel, playwright, dissident, former Czech President and the human rights conscience of the world died early on Sunday in his country home near Prague at the age of 75.
Mr. Havel became the icon of anti-communist dissidence and the symbol of the democratisation of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He spent over seven years in Communist prisons, which broke his health and left him with chronic bronchitis and intestinal and cardiac problems.
Mr. Havel, whose plays enjoyed huge popularity, became the first President of non-Communist Czechoslovakia in 1989. He steered his country through a heart wrenching partition — described by many as “a velvet divorce” — in 1992 when the Czech and Slovak republics were born. Mr. Havel remained the Czech President until 2003, steering his country into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in 1999 and the European Union. He left office in 2003, a year before the Czech Republic became a member of the EU.
Mr. Havel is most famous for his dry wit and savage humour which ridiculed the Soviet Bloc's Communist regimes, calling it “Absurdistan”. In one of his most performed plays, The Memorandum, the regime in power and the bureaucratic nomenklatura it spawns speaks a language common people cannot understand. “Out of gifted and sovereign people, the regime made us little screws in a monstrously big, rattling and stinking machine,” he said in one of his most famous televised speeches. “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred,” is another of his much quoted lines.
Mr. Havel was born into a wealthy bourgeois family and admitted he had had a “pampered childhood”. However, the family lost all its wealth following the advent of Communism. Deeply committed to human values and welfare, Mr. Havel was distinctly uncomfortable with the pomp and circumstance of office. He preferred to invite friends to his country home rather than to his presidential palace, cooking them gargantuan meals himself.
Since he was last hospitalised with pneumonia in March 2011, Mr. Havel, a chain smoker, rarely left his country home some 150 km from Prague. He suffered several medical complications which led to “a loss of physical balance, weight and memory loss”, he said in a recent interview.
Born on October 5, 1936 in Prague, Mr Havel was refused a formal education by the country's Communist rulers as part of their anti-bourgeois policies. He put himself through night school, earning a high school diploma. In 1968, following the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, he refused the offer of exile and spent four years in prison. That is when he wrote one of his most famous books, Letters to Olga, dedicated to his first wife.