Vaclav Havel is Dead

The playwright who became a leader of the Velvet Revolution, which brought down Czechoslovakia's Communist rule and signaled the end of the Cold War, died at 75.

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Vaclav Havel, the former president of Czechoslovakia and leader of its peaceful anti-Communist revolution, died this weekend at 75, according to an official statement.

Havel, a playwright and essayist by trade, rose to prominence with a band of liberal reformers who challenged the authority of Czechoslovakia's hard-line Communist government in the late 1970s and 1980s, at the height of the Cold War. The government's decision to arrest Havel over his dissident activities in 1988 fueled opposition within the country and drew international criticism, forcing authorities to reverse course and release him, an Associated Press obituary noted. It was only eight days after the Berlin Wall was torn down, after Czechoslovakian authorities cracked down on a student protest, that Havel's movement coalesced and took to the streets.

On Dec. 29, 1989, Havel was elected president.

More from the AP:

Mr. Havel was his country’s first democratically elected president after the nonviolent “Velvet Revolution” that ended four decades of repression by a regime he ridiculed as “Absurdistan.”

As president, he oversaw the country’s bumpy transition to democracy and a free-market economy, as well its peaceful 1993 breakup into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Even out of office, he remained a world figure. He was part of the “new Europe” — in the coinage of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld — of ex-communist countries that stood up for the United States when the democracies of “old Europe” opposed the 2003 Iraq invasion.

Havel's love of rock and roll and bookish images were key to his celebrity and charm, CNN's Richard Allen Greene writes. He was, most likely, the first Frank Zappa fan to lead a republic.

A deeply serious thinker given to long, rambling statements in presidential speeches and conversation, Havel also had an impish sense of humor, reportedly whizzing through the long corridors of Prague Castle on a scooter after becoming president.

It was his love of rock and roll as much as his moral outrage at the Communist system that brought him to prominence.

He co-wrote the influential Charter 77 anti-Communist declaration in protest at the arrest of a Czechoslovak rock band, the Plastic People of the Universe.

Havel's 1978 essay "The Power of the Powerless," "borrowed slyly from the immortal opening line of the mid-19th century Communist Manifesto, writing: "A specter is haunting eastern Europe: the specter of what in the West is called 'dissent,'" the AP noted.

Here, from a collection of highlights from that essay, is its central image: the grocer putting out a placard proclaiming unity with the world's workers, but in a manner that has become rote, and meaningful only to demonstrate how a faceless bureaucracy has put him under control, and in fear of repression.

{7}Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan "I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient;' he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, "What's wrong with the workers of the world uniting?" Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.

Full text of that essay is here.

It was his writing that made Havel most proud. Asked in 2008 if he would like to be remembered as playwright or a political leader, Reuters reports, he answered this way: "I would like it to say that I was a playwright who acted as a citizen, and thanks to that he later spent a part of his life in a political position."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.