Vaclav Havel, Czech leader and playwright, dies at 75


The BBC's John Simpson looks at some of the key moments in Vaclav Havel's life

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Vaclav Havel, the Czech Republic's first president after the Velvet Revolution against communist rule, has died at the age of 75.

The former dissident playwright, who suffered from prolonged ill-health, died on Sunday morning, his secretary Sabina Tancecova said.

As president, he presided over Czechoslovakia's transition to democracy and a free-market economy.

He oversaw its peaceful 1993 split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Havel first came to international fame as a dissident playwright in the 1970s through his involvement with the human rights manifesto Charter 77.

'Great European'

A black flag has been flying over Prague Castle, the presidential seat, and people have been gathering in Wenceslas Square, scene of anti-communist protests in 1989, to light candles in honour of Havel.

The Czech cabinet is to meet for a special session on Monday to consider arrangements for national mourning.

Tributes have been pouring in for the man many consider a driving force in the overthrow of communist rule in eastern Europe.

"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," said US President Barack Obama.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed Havel as a "great European" in a letter of condolence to Czech President Vaclav Klaus.


It was clear to all who saw him in recent months that Vaclav Havel was not in the best of health.

He cut a gaunt, shrunken figure at the handful of public appearances he attended in Prague, most recently a meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

Nonetheless his death has come as a shock, and politicians and many others have been paying their respects to the man who, in the words of his successor, Vaclav Klaus, "was a symbol of the Czech state".

Miroslava Nemcova, speaker of the lower house, said her country had "lost its moral authority." Similar tributes have been pouring in from all over the world. For once, those words do not sound like cliches.

Within hours of the announcement of his death people began lighting candles and laying flowers at the statue of St Wenceslas on Wenceslas Square, where Havel addressed huge crowds of demonstrators in November 1989.

A black flag has been raised in mourning above Prague Castle. Church bells across the country will ring out to mark the death of a man who lived by a naive, but simple motto - "truth and love will prevail over lies and hatred".

"His fight for freedom and democracy was as unforgettable as his great humanity," wrote Mrs Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany.

"We Germans in particular have much for which we are grateful to him. We mourn this loss of a great European with you," she wrote.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was "deeply saddened" and that Europe owed Havel a "profound debt".

"Havel devoted his life to the cause of human freedom. For years, Communism tried to crush him, and to extinguish his voice. But Havel could not be silenced.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt wrote on Twitter: "Vaclav Havel was one of the greatest Europeans of our age. His voice for freedom paved way for a Europe whole and free."

Chronic ill-health

Havel died at his country home north-east of Prague.

In his final moments, he was comforted by his wife Dagmar and several nuns, his secretary was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency.

Havel had looked thin and drawn during recent public appearances.

A former heavy smoker, Havel had a history of chronic respiratory problems dating back to his years in communist prisons.

He had part of a lung removed during surgery for cancer in the 1990s.

He was taken to hospital in Prague on 12 January 2009, with an unspecified inflammation, and developed breathing difficulties after undergoing minor throat surgery.


Havel began co-writing plays during his military service in the 1950s and his first solo play, The Garden Party, was staged in 1963.

Vaclav Havel

  • Born in 1936 to a wealthy family in Czechoslovakia
  • Considered "too bourgeois" by communist government, studied at night school
  • Writing banned and plays forced underground after the 1968 Prague Spring
  • In 1977, co-authored the Charter 77 movement for democratic change
  • Faced constant harassment and imprisonment as Czechoslovakia's most famous dissident
  • Czechoslovakia's first post-communist president in December 1989
  • Oversaw transition to democracy, and 1993 division into the Czech Republic and Slovakia
  • Left office in 2003 and continued writing, publishing a new play in 2008 and directing first film in 2011

His plays satirised the absurdities of life under communist rule, but his work was banned after the reformist Prague Spring of 1968 was crushed by a Soviet-led invasion.

After that his plays were banned and he was imprisoned several times.

By the late 1970s he had become Czechoslovakia's best-known dissident. He helped found the Charter 77 movement for democratic change.

When communist rule unravelled in late 1989, he was elected president by the interim coalition cabinet. He resigned in 1992 after Slovak nationalists successfully campaigned for the break-up of Czechoslovakia.

He was elected first president of the Czech Republic in January 1993, serving until 2003 when he resigned as his health deteriorated.

Havel returned to literature and to supporting human rights activists around the world.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    The BBC reported that President Obama led the tributes. No, he didn't. The tributes were led by the Presidents of the Czech Republic and Slovakia followed by the President of the EU. Even in saluting a great man the BBC toadies to the USA. Revolting. The USA has nothing to do with freedom. Havel fought for freedom. Requiescat in pace+

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    A wonderfully modest man imbued with a stalwart spirit and the determination to win out for his people, no matter what it took, against oppression.

    A great spirit has left us. We can only hope we will see his like again. I fear we may not...

    R.I.P. Václav

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    Today's day is one of the saddest days of our country in Czech! I wish all my condolences to our first Lady and to all family. " The Truth and Love will Prevail over Lies and Hatred " Words of Mr. President- Unite us once again! May we always remember these words and work harder everyday to fullfil this message! May God be with you!

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    What a tragedy that his efforts to break free of an oppressive Soviet empire have been wasted by his nation falling into the clutches of an oppressive EU empire. The EU may not be able (yet) to send in tanks, but its bureaucratic drive to make all members 'equal' will still threaten Czech national culture and pride.

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    It's hard to believe there are people in Czech republic who are posting messages on their Facebook profiles such as Rest in Hell or Good riddance of him. They must be either teenagers who were born after 1989 or sad pathetic loners who hate everything and everyone in the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    Greatest Czech since Good King Wenceslas. R.I.P.

  • rate this

    Comment number 181.

    I come from Poland and Vaclav Havel has been a great Hero to us as well. Very much loved by the Poles.We knew he was doing time in jail, we kept our fingers crossed, and we printed illegally his "Power of the Powerless" a kind of moral handbook to resistance against the Communist Absurdistan. He was a very brave man. The Communists in Czechoslovakia were more brutal than those in Poland.

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    Salut to a brave person, enlightened visionary leader, humanistic mind, hero of freedom and a sympathetic man.

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    I admit I didn't know much about Vaclav Havel before reading this. Seems to me he was a very genuine man. No pretense. I have always liked people who seem uncomfortable with adulation. It shows humility and a mature perspective.

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    I was born in Poland in 1977 and I remember that horrible dark times of communism in our countries, which in fact was form of Soviet occupation. But I also remember that brave people who fought for our freedom. Vaclav Havel was one of those heroes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    As a proud czech citizen I am saddened by Mr. Havel's death. I respect him as a humanist and a playwriter however his weak political skills and lack of foresight contributed to the misery the Czech republic is in at the moment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    such simplicity such courage the world will remember and will be gratefull. perhaps our children should be reminded the debt they owe

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    Vaclav Havel, a great man who had principles. My sympathy goes to his wife & the people of The Czech Republic. R.I.P.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    @ Francis Wilson
    Vaclav Havel was the only president of Czechoslovakia after the fall of the Communist government in 1989. In 1993 after the breakup of Czechoslovakia he became the first president of the Czech Republic and was re-elected president in 1998.

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    'Considered "too bourgeois" by communist government, studied at night school'

    And in my country we have a president who went to the best university and considers the rest of us too bourgeois. The contrast between Havel and Obama could not be greater.

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    Vaclav Havel, I salute you, a man of integrity and a true statesman, not corrupted by party politics as we see so often in our leaders today.

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    It's a very sad day indeed when the world looses a great man such as this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    Very sad to hear the news. A great democrat and humanist.

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    The blissful ignorance of Communism continues. Stalin was a fascist using 'Communism' as a political shield. He certainly succeeded, as the word Communism is banded about with gay abandon as a precursor to genocide and totalitarianism. This isn't what Communism stands for. Educate yourselves, for crying out loud.

    RIP Vaclav - crusader against fascist dictators.

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    #161: Francis, he was the last President of Czechoslovakia and the first of the Czech Republic.

    If more people like him were in government and less career politicians, the world would be a better place!


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