Václav Havel, the last President of Czechoslovakia and the first President of the Czech Republic; a playwright whose belief that “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred" put him at odds with the iron-fisted Communist regime that ruled his country for most of his life; whose insistence on “living in truth,” or going about one’s daily life as if the regime did not exist, helped bring about the nonviolent "Velvet Revolution" that ended four decades of repression, died in his sleep on December 18th.
He was born in 1936 into a family of wealthy intellectuals. Unfortunately, his was just the sort of background most reviled by the Communist Party, which came into power in 1948. He was not permitted to study past the basic level, and instead enrolled in a drama course by correspondence.
In 1968, when the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia to quash the more liberal policies of the new government, Havel publicly objected. His plays were banned. Despite his distaste for politics, he became more active and wrote more critical plays that were published underground, earning him a reputation as a leading revolutionary. He was an original signatory of the human rights manifesto Charter 77, and co-founded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted. These activities earned him several prison sentences.
On the 29th of December 1989, following the “Velvet Revolution” this non-violent, apolitical man became president by a unanimous vote of the still-Communist Federal Assembly. He resigned in 1992 so as not to preside over the break-up of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but was elected again in 1993 as the first President of the Czech Republic. For his continuing work as defender of human rights, he received myriad awards and prizes, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian award.
“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 President Barack Obama. “He … embodied the aspirations of half a continent that had been cut off by the Iron Curtain, and helped unleash tides of history that led to a united and democratic Europe.”