Today Vaclav Havel passed away at the age of 75, after a long period of illness. This former dissident playwrite come political activist and the first president of a free Czechoslovakia has a special place in all Czech hearts, especially those old enough to remember the Velvet Revolution.
It is perhaps hard for a British audience to fully appreciate the emotion Czechs have for Havel. We Brits do not tend to grant our politicians hero status. We do not have a Vaclav Havel, a Nelson Mandela, a Aung San Suu Kyi, and are fortunate to not have needed one. The closest equivalent I can think of is the loss of a head of state. As as the first popular president of a former invaded, politically divided and oppressed nation however, Havel is clearly a very different animal to a member of a hereditary monarchy.
He was not without his critics, especially domestically, but in the comic-strip of modern history, Havel is generally remembered as One Of The Good Guys. Although the 1989 changes in then Czechoslovakia and the rest of Europe have their routes in a number of domestic and international factors, Havel’s name has long been synonymous with the Velvet Revolution and the move from communist rule to free-market capitalism and democratic politics. And he made that name by refusing to accept the political system of the day and by taking great risks and making huge sacrifices – including at times his personal freedom as he was incarcerated as a political prisoner – for a country and a people that he loved.
He was not alone in this. Let’s not forget the many others who dared to oppose the communist system, including all who signed Charter 77, and Jan Palach who set himself alight and burned to death in 1968, in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Today a black flag hangs over Prague castle and candles and flowers lie at the statue of St Wenceslas, where Havel addressed the crowds in November 1989. The crowds remember him today – thousands of people gathered there early this evening, with the biggest Czech flag I have ever seen draped over hundreds of them. Some people had left candles, others left cigarettes – he was a proliffic smoker. “Like Amy Winehouse” mused an English girl standing behind me. I suspect that is the only time Havel has been compared to Winehouse.
Much loved, and much missed, Havel not only worked to change the political system that oppressed so many, but for the first time in Czech twentieth century history, managed to do it without using violence. We could use more like him.