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Vaclav Havel, Czech playwright and president, dead at 75
Question of the Day
Mr. Havel first made a name for himself after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion that crushed the Prague Spring reforms of Alexander Dubcek and other liberally minded communists in what was then Czechoslovakia.
Mr. Havel’s plays were banned as hard-liners installed by Moscow snuffed out every whiff of rebellion. But he continued to write, producing a series of underground essays that stand with the work of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov as the most incisive and eloquent analyses of what communism did to society and the individual.
One of his best-known essays, “The Power and the Powerless,” written in 1978, 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.’”
In the essay, he dissected what he called the “dictatorship of ritual” — the ossified Soviet bloc system under Leonid Brezhnev — and imagined what happens when an ordinary greengrocer stops displaying communist slogans and begins “living in truth,” rediscovering “his suppressed identity and dignity.”
Mr. Havel knew that suppression firsthand.
Born on Oct. 5, 1936, in Prague, the child of a wealthy family that lost extensive property to communist nationalization in 1948, Mr. Havel was denied a formal education, eventually earning a degree at night school and starting out in theater as a stagehand.
His political activism began in earnest in January 1977, when he co-authored the human rights manifesto “Charter 77,” and the cause drew widening attention in the West.
Mr. Havel was detained countless times and spent four years in communist jails. His letters from prison to his wife became one of his best-known works. “Letters to Olga” blended deep philosophy with a stream of stern advice to the spouse he saw as his mentor and best friend, and who tolerated his reputed philandering and other foibles.
The events of August 1988 — the 20th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion — first suggested that Mr. Havel and his friends might one day replace the faceless apparatchiks who jailed them.
Thousands of mostly young people marched through central Prague, yelling Mr. Havel’s name and that of the playwright’s hero, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the philosopher who was Czechoslovakia’s first president after it was founded in 1918.
Mr. Havel’s arrest in January 1989 at another street protest and his subsequent trial generated anger at home and abroad. Pressure for change was so strong that the communists released him again in May.
That fall, communism began to collapse across Eastern Europe, and in November the Berlin Wall fell. Eight days later, communist police brutally broke up a demonstration by thousands of Prague students.
It was the signal that Mr. Havel and his country had awaited. Within 48 hours, a broad new opposition movement was founded, and a day later, hundreds of thousands of Czechs and Slovaks took to the streets.
In three heady weeks, communist rule was broken. Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones arrived just as the Soviet army was leaving. Posters in Prague proclaimed: “The tanks are rolling out — the Stones are rolling in.”
On Dec. 29, 1989, Mr. Havel was elected Czechoslovakia’s president by the country’s still-communist parliament. Three days later, he told the nation in a televised New Year’s address: “Out of gifted and sovereign people, the regime made us little screws in a monstrously big, rattling and stinking machine.”
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