Václav Havel (1936–2011)

Tomki Němec
Václav Havel visiting Ruzyně Prison, where he had once been incarcerated, Prague, March 1990


The five days following Václav Havel’s death on Sunday, December 18, at his country house, Hrádeček (“the little castle”), were unique in modern Czech history. Almost as soon as the news broke, people began gathering spontaneously in public places, not just to pay their respects, but to talk about what it was they had just lost in the passing of this modest, complex, and courageous man who had been their first post-Communist president.

In villages and small towns, the local church was often the gathering place of choice; in larger towns, it was the public squares; in Prague, locales associated with Havel—the plaque on Národní Třída honoring the demonstrators of November 17, 1989, who had set off the Velvet Revolution; Havel’s post-presidential office two blocks away; his villa on Dělostřelecká Street not far from the Prague Castle; the castle itself—became candle-lit shrines. But it was in Wenceslas Square—the locus of so many joyful and tragic events that shook this country over the past centuries—that the largest crowds gathered to lay a sea of flowers and flags and handwritten thank-you notes and votive candles at the foot of the equestrian statue of Saint Wenceslas (Svatý Václav in Czech, the “good king” of the Christmas carol who is also Havel’s namesake).

The mourners—if that’s the proper word to describe them, for there were few displays of outright grief—were of all ages and backgrounds and everyone brought memories of their own. The elderly could look around them and perhaps recall the grim prelude to World War II as, in March 1939, columns of Nazi troops and motorized brigades occupied this very same square, and then the country, when Havel was the two-and-a-half-year-old son of a wealthy Czech property developer. The middle-aged could recall August 1968, when Soviet tanks rumbled through the square, crushing the Prague Spring in which Havel, now a prominent young writer, had been a gadfly to the reformers.

And almost everyone over thirty could remember Wenceslas Square during the events of 1989, which began in January with clashes between protesters and police (when Havel, the dissident, and others had been arrested and imprisoned) and ended in the jubilant November demonstrations that toppled the Communist regime, and thrust this same man into the forefront and, ultimately, into the post of president where he remained, first as head of Czechoslovakia, and then of the Czech Republic, for almost thirteen years.

Since then, on the rocky road to democracy and a working market economy, Havel had been with the Czechs, sometimes an inspiring figure, sometimes an annoying scold, articulating his vision for the country, for Europe, and for the world. It was a vision based on a democratic politics underpinned by a strong civil society and rooted in common decency, morality, and…

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