Former Czech president Vaclav Havel never stopped fighting for what he thought was right, an approach that helped topple communism and made him an international symbol of freedom even as it later led to clashes with the democratic forces that followed his lead.
The son of a wealthy developer who toiled as a lab assistant and lowly brewery worker after being denied a higher education, Havel’s works earned him five years in jails, where the chain-smoking writer fell ill with chronic lung problems that eventually contributed to his death on Sunday at 75.
A playwright whose work was banned following the 1968 Soviet invasion of then-Czechoslovakia, he rose from political prisoner to become a president-philosopher who continued to fight for human rights until the end of his life.
Friends say he was an unfailingly polite, humble man who was not cowed by the threat of imprisonment.
“Even a purely moral act that has no hope of any immediate and visible political effect can gradually and indirectly, over time, gain in political significance,” he wrote in a letter to then-Czechoslovakian president Alexander Dubcek in 1968.
Jailed in the 1970s for criticizing the government’s human rights record and twice later, he eventually led about 300,000 protesters to topple it in the Velvet Revolution.
Denied the further education he wanted by the communists because of his bourgeois origin, he completed his studies in night classes after leaving school at 15.
He began writing literary criticism in 1955. His first play debuted in 1963 and he married his first wife Olga a year later.
Known as a freedom supporter, he was fired from a theater where he worked following the Soviet invasion and became a dissident, organizing people who did not support the regime.
In perhaps his most famous work, the essay Power of the Powerless, Havel explained why.
“You do not become a ‘dissident’ just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances,” he wrote in 1978. “You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society.”
Havel’s contemporaries said he played a big role in underground newspaper tvar, which set off the dissident movement in the 1960s, but not only because of his literary prowess.
“He was the only one among us who owned a car, which obviously helped a lot,” fellow dissident Bohumil Dolezal said.
In 1976, there was a crackdown on the rock group The Plastic People of the Universe. That triggered the Charter 77 movement, which criticized the government for failing to uphold human rights.
Havel’s wife, Olga, began organizing gatherings at their weekend house north of Prague, where bands played in the barn and police erected an observation point in a neighboring plot.
Friend and fellow Charter 77 member Petruska Sustrova recalled how Havel usually had the last word on what they published, but refused to acknowledge his influence. That unassuming nature came to the fore when it became clear he would be president.
“He did not want to be a president,” she said. “Ideally, he wanted to sit in a pub and reconcile quarrels. He was not very keen to enter politics, he thought it would cut him off from the normal world.”