Former Czech president Václav Havel died Sunday morning in his home in the northern part of the Czech Republic. Havel was the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, serving in the latter office from 1993 to 2003. But Havel will be best remembered as the leader and soul of Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution in 1989.
A playwright and a poet, Havel was instrumental in drafting Charter 77, a 1977 manifesto by Czech and Slovak dissidents condemning human rights abuses of Czechoslovakia's authoritarian Communist regime. His activism gained him international fame, but Havel and his associates were frequently targeted and imprisoned by the government.
In 1989, as revolutions swept across Eastern Europe, Havel met in theaters and the basements of beer halls in Prague to gather and organize the group of dissidents, artists, liberal economists, and church leaders that would lead the so-called Velvet Revolution in November of that year. Havel's soft-spoken manner and wry sense of humor contrasted with the Communist government's harsh reaction to the massive protests across the country, and he was soon hailed as the revolution's hero. In late December 1989, just over a month after the Czechs and Slovaks took to the streets, Havel was elected as the first non-Communist president of Czechoslovakia in 41 years.
After the country peacefully divided in 1993, Havel became the Czech Republic's first president, helping rebuild the country in the post-Cold War era while advocating for human rights around the world. He retired from national politics in 2003 but continued his activism. In 2007, Havel published his first play in nearly 20 years, and it was staged in Prague the next year.
A quiet man who liked rock 'n' roll music and preferred his artistic work to politics, Havel was nonetheless a giant in the cause of freedom during the second half of the 20th century. His autobiography, published in 2007, is titled To the Castle and Back and is a must-read. For the best first-hand account of the Velvet Revolution, which includes an up-close look at Havel in those historic days, pick up British historian and journalist Timothy Garton Ash's The Magic Lantern.