Mr. Havel was a playwright by profession and a political activist by avocation. The two activities were complementary, and each served to gain him a leading place among the dissidents of Eastern Europe who helped bring down the communist empire. His words and deeds resonated far beyond the borders of the former Czechoslovakia, and he was widely recognized for his struggles in behalf of democracy and human dignity.
After being unanimously elected president of Czechoslovakia by the newly free country’s Parliament in December 1989, Mr. Havel set the tone of the new era in a speech Jan. 1, 1990, his first day in office. Communism, he said, was “a monstrous, ramshackle, stinking machine” whose worst legacy was not economic failure but a “spoiled moral environment.”
“We have become morally ill because we are used to saying one thing and thinking another,” he said. “We have learned not to believe in anything, not to care about each other. . . . Love, friendship, mercy, humility, or forgiveness have lost their depths and dimension. . . . They represent some sort of psychological curiosity, or they appear as long-lost wanderers from faraway times.”
In July 1992, he resigned the presidency when it became clear that the country would be dismembered, with the Czech Republic and Slovakia, its eastern neighbor, going their separate ways. The split became formal on Jan. 1, 1993. About three weeks later, the new Czech Parliament called on the country’s most famous citizen to return to the presidency. He remained in office for 10 more years.
Although his office was largely ceremonial, Mr. Havel had wide-ranging influence. He was credited with a major role in providing political stability as the country’s economy made a relatively trouble-free transition from communist central planning to a free market. In foreign affairs, he was influential in gaining his country’s admission to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
But it was as a dissident that Mr. Havel first gained the world’s attention. For more than two decades, beginning in the 1950s, his books and plays were banned in Czechoslovakia. They nonetheless reached a large audience through the underground publishing network and broadcasts by the BBC and Voice of America.
The regime’s repeated denunciations also spread Mr. Havel’s fame and contributed to his influence. In 1977, he became the most visible member of Charter 77, a Czech human rights movement that protested the communist regime’s violations of human rights.
The price he paid was repeated incarceration. He was imprisoned from 1979 until February 1983, when he was released for health reasons. Just before assuming the presidency, he was held again for four months, for taking part in a prohibited demonstration marking the anniversary of the death of Jan Palach, the youth who set himself on fire to protest the Soviet invasion of 1968.