Dissident playwright who became the first president of the new Czech Republic
The Czech president and playwright Vaclav Havel was the most unexpected, and most brilliant, of the new leaders who emerged from east Europe's peaceful revolutions against Communism. Poland's Lech Walesa matched Havel as a canny guide of anti-Communist opposition, but tarnished his reputation when he became his country's first post- Communist president. By contrast Havel's stature continued to grow after he was chosen head of state in December 1989.
The key to his achievement was an unusual combination of intellect, moral firmness tested by prison and persecution, and natural political savvy. The final ingredient was modesty, essential in a country whose people are famously undeferential. Havel had never aspired to lead the anti-Communist opposition or to become its presidential candidate. He simply emerged, uncontested, from among friends and colleagues whom he considered his equals.
For all his brilliance and seriousness he remained endearingly human. By his own account he was a "cheerful fellow", and certainly no angel. He smoked, drank and was naturally convivial: the attic of his country house was turned into a dormitory for guests to spend the night in after parties. He was also, like many Czech intellectuals, given to affairs of the heart, in spite of a remarkable marriage. Rumpled and shaggy in opposition, he cut his hair and put on a suit and tie when he moved into the presidential palace, but the effect was never quite convincing, like a small boy forced into his Sunday best.
He was driven into politics by a sense of duty. "I shall give all this up," he told a friend, "when we have decent politicians." Perhaps his greatest gift to his country was to restore the tradition of decent politics laid down by Tomas Masaryk, the philosopher-president of Czechoslovakia between the First and Second World Wars.
Vaclav Havel was born in 1936. His father was a successful civil engineer and architect, responsible for the splendid art nouveau Lucarna building in Wenceslas Square, Prague. Havel and his brother Ivan entertained friends in the restaurants of the Lucarna even after it had been nationalised by the Communist government that took power in 1948.
What he called his "pampered childhood" left him with a sense of isolation and inferiority. He was a fat boy - in his own words "a well-fed piglet" - and classmates tormented him by slapping his chubby thighs. The sense of being an interloper and in permanent danger of ridicule lasted many years. At moments of triumph, even when he was world famous, he would imagine his army sergeant raucously putting him back in his proper humble place. But this unease also drove him "to prove myself over and over again".
Abandoned by the West and terrorised by Hitler, post-war Czechoslovakia was readier than Poland or Hungary to accept Soviet tutelage. Many Czech intellectuals turned Communist; Havel was never tempted. Barred from higher education because of his "bourgeois" origins he went to night school, did his two years' military service and ended up, aged 24, a stage hand at Na zabradli ("Theatre on the Balustrade"), the most adventurous theatre in Prague.
Havel had been writing for several years and in 1963 the theatre staged his first play Nahradni Slavost (translated into English as The Garden Party, 1969). Over the next five years he wrote two more, Vyrozumeni (1965, translated as The Memorandum, 1980) and Ztizena Moznost Soustredeni (1968, translated as The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, 1972), establishing his reputation as the leading Czech playwright.
Havel lived and worked outside the Communist cultural system and wrote as though there were no censorship. All his plays, he said, dealt with the theme of human identity in crisis, a crisis particularly evident in a …