Leading article: The velvet revolutionary

Monday 19 December 2011 01:00

Vaclav Havel was a man who transcended his nation and lived many lives. When his death was announced yesterday, his myriad achievements vied with each other for precedence in his legacy. He was a playwright, a cultural luminary, an anti-communist dissident, a human rights campaigner, a political prisoner. He was a peaceful revolutionary who became the first president – and the father – of the land he had inspired to its rebirth. Twice married, he was also reputed to be a great lover.

His improbable career, which saw him negotiate the end of communism with the very ideological enemies who had imprisoned him, was at every juncture a true mirror of the age. He had known wealth as a child, dispossession as a young man; exhilaration and hope – during the Prague Spring – and bitter disappointment, when the Soviet tanks enforced what became grimly known as the Brezhnev doctrine in 1968.

But the climax was surely his acclamation in Prague's Wenceslas Square, when he led the 1989 Velvet Revolution to its triumph, and accelerated the liberation of Central Europe. Three years later, he could do little more than watch as the country split in two – acrimoniously, but again without bloodshed. Havel's acceptance of difference, not a cast of mind ever nurtured by communism, made that "velvet" divorce possible. His last 10 years in public office were as President of the Czech Republic.

Havel never concealed his aversion to the trappings of high office or his preference for the theatrical world over that of politics, even as he appreciated the absurdity of what they shared.

That he felt called upon to engage with both, and was equal to the challenge, placed him in a class of his own, even in those years of extraordinary events and accidental leaders. It is not only nostalgia that makes him seem a model of the very qualities so grievously lacking in Europe's politicians today.

The temptation is always to say of remarkable individuals that they changed history and that the world will never again see their like. With Vaclav Havel, both the man and the turbulent times he lived in make those sentiments an understatement of the truth.

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