Czechs and world leaders bid farewell to Václav Havel

Czechs bid farewell to Velvet Revolution leader, president Václav Havel at state funeral held on third day of official mourning

Chris Johnstone | 23.12.2011
Václav Havel: dissident, playwright, statesman and global human rights campaigner (October 5, 1936 – December 18, 2011)

World statesmen and leaders paid their last respects to former Czech president Václav Havel on Friday during a more than two-hour state funeral on the grounds of Prague Castle. He died at his country home on Sunday at the age of 75, following a long illness and ill health, partly caused by his incarceration under the former regime.

The ceremony in Prague’s imposing St.Vitus’ Cathedral began with a minute’s silence for the playwright and dissident leader who led his country back to democracy in the Velvet Revolution of 1989 which overthrew the communist regime. Public transport came to a halt in the capital during the silent tribute, and Czechs stopped work and last-minute Christmas preparations in his honor.

The official presidential photo of the late Václav Havel displayed by his casket

Bells rang across the country in tribute to the last president of Czechoslovakia (1989–92) and the first head of state of the indepedent Czech Republic (1993–2003) after its split with Slovakia (which he opposed).  A day of mourning in neighboring Slovakia had been declared for Friday, the last of three days of official remembrance in the Czech Republic.

During his time at Prague Castle, the country joined NATO and began negotiations for membership in the European Union, which was attained in May 2004. Havel said he felt his most important accomplishment as president was the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. After leaving office, he remained an outspoken advocate for human rights and democracy in places like Cuba, Belarus and Russia.

Havel’s successor and rival, President Václav Klaus

In the cathedral, Havel’s coffin was covered in the Czech national flag, a symbol which Havel had fought to safeguard for his homeland when the former Czechoslovakia split in 1993, with an official presidential photograph of him displayed nearby.

His widow, the actress Dagmar Havlová, was flanked in the front row of mourners by Czech head of state Václav Klaus. Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg (TOP 09), who helped Czechoslovak dissidents from exile in Austria and was later a member of Havel’s presidential office, and former Czechoslovak prime minister and imprisoned dissident under communism, Pavel Pithart, were also in the front row.

The service at St. Vitus Cathedral was attended by scores of world leaders

A short message was read out at the start of the funeral from Pope Benedikt XVI  in which he said how he had admired Havel and shared the deep grief of the Czech Republic at his parting. Prague Archbishop Dominik Duka, who led the service, recalled how Havel came to the same cathedral after being elected 22 years earlier after first being elected president and thanked god for the return to freedom. “All his life was a miracle” Duka said, recalling that Havel witnessed the country’s return to freedom following the depths of repression following the Soviet-led invasion of the country in 1968 which extinguished hopes of a more open communist regime. ‘We are not a big nation and therefore we do not have great figures in abundance, in spite of that it sometimes happens that their works are debased and devalued. I do not expect that to happen with Václav Havel, but it is up to us.’

Duka said that Havel’s lifetime motto that “Truth and love prevails over lies and hatred,” eventually came true. Havel’s wish in the last months of his life was that those principles “and his respect above all for other individuals” were maintained after his death, he added.

Czech President Václav Klaus described Havel as “a major figure in our modern history.” He said that many of the values that Havel held dear would not be lost with him, such as the belief that freedom is a value worth fighting for whatever the personal risks, that it was a universal principle whose limitation elsewhere limits it everywhere and that it had to fought for all the time.

“We are not a big nation and therefore we do not have great figures in abundance, in spite of that it sometimes happens that their works are debased and devalued. I do not expect that to happen with Václav Havel, but it is up to us,” Klaus added.

Msgr Václav Malý, a friend of Havel and fellow Charter 77 signatory

Foreign Minister Schwarzenberg said he wanted to thank  the small people who did not know anything about state protocol but had backed Havel and his attempts to return the country to democracy and rebuild the country after communism. That included Slovaks as well as Czechs, he said. “This fight for truth and love cannot be given up,” he concluded.

Czech born Madeleine Albright followed, saying that she had had the fortune of being one of Havel’s friends. “Over the last 20 years, he was one of the most respected men on this planet.” She added that some of Havel’s detractors had described him as naïve, but he was aware of human weaknesses. “Freedom was not an individual goal for himself, but as a principle that would allow truth to prevail,” she added.  

Czech-born former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright

Monsignor Václav Malý, a former dissident and friend of Havel, recalled that the former president fought for those without human rights under regimes likes of Cuba and Belarus “to the last breath in his body.”

A large part of the service was made up of orchestral music, including a rendition of Handel’s hallelujah chorus from Messiah, Czech composer Antonin Dvořák’s requiem played by the Czech Philharmonia as well as choral works.

A military honor guard prepares to move Havel’s coffin

A lesson from the book of Job was read out by Czech actor Josef Abrhám, a close friend of Havel who appeared in many of his works, including his last main project, the film version of his play “Leaving” which was released earlier this year and which was directed by Havel himself . Many figures from the Czech cultural world, in which Havel often felt more comfortable, were among the invitees to the state funeral.

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