World pays tribute to Václav Havel as Czechs mourn

Havel honored for all his roles: as dissident, dramatist, president and plain-speaking citizen who couldn’t be deflected from the truth

Chris Johnstone | 19.12.2011
Ordinary Czech pay tribute to Václav Havel on Sunday evening

In the wake of the past and present world leaders and the Czech elite, it will be the turn of ordinary Czechs to formally pay tribute to Václav Havel from Monday. 

The coffin and remains of the dissident leader and man who piloted the non-violent collapse of Communism will be transported to Prague on Monday from his country home in the north of the country, where he died, aged 75, on Sunday morning.

The coffin of the first post-communist president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic will be displayed at Prague Crossroads, a converted church in the center of the capital, from noon Monday and through Tuesday, later being moved to Vladislav Hall at Prague Castle, the seat of the presidency, on Wednesday and Thursday. The funeral is expected to take place on Friday.

Candles placed on Wenceslas Square on Sunday

The reconstruction of the church and conversion into an international spiritual center was the most ambitious project undertaken by VIZE 97, the foundation created by Havel and his wife, Dagmar.

Czechs have not waited to follow the plot of the official formalities to pay their tribute to the respected worldwide figure. Young and old alike congregated to light candles under the statue of St Wenceslas in Prague’s symbolic Wenceslas Square after the news of Havel’s death filtered out on Sunday. As well as the candles, photographs of Havel and posters proclaiming his motto “truth and love will prevail over lies and hatred,” were displayed on the giant equestrian statue dominating the square.  

Candlelight commemorations

It was in that square that the series of massive demonstrations that sounded the death knell of the Communist regime took place in November 1989 with Havel eventually addressing the jubilant crowds from a balcony above the square.

Hundreds of candles have also been placed at the tradition memorial in the center of Prague to the student demonstration on November 17, 1989, whose brutal suppression sparked the wave of protests against the more that 40-year old regime known as the Velvet Revolution. Similar commemorations have taken place in regional towns and cities nationwide.

‘Like millions around the world, I was inspired by his words and leadership...’

Most Czech newspapers just bore photographs of Havel on their front pages on Monday and the dates of his birth and death, with some devoting their entire issues to him. The broadsheet Lidové noviny plans to print a 119-page special edition in Havel’s honor on Thursday.

The tributes from international leaders, past and present, were warm and fulsome. US President Barack Obama said he was deeply saddened to learn of Havel’s death. “Like millions around the world, I was inspired by his words and leadership,” he said, adding that Havel had been a friend to America and “all those who strive for freedom and dignity. ”

“Having encountered many setbacks, Havel lived with a spirit of hope, which he defined as ‘the ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.’ His peaceful resistance shook the foundations of an empire, exposed the emptiness of a repressive ideology, and proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon. He played a seminal role in the Velvet Revolution that won his people their freedom and inspired generations to reach for self-determination and dignity in all parts of the world,” Obama said.

Havel meeting the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, just over a week ago

The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader whom many consider to be closest world leader to Havel and who met him in Prague on Dec. 10 when the former Czech president’s frail condition was plain to see, said “the world has lost a great statesman whose steadfast and unflinching determination played a key role in bringing freedom and democracy to the then Czechoslovakia.”

The Dalai Lama also summed up Havel as an “an unassuming and a courageous leader,” adding that perhaps the best tribute to him would be to “work as best we can towards building a more peaceful, open and just world. ”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy described Havel as a a convinced European. “With the disappearance of Václav Havel, the Czech Republic has lost one of its great patriots, France loses a friend and Europe loses one of its wisest men. ”

‘With the disappearance of Václav Havel, the Czech Republic has lost one of its great patriots, France loses a friend and Europe loses one of its wisest men.’

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also emphasized Havel’s determination to put the Czech Republic and former Soviet-bloc countries back in the center of Europe, describing his as “a great European.”

As president, Havel in particular sought to mend problematic relations with Germany, scarred by Czech fears from the Nazi era and the Soviet era portrayal of a rearming West Germany as the main threat to European peace.

On the German side, relations were complicated by the expulsion of around three million German speakers from Czechoslovakia in the immediate aftermath of WWII.  One of Havel’s first major international acts was to apologize for the Germans’ expulsions and violence against them in a move that provoked some criticism at home.

Václav Havel (right) with Karel Schwarzenberg, US Amb. Norm Eisen and Madeleine Albright this autumn

British Prime Minister David Cameron said that Havel was a voice that the communist regime simply could not silence. “Europe owes Václav Havel a profound debt. Today his voice has fallen silent. But his example and the cause to which he devoted his life will live on.”

Czechoslovak-born  former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who admitted in a radio interview on Sunday that Havel had tried to persuade her to try and follow him in the Czech presidency when he stepped down in 2003, emphasized Havel’s crusade to find good in himself and others. “Amid the turbulence of modern Europe, his voice was the consistent and compelling, endlessly searching for the best in himself and in each of us.”

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A Great Moral Force Leaves a Vacuum

Havel was a great moral force who stood for principle, for ethics, for humanity. Who in Czech politics can even come close to replacing him? No one that I can see. No one. We now have a moral vaccum in the "political class" with no figure to oppose it. I hope someone will emerge and step forward.

Vaclav Havel restored the

Vaclav Havel restored the pride of Nebraska Czech culture.

I want to thank President Havel in the name of Nebraska community, for all the kind support he offered to us, as well as to the suppressed and distorted world of totalitarianism. He renewed our trust in intellectual leadership translated into political action.  For many dark years, whenever one of the idiotic propaganda laden speeches of Czechoslovak Communist representatives appeared in the world press, we, in the Czech community in Nebraska and in the Great Plains, felt uneasy about sharing their language and place of origin.  We felt strongly that the Czech culture we claimed was violated by the Communists.  Unfortunately we felt that the brutal regime would never end.  Then in the 70’s Vaclav Havel and his fellow dissidents appeared in the press. The brave writer articulated the functioning of the regime, the reasons why the crowds put up with the propaganda, and even collaborated seemingly with it.  “Power of the Powerless “and plays that we teach at the university in Lincoln tell us and our students how our people became victims, and, unfortunately, victim makers.  It freed us from our shame and gave us courage to live and construct our Czech cultural life as a part of the world-wide Czech community, with pride.  

We are sorry Vaclav Havel was too sick to come and accept the honorary doctoral degree the University of Nebraska offered to him. Nevertheless, we feel that he remains one of us.


Dr. Mila Saskova-Pierce, member of the Nebraska and Lincoln Czechs, The Czech Cultural Club in Omaha, and the Czech Language Foundation. Department of Modern Languages at the University of Nebraska

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