A cynic might suggest that my only real knowledge of the Czech Republic comes from interacting with and watching so many of their hockey players over the years. And while it's true that I have much admiration for those in a long line that includes Hasek, Sykora, Hlinka, Jagr and so many others, there was one Czech in particular whom I admired, and I don't think he ever wore skates.
Vaclav Havel died yesterday at the age of 75, and if Lech Walesa was the man who led the downfall of Communism in Poland, Havel was the man who did the same for Czechoslovakia.
Havel never set out to be a political figure. He was a writer who used his work to try, at first, to "soften" the Communist system that enslaved his country. But when the Soviets rolled their tanks into his country in the 1968 "Prague Spring," effectively ending any attempts at liberalization, Havel realized that Communism could not be appeased, and must be stopped.
His writings reflected that belief, and the government took notice. First, they sentenced him to three months in prison for "subversion." When that didn't stop his writing, they charged him again, and sentenced him to 4-1/2 years, prohibiting him from writing anything but letters to his family.
Finally, the government put pressure on him to emigrate, figuring he would be less of a bother outside of the country. He refused to leave, instead working a menial job at a brewery and chipping away at the Communist regime. Finally, in 1989, after the Berlin Wall fell and Communism went on the run, a group of Czechoslovakian patriots gathered to form a new government, and made Havel their new president.
In 1992, as the Czech Republic and Slovakia began to go their separate ways, he resigned rather than preside over the breakup of the country. But when the separation was complete, he was elected President of the Czech Republic.
As President, he was very pro-American, having fallen in love with New York City in a 1968 visit, and he even continue to write essays and plays later in life reflecting his belief in individual freedom and liberty. Czech writer Erik Tabery summed it up this way: “While the Communists ruled for 40 years, most Czechs stayed at home and did nothing. Havel did something.”
One of my favorite old sayings is that "The pen is mightier than the sword," and Havel's life proved it.