|Czech former president and freedom icon Vaclav Havel died on December 18, 2011, aged 75|
World leaders have paid tribute to late former Czech president Vaclav Havel as a “great European” whose resistance to communism helped bring about a united, free and democratic Europe.
The leader of the “Velvet Revolution” that toppled communist rule of Czechoslovakia, a former chain smoker who survived several operations for lung cancer, died on Sunday after a long illness at 75 in his country home north of Prague.
The leaders of Germany, Britain, Poland, Austria and Sweden were among figures who paid tribute to the playwright and long-time dissident. Tributes also poured in from intellectuals and cultural figures for the bookish and shy former playwright, who loved jazz and theatre.
“We will remember his commitment to freedom and democracy just as much as his great humanity. We Germans especially have much to thank him for,” Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, wrote to Havel’s successor as Czech president, Vaclav Klaus.
“Together with you, we mourn the loss of a great European.”
Guido Westerwelle, Merkel’s foreign minister, said Havel was “the soul of the Czech revolution” who helped surmount Europe’s Cold War division.
“Havel was a trailblazer for European reunification,” he said of the man who served as president of Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992 and of the successor Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003. The Czech Republic joined the European Union in 2004.
“Without him and his courageous words, the democratic awakening in Central and Eastern Europe would have been unthinkable,” Westerwelle said.
David Cameron, British prime minister, said Europe owed Havel a “profound debt” for bringing freedom and democracy to the continent.
“For years, Communism tried to crush him, and to extinguish his voice,” Cameron said in a statement. “But Havel, the playwright and the dissident, could not be silenced.”
Austrian President Heinz Fischer said: “With the death of Vaclav Havel, the impressive life of a great European, writer and humanist has come to an end.”
Jose Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, called Havel “a source of great inspiration to all those who fight for freedom and democracy around the world.”
“The man has died but the legacy of his poems, plays and above all his ideas and personal example will remain alive for many generations to come,” Barroso said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was greatly saddened by the death of a man who, as the Czech Republic’s first democratically elected president, “played a pivotal role in the development of freedom in Europe.”
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted that “Vaclav Havel was one of the greatest Europeans of our age”.
“His voice for freedom paved the way for a Europe whole and free,” Bildt wrote on Twitter. “One of modern Europe’s most important, strongest and bravest voices has passed away.”
Havel was only a reluctant politician, driven to his political role by his moral resistance to communism, said his friend Michael Zantovsky, Czech Ambassador to London.
“He was very much a politician against his own will,” he told BBC television. “He was completely unlike most statesmen or politicians that you meet. He was rather diffident, shy even. He had none of the mannerisms that you usually associate with public personalities or celebrities.”
Havel’s role in Czech and European history should not completely overshadow his literary legacy, said cultural figures.
“In his political life, one forgets what a wonderful playwright he was,” Sam Walters, director of the Orange Tree Theatre in west London, who knew and worked with Havel, told BBC TV. “He was someone who obviously fought and suffered for what he believed was right and in the end won.”
Lech Walesa, the former Polish president whose Solidarity union also battled communism in Eastern Europe, said Havel probably deserved the Nobel Peace Prize, which eluded him.
“But in the world, not everything is just.”
Walesa, who like Havel went from anti-communist dissident to become head of state after the 1989 peaceful collapse of communism, called Havel “a great campaigner in the struggle for freedom, for democracy and liberation from the yoke of communism”.
“His voice will be greatly missed in Europe, above all now when it is experiencing a great crisis,” he said.