Former Czech president Vaclav Havel, the playwright and revolutionary activist who was the first democratically elected president in his country's history, died Sunday morning at his home in the northern Czech Republic. The leader of the revolution that helped topple his country's totalitarian regime had suffered from a chronic respiratory illness. He was 75 years old.
A playwright and revolutionary who cited both Czechoslovakian president Tomas Garrigue Masaryk and Frank Zappa as his heroes, Havel was detained by Czech authorities numerous times for dissident activities, and his plays were banned for nearly two decades. In 1977, he first gained international acclaim for co-authoring the human rights manifesto Charter 77, which drew worldwide attention to the oppression of those behind the Iron Curtain.
Years later, Havel played a pivotal role in the peaceful uprising that ended Communist rule in November 1989 (widely known as the "Velvet Revolution" for its relative bloodlessness), leading hundreds of thousands of Czechs with the rallying cry, "Truth and love will overcome lies and hatred." He was elected president of Czechoslovakia a little over a month later, addressing the nation in a televised New Year's address: "Out of gifted and sovereign people, the regime made us little screws in a monstrously big, rattling, and stinking machine."
Following the impending breakup of Czechoslovakia into Czech and Slovak states in 1992, a dismayed Havel resigned from the presidency, but was quickly elected leader of the newly-formed Czech Republic. Although intense media scrutiny of his personal life and disillusionment with his political ideals cast shadows over the later years of his presidency, he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize numerous times before leaving office in 2003, a year before the Czech Republic joined the European Union. At the time of his death, he was chairman of the Human Rights Foundation.
Of Havel's passing, President Obama said, "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 other parts of the world."