Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Vaclav Havel, Hero Of The 'Velvet Revolution,' Laid To Rest

A picture of former Czech President Vaclav Havel lay among candles and floral tributes as people gathered in Prague on Thursday to honor him.
Odd Andersen
AFP/Getty Images
A picture of former Czech President Vaclav Havel lay among candles and floral tributes as people gathered in Prague on Thursday to honor him.

World leaders past and present are in Prague for the funeral of Vaclav Havel, the playwright who led the "Velvet Revolution" in the former Czechoslovakia and then went on to lead the new Czech Republican after its peaceful split with Slovakia following the 1989 fall of the Iron Curtain.

Havel, who was 75, died Sunday.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who with her husband former President Bill Clinton is among the U.S. delegation, said of Havel after learning of his death that he:

"Spent his life removing chains of oppression, standing up for the downtrodden, and advancing the tenets of democracy and freedom. When communism threatened the peace and prosperity of our world and covered Eastern Europe in a cloud of hopelessness, he wrote plays so powerful they changed the course of history and created new democratic opportunities for millions. And when the people of the Czech Republic were finally allowed to express themselves freely, they overwhelmingly chose a man who never wanted to be in politics."

The Financial Times has a profile of Havel here. "His principled opposition to the diehard communist regime installed after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion made him a quintessential eastern European nonconformist," the newspaper writes. "He later became an eloquently skeptical celebrant of the freedoms brought by the anti-communist revolts."

Havel's 1978 essay, The Power of the Powerless, is often referred to as seminal because of the influence it had, and still has, on people living under oppression. It was a call to "live within the truth," not to live a lie. He wrote of a grocer who dutifully put a sign reading "Workers of the Word, Unite!" in his shop window because he had been told to.

Then one day, Havel wrote, "something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans." Though he loses his job and finds his family persecuted, he has "disrupted the game. ... He has said that the emperor is naked."

Havel's point was that if more people stood up as his grocer did, to embrace living within the truth rather than living the lie, the power structure would eventually crumble.

As The Economist says, "Havel practiced what he preached. He himself was denied higher education, as the scion of a famous bourgeois family. ... Havel was jailed from 1979 to 1984. ... He also spent many days under arrest and interrogation. Out of jail, his every move, visitor, letter, phone call and utterance were subject to scrutiny by the StB, the secret-police servants of Czechoslovakia's communist masters."

A remarkable man and a remarkable life, indeed.

Other leaders at the funeral include British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The Associated Press shares this video from the service.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.