Czech president remembered as hero of liberty

Autumn 1989 was one of the most exciting times in decades. The Berlin Wall, symbol of communist tyranny, was pulled down, bringing freedom to East Germany. Other Eastern European “satellite” states of the Soviet Union — Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary among them — also achieved their freedom.

People who had been enslaved under communism for 40 years were breaking free. In many cases, the people also previously had endured tyranny under the Nazis.

One of the main freedom-bringers from that period was Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia. He died Dec. 18 at age 75. After liberation from the Nazis in 1945, the country was occupied by Soviet troops, who soon installed a puppet communist regime.

In 1968, Czechoslovaks had enough and revolted in the “Prague Spring,” named after reforms by the country’s leadership aimed at ending repression. On Aug. 21, 1968, Soviet tanks invaded, butchering 75 protesters and reinstalling a puppet regime.

A playwright and poet, Havel was galvanized into political action during the Prague Spring and his plays were banned. In 1977, he co-authored “Charter 77,” which called for human, civil, cultural, religious and free-speech rights in the country. The regime branded “Charter 77” as “an anti-state, anti-socialist and demagogic, abusive piece of writing.”

In 1979, he co-founded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Prosecuted, a dissident group. Havel’s activities brought him several stints in prison, which he wrote about. In 1989, he became a leader of what was called the Velvet Revolution, which finally brought an end to the communist regime. He was the country’s natural choice to become its first post-communist president.

Of course, running a democratic government is a lot less clear-cut than resisting tyranny. But Havel ably helped establish the country’s democratic institutions. In 1992, when Slovaks (in the eastern part of Czechoslovakia) agitated for independence, he opposed their actions and resigned. The Slovaks declared independence.

Set up as its own country, in 1993 the new Czech Republic elected him president. He served until 2003. During his presidency, he sometimes fought with Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, who succeeded him as president. That’s democracy. But the two also forged free-market reforms that have made the Czech Republic the most prosperous of the former Soviet satellites.

Havel was a big fan of American rock ‘n’ roll, especially Californian Frank Zappa, whom he made an unofficial cultural ambassador.

Thanks to Havel and other heroes, communism now mostly is a fading memory. But he should be remembered always in the hearts of those who love liberty.