Czech Republic

Remembering the many Václav Havels

December 21, 2011: 9:39 AM ET

Given his multiple personalities and achievements, what is the best way to remember the late Czech poet, dissident, and president?

By John Keane, guest contributor

FORTUNE -- How should Václav Havel be remembered?

Vaclav Havel

Former Czech president and writer Vaclav Havel died on December 18, 2011. He was 75 years old.

During my first encounter with him, in Prague in 1984, when everything seemed hopeless, I was struck by the man's hedgehog resilience. Here was a rarity: an unusual figure, intense but witty, a clear-headed thinker and a wonderful writer, a courageous individual blessed with a razor-sharp sense of irony; a chain-smoking man of letters whose fate was politics and (most people still overlook this) an individual who had a genuine taste for it, and yet someone who taught the world, by example, about the grave dangers of unaccountable power.

Two-thirds of Havel's life was lived under conditions of dictatorship or totalitarian power. Against terrible odds, he managed to survive, until the so-called Velvet Revolution of 1989. That changed everything in his life. The upheavals of that year greatly complicated his choices. He became three figures: Havel the playwright dissident; Havel the politician; and Havel the global statesman.

Let's work backwards. After finally leaving political office in 2003, Havel carved out the role of global statesman. In many obituaries during the past few days, he's been described as a giant and compared with figures like Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi. The praise is understandable. He was indeed a global champion of democratic virtues. He stood for pluralism, openness, and integrity, and he wrote and delivered memorable speeches on subjects like the environment, globalization, and violence.

There were some practical successes -- for instance, he directed the Human Rights Foundation in New York -- but in his role as global statesman, there were also setbacks. His support for the American and British invasion and occupation of Iraq attracted criticism, at home and abroad. There were some fruitless episodes, the chief example being his attempt to broker a peace deal between the Palestinians and the state of Israel. It came to nothing.

Havel, the politican

There was a middle period -- Havel as politician. The standard story is that he was a "reluctant" politician; the Guardian newspaper in London echoes that line in its recent obituary, which is fundamentally mistaken. Havel's first wife Olga had his measure. "He adores it!' she said over coffee to Czech poet Josef Topol, a year into Havel's first presidency. "He'll never give it up!" She was right.

He viewed being removed from office as synonymous with the collapse of his personal world. "You know how hard it is. I've given my whole life to politics," says the key character in Leaving (2008), an autobiographical work by Havel that's peppered with references to Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and Shakespeare's King Lear, two plays that address the painful personal costs triggered by the loss of power. Havel wanted very much to be the helmsman of the new Czechoslovak state. He clung to power and there were moments when political office was his aphrodisiac. Four presidencies in two countries over 13 years is proof of that. He arguably stayed too long; it eventually caused an abdication crisis in Czech politics. More

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