Vaclav Havel, the dissident playwright who wove theater into politics to peacefully bring down communism in Czechoslovakia and become a hero of the epic struggle that ended the Cold War, died this morning. He was 75. Havel was his country's first democratically elected president after the nonviolent "Velvet Revolution" that ended four decades of repression by a regime he ridiculed as "Absurdistan." As president, he oversaw the country's bumpy transition to democracy and a free-market economy, as well its peaceful 1993 breakup into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Shy and bookish, with a wispy mustache and unkempt hair, Havel came to symbolize the power of the people to peacefully overcome totalitarian rule. "Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred," Havel famously said. It became his revolutionary motto which he said he always strove to live by. He was detained countless times and spent four years in communist jails. His letters from prison to his wife became one of his best-known works. Letters to Olga blended deep philosophy with a stream of stern advice to the spouse he saw as his mentor and best friend, and who tolerated his reputed philandering and other foibles. Havel, who left office in 2003, was nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize, and collected dozens of other accolades worldwide for his efforts as a global ambassador of conscience, defending the downtrodden from Darfur to Burma. A former chain-smoker, Havel had a history of chronic respiratory problems dating back to his years in jail. Click to read more about the man George W. Bush called "one of liberty's great heroes." (Read more obituary stories.)