Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright who led a revolution to bring down the country's communist regime, died Sunday morning at his weekend house in the northern Czech Republic. He was 75.
Havel's close friend, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, was born in Czechoslovakia. She says he fit right in the center of the modern history of Eastern Europe.
"He was an active dissident and a believer in human rights throughout his entire life ... even under the most desperate communism," Albright tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "[He] was there in order to lead his country in the Velvet Revolution and in a remarkable time of integration into the West."
Though often jailed as a dissident, Albright says Havel was not someone who took himself too seriously, and was, in fact, reluctant to take on the role of president in 1989. But his important role in the dissident movement made him someone the people looked up to, she says.
"He saw the world through the eyes of an artist and a moral human being," she says. "[His stature] was of newness and morality and a spirit of what the future could be about."
Albright remembers Havel as a wonderful person that you could a have any type of discussion with, but also as a jazz lover. She recalls a trip to Prague in 1994 where Havel shared that love of jazz with President Bill Clinton.
"We had official meetings and then we all went to this great jazz club," she says. "President Havel gave President Clinton a saxophone and they all stood there playing. [Havel] didn't have a lot of rhythm, but he loved the music."
Albright hopes Havel will be remembered for bringing opportunity and possibility back to the Czech people. The Czech Republic is much different today than the country she and Havel grew up in, she says, but for young people, he personifies what is possible for a small country.
"He is one of the most important figures of the 20th century in terms of his understanding of humanity, human rights, democracy, principle [and] morality," she says. "To the extent that people want to identify with that, they will see him as a great hero."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
Now, unlike many of his comrades on the left, Czech leader Vaclav Havel also supported the Iraq invasion. He saw it through the prism of his own country's liberation from communism. In November 1989, as the communist regime collapsed, he stood on a balcony in Prague's Wenceslas Square where he addressed thousands of people gathered.
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RAZ: Vaclav Havel died today at the age of 75. He stands among the giants of the late 20th century. Havel was a playwright and artist, but most importantly, a dissident in his native Czechoslovakia. He coauthored the seminal document known as Charter 77. It called for political reform, and his activities landed him in jail several times.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was a friend. And when I spoke with her earlier today, she explained where Havel fits into the history of the end of the Cold War.
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I think he fits into the center of it, because he was an active dissident and a believer in human rights throughout his entire life and fought for human rights even under the most desperate communism and was there in order to lead his country in the Velvet Revolution and in a remarkable time of integration into the West.
RAZ: He was, of course, a dissident and jailed, but primarily he was playwright. He was an artist who was political, but he wasn't a politician. And it makes you wonder whether he was almost reluctant to take on the role of president after 1989.
ALBRIGHT: He was reluctant. And he was not somebody who took himself terribly seriously, but he saw the world through the eyes of an artist and a moral human being.
RAZ: What happened in 1989? I mean, was he sort of the only figure that the whole country could coalesce around? I mean, was he kind of forced into this role?
ALBRIGHT: Well, I mean, he had played a very important role in the dissident movement and had been, in many ways, somebody that the people looked up to, the Charter 77 people. And he was there at the time when the crowds assembled in Wenceslas Square, and he was on the - in this balcony along with former President Dubcek. And clearly, even though there had been this other figure there, he never kind of had that same stature that Vaclav Havel did, which was a newness and morality and a spirit of what the future could be about.
RAZ: You knew him. Of course, your roots are Czech, Madam Secretary, as well. What was Vaclav Havel like as a person?
ALBRIGHT: He was wonderful. He was somebody that you could have any kind of a discussion with, and he loved jazz. And when I was still secretary, I was a U.N. ambassador in 1994 when I went to Prague the first time with President Clinton. And when President Clinton got off the plane and President Havel was at the bottom of the steps and we had official meetings. And then we all went to this great jazz club where President Havel gave President Clinton the saxophone and they all stood there playing. And the truth is that President Havel didn't have a lot of rhythm, but he certainly loved the music.
RAZ: How do you think he will be remembered by the Czech people?
ALBRIGHT: I hope that he will be remembered as somebody that really raised again the opportunities and possibilities for the Czech people who - I mean, I grew up in a - with different kind of stories in terms of the Czechoslovakia that my parents knew between the wars. And Vaclav Havel did too. And so - and a lot of the young people in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic didn't know all that.
And Havel, for them, personified what was possible for a small country. He is one of the most important figures of the 20th century in terms of his understanding of humanity, human rights, democracy, principle, morality. And to the extent that people want to identify with that, they will see him as a great hero.
RAZ: That's former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on her friend Vaclav Havel. The one-time Czech president died today. He was 75. Secretary Albright, thank you so much.
ALBRIGHT: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.