The European press provides a nearly unanimous homage to Václav Havel the playwright, dissident and first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia. Havel died of cancer on December 18. He was 75.

Former dissident Adam Michnik, in the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborczaspeaks of his former companion in the struggle against communism:

Václav Havel lived in truth against ubiquitous conformism and hypocrisy. He was a writer and a dissident; he was active in the opposition and wrote plays and essays. He brought these together almost perfectly. […] He mused (in 1983) about the nature of dissident writers. And he reflected that they are only people who say out loud what everybody else knows, but dares not speak out loud. ‘Dissidents’, although the mere thought that they can be the nation’s conscience seems unbearable to them, speak for those who remain silent. They risk their lives where others dare not. […] The life and legacy of Václav Havel are the synthesis of humility and pride, relentless heroism with self-deprecation. He was free of conceit, hatred and fanaticism. Rebellious against the dictatorships and the stereotypes of his era, he was constantly at odds with the conformism of his fellow countrymen.

Writing in Adevărul, Grigore Cartianu says that with Václav Havel’s death, “the continent is sadder, the winter more grey”. The editor-in-chief of the Bucharest daily regrets that Romanians didn’t have the luck to have a luminous figure like Havel:

In 2002, when I heard that Havel had called the Rolling Stones to Prague to celebrate Mick Jagger’s birthday, I suddenly remembered that in 1990, Ion Iliescu [the first post-communist president] had called miners to Bucharest [to repress demonstrations against the new regime]. Two presidents, two philosophies.

From Berlin, Der Tagesspiegel notes that Havel –

… had a sustainable influence on the geopolitical situation of his country and of Central and Eastern Europe. […] But he also supported the participation of the leaders of those countries in the war on Iraq led by the United States [in 2003], which raised many a hackle. He was a statesman that could always astonish by his comments and his extraordinary turnarounds. […] Germans in particular must remember him thankfully because he committed himself like no other to German-Czech reconciliation. Barely elected president, he surprised his compatriots and the German Federal Republic in a strong manner that allowed the man of theatre to show through. He made two official visits on the same day to (East) Berlin and to Munich, thus linking in a single gesture […] two traumatising dates for the Czechs: in the morning Berlin – where Hitler had forced the Czech minister-president to capitulate and in the afternoon, Munich – where the 1938 pact was signed that signified the end of a free Czechoslovakia and the beginning of the war.

Historian Timothy Garton Ash writing in The Guardian, calls Václav Havel “the main character in a play that changed history”. He adds that –

Havel was a defining figure of late 20th-century Europe. He was not just a dissident; he was the epitome of the dissident, as we came to understand that novel term. He was not just the leader of a velvet revolution; he was the leader of the original velvet revolution, the one that gave us a label applied to many other non-violent mass protests since 1989.

Headlining “The Dissident,” French daily Libération quotes Milan Kundera who said that “the best work of Václav Havel is his life”:

With a handful of dissidents, he shared the notion of ‘living within a lie’ against propaganda, re-invented ‘power for the powerless’ and sent communism to the museum of lost illusions. To the ethics of conviction, Havel linked the principle of responsibility: the ‘dissident’ became a ‘decider’. He assumed the power that fate conferred on him and refused the status of victim. Barely elected, it was amazing to hear him tell his fellow citizens that all of them, albeit at various levels, had ‘co-created and maintained the totalitarian system’. In these times of revolutions and of feverish transformations, that is another lesson on which to meditate from this philosopher-president: Havel refused the disorder of score-settling and the hazards of street justice. […] These are the conditions needed for the seeds of democracy to take root.

Writing in Italian daily La Repubblica, leader writer Sandro Viola, who met with Havel before the fall of communism, renders homage to the memory of the last of the ‘moralistic’ political leaders.

Indeed, it was only he who could have incarnated the role of a new model statesman, a statesman who gains power not just with partisan interests, personal ambition, the ability to manoeuvre politically but also a broader vision of the world, a more noble one than what we can detect among European leaders.

Steven Samyn of De Morgen writes in a leader article that a “little bit of Havel in the Wetstraat [where the Belgian government sits] wouldn’t hurt”. He notes that ‘Citizen Havel’, a documentary made by a filmmaker friend, shows how Czech politics, after the collapse of communism, lost its innocence and slid into cynical party intrigues –

But it also shows a modest man who stayed true to his principals, even when they were out of fashion. He continued to take a stand in favour of the gypsies, although this meant political suicide.