By , Guardian columnist

The former president of the Czech Republic was the epitome of a dissident because he persisted in his struggle, patiently, non-violently, with dignity and wit

Hands whirring like twin propellers, Václav Havel moved with his characteristic hurried, short-paced walk across the mirrored foyer of the Magic Lantern theatre, the headquarters of the velvet revolution. The slightly stooped, stocky figure, dressed in jeans and sweater, stopped for a moment, began to speak about some “important negotiations”; scarcely three sentences in, he was swept away. He gave an apologetic smile over his shoulder, as if to say “what can a man do?”

Often Havel talked as if he was an ironic critic watching the theatre of life, but there in the Magic Lantern, in 1989, he became the lead actor and director of a play that changed history.

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. (He always insisted that a western journalist coined the term.)

Havel was not just a president; he was the founding president of what is now the Czech Republic. He was not just a European; he was a European who, with the eloquence of a professional playwright and the authority of a former political prisoner, reminded us of the historical and moral dimensions of the European project.

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