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World bids farewell to Vaclav Havel

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN
updated 2:50 PM EST, Fri December 23, 2011
The coffin of President Vaclav Havel lies draped under a Czech flag during his state funeral Friday at St Vitus Cathederal, Prague. The coffin of President Vaclav Havel lies draped under a Czech flag during his state funeral Friday at St Vitus Cathederal, Prague.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • World leaders attend the funeral of Vaclav Havel, who helped end communism in Czechoslovakia
  • Thousands of Czechs waited for hours in cold weather to pay their last respects
  • Havel became one of the world's most famous dissidents in the 1970s
  • "Truth and love must triumph over lies and hatred," Havel insisted

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Prague, Czech Republic (CNN) -- Presidents and princes paid their final respects Friday to Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president, writer and dissident who helped bring down his country's Communist regime and end the Cold War.

Dignitaries inside Prague Castle's towering St. Vitus Cathedal included former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while thousands of admirers stood outside in cold temperatures to watch the funeral on big screens.

Havel, a shy but iron-willed intellectual endowed with a playful sense of humor and a powerful moral compass, died Sunday at the age of 75.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was born in Prague, praised a man she said was pleased to have had as a friend.

"Few were as Czech as Vaclav Havel, but his wit and kindness, his wisdom and the depth of his thoughts spoke to all," she said, addressing mourners in Czech during the funeral.

His former political advisor Jiri Pehe called Havel "a politician who wasn't a politician, catapulted into politics by history. Throughout his presidency he was a dissident politician who liked to do things in a different way."

Speaking before the funeral, Pehe said he would remember Havel more for his personality than his politics, recalling his "booming laugh" and saying: "to work with him was a joy ... To be around him was simply inspiring."

World bids farewell to Vaclav Havel
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Dissident friends of Havel arrived grim-faced for the funeral Friday. Many hugged each other before going into St. Vitus Cathedral.

Havel's picture stood to the side of the altar draped in black ribbon in a state funeral both grand and religious, an irony given his personal modesty and the fact that the Czech Republic is among the least religious countries in Europe.

Former dissident and Havel friend Petr Uhl refused to come to the funeral, saying Havel was not a Christian and none of his predecessors had had a state funeral of this kind.

Havel was "a great figure of our modern history. ... A man whom we will remember with thanks and respect has gone," Czech President Vaclav Klaus told mourners, who also included French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron and his predecessor John Major, and singer Suzanne Vega.

Havel's widow Dagmar sat next to Klaus in the front row, a few seats down from Ivan Havel, the late writer's closest living blood relative.

Members of the public fought back tears as the Czech song "My Country" swelled at the end of the funeral over a gun salute.

Then they burst into applause -- as did some inside the cathedral -- as six soldiers shouldered Havel's coffin and carried it out to a waiting hearse.

Prague Castle did not announce where or when Havel would be buried, saying it was up to his family.

Authorities estimated that 30,000 people lined up to bid farewell to Havel when his body lay in state on Wednesday and Thursday.

They waited for hours in freezing weather in the early winter night before the funeral to pay their last respects, holding flowers, candles and notes to lay by his coffin. Many of the messages, from those handwritten by schoolchildren to those printed off computers, bore the same words: "Thank you, Mr. President."

Alena Sturmova, who came with her husband and son, remembers being at Prague Castle when Havel was elected the first post-Communist president of her country, almost 22 years ago to the day.

Seeing him there on a balcony, instead of the Soviet-backed authorities who had governed her country her entire life, meant something special to her, she said: "Maybe the possibility of freedom."

Her husband, Daniel, called Havel "a symbol of the Velvet Revolution," when Czechs and Slovaks overthrew an ossified regime by pouring into Prague's Wenceslas Square and jingling their key rings as a signal to their leaders to go home.

Havel was a symbol of that revolution, Daniel Sturm said by way of explaining why he and his family were waiting to lay flowers by Havel's coffin.

"We just wanted to come here and tell him thank you," he said, before pausing and continuing: "... for the last time."

Havel, a chain-smoking, rock-loving intellectual, became one of the world's most famous dissidents in the 1970s for his public writings against Eastern Europe's Communist regimes.

He was jailed for about four and a half years over essays such as "The Power of the Powerless," which urged people to simply stop pretending to believe the lies their government fed them and act on what they knew to be true.

"Truth and love must triumph over lies and hatred," Havel insisted.

With the Soviet Union saying it would no longer intervene in the affairs of its satellites, and Communist regimes crumbling in Poland and East Germany in 1989, Czechs and Slovaks rose up in answer to the call of Havel and other dissidents around him.

In a matter of days, the authorities resigned and a parliament stuffed full of Communist party functionaries elected Havel president of Czechoslovakia. He served as head of state until politicians decided to divide the country in two in 1992, then went on to be elected president of the Czech Republic twice.

His country joined NATO and the European Union under his stewardship, but he lost out on many of the major domestic political battles of his presidency, including his effort to keep Czechoslovakia together.

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