Havel, a former chain smoker with chronic respiratory problems, had been in failing health the past few months and died at his weekend home in Hradecek in the northern Czech Republic, his assistant, Sabina Tancevova, told the Associated Press.
PHOTOS: Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011
Of all the heroes of the anti-Communist struggles in Eastern Europe, Havel most successfully navigated the political challenges of democracy and free markets, remaining at the peak of political influence for more than a decade. He was president of Czechoslovakia from December 1989 until July 1992. After the nation split in two and Slovakia went its own way, he served as president of the Czech Republic from 1993 until 2003, just months before the two nations joined the European Union.
Romantic idealism, often expressed in deep philosophical terms, colored his career, whether he was ridiculing communism in his plays or searching for the meaning of life during his time in prison as well as during his presidency.
"The [Communist] past has left us spiritually impoverished," he declared in pledging as president to focus on "the ethical, moral aspects of society, on creating space for dialogue, agreement and tolerance."
As a dissident leader, Havel promoted the slogan, "May truth and love triumph over lies and hatred." During his years in office he stressed the importance of "civil society," or citizens' organizations free of government control, as the underpinning for democracy.
"None of us—as an individual—can save the world as a whole, but . . . each of us must behave as though it were in his power to do so," Havel wrote in his 1997 book, "The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice."
As president, Havel sought to guide his country away from its Communist past while avoiding witch hunts against former rulers.
"The transformation of the totalitarian system into a democratic one is not only a matter of several parties replacing one ruling party and the introduction of some democratic mechanisms," Havel said in a 1994 interview with The Times. "It is also a matter of a great transformation of thinking because people must learn again to be citizens, to rediscover the civic responsibility which the totalitarian regime did not demand from them because it required mere obedience."
Havel presided over Czechoslovakia's transition to democracy and a market economy, the 1991 withdrawal of Soviet troops and the Czech Republic's 1999 entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which ensured its status in the mainstream of Western institutions. He was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, received numerous honorary doctorates and was awarded various international honors for his human rights efforts, including the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush, who hailed him as "one of liberty's great heroes."
"The demons that have so fatally tormented European history—most disastrously of all in the 20th century—are merely biding their time," Havel once warned, stressing that Europe's prosperous West and formerly Communist East must seek unity. "Just as one-half of a room cannot remain forever warm while the other half is cold, it is equally unthinkable that two different Europes could forever live side by side without detriment to both."
Havel's popularity at home gradually faded from levels accorded a national hero to those of an ordinary politician. "President Havel walks a sad road, from a politician who is a favorite, who is admired, sometimes even idolized, to a politician who is misunderstood, rejected and sometimes even condemned and damned," the newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes noted in a 1999 commentary, when polls showed his support had fallen to about 50%, compared with ratings as high as 80% earlier in the decade.
Yet Havel's global status as a voice for democracy and morality in government remained undiminished.
He was born Oct. 5, 1936, into a Prague family of entrepreneurs, real estate developers and philanthropists. His early years were marked by privilege, but his family's prosperity made it a target after the Communists seized power in 1948.
Havel was ruled ineligible for secondary education because of his "bourgeois background" and had to finish his diploma at night school while working days. He later was denied entry to the history and philosophy departments of Prague's prestigious Charles University; he studied economics at a technical institute instead.
His frustrations became a source of creativity, as he mocked the Communist system's bureaucratic foibles and obfuscating jargon in his starkly modern and often absurdist plays, which included "Beggar's Opera," "The Garden Party," "Audience," "Largo Desolato," "Temptation" and "The Memorandum."
After the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia crushed that year's "Prague Spring" reform effort, Havel became firmly convinced of the long-term political importance of moral resistance to dictatorship. An increasingly prominent pro-democracy leader and critic of the Soviet-installed regime, he was soon charged with activities against the state. His plays were banned and it was forbidden even to publish his photograph.