By Alessandra Rizzo
LONDON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders hailed on Sunday late former Czech President Vaclav Havel as a humble hero whose resistance to Communism helped bring about a united and free Europe.
The leader of the "Velvet Revolution" that toppled Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, a former chain smoker who survived several operations for lung cancer, died at 75 in his country home north of Prague.
Political leaders praised Havel as an inspiration against tyranny worldwide while intellectuals mourned the bookish and shy former playwright who loved jazz and theatre.
"His peaceful resistance shook the foundations of an empire, exposed the emptiness of a repressive ideology, and proved that moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon," Obama said in a statement, adding that he had been inspired by Havel.
"He also embodied the aspirations of half a continent that had been cut off by the Iron Curtain, and helped unleash tides of history that led to a united and democratic Europe."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: "We will remember his commitment to freedom and democracy just as much as his great humanity. We Germans especially have much to thank him for."
"Together with you, we mourn the loss of a great European," she wrote to Havel's successor, Czech President Vaclav Klaus.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said "France loses a friend, Europe loses one of its wise men." British Prime Minister David Cameron recalled the 1989 uprising in Prague that ended Soviet-backed rule: "No one of my generation will ever forget those powerful scenes from Wenceslas Square two decades ago."
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary-general of NATO, which in 1999 included the former Warsaw Pact member, said Havel "will be remembered around the world as a great writer, a visionary and a leader who helped to reunite Europe after half a century of division."
Lech Walesa, the former Polish president whose Solidarity union also battled Communism in Eastern Europe, said Havel was "a great and well-deserving man."
Walesa, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for leading his country against the Soviets, said Havel, too, should have received the honor, "but in the world, not everything is just."
Havel was repeatedly edged out for a Nobel Peace Prize despite playing "a central role in that miraculous half-year" of 1989 when numerous eastern European regimes fell, Norwegian Nobel Committee executive secretary Geir Lundestad recalled.
"I will be spilling no secrets when I say that he was nominated many times," Lundestad told Norway's Aftenposten. "But there is only one prize a year."
Havel was a reluctant politician, driven to his political role by his moral resistance to Communism, said his friend Michael Zantovsky, Czech Ambassador to London.
"He was very much a politician against his own will," he told BBC television. "He was completely unlike most statesmen or politicians that you meet. He was rather diffident, shy even. He had none of the mannerisms that you usually associate with public personalities or celebrities."
Israeli President Shimon Peres told Reuters that "as a person he was a very unique man, determined but pleasant, strong in his convictions but listening to other voices. In that respect, he unified us. He unified us as a civilization."
Havel's role in Czech and European history should not completely overshadow his literary legacy, intellectuals and cultural figures said.
Havel wrote absurdist dramas in the 1960s. He returned to writing in recent years, publishing the play "Leaving" to rave reviews in 2008.
"In his political life, one forgets what a wonderful playwright he was," Sam Walters, director of the Orange Tree Theatre in west London, who knew and worked with Havel, told BBC
"He was someone who obviously fought and suffered for what he believed was right and in the end won."
(Writing By Alessandra Rizzo)