Book review: ‘Prague Winter,’ by Madeleine Albright

From the book jacket
From the book jacket
Posted: May 10, 2012

Prague Winter A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 By Madeleine Albright Harper. 488 pp. $29.99

Reviewed by Joelle Farrell

When German soldiers occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939, a Czech diplomat and his wife scooped up their toddler daughter and fled to England. The child, who would one day become the United States’ first female secretary of state, was forever changed by the failed diplomacy of “appeasement” that led her home country to become one of Adolf Hitler’s first victims.

In her new memoir, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948, Madeleine Albright writes a gripping account of World War II, focusing on Czechoslovakia, the country’s exiled government in England, and the vital role Czech citizens played in combating the Third Reich’s reign. Using her family’s experience as a lens, especially her father’s role in the Czech government in exile, she leads the reader through history and political analysis in a narrative peppered with anecdotes about her relatives and her childhood.

Albright, 74, who was raised Catholic, also traces the fates of some of her 25 relatives who died during the Holocaust. Uncles, grandparents, and cousins were gassed, shot, or worked to death in concentration camps. Albright said she never knew of her Jewish background because her parents converted to Catholicism when she was a child. A Washington Post reporter first revealed her Jewish roots when she was appointed secretary of state in 1997.

In taut prose, Albright weaves a powerful narrative that wraps her family’s story into the larger political drama unfolding in Europe. With the true voice of a diplomat, she examines political decisions that shaped the war, asking each time if it was the right call.

Albright, who will discuss her book Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Free Library of Philadelphia, doesn’t always have answers, but Albright’s book shows how she developed the hawkish interventionist philosophy — what she calls “aggressive multilateralism” — that marked her years as secretary of state during President Bill Clinton’s second term.

There was one decision that occurred in the buildup to World War II that Albright has never forgiven: the Munich Agreement of 1938, in which Britain, France, and Italy agreed to give Hitler control of the Sudetenland, the ethnically German areas of Czechoslovakia. Within a few months, Hitler invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia, a mere appetizer for his voracious hunger for power.

Still weakened by World War I, Western European leaders had hoped giving Hitler a piece of the Czech lands would appease him, preventing another war. It didn’t, and Czech nationalists felt abandoned by their allies. The tiny country, which had won its sovereignty in 1918, stood ready to fight the Nazis but could not do it alone.

Albright sums up that bitter taste in a story about her father, Josef Korbel, who worked for the Foreign Ministry in Czechoslovakia and, in England, served the exiled president, Eduard Benes. Korbel oversaw the BBC radio programs broadcast to Prague that fed messages to the underground resistance.

One day, Korbel tripped over an Englishman’s foot while getting on a bus.

“I am not sorry,” Korbel told the man. “That is for Munich.”

Czech immigrants in England also spoke a resentful prayer in those days: “Please, O God, give the British all the strength they will need to withstand the beating they deserve.”

Yet Albright finds nuance in many other thorny diplomatic and ethical questions of the time, seeing both sides of the matter, sometimes not offering her own opinion. Was the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, “The Butcher of Prague” who helped engineer the “final solution” for Europe’s Jews, the right call? Benes ordered the killing, in part to impress upon the world that the Czechs would fight, that they deserved their own country and the Allies’ complete support. Two Czech soldiers parachuted into Czechoslovakia in 1941 to kill Heydrich, which they succeeded in doing in May 1942. A few weeks later, German troops surrounded the church where Heydrich’s killers had taken refuge with other Czech resistance fighters. One of Heydrich’s assailants died from his injuries in the gun battle in the church, while other Czech fighters killed themselves with cyanide. The Germans executed more than 1,000 Czechs in retaliation for Heydrich’s death, but killing one of Hitler’s top aides also gave the Allies and the Czech people a much needed morale boost, Albright writes. She ponders whether she would have had the courage to hide the Czech soldiers who carried out the assassination: she hopes that she would have, but writes that she isn’t sure.

When the war ended, the Czech people sought revenge against the Germans, even those who did not support the Nazis. The Czech government banished German residents from the country, seizing their land. Czech citizens took revenge on Germans, and on Czechs who allegedly collaborated with the Nazis. Mobs executed their vigilante justice in the streets while others cheered.

Albright acknowledges that the Czechs during this time treated the Germans just as the Germans had treated the Jews. Yet she largely gives her countrymen a pass.

“The postwar administration of law in the Czech lands was uneven and messy but no more flawed than comparable efforts in neighboring countries,” she writes.

Albright shows a clear preference for international intervention every time one nation robs another of its sovereignty, every time armies directed by a dictator or rebel commander butcher innocent civilians.

When the Clinton administration was deciding whether to intervene in the Balkans, Army Gen. Colin L. Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued against U.S involvement. Albright asked him, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” according to a 2009 biography of Powell. In the end, Albright got her way.

But as a diplomat, Albright knows it’s never that simple, and it’s not just a matter of resources. The tangled diplomatic web that connects the United States to other nations means that sometimes, no matter how distasteful, we have to pick our battles.

In an interview April 24 on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart asked Albright why the United States hasn’t intervened in all cases of genocide — for example, in Sudan and other African nations.

“Frankly, because we can’t be everywhere,” she said. “The question is, under what circumstances is it doable.”

As for Albright’s bias toward her home country’s interests, it’s perhaps all that can be expected.

Her stance reminded me of an 84-year-old man I interviewed five years ago in New Hampshire. William Onufry, an Army veteran, had survived the Bataan Death March and spent 3½ years as a prisoner of war. When the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan in August 1945, he was imprisoned on Honshu, the main island in Japan.

Onufry felt sorry for the Japanese who suffered and died. He understood how unleashing the bombs ignited a nuclear arms race that plagues the world to this day.

But he also remembered his despair in the camp where he had seen so many men executed, so many die from starvation or malaria. Would he have survived much longer if the bombs had not been dropped?

Describing how people make up their minds about such controversial political issues, he said simply, “It depends on where you are.”

Contact Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237 or jfarrell@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @joellefarrell.

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