“The main thing is to remain oneself,under any circumstances; that was and is our common purpose.” From an unpublished novel by Josef Korbel, the father of Madeline Albright
Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War 1937-1948, Harper Collins Books New York, 2012.
Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s book Prague Spring provides an important look at the history of Czechoslovakia during the period between 1937 and 1948. It also provides the reader a succinct history of the Czech people and nation throughout the history of Europe going back to Charles IV (1316-1378) King Wenceslas, the pre-reformation martyr John Hus and revolutionary leader Jan Zizka.
Albright is the daughter of one of Czechoslovakia’s most distinguished diplomats and advocates for Czech independence, democracy, religious and ethnic pluralism. Her father, Josef Korbel was raised during the latter years of Bohemia and Moravia’s subjugation under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He would become a diplomat in the years just prior to the dismemberment and occupation of his homeland by Nazi Germany. Serving as a press-attache at the Czech embassy in Belgrade Yugoslavia he and his family, including his young daughter, the future Secretary of State were forced into exile in Britain.
The book is a history written from the very personal perspective of a woman who when most of the events transpired was a child who experienced her first memories of life as an exile. She would not be able to return to her country of origin until after the fall of Soviet Union and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact.
The book fills a void for many Americans whose understanding of European history is limited to the popular coverage of British monarchy or the barbarity of the Hitler regime. The book provides a look at the relationships of the men who made Czechoslovakia beginning with Tomas Masaryk, the founder of the newly independent republic in 1918. Masaryk stressed that “love of nation does not imply hatred toward another.” In an age where xenophobic nationalism and race hatred was a staple of politics in much of Europe Masaryk emphasized tolerance, good relations between religions, peoples, and the equality of religion. Albright notes that the solution of Masaryk to the ways that the settled order of civilization, political order, religious convictions and economic status were under attack was “to embrace religion without the straightjacket of the Church, social revolution without the excesses of Bolshevism, and national pride without bigotry.”
Masaryk would die shortly before the deal cut by the leaders of Britain, France, Italy and Germany at Munich to dismember Czechoslovakia in 1938. His successor, Edvard Benes would be left to deal with a situation where despite the strengths of his nation would be abandoned by the leaders of nations that he, and many of his countrymen felt abandoned by the world. That was the world that Madeline Albright came to age in.
Albright would grow up to see her father working on behalf of Benes and the exiled Czech government during the war, and the post war struggles in the nation between Democrats of various parties against the Communist Party led by Klement Gottwald supported by the occupying Soviet Red Army.
Her narrative provides a very effective and history of the period meshed with the experiences of her family, both in exile and those who remained. Her family, of Jewish origin, though largely secular and Czech in outlook faced deportation to the Theresienstadt Concentration camp and extermination camps and many died. While in England her parents converted to Catholicism and she was baptized into the Catholic Church. Her own story is fascinating, though remaining a Christian in the Episcopal Church she honors her family who died as Jews at the hand of the Nazis and her own countrymen.
The book provides a badly needed narrative of a small but critical country which for much of the 20th Century was ground zero of the struggle between Democracy and Totalitarianism. It does not seek to make heroes of those that were not, but it does seek to understand the dilemmas faced by people whose existence is threatened by larger neighbors and how the experience of victimhood can lead to retribution and revenge. It points out the dangers of ideologues who have no other agenda but their own and the crushing of any opposition. Albright’s father, Josef would again have to go into exile following the Communist takeover of his country. His daughter, raised in that exile would go on to become an American citizen and rise to the pinnacle of the diplomatic world, as Ambassador to the United Nations and Secretary of State, the first woman to become Secretary of State.
She touches on her own connections to her family’s Holocaust experiences in this book, though they are secondary to the history of Czechoslovakia before, during and after the Second World War and the work of her father in that critical period.
I have always admired Secretary Albright and has the honor of meeting her and conversing with her on a flight between Madrid and London in March of 2005. I was traveling in connection with a trip to visit my Marines in Spain, Bahrain and Scotland and she, accompanied by former Senator Gary Hart were traveling between Madrid and London for a security conference on the anniversary of the March 11th 2004 Islamic terrorist bombings in Madrid. She was a most gracious woman and interested in what I was doing. I will not forget that trip.
In reading it I felt that I began to feel that I was beginning to know and understand men who were instrumental in history but always have been regulated to bit parts by American and British histories of the period. It is hard to imagine what those men placed in such and unenviable position had to endure, particularly the tragic story of Jan Masaryk, the son of Tomas Masaryk who would serve as foreign minister under Benes before and after the war and be murdered by the Communists shortly after the takeover.
I think that the message that I took away from the book was the message penned by Secretary Albright’s father Josef in his unpublished novel: “The main thing is to remain oneself,under any circumstances…” I believe that in an age where political, racial and religious ideologues of various persuasions seek to divide the peoples of nations against each other it is an important work. What the Nazi leaders of the German minority in the country led by Konrad Henlein did was to divide and destroy a people who had lived in peaceful co-existence for centuries. Their actions led to the Nazi seizure and dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. Following the war 9/10ths of the pre-war German population of the country would be forced out by the Czechs and Slovaks now under the control of Soviet agents, something that occurred throughout Eastern Europe following the war.
To remain oneself, under any circumstances.
I highly recommend this book. Secretary Albright has written a fitting companion to the other histories of the period that fills a critical gap for American readers about the history of Czechoslovakia.