Book review: Prague Winter (Madeleine Albright 2012)

Rating: 5/5

Madeleine Albright’s Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 is about the history of Czechoslovakia, but most especially the turbulent times around and during WW2. Madeleine Albright, born Marie Körbelova in Czechoslovakia, was the first female US secretary of state. I remember as a kid wondering why Missouri’s secretary was such a big deal, and in misunderstanding the meaning of “state,” I became a bit fascinated with her.

WHY THIS BOOK?

Only when this book came out did I learn that Madeleine Albright was Czech, as I am on my father’s side. I spent a summer in Prague listening the stories about the communist period from my host, a professor who was not viewed favorably by the communists. I learned a lot about the Prague Spring in 1968. This book was an opportunity to learn more about another piece of Czechoslovak history.

Also, a substantial portion of the book is devoted to the Czech Jewish experience. Albright lost 3/4 grandparents to the Holocaust, and dozens of other relatives. Albright only learned of her Jewish heritage in her 60s. Genetic tests revealed that my family has Jewish ancestry. Both my Czech roots and my Jewish ancestry are far more removed than Albright’s, but still, learning about her experiences and heritage felt like honoring my own heritage.

THE GOOD

Albright skillfully weaves personal experiences with history. This history occurs at three scales—the global/European context, the Czech perspective, and her father’s experiences in the Czech government and the Czech government in exile. We skim Czech history from ancient times until the end of World War 1, when Czechoslovakia became an independent nation. After WW1, Czechoslovakia flourished for 20 years under the first president, TG Masaryk. The cowardice of England and France led to the 1938 Munich Agreement, which ceded Czech land to Nazi Germany to temporarily appease Hitler. Her father, Josef Korbel, served the exiled Czech government; he was the secretary to Jan Masaryk, son of TG Masaryk. She describes the strengths and the weaknesses of the various leaders, and what she thinks she would have done in their place.

Albright interlaces her family history with the prison camp of Terezín where many of her relatives died. A strong community tried to survive within Terezín’s deadly walls, with education and theater and art. She discovered her Jewish ancestry in 1997, and only then learned of the fate of the bulk of her family. I visited Terezín in 2008. It was the prison camp the Nazis used to deceive the Red Cross. It contained no gas chambers, but was deadly enough with disease, lack of food, and deportation to death camps.

Most valuably, from my perspective, she gives the Czech perspective on the various triumphs and catastrophes in the first half of the 20th century. She illuminates a people between a rock and a hard place, with a dream of centuries crushed after only 20 years. She describes the brave and costly assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, achieved by Czech parachuters trained in England.

And finally, despite 400 pages of length, this is a quick read. It’s very well written, and the details that could get overwhelming, such as the details about various Czechs with difficult names, are broken up with personal stories and reactions. It’s a lovely blend of family and national history, which, given Albright’s father’s prominence, is very appropriate.

THE BAD

  • All Czech names are presented without instruction for pronunciation. Having lived there briefly, I was used to it, but this book might benefit from a pronunciation guide.
  • Albright is extremely willing to volunteer the brave things that she would have done. She qualifies this with some uncertainty. While I appreciate this in a way, as she’s one of the few people who could even possibly make an educated statement about such things (she has a doctorate in political science studying the role of journalism in the Prague Spring of 1968), it does happen numerous times. She always picks the most dangerous, egalitarian and brave option. It felt like 20/20 hindsight.
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