Tag Archives: czech republic

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.

Fun Facts 76-100!

A few posts ago, I challenged myself to post 100 facts I found interesting, to celebrate the 100th post of my blog. It was rather hard to do this all for one blog post, so I stretched them across a couple posts. So here they are, the last 25! You can find the first 50 here, and facts 51-75 here.

It was a lot harder goal than I thought it would be, but it was also fun too. Probably it was extra challenging because in the mean time, I was preparing for a huge exam, finishing a novel draft, and on vacation. Now I’m through those, so no more excuses! 25 more facts!

 

76. Iodine is the heaviest element commonly needed by organisms with an atomic weight of 127. Iodine is added to table salt to help people get their daily amount of iodine. Consuming too little iodine can affect the thyroid gland; pregnant women who don’t consume enough iodine can give birth to less-intelligent babies.

77. Baseball player Hack Wilson holds the single season record for RBIs, with 160. His odd physique was considered notable; he had a barrel chest and tiny legs and odd facial features. Scientists now believe he had fetal alcohol syndrome, which results in distinctive facial features.

78. Water is an unusual compound in a number of ways. For one, its most common solid phase is less dense than its liquid phase, thus why ice floats in water. There are actually 15 phases of solid ice. The chart here shows a number of them.

79. Ice XI is found in some Antarctic ice. It’s actually thought to be more stable than regular ice, but it takes millennia to form.

80. A diamond isn’t forever. Solid carbon also comes in several structures, such as diamond, coal, and buckyballs. Diamond isn’t the most stable state at room temperature and pressure, and very, very slowly converts back to coal.

81. There are 109 species of tulips.

82. In the 1630s in Europe, speculation on tulips led to a bubble and then a collapse called the “tulip mania“. It is considered the first speculative bubble.

83. The Sognefjord in Norway is one of the longest and deepest fjords in the world (127 miles long, 4300 ft deep). This is deeper than the adjacent sea.

84. There are coral reefs at the bottom of some fjords, discovered as recently as the year 2000. This is why there is often rich fishing in the fjords.

85. The number of Norwegian descendants living in the United States is roughly equal to the current population of Norway.

86. There are fewer people living permanently in the fjord country of Norway today than there were in the mid 1800’s.

87. To some extent, you can tell when a person’s family emigrated from Norway based upon where they settled. The earliest settlements were in Illinois and Pennsylvania. Settlements then moved west to Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and North Dakota. (This will irrelevant to most readers, but interested me: Westby, WI is the second most Norwegian speaking town in the US, and Vernon county, WI is the 6th most Norwegian speaking county in the country.)

88. The earliest chemical evidence for the existence of beer dates back to 3500 BC, though it may have been produced as early as 9500 BC when the grains were first grown.

89. The first addition of hops (the agent which adds bitterness and also acts as a preservative) to beer was mentioned in the year 822. The India Pale Ale is known as a bitter beer because many hops were added for its journey from Britain to India. They preserved the beer and helped to conceal bad flavors too.

90. Lagers are produced by bottom-fermenting yeasts, while ales are produced by top-fermenting yeasts. Lagers also are fermented at lower temperatures. Bottom-fermenting yeasts are a relatively recent innovation, and lagers weren’t mass-produced until the mid 1800s. The world’s top-selling beers are now all lagers.

91. Hops are being investigated as possibly useful in hormone replacement treatments. They are currently used in preparations for treating menstrual cramps.

92. The Czech Republic drinks the most beer per capita of any country in the world. Beer in CZ can be bought for 28 Kr at a restaurant. The exchange rate today is 19.6 Kr to the US dollar, or $1.43 for a pint. The US is 12th per capita.

93. Cashews are a relative to poison ivy and poison sumac. The irritant is contained in the skin of the fruit. This is why they aren’t sold in their shells. People who are sensitive to poison ivy can react to contact with cashews or mangos, which are also related.

94. Coffee first arrived in Europe in the 1500s. In 1600, the pope declared it a “christian drink”, settling concerns of its Muslim origins. Some have speculated that the arrival of coffee in Europe brought about the Renaissance.

95. Finland drinks the most coffee per year, at over 12 kg of beans per person. Most of the top of the list is dominated by Scandinavian countries, doubtless to fight off the long winter nights. The US is way down at #26, with 4.2 kg per person per year.

96. The earliest recording of tea drinking was in China in 1000 BC. Tea first reached England in 1660, but it took awhile before it was an everyday drink.

97. The greatest per capita consumer of tea is Paraguay, at 11 kg per year per person. The US is way down at #70, consuming half a kilogram a year. I am doing my part to bring our average up.

98. Chocolate was cultivated at least as early as 1100 BC in central america. Most of it is produced now in West Africa, specifically Côte d’Ivoire.

99. White chocolate does in fact contain derivatives of the cocoa plant. In the US, it is required to have at least 20% cocoa butter by weight. Since it does not contain cocoa solids, it doesn’t contain caffeine.

100. There is a strong correlation between a country’s chocolate consumption and the number of Nobel prize winners it has. This result was published in the New England journal of medicine.

Thanks for reading! I hope you found the facts as interesting as I did to find them, but boy and I glad I’m done with them. =)

Book Review: The Absolute at Large (Čapek 1922)

The Absolute at Large was written in 1922 by Czech author Karel Čapek (free web translation to English here). It is about the advent of a machine called the Karburator. The Karburator split atoms into two parts: useful work and a mysterious force called the “absolute”. The absolute is a god force which causes intense religiosity in people, and allows them to perform miracles. As the Karburator spreads across the planet, so does the absolute, and the book describes what follows.

I really enjoyed this book, and I would highly recommend it. First, it’s smart science fiction. In 1922, forces such as radiation were pretty recent science. Radium was discovered in 1898. Čapek describes something very like fission well before its invention. Second, this book is subtly very funny. Through the book, Čapek lampoons religion, communism, and nationalism at least. Third, the book is a short and simple read. My copy was about 200 pages with large print and lots of white space. If you enjoy this book, you can try out Čapek’s possibly more famous work, R.U.R., the book in which the word “robot” was created (derived from the Czech word for serf labor). I haven’t gotten around to that one yet myself.

I had a special reaction to The Absolute at Large, which is largely set in Prague. I was lucky enough to spend a summer in Prague, during which time I was able to talk at length with older residents. The Absolute at Large captures a certain essence of the Czech spirit. The Czechs are cynical in a very witty way. They’ve had religion thrust upon them (read about Jan Hus, the Hussites, and the First Defenestration of Prague). They’ve had nationalities thrust upon them (read about the Second Defenestration of Prague). In 1922, Czechoslovakia had been an independent country for only 3 years following the fall of the Austria-Hungarian empire. Unlike the Poles, who seem to resist forcefully, and the Hungarians and their patriotic sorrow, the Czechs have resorted to humor to endure their less-than-dominant place in geopolitical events. A few years ago, the Czechs held a contest to vote for the greatest Czech ever. The Czechs voted for Jara Cimrman, a fictional man who had no official face (the sculpture had become smooth, they couldn’t find him in this photo of a few hundred, etc). However, fictional Cimrman was credited with many wonderful feats: he suggested the Panama Canal, he was briefly an obstetrician, he consulted with Zeppelin, Eiffel, Mendeleev and Curie. If you are ever in Prague, there is a free museum to Cimrman under the Petřín Tower.

The Absolute at Large has a similar sense of humor to Cimrmanology; Čapek lampoons the inevitable powers of the world and their effect on the Czechs. And how appropriate that the Karburator should be invented in Prague… perhaps Cimrman lent a hand.

Style: Soviet Propaganda Posters

The 20-40s really seem like it was a golden age for illustration. Color photos were not as vibrant as they are today, yet mass printing existed. Thus, beautiful and stylized portraits of life were used in advertising and propaganda (Alphonse Mucha did lovely art nouveau illustrations for advertisers since the late 1800s, I wrote about him here). Many of us have seen the posters created for the Great Depression and WW2 by artists such as Thomas Hart Benton.

When I visited the Czech Republic, Budapest and East Berlin, I was struck by their propaganda posters from the same period. There was such a contrast between the lovely illustrations and the content that we would likely find oppressive. It can be a window into history to understand how people chose (or were forced into) their path. For good collections of Czech or CSSR Propaganda, check out the Communist Musuem in Prague and Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. The featured image for this post is the poster for the Communist Museum; one of my souvenirs from Prague are some nesting dolls with this design.

To have more we must produce more (Wikipedia)

The Czech, Hungarian, and German posters seem hard to find, and I only know the languages a little (if anyone knows good sources, let me know!) I find the role of small countries in the early 20th century especially interesting since they are underrepresented. The countries of central Europe endured many of the worst hardships during the 20th century. There are many sources for Russian propaganda posters:

 

10 years since the revolution

 

 

Style: Art Nouveau

My favorite style is art nouveau. I first learned about art nouveau when I was living in Prague. The works of Alphonse Mucha, a prominent Czech art nouveau artist, remain throughout the city. There is a museum of his various prints and a few paintings, that explains the motivation behind his work. The municipal house (Obecní dům) is in the art nouveau style, with stained glass windows done by Mucha. The Prague castle also has a stained glass work by Mucha, among its many others. Mucha often depicted images of slavic nationalism and women with slavic features. Mucha’s interest in the slavic and czech identity, and his works on this identity, make learning about him an interesting way to learn about Czech history.

One of Mucha’s famous posters. (pic from Wikipedia)

Thumbnails above, from left: Mucha stained glass at the Municipal House, the Municipal House and the Powder Tower, and Mucha stained glass at Prague Castle.

Besides the locations in Prague, I’ve visited several other Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Bauhaus collections. The Bröhan museum in west Berlin and the Horta museum in Brussels are both great. You can also sometimes find museum collections online, like the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.