Tag Archives: czechoslovakia

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.

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.