04.25.12

Madeleine Albright’s ‘Prague Winter’ Blends History and Family Saga

In a narrative that paints her family’s survival story against the violent upheavals that splintered Eastern Europe in the last century, the former secretary of state has produced a fascinating and deeply personal look at history.

The first thing to be said about Prague Winter,  former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s new book, is that she very wisely chooses to confront early on in it her apparent surprise at learning late in life that she was born Jewish.

This I find easy enough to understand. My father and his brothers never mentioned to their English wives and children that they were Jewish. Being Hungarian was exotic and foreign enough to begin with, and so long as they were not asked, they found it easier, from 1919 on, to let the matter drop. “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” might have been their motto, so much so that when I was writing Charmed Lives, a biography of the three Korda brothers, and told my mother that my father was Jewish she said, “Oh, don’t be silly, darling,” and assumed it was just another example of my father’s strange sense of humor, and failure to grasp the rudiments of the English class system.

So Albright gets my sympathy for the fuss that was raised about this in the press—though I have to say that if relatives had been writing to me for years about this, it would certainly have occurred to me to find out a bit more about it. One can’t help but think that there was an element of not wanting to know at work, rather than simply not knowing.

Still, those who criticized her simply do not understand the pressures facing Central European Jews in the years from 1933 to 1945, as it became increasingly obvious that the price for identifying oneself, or being identified as, Jewish was not just having a hotel or a restaurant refuse to make a reservation for you, as was the case in this country in those days (“Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Goldberg, but I see now we’re completely booked up.”), or being excluded from certain clubs, schools, jobs, resorts, neighborhoods, and apartment buildings, “restricted,” as the process was then called. No, the price of identifying yourself as Jewish in Central Europe in that era was isolation, joblessness, unpredictable brutality, loss of citizenship, exile, or eventually victim of mass-murder.

Prague Winter by Madeleine Albright

The peoples of the states created by the Versailles Treaty out of the shards of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 constituted in any case an ethnic crazy quilt, with the borders of these new and largely artificial states drawn by bureaucrats or ambitious spokesmen for various nationalities so carelessly as to include large numbers of people who spoke different languages, were of a different race and religion, and had hated each other for centuries. Thus almost a million Hungarians were included in a lavish transfer of territory to Romania, where still today they simmer in discontent, clinging to their Magyar roots and language.

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Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright talks about her father and foreign policy.

But all such problems paled beside the creation of “Czechoslovakia,” with its cramped and crooked frontiers, within which it was cheerfully hoped by the victorious Allies that the Czechs, Slovaks, Germans, Hungarians, and Ruthenians would form a functioning democracy as well as a military power that would, like the other “Entente” states, give Germany something to worry about on her eastern frontier once she began to recover from defeat, humiliation, a nearly successful left-wing revolution, and social collapse.

It might be said of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that, like the atheist Voltaire’s tactful description of God, “S’il n’existait pas, il fallait l’inventer.” (“If He did not exist, we should have to invent Him.”) With all its faults, the Austro-Hungarian Empire kept all these--and many more--nationalities together in one sprawling state, in which the unhappiness and mutual contempt of the empire’s varied subjects (Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Poles, Ruthenians, Slovenians, Serbs both Orthodox and Muslim, Bosnians, Croats, and more) were subordinated to or cancelled out by an almost universal dislike of the ruling Habsburg family and of the imperial government, which has been described as “an autocracy humanized by corruption and stupidity,” as well as by the famous Viennese witty remark about the politics of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: “The situation is desperate, but not serious.”

Whatever else the Czech experience has demonstrated from 1919 to today, it has been above all proof of the old adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Nothing about the empire was taken seriously, until it collapsed and disintegrated into Fascism, Communism, rival nationalisms, chaos and anarchy, unleashing on Central Europe (and the Balkans) at least two centuries of pent-up hate and prejudice--the fatal inheritance, for example, of the Bohemian-born, failed architecture student, Austrian-German nationalist, and anti-Semitic agitator, Adolf Hitler.

Anti-Semitism was universal, but held in check both by the Emperor Franz Joseph, who reigned from 1848 to 1916 (Queen Victoria always referred to him as “the dear old emperor”) and who disliked Hungarians and the many different kinds of Slavs in the empire more than he disliked Jews, and by the fact that every race, religion, and nationality in the empire had more important objects of hate than the Jews. Everybody in the empire was despised and hated by some other group or groups, not just the Jews. When the emperor’s advisors suggested making somebody a state counselor on the grounds that he was “a great patriot,” the aged emperor dismissed the whole subject of patriotism with a sad wave of the hand: “Yes,” he said, “but is he a patriot for me?”

The downside of Albright’s book is that it rather resembles the definition of a camel as a horse designed by a committee. There are at least two stories here, a family story, which includes, but is not limited to a Holocaust story, and the story of the birth of Czechoslovakia, formed by taking the ancient Austrian provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, and adding to them (despite considerable resentment on their part) the province of Slovakia, and a narrow eastern and northern frontier district of fiercely resentful formerly Austrian ethnic Germans.

The family story is well told and moving, another example of what Romain Gary, the author of The Roots of Heaven, called, “a European education,” that is to say assimilation, bourgeois success, and political ambition, followed by exile (for the lucky) or annihilation.

The political story is familiar, but well worth reading about again: the creation of Czechoslovakia, the ill-fated enfant prodigue of Versailles, her rise to precarious independence and prosperity, her dismemberment by the French and the British in 1938, her fate as a Nazi “Reich protectorate,” and, by a final and malign irony, her conversion into one of Stalin’s “satellite” Soviet states during the cold war.

One hopes that the Czech Republic, blessed by the spirit of her internationally respected late former president, Václav Havel, and sustained by her highly developed industry (automobile manufacturing, glass, weapons, chemicals, shoes), will move forward as a prosperous, democratic part of United Europe, despite the presence of some rather gruesome neighbors to her east, and some ghastly demons in her short past history.

That is Albright’s hope, too, and she is both articulate and passionate on the subject. If the Czech Republic gets overwhelmed in another round of reshuffling the cards from the hand of the former Habsburg Empire, it will be bad news for Europe, and for us. Whatever else the Czech experience has demonstrated from 1919 to today, it has been above all proof of the old adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Everybody (except the Germans) had good intentions about the creation of Czechoslovakia, yet less than 20 years later she was abandoned by her creators, only to become ruled by the demonic Reinhard Heydrich, “the blond beast,” Himmler’s fair-haired poster boy for the SS and inventor of “the Final Solution.” After the Allied victory, the country was repackaged as a Soviet puppet state ruled by odious Stalinist thugs. Hardly any other small state has managed to endure so many tragedies in such a short time.

Albright’s account of modern Czech history is very good indeed, as it ought to be since she is a former secretary of state—though the reader should be aware that her enthusiasm for the creation of Czechoslovakia does not pretend to objectivity. Certainly Czechoslovakia was a more deserving cause than pre-World War II Poland, but there was hardly anybody in Britain who wanted to go to war to prevent Hitler from browbeating the Czechs into giving up the Sudetenland, and still fewer in France.

Albright takes the conventional view that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was “timid” in the face of Hitler’s threats, and his Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax still more so, but Chamberlain’s besetting sin was vanity, not timidity—he had bullied his way to the leadership of the Conservative Party, he was a tough and unforgiving businessman turned politician, and he assumed that he and he alone could dominate Hitler. Then, too, Chamberlain knew better than anyone that Britain was not prepared for war in 1938: the Royal Air Force’s radar network, the “secret weapon” that would enable Fighter Command to win the Battle of Britain in 1940, was still being constructed, the first Hurricanes were just entering squadron service, and the Spitfire was still in the pre-production phase. Chamberlain knew that it would be 1940 before Fighter Command could defend Britain, and 1941 or 1942 before Bomber Command received the new four-engine bombers that could reach the Ruhr or Berlin. Certainly he wanted peace, and was willing to trade Czechoslovakia for it. Certainly he grossly underestimated Hitler. But he was also playing for time, as all three of his service chiefs understood.

As for Halifax, he was not known as “the Holy Fox” for nothing, and knew perfectly well what he was doing. Neither of them had any sentimental regard for Czechoslovakia or its leaders, or were tempted to trigger a European war over the Sudetenland—a position which Americans were in no position to criticize, since the United States was even less prepared for war than Britain or France, and was neither likely to be attacked nor remotely interested in joining a war on their side in 1938—or 1939 or 1940.

Albright is on much firmer ground with her astute portraits of the major figures in the creation of Czechoslovakia: Tomás Masaryk, virtually the founder of the country, a man of heroic dimensions; his son Jan Masaryk, who met a tragic fate at the hands of the Communists after the war; and Eduard Benes, the hugely respected figure who managed with DeGaulle-like persistence (but alas, without DeGaulle’s dominating personality), to place his country “on the front burner” with Allied leaders during World War II. In this Benes was aided enormously by the contributions made to the war effort by Czech troops, Czech airmen in the RAF (one of the highest-scoring aces in the Battle of Britain was Czech Sergeant Joseph Frantisek) and the Czech resistance, which played a heroic and sacrificial role, particularly in the assassination of Reichsprotektor Heydrich, which Albright describes in brilliant detail—both the British politics behind the assassination, and the consequences of its success in occupied Czechoslovakia, which led to the German destruction of the town of Lidice and numerous other atrocities.

Albright has provided a fascinating account of the many tragedies that struck Czechoslovakia, and of the enormous courage of those Czechs who resisted, and of those who sought after the war to preserve Central Europe’s only surviving democracy. And to her credit she never loses sight of her own family’s extraordinary journey to safety in America, and of the debt she owes her parents for her own amazing “success story,” and for the many benefits we all gained when she was secretary of state by her experience and knowledge of how terrible the consequences can be for a small state when it gets in the way of the ambitions or the self-interest of greater powers. That sensitivity is amply demonstrated in a book that is not only a family story--a proud and moving one--but a brilliant and multilayered account of how Czechoslovakia was formed along the most idealistic lines in the aftermath of World War I, betrayed and abandoned by those who had created it, almost destroyed first by the Germans and then by the Russians. Then it rose again like a phoenix from its own ashes, setting an example of democracy which the rest of Eastern and Central Europe would do well to study and follow—though that seems no more likely now than it did in the 30s, alas. Prague Winter is an altogether fascinating and inspiring read.