Through the eyes of a child, and the voices of her family, Madeleine Korbelova Albright saw her homeland played as a pawn in the run-up to World War II, then crushed by Josef Stalin. Later as a senior policymaker for President Bill Clinton she watched her native Czechoslovakia flourish in the Velvet Revolution.
“Prague Winter” – history wedded to biography – is a reminder to those watching Islamic extremists menace Israel, of the horrors of the Holocaust, of anti-Semitism run wild. And, to a generation that never knew, or forgot the Iron Curtain, the book is a cold, matter-of-fact chronicle of the way Communism by means of conspiracy, lies and murder smothered one of Europe’s most elegant cultures for more than four decades.
Even so, the volume is a riveting, sometimes charming page-turner, from Albright’s narration of Czechoslovakia’s founding and its 6 century-old Charles University to the murder of foreign minister Jan Masaryk after a communist coup in Prague.
Albright’s father Josef Korbel, journalist and a leading Czech diplomat, brought his family to this country under the cover of asylum as Stalinists began to close in on all those who had worked for the Czech government in exile during World War II.
After graduating from Wellesley, Albright earned a Ph.D. at Columbia University, and in turns served Clinton as national security adviser, United Nations ambassador, and the first woman secretary of state.
(Albright is patron and mentor to Susan Rice, President Obama’s U.N. envoy, but who will never become secretary of state thanks to a muddled story Rice agreed to deliver in September about the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.)
With the meticulousness of a Sherlock Holmes, Albright recounts the assassination by Czech patriots of the author of Hitler’s “final solution,” Reinhard Heydrich; the miseries and heroics of the Jewish ghetto in the ancient fortress town of Terezin; and the death of Mazaryk.
The assassination of Mazaryk, the son of Tomas G. Mazaryk, the founder of the modern Czechoslovak Republic, led to the assembly of the North American Treaty Organization, Albright writes.
Yet she weaves her father, aunts, uncles and cousins – “at least 25 of whom died in the Shoah” – through all these events. The story of how some of her doomed relatives carted off to crowded Terezin, denied even the basics of privacy and sanitation, encouraged the young by creating classes for painting and drama, is unforgettable. Yet Albright manages to do it without plunging into bathos.
Albright collaborated with writer Bill Woodword, as she has on previous books. His name is prominently listed on the title page and the book jacket. That may help account for the eerie detachment with which the most agonizing tales are rendered. And may explain the seamless way she segues from one calamity to another.
But it is Albright’s integrity and intellect that mark this volume. Somehow, she is able to see the many dilemmas that faced Czech leaders over the years, such as President Eduard Benes’ fateful decision to look to the Soviet Union as his small country’s guarantor after the war ended. This was because, she relates, of the betrayal of Great Britain and France in 1938 as Hitler closed in and his fear of Hungary and Poland.
Albright explains what chiefly drove her to produce the work: The discovery by the Washington Post in 1997 that while she was raised as a Catholic, the Korbels were really Jews who converted in part to make life easier in a state where prejudice, while not as virulent as in Germany and France, ran deep.
Albright ends the work with observations about extremism, and some indirect criticisms of President Obama, whom she supports, for failing to observe the letter of international law on drones and torture.
This is not a monumental, ponderous work of history. It is not always clear where the threads of some anecdotes precisely begin. It is instead a well-told, really irreplaceable story, told with warmth and wisdom.
Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance And War 1937-1948
By Madeleine Albright
467 pages, $29.99
Douglas Turner is Washington columnist of The Buffalo News.