On the first page of her new memoir, Madeleine Albright writes, “I was fifty-nine when I began serving as U.S. secretary of state. I thought by then that I knew all there was to know about my past, who ‘my people’ were, and the history of my native land. I was sure enough that I did not feel a need to ask questions. Others might be insecure about their identities; I was not and never had been. I knew. Only I didn’t.”
Albright (née Korbelová) was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1937 when the country had been independent for just 20 years. Her father, Josef Korbel, was a Czech diplomat and democrat who fled to Great Britain with his family following the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938, and again in 1948, following a democratic election when the country was effectively gifted into the murderous hands of the local communist party. Korbel and his family were granted political asylum in the United States in 1949, and Albright became a U.S. citizen in 1957. Josef Korbel became the Dean of the University of Denver’s school of international studies, where he taught another future secretary of state, one Condoleeza Rice.
Albright was raised as a Roman Catholic and converted to Episcopalianism at the time of her marriage in 1958. She tells us she did not learn until a month before she became the country’s first female secretary of state that “my family heritage was Jewish or that more than twenty of my relatives had died in the Holocaust. I had been brought up to believe in a history of my Czechoslovak homeland that was less tangled and more straightforward than the reality. I had much still to learn about the complex moral choices that my parents and others in their generation had been called on to make.”
Some of this episode is recounted in her previous book “Madam Secretary” (2003), a memoir of her time in office. In her latest book, “Prague Winter,” Albright says that around the time of her appointment, on Dec. 5, 1996, she received a letter from a woman who had “been in business with my maternal grandparents, who had been victimized by anti-Jewish discrimination during the war.” Following this, in January 1997 — around the time she took up office — “a hardworking Washington Post reporter, Michael Dobbs, uncovered news that stunned us all: according to his research, three of my grandparents and numerous other family members had died in the Holocaust.”
All of which raises the question: When did Bill Clinton find out that Madeleine Albright is Jewish? After all, at a time when he was trying to play the honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians, how diplomatically helpful would it have been to appoint a Jewish secretary of state? I suspect the answer is, not helpful at all.
The revelation that she is Jewish “is central,” Albright writes, “because it provided the impetus” for this book, a compelling personal exploration of her family’s Jewish roots as well as an excellent history of Czechoslovakia from 1937 to 1948.
As someone very familiar with the period and a little familiar with the place, I read the book avidly, enjoying it very much. I wish I’d had this book with me when last I visited Prague in the winter of 2011. Much about that mysterious and very beautiful medieval city would have been a lot clearer to me.
“Prague Winter” is highly informative and insightful, and it’s clear that Albright, a professor of international relations at Georgetown University, has done her homework. The book brings vividly to life the many pivotal historical events in recent Czech history. Especially good are the descriptions of the German occupation; the assassination of the so-called protector of Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich (on May 27th it will be 70 years since “the hangman,” as he was also known, was attacked by a British-trained team of Czech and Slovak soldiers); the murder of the heroic Foreign Affairs Minister Jan Masaryk by Czech Stalinists; and the subjugation of the country by a communist party that behaved no less brutally than the Nazis. Albright’s father was a close friend of Masaryk and the then-President Benes, who previously had led the Czechoslovakian government from exile in London. Her father might easily have been thrown out of a window like Masaryk — what is it about the people of Prague and defenestration? — if he hadn’t fled to England.
I can’t recommend “Prague Winter” highly enough. But if I have a criticism of Albright, it’s this: Having read it very closely, I can’t help feeling she doesn’t like the English very much. She takes Britain to task for a number of failings, not least for not standing up to Hitler at Munich in 1938 (although it seems to me that since France, not Great Britain, was Czechoslovakia’s ally under the Little Entente treaty of 1924, and had the greater duty) as well as for the small-minded, comical way we English went about the defense of our country, not to mention our rather condescending behavior toward Czechs in exile. Just how condescending could we really have been, I wonder, when the king and queen took the trouble to invite Czech independence movement leader Edvard Benes and his wife to lunch in the summer of 1940? I’ve lived here for 56 years, and I’ve never even been through the gates of Buckingham Palace. My father was wearing clogs to school in Edinburgh while Albright was attending a private school in Walton-on-Thames and living in a nice big house in Kensington.
“Few sentiments,” says Albright, “are expressed more often than gratitude,” but in “Prague Winter” this gratitude doesn’t run to the least amount of thanks to a country that came to her family’s aid — twice. Without the sanctuary provided by Great Britain, Albright would almost certainly have died in Theresienstadt or Auschwitz like many of her family members.
A simple expression of gratitude would have been nice. But I looked for a kind word about my fellow countrymen and found none — no, not even about Churchill. I wouldn’t mind so much if she didn’t elsewhere single out post-war Germany for praise “as a bulwark of democracy, a good neighbor, and a model in protecting human rights.”
Well gee, Madeleine thanks a lot.
A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948
By Madeleine Albright
with Bill Woodward
Harper. 467 pp. $29.99