Alice Crites is a researcher and librarian at The Washington Post who specializes in government and politics. She was part of the team that won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.
In 1938, the richest and most politically connected family in Czechoslovakia abandoned their home, Petschek Palace, and fled the country. When my grandmother learned of this, she turned to my grandfather and said, “That’s a sign, we should leave.” Several months later there would be the Munich Accords, granting Hitler land in Czechoslovakia in return for peace. And by March 1939, German troops had entered Prague. (Sadly, only one of my grandparents made it out of the country alive.) The Petschek residence, a symbol of the sophistication and optimism of the new country after World War I, would later become home to German generals and American ambassadors, including Shirley Temple Black.
In his new book, “The Last Palace,” Norman Eisen, who lived in the Petschek Palace for three years as U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic beginning in 2011, uses the 1920s neoclassicist mansion and several of its most influential residents to tell the turbulent history of a country torn by war, occupation and revolution. Eisen, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a meticulous researcher, and his fascinating book brings together new interviews, diaries, letters, archival research and freshly declassified documents.
Eisen begins with the story of Otto Petschek. Petschek had wanted a career in music, but his family forbade it, so he studied law and joined the family coal and banking business. His artistic expression manifested itself in his obsession to create the most beautiful and technologically advanced palace, surrounded by glorious gardens. It took about seven years to build, and Petschek’s pursuit of perfection bankrupted him and forced him to borrow from his family to finish the home. He celebrated the completion of his vision by entertaining noblemen, politicians and businessmen on a grand scale. But almost as soon as his family moved in, Petschek began to have health problems and died just three years later. In May 1938, the whole extended Petschek family picked up and left.
In 1941, Rudolf Toussaint moved in. He was a Wehrmacht general and a World War I veteran, but not a Nazi Party member. Toussaint first came to Prague as a military attache in 1936 and tried to discourage Nazi enthusiasm for invading Czechoslovakia. Once Hitler invaded, Toussaint was sent to Belgrade, but he returned to Prague in 1941 . At the end of the war, after Hitler committed suicide, and with the American and Soviet armies advancing on Prague, the citizens of the city revolted against the Germans. Toussaint disobeyed orders to violently crack down on the uprising and negotiated a way to peacefully withdraw his troops while saving the city from both Nazi and Soviet destruction.
The first American diplomat to live in Petschek Palace was Laurence Steinhardt, who took residence in 1945. His twin obsessions were to keep Czechoslovakia as an ally of the West after World War II and to keep the rented palace as the permanent home of the U.S. ambassador. The Americans always seemed at a disadvantage in Prague: The U.S. military had allowed the Russians to liberate the city, which gave them a huge propaganda advantage. To make matters worse, by 1946 Americans wanted their soldiers home, which would leave a massive Soviet presence in Prague. Steinhardt managed to negotiate a withdrawal of the Russian troops at the same time as the Americans.
But Steinhardt was not so successful at keeping communist influence out of Czechoslovakia. By 1946 the communists had the most legislative seats of any political party, but they did not yet have an absolute majority. In 1947 the Czechoslovak government declined the Marshall Plan agenda and began moving ever closer to Moscow, culminating in the February 1948 communist power grab. Steinhardt wrote in a letter a few weeks later: “What has taken place in Czechoslovakia is merely conclusive proof that it is not possible to compromise with Communism and live in the same house with it. Like fire, it ultimately consumes everything it touches.” Steinhardt continued to negotiate with the communists for the palace, and just before he departed in July 1948, a contract was signed handing it over to the U.S. government.
Shirley Temple Black arrived in Prague to be the U.S. ambassador in August 1989. Her career in international affairs had been inspired by her experience in the city in August 1968, during a trip as an activist on behalf of multiple sclerosis research. Caught in the violence and chaos of the Russian invasion of Prague, she returned home and embarked on work at the United Nations. Next came an ambassadorship to Ghana and several other governmental postings before President George H.W. Bush offered Black her dream job in Prague. She entered the Petschek residence with a determination to use her celebrity and position to support and encourage dissidents and demand that Czechoslovakia honor its Helsinki Accords obligations, including the protection of human rights.
Cracks in the Iron Curtain appeared in the region that fall and soon spread to Prague, starting with demonstrations on National Independence Day, Oct. 28. The hard-line government demanded that thousands of citizens be chased away, blocked, boxed in and attacked. Black bravely went to observe and let the people and the authorities know that she was there to witness history. More demonstrations continued, attracting even more people. Within three weeks, the government resigned.
Throughout the book, Eisen weaves in his experiences and family history. His mother, Frieda, came from a deeply devout Jewish family who lived in a small village in the Czechoslavak countryside; they were all transported to Auschwitz. Though she survived, Frieda’s story is one of loss, vanished opportunities and endless hard work. She is proud of her son, yet she can’t share his American optimism or stop worrying about his safety in such a public role. She saw how quickly bigotry and hatred could be unleashed, and that democracy and freedom are neither inevitable nor constant without continual vigilance.
Reading this book, you are reminded of the many missed opportunities that the United States and other Western allies had to encourage and assist democracy in Central Europe. It is not clear that we have learned from history as we are once again confronting nationalist, nativist and anti-democratic politicians and movements backed or amplified by Russia in Europe and beyond.
The current occupant of the ambassador’s palatial residence is Stephen B. King, a Republican operative nominated by President Trump, whose contribution to American history is as the former FBI agent and Nixon campaign security staffer who, according to multiple news reports, kidnapped, drugged and assaulted Martha Mitchell to keep her silent after the Watergate break-in.
CORRECTION: A photo accompanying this story, since removed, was the wrong Petschek building.
By Norman Eisen
Crown. 416 pp. $28