In this work, the former U.S. Secretary of State brings a relevant blend of history and autobiography to the reading lists of anyone interested in the shaping of modern Europe due to the second world war. While the bulk of the first several chapters serves as a backdrop to the first memories that Albright, born in 1937, begins to share in chapter 12 ("The Irresistible Force"), the author also provides thoughts from the files of her father, Josef Körbel, a Czechoslovakian diplomat who served from London as an advisor to Edvard Benes, the exiled Czech president, until the National Socialists were defeated in Germany, and as the country's ambassador to Yugoslavia before being forced to flee to the U.S. after the Communist coup in 1948.
To some degree, what Albright provides in this dense, 400-page text is reminiscent of the format that Fritz Stern uses for "Five Germanys I Have Known" (see my review), albeit from the viewpoint of Czechoslovakia before, during, and after World War II, but most of the author's insight comes later in the book, in retrospect, rather than from the years covered, due to her young age at the time. She covers considerable ground, and although it might be helpful for potential readers to have a general understanding of what happened during that time period in Europe at large, in my opinion Albright writes well and potential readers should not have difficulty understanding what she attempts to convey, even if one has not been exposed to Czechoslovakian history.
Admittedly, it is never trivial writing a review for texts covering such weighty content. However, I especially appreciated chapter 14 ("The Alliance Comes Together"), in which Albright discusses the conversion of her parents to Catholicism in light of her Jewish family heritage, chapters 18 ("Terezín"), 19 ("The Bridge Too Far"), and 20 ("Cried-out Eyes"), in which the author shares concentration camp experiences, and her concluding thoughts in the afterward ("The Next Chapter"). And because of my Donauschwaben (Danube Swabian) heritage, which has provided insight from family members who over the years have shared their concentration camp experiences following the Russian invasion of Yugoslavia, I also found interesting the personal experiences of Albright, who had privileged status in Yugoslavia due to her father's role at that same time.
While the author does share the fact that her father did not agree with Tito's character, it was difficult to read the few passages associated with Tito in chapter 26 ("A Precarious Balance"), because my ethnic German family faced confiscation of property, expulsion to concentration camps and labor camps, and murder by government forces. Albright acknowledges wrongdoing by the Allied powers, but she does not get into much detail with regard to the plight of 15 million ethnic Germans living outside Germany following the end of World War II. However, I must admit that the several pages that Albright shares in chapter 25 ("A World Big Enough to Keep Us Apart") are more than most authors care to provide on this subject, and her confession that "my views on Czechoslovak policy in this period are colored by my experiences as an adult far removed from the passions of the day" is well received.
I wish there was room here (and patience from readers) to quote Albright extensively, but perhaps sharing some of her closing remarks will help compel you to read this book. "Given the events described in this book, we cannot help but acknowledge the capacity within us for unspeakable cruelty or - to give the virtuous their due - at least some degree of moral cowardice. There is a piece of the traitor within most of us, a slice of collaborator, an aptitude for appeasement, a touch of the unfeeling prison guard. Who among us has not dehumanized others, if not by word or action, then at least in thought? From the maternity ward to the deathbed, all that goes on within our breasts is hardly sweetness and light. Some have concluded from this that what is needed from our leaders is an iron hand, an ideology that explains everything, or a historical grievance that can serve as a center of our lives."
"Still others study the past and despair that we will ever learn anything, comparing us instead to a laboratory animal on an exercise wheel, always running, never advancing. If I agreed with this dismal prognosis, I would never have arisen from bed this morning, much less written this book. I prefer the diagnosis of Václav Havel, whose conclusions about human behavior were forged in the smithy of the Cold War. Amid the repression of those years, he discerned two varieties of hope. The first he compared to the longing for 'some kind of salvation from the outside.' This caused people to wait and do nothing because they had 'lost the feeling that there was anything they could do...So they waited [in essence] for Godot...But Godot is an illusion. He is the product of our own helplessness, a patch over a hole in the spirit...the hope of people without hope."
"On the other end of the spectrum," said Havel, there are those who insist on 'speaking the truth simply because it [will] lead somewhere tomorrow, or the day after, or ever.' This urge, too, is fully human, every bit as much as the temptation to despair. Such daring, he argued, grows out of the faith that repeating truth makes sense in itself, regardless of whether it is 'appreciated, or victorious, or repressed for the hundredth time. At the very least, it [means] that someone [is] not supporting the government of lies.' Havel admitted, however, that defiance is not undertaken for its own sake but because people cannot exist in the absence of hope. Logically or not, people act out of faith 'that a seed once sown [will] one day take root and send forth a shoot. No one [knows] when.'"
"There are many examples of cruelty and betrayal in this book, but they are not what I will take with me as I move to life's next chapter. In the world where I choose to live, even the coldest winter must yield to agents of spring and the darkest view of human nature must eventually find room for shafts of light". Well said.
My initial response to Prague Winter by Madeline Albright echoes the back cover blurb by Walter Isaacson, "I was totally blown away by this book." I was expecting something along the lines of a sentimental family memoir set in the WWII context. What Albright delivers is a first-class history lesson on the WWII era primarily from the Czechoslovakia perspective. The historical narrative reads like an intriguing novel that precisely details the dynamics leading to WWII, during WWII and the aftermath of WWII. The personal quality of the book flows from the involvement of Albright's family in Czechoslavakia's politics and foreign affairs. Her father was a foreign affairs officer who opposed the Nazi's and the Communists. Readers will hear both researched history and Albright's families history that serve to draw readers into the story. I believe Albright shares unique insights into the political dynamics and war machinations during this historical period.
What strikes me about Albright's book is how revealing it is for our own times. The historical lessons that can be ascertained from reading this type of history can save us from falling into the same traps that gave rise to fascists and communists. Near the end of the book, Alright writes, "Few choices have proved more damaging to the future than teaching children to resent the past." Albright's account of even the most horrific circumstances always finds a way to highlight some redeeming quality among the people whether it is the Londoners during the bombings, the Jews singing requiems over mass graves, or Jews finding a way to have community within a Nazi ghetto, or believers in democracy holding on to faith that diverse people can come together. There are myriad tragedies occuring in the pages of the book, and there is hopefulness. We see how earnestly the Nazi's and Communists strived to divide people and turn groups against other groups based on race, nationality, religion and economic level. Too often such tactics have worked for political movements. There are heroes in this book that fought the tide and reached out to others.
I encourage you to read this book. If anyone hesitates because of Ms. Albright's political affiliation, you need not worry about partisan American politics rearing its head here. This is a book for everyone.
Madeleine Albright, the first female US Secretary of State, was born shortly before World War II. She grew up with Christmas trees and Sunday mass. Too young to even remember her Czech grandparents left behind when her parents went to England (her father was part of the Czech Provisional Government during the war), she never knew until nearly six decades later that the family they had left behind in Czechoslovakia was Jewish and that nearly all of them had died in the Holocaust.
Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 is the story of Albright's personal journey of discovery. Those who study World War II, even superficially, all know that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain essentially signed away the nation of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, an act that has made Chamberlain the very symbol of appeasement ever since. Albright gives us the story behind the story.
Madeleine Albright's father was Josef Korbel, a prominent Czech diplomat. Because of her unique access, both as a former official of the United States of America and her father's daughter, with access to the wealth of material he left behind, Albright provides us with an interesting and engaging history of Czechoslovakia that goes far to fill in the often sketchy and superficial gloss that too often colors the importance of this little corner of the world during the War years while also telling the story of her family.
Well illustrated with pictures from her family collection and superbly footnoted, I found Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 a compelling read, very hard to put down. If you're a history buff, this one's for you!
I'm sure that like many Americans, I was completely unaware of Madeleine Albright's background. When she was selected to be Secretary of State by Bill Clinton, I just assumed (you know what that can do) that she was another sheltered and pampered intellectual; another product of an Ivey League education. Well, it just goes to show you that one should never take at face value what one sees.
Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 by Ms Albright opens the curtain on a historical event that is a lesson on appeasement. Of course, the betrayal of Czechoslovakia is not new information. Those of us that remember our second or third semester of Western Civilization have had this tale told to us. However, reading Ms Albrights book places it on a very personal level and we are also provided with details that most of us were unaware of. We are intimately shown what betrayal of this small central European country meant and it's cost to those who had to live under the events that were triggered by the actions of the western democracies, mainly France and Britain.
Prague Winter is not an autobiography. Albright's life is secondary to the history that she tells. While she does tell us about herself growing up and how the various moves that her father, Josef's work required impacted on her, the main part of the book is reserved for what happened on the world stage. Diplomacy and failed diplomacy. Promises and the promises turned to lies. Action and inaction. The old saying that "the road to h___ is paved with good intentions" would serve as a good synopsis of Prague Winter.
But the biggest lesson of Prague Winter isn't a new one. Appeasement, whatever it is called simply doesn't work with mad men. Dictators, as did Hitler, see the intention of others to avoid war as weakness. Albright reveals several times that had Hitler thought the western democracies would have fought him over Czechoslovakia and then Poland, that he probably would not have proceeded with his plans. We can only guess what would have happened but World War II might have been avoided with all of the tragedy, suffering, and death.
Prague Winter is a gripping read. Though the reader probably knows the outcome of the major events discussed, there is a power that draws the finger to turn the page.
As a long-time fan of Madeleine Albright, I knew I'd want to request this book from Vine. Albright traces the movement of World War II from the perspective of her home country, Czechoslovakia. She goes into considerable detail about events that took place, from the first awareness of Hitler to the war's end. She describes the actions of the governments of Europe but also provides the unique perspective she gained because her father was a Czech diplomat and then journalist. She describes the horrors of the holocaust and concentration camps, with details of individual experiences provided by survivors she met on her own journey home.
I came away with an appreciation of Albright's grasp of historical events and her ability to articulate them, particularly in the juxtaposition of events on a world stage and the impact of those events on individuals with personal stories. For instance, she writes of her own grandmother who was among those who mysteriously disappeared on a train to a concentration camp; she speculates the travelers were killed at a training camp enroute. She later writes of an event with a happier ending: a young woman who smiles at a guard, thinking she's on the way to a spa, gets pulled from the death line and sent to a different camp, where she survives to live in Argentina. In yet another example, at the end of the war, it was not always easy to decide who was guilty and who should be punished; she describes one German citizen who hid a Jewish woman and protected others, yet who collaborated with the Nazis in other ways. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison, Albright reports.
It's not an easy book and I admit I skimmed some of the details about the war; it's the kind of book you can't read at a few sittings, but you'll want to return and catch up. I was intrigued most by the glimpses into Ms. Albright's own life. She provides short, almost teasing anecdotes - details of her report card from primary school, for instance! - and yet we don't get a full picture of her family and experiences. She shows enormous respect for her parents and apparently she's still close to her own siblings.
She speaks frankly about her parents' decision to convert to Catholicism. Those few pages are among the most revealing and most fascinating, and I suspect many readers will feel the same way. She was baptized as a young child, so she has no memory of the experience. She was genuinely shocked to learn the story as an adult. Her discussion manages to avoid spin or elaboration; she speculates on her parents' reasons yet acknowledges she will never know the truth.
Albright writes in a style that's compelling but also matter of fact; she doesn't dramatize events or dwell on the emotional baggage that might come with them. She often reports facts without commentary. As a result the events of the war seem even more horrific. Indirectly, her origins in Prague - a small complicated, vulnerable country - and her father's career undoubtedly contributed to her successful career as an academic, diplomat and secretary of state. Her life story is unique to her era and her family, creating a path that ultimately allowed her to make her own impact on the contemporary political world.
on June 5, 2012
In this book, the reader gets two stories for the price of one: First there are gripping tales of high-wire international diplomacy, and then the painful uncovering of close held family secrets.
In perhaps her finest diplomatic moment, Ambassador Albright tells us here how she steeled her nerves to ride out the negotiations that would end in a NATO coalition that would root out from Kosovo the petty tyrant and ethnic racist, Slobodan Milosevi'. Almost singlehandedly, she was responsible for pulling together a fractious, and at times a reluctant, NATO coalition, one that would eventually gel into a formidable fighting force that got the job done. This was not the act of a "shrinking violet," or a misguided liberal ideologue, this was the job of a seasoned diplomat, coming into her own.
As we see here, Albright's singular most important diplomatic triumph was just one of many that had threads connecting her and the Korbel family to that Central European region that was the home of the Korbel family. Her father, Dr. Josef Korbel, that magnificent and dignified man, who I had the great pleasure to work with at the University of Denver, School of International Studies, an Institute that now bears his name, also spent the early parts of his life and career, literarily dodging the bullets of tyrants like Hitler and Milosevi'. Thus, it is not just parallel and poetic justice that while trying to herd the NATO cats into a wheelbarrow, Ambassador Albright had to recall to her chief aide at the time, Jamie Ruben, the shameful capitulation Chamberlain had made to Adolph Hitler. Our Secretary of State vowed on the spot that the U.S. would not, a half century later, be guilty of another Chamberlain-like crime of capitulating to the likes of Milosevi'. Her involvement in saving Kosovo is a storyline that even the best fiction could not have improved upon. This thread alone, told with candor, surprise and from the vantage point of a diplomat who understood her moment in history, and steadfastly stood her ground, is alone worth the price of the book.
Like her father, Ambassador Albright is no false ideological prophet, she understands that international politics is a game that fits into the genre of the hardest of hard ball. And following her father's lead, she learned the game the old fashion way and played it with the best of her generation. And she did it not just to posture and impress others, as others in her position have done, but to win; and she won repeatedly.
As for her private life, and the way it intersected with her profession and her outlook on life, I am reminded of the adage that all families are dysfunctional, just dysfunctional in their own way. This adage surely applies as much to the Korbel/Albright family as it does to the rest of us. Thus, I believe deep inside she felt more than just slightly betrayed that her parents and family members protected her from the important knowledge about her Jewish heritage. But much like her father, she is much too dignified to hold family grudges, or to cast blame for her lack of knowledge. And anyway, she has attacked the problem of family discovery with the same zeal and commitment to the truth as she did with any other project. And as a result, the reader gets a double feature: He is taken on a bifurcated journey into yet another story, one that is at least as interesting as that involving her professional career in international diplomacy.
I recognize that it may be colossally unfair to compare the biographies of living statesmen. However since I worked for (and in the instance of Ambassador Albright, also worked with) them, the comparison, fair or not, emerges somewhat unforced. As a 27-year career State Department Foreign Affairs Officer, I had the good fortune to have worked for all of the Secretaries of State from Henry Kissinger through Condoleeza Rice. I have also read the biographies of all of them except that of George Shultz's. And without reservation, I can say that Ambassador Albright's is not just the very best -- the best written, but also it ties with General Colin Powell's for also being the most honest of them.
Kissinger's, predictably, and as anyone who has read anything by him can attest, was simply a bit too pompous and self-servicing, often to the point of being off-putting. Plus, the writing was stilted perfectly in keeping with everything else we know about Mr. Kissinger. Rice's biography, like her tenure as Secretary of State, in my humble opinion, simply did not rise to the same level as the others. Her book struck me much too defensive (as well as others who reviewed it) and simply was not a very serious writing project. Whether under deadline or psychological pressures, her biography simpler never came together - and in any case, revealed little that we could not have been gleaned from the newspapers. As well, as I said in my Amazon review of her book, I found so many instances where she had either been willfully dishonest, or failed to take any responsibility for her bad decisions while serving in important posts in the U.S. government, especially in her position at the NSC, and including her tenure as Secretary of State. Her lack of candor and commitment to her own book project was telling and came through at every turn, making reading it a rather painful exercise. I have seen good reviews of Rice's more recent book, but because the first one burnt me so badly, I am gun-shy about getting bitten a second time.
Not so in Ambassador Albright's two books covering her life and her career. In my view this is the better of her two books and is the gold standard for biographies of American Statesmen. I believe this is so because Ambassador Albright has been motivated first by her own personal attempt to get at the truth of history and at the same time get at the truth of her own family's trek from tyranny to freedom. Thus it is clear that here she is on a quest for the unanswered questions about the history of her family, and then about the truth about her mother country.
The intensity with which she pursues that quest comes through here and we, the reader, are the beneficiaries of it. We are taken along for the ride. And what an interesting ride, it is. Not only a great researcher into her family tree, she is also a great storyteller. Ambassador Albright can be proud of this book, and so too can her girls. If she writes another book, I'll be the first in line to get it. And this time I will not miss her book signing. Easily five stars.
Madeleine Albright is a smart, insightful, experienced woman of the world and of the heart. No finer conductor for this trip through politics, history and personal remembrance could be found. Her warmth and humor draw you on: "Some people pursue enlightenment by sitting quietly and probing their inner consciousness; I make plane reservations." There in one sentence you have one of her strengths and one of her weaknesses. She bathes you in her glow, and yet a spiritual element is missing.
Her writing is not tedious, although, frankly, I would have cut some 50 pages. She handles her subjects with great capability, from the large, unpleasant events to amusing little tidbits in smooth and interesting transitions. Example: After Hitler marched himself into Prague, "Around noon, a crowd of German-speaking civilians and soldiers gathered to cheer the fuhrer when he appeared in a third-floor window. The resulting image so pleased the Nazis that they put it on a postage stamp." And there, beneath the words, is the exact postage stamp.
I enjoyed the way Albright inserted interesting facts into her narrative: "The Romans called the land 'Bohemia' after the Boii, which means that the territory was named by Italians in honor of the Irish, demonstrating -- if nothing else -- that globalization is not new."
Though not especially given to a dramatic style, Albright nevertheless is a good enough storyteller. If you enjoy history, you will learn much from this book and be the better for it.
Raised as a Catholic, Madeleine Albright was unaware that her family not only had a Jewish background, but also had several family members who perished in the Holocaust. As an adult, she yearns to discover more about her family members, and their experiences during the war. Set against the turbulent and complex political landscape of Czechoslovakia, the narrative is both that of a memoir and of a historical overview.
This is not the kind of book you are going to sit down with and breeze right through. There is so much information delivered in this memoir that you must allow yourself time to digest it. The book is incredibly well written, and thorough; I am walking away from it with much greater knowledge of Czechoslovakian history, and the country's unique situation during the war. While I love to read books about World War II, Czechoslovakia is not a country that is usually discussed at much length, despite the location of Theresienstadt.
My only disappointment with this book is that it is more of a history book and less of a memoir. Even the parts that do contain personal narrative read more like a history book; I wish there was just a little more emotion. However, the tone of the book is very European in nature, and I think my American romantic sensibilities had a hard time fully understanding that tone. To a less attuned reader, it may come across as slightly cold for a book marketed as a memoir. My expectation was that it would contain a bit more personal narrative, so at times the book did seem to drag. However, that did not detract from the book being excellent.
I received a review copy courtesy of TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review.
on July 2, 2012
I picked up this book for several reasons: 1. I'd recently finished editing a memoir on the same topic (Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance (to be published later this year), by Charles Novacek; 2. I'm going to Prague in August; and 3. I respect Madeleine Albright. (Sidenote: On the latter, I must add how fortunate girls are today who may think being female is a requisite for serving as US Secretary of State! Think Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton.)
Prague Winter is well-researched, given Albright's position to be granted access and the fact that her father was a Czech journalist and diplomat. I wish this book had been around when I was studying WWII decades ago. It gives a clear overview of how events unfolded and why. The photos scattered throughout added depth to the story.
My problem with the book is its subtitle: "A Personal Story of Remembrance ..." When the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, Madeleine Albright was one year old. It hardly counts as a "personal" remembrance. In the beginning she states that she's found her father's tapes and papers from the era and the reader is given to think, "Wow! Interesting details will be revealed." Don't hold your breath. I'd guess that less than 10% of the book entails "personal" remembrance from anyone. It is mostly a compilation, albeit a well-thought-out compilation, of history, and that might very well be attributed to her co-writer Bill Woodward and, from her acknowledgement page, it sounds as though staff did a good portion of the research. I don't know why, but that disappointed me. She is a far more fascinating speaker.
For Ms. Albright, the "personal" part of it, and rightly so, was that she discovered she is partly Jewish and some 20 of her relatives died from torture, disease or execution during those dark days. That is indeed personal. However, I'm tired of picking up mistitled books. Publishers, are you listening?
on March 18, 2014
I’ve had a keen interest in World Wa2 since I was a youngster and have read many historical books on the topic. A particular area of interest has always been the resistance movement in Norway, due in part to my Norwegian heritage. Being half Czech I decided I wanted to learn more about resistance in Czechoslovakia during World War 2. When I searched for a book on the topic I found Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 by former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. The book highlights Albright’s memories, and those of her parents, immediately preceding Czechoslovakia’s occupation by the Nazi’s up through the early years of the cold War. While this book gave me some insight to the resistance movement during World War 2 it presented much I did not know about Czechoslovakia and its history. Not a dry tome, this book was an excellent read.