Monday, June 6, 2022

Prague Winter, by Madeleine Albright

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s 2012 memoir of her childhood in Czechoslovakia, England, and Yugoslavia 1937-1948 covers history you may think you know, from the vantage of a small country caught in the tides of larger powers. After the Anschluss, in which Nazi Germany annexed Austria, the next to fall was Czechoslovakia. The small nation was multi-ethnic, and its German-majority region pushed to join Germany. 

Once the war began in earnest, Nazi occupiers created the Terezin camp, packing in resident Jews while creating for willing-to-believe inspectors a “model city” in which its detainees were dressed up and served abundant food – bounty that was snatched away as soon as the inspectors left. People were packed 50 to a room, disease was rampant, food and medicine in short supply, and soon transports began to death camps in Poland. 

Albright learned at the age of 57 that she had Jewish ancestry. Her non-religious parents converted to Catholicism, partly to protect her and her younger siblings, and partly so her father, Joseph Korbel, could continue his diplomatic career. She followed in his footsteps with her own ability to balance needs and forces, to find justice in difficult situations. We may cringe now at the notion of the Soviet Union as anyone’s savior, yet in WWII, small countries in eastern Europe had little choice, and made pacts with Stalin in hopes of establishing post-war autonomy. Although the Iron Curtain fell across Europe and Soviet forces supported Communist governments, leaders hoped to make the best of a situation they could not control. 

As she notes early in the book, “A scholar,” wrote my father, “inescapably reads the historical record in much the same way as he would look in a mirror – what is most clear to him is the image of his own values [and] sense of… identity.” And events bear out this assertion – again and again, people see what they want to, what fits their image of the world, blocking out uncomfortable facts that threaten that view.

This book is worth your time: because Albright is a fine writer; because she casts light from a lesser-known angle on events we consider familiar; because she understands the compromises forced on politicians, diplomats, and citizens by the sweep of history. She condemns cravenness and cruelty, but not well-meaning efforts to ameliorate harm. 

I think we read about and study WWII so much because it strikes us as a just war: unmitigated aggression coupled with genocidal plans and manifestations of pure evil, clashing with forces reluctant to take up arms, but whose courage aids their response. Righteous causes in war exist mostly in the eyes of politicians and generals – those who must do the actual fighting find less to beat their chests about. But as we watch Ukraine struggle against Russia, should we be sitting on the sidelines while their cities are bombed and people shot?