Book Review: Madeleine Albright's Prague Winter

In Prague Winter, Madeleine Albright recounts Czechoslovakia’s wartime struggle for survival and the fate of her own family

TVR Books | Mary Albon | July / August 2012

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine ­Albright delivers a witty and nuanced retelling of the fate of Czechoslovakia during and after WWII | llustration: Katharina Klein

Democracy in Exile

"The foreign policy of every small country begins with one small question: How can we survive?" This is the thread that runs through Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948, Madeleine Albright’s absorbing family memoir and lucid history of her first homeland, Czechoslovakia.

More history than memoir, Prague Winter recounts the Second World War and its aftermath from the Czech perspective. Albright, the first woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State, was born Maria Jana ("Madlenka") Körbelová in Prague in 1937. Her father, Josef Körbel, was a Czech diplomat who was close to Czechoslovakia’s democratic leadership. Albright weaves the fates of her family members, who she discovered only late in life were Jewish, into the larger history of Czechoslovakia’s own brush with extinction.

Written with sharp wit and informed by Albright’s nuanced understanding of geopolitics, Prague Winter reads almost like a novel. Its flawed hero is President Eduard Beneš, whom Albright considers "a man of lasting stature" and whose "paramount goal was preserving his country." Beneš allowed the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in order to spare his people’s assured destruction were they to wage war against Germany alone. Beneš led Czechoslovakia’s wartime democratic government in exile, only to see democracy extinguished in 1948 by the communist coup.

The 1938 Munich Agreement – "a historic disaster" – gave Hitler the green light to annex the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia’s German-populated region. In March 1939, the Germans occupied the rest of the country, establishing the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and a Nazi puppet state in Slovakia.

During the first two years of German occupation, "the typical Czech felt more angry than frightened," Albright writes, which emboldened the Resistance. But in September 1941, Reinhard Heydrich, the new Reichsprotektor, introduced a policy of "whips and sugar" combining repression with special treatment for collaborators. Thousands of Czechs were arrested and tortured. Some were executed. Heydrich also initiated the deportation of Jews to the east: Terezín (Theresienstadt), "a prison disguised as a town," served as their way-station.

The chapters Albright devotes to Terezín and the fate of  Czechoslovakia’s Jews are heartbreaking. Although her parents were able to flee to London with little Madlenka in 1939, most of her family stayed behind. At least 25 of Albright’s relatives were sent to Terezín. None survived the war. "Like that of so many others, our family tree had been stripped bare."

In a bold strike against Heydrich’s campaign of terror, Beneš’ London government dispatched commandos to assassinate the Reichsprotektor. Albright’s account of the successful attack on Heydrich and the hunt for his assassins, who were ultimately betrayed by one of their own, is gripping and tragic. The Nazis retaliated viciously by razing the village of Lidice and executing its inhabitants. Yet Albright considers Heydrich’s assassination "both a courageous choice and the right one." In her view, "Hitler’s response, though savage, undermined the Nazi cause almost as much as did Heydrich’s death," boosting Czech resolve and rousing Allied sympathy.

The tide of war began to turn in 1943 with the German defeat at Stalingrad. Beneš already had agreements with the Western allies. Now he increasingly put his trust in Stalin. He counted on Moscow’s continued partnership with the West, which he hoped would liberalise Soviet totalitarianism. "Few temptations," Albright notes, "are more damaging to a leader than to act on hopes instead of facts."

The liberation of Prague still leaves a bitter-sweet taste in the mouths of many Czechs. Just days before V-E Day in May 1945, Prague remained under Nazi control. Confident that the Americans, already in Plzeň, would come to their aid, the Czechs attacked German troops in Prague. The Soviets, who the Allies had agreed would liberate Central Europe, asked the Americans not to interfere – but the Soviets didn’t either. Some 1,700 Czechs died in the Prague uprising, and the city’s Soviet liberators stayed decades longer than the Germans.

Although many historians faulted Gen. Eisenhower for failing to send in U.S. troops, "the blame for what happened in Prague rests properly with Moscow," Albright insists. "For years to come, Communists would exploit the perception that Americans ‘had sat in Plzeň drinking Pilsener’ while the people’s quest for freedom was drowned in blood." Even Václav Havel, Czechoslovakia’s first democratic president after communism, disagreed, telling Albright that an American liberation of Prague could have been decisive for his country’s future.

At a May 2012 conference in New York commemorating President Havel, Albright admitted, "I find it very hard to deal with how the Czechs treated the Germans after the war." In May 1945, she wrote in Prague Winter, "most Czechs had no interest in defining a new relationship with Germans; they wanted to end that relationship."

Czech reprisals against Germans ranged from taunting to torture, and hundreds of German soldiers and civilians were executed. The 1945 Beneš decrees resulted in the expulsion of nearly two million ethnic Germans (80% were women, children or elderly) and the confiscation of 270,000 German farms. Ultimately less than 10% of the prewar German population remained. It took President Havel to challenge Czechs to face their past:

"Just as the Germans have been able to reflect upon the dark sides of their history," Albright quotes Havel as saying, "so must we."

In April 1945, Beneš returned to a country wracked by political divisions and resentments. He "felt sure that most of his people would remain loyal to the democractic model," but he was proven wrong. The communists "were intent not on restoration but revolution." They achieved victory through meticulous planning and organisation. In May 1946, Czechoslovakia held its first democratic elections, and to the chagrin of democrats like Josef Körbel, the Communist Party won a 38% plurality.

In February 1948, the Communists seized power. Anyone associated with the London government-in-exile was at risk, including Albright’s father, then Ambassador to Yugoslavia. Körbel managed to secure an appointment to a United Nations commission, enabling the family to flee their homeland a second time, this time to the United States, where in 1949 they were granted political asylum.

"The lessons of the Second World War and its aftermath have been learned at best imperfectly," Albright cautions in Prague Winter’s thoughtful epilogue. Democracy cannot be taken for granted. Given the tragic events her book recounts, "we cannot help but acknowledge the capacity within us for unspeakable cruelty or… at least some degree of moral cowardice."   She warns against the common tendency, "when troubles arise among faraway people, we remain tempted to hide behind the principle of national sovereignty, to ‘mind our own business’ when it is convenient, and to think of democracy as a suit to be worn in fine weather but left in the closet when clouds threaten."

Yet spring always follows winter, and Albright ends her book on a hopeful note, and throughout her authoritative history of her homeland’s struggle for survival she finds signs that heroes do indeed exist.


Prague Winter: A Personal Story of War and Remembrance

by Madeleine Albright

Harper Collins (2012)

pp. 480           

Order this book online

Other articles from this issue