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.