Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Apr 24 2012
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“A gripping account of World War II. . . . In taut prose, Albright weaves a powerful narrative that wraps her family’s story into the larger political drama unfolding in Europe.” (The Philadelphia Inquirer)
“In the crowded field of memoirs written by former secretaries of state, Madeleine Albright’s books stand out. . . . Albright is a charming and entertaining storyteller.” (The New York Review of Books)
“Albright has supplemented a deeply researched history of World War II-era Czechoslovakia with a moving family narrative.” (The Daily)
“Prague Winter is not only a family story-a proud and moving one-but a brilliant and multilayered account of how Czechoslovakia was formed along the most idealistic lines in the aftermath of World War I. An altogether fascinating and inspiring read.” (Michael Korda, The Daily Beast)
“Showing us villainy, heroism, and agonizing moral dilemmas, Albright’s vivid storytelling and measured analysis bring this tragic era to life.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))
“A genuinely admirable book. Albright skillfully returns us to some of the darkest years of modern times. Spring eventually came to Prague, but in much of the world it is still winter. The love of democracy fills every one of these instructive and stirring pages.” (Leon Wieseltier)
“I was totally blown away by this book. It is a breathtaking combination of the historical and the personal. Albright confronts the brutal realities of the Holocaust and the conflicted moral choices it led to. An unforgettable tale of fascism and communism, courage and realism, families and heartache and love. (Walter Isaacson)
“A remarkable story of adventure and passion, tragedy and courage set against the backdrop of occupied Czechoslovakia and World War II. Albright provides fresh insights into the events that shaped her career and challenges us to think deeply about the moral dilemmas that arise in our own lives.” (Vaclav Havel)
“A riveting tale of her family’s experience in Europe during World War II [and] a well-wrought political history of the region, told with great authority. . . . More than a memoir, this is a book of facts and action.” (The Los Angeles Times)
“A compelling personal exploration of [Albright’s] family’s Jewish roots as well as an excellent history of Czechoslovakia from 1937 to 1948. . . . Highly informative and insightful. . . . I can’t recommend Prague Winter highly enough.” (The Washington Post Book World)
“Albright’s book is a sprightly historical narrative of this long decade. . . . Her account of the destruction of inter-war Czechoslovakia, both as a geographical entity and as an idea of democracy, first by the Nazis and then by the Communists, is balanced and vivid.” (The Economist)
“A blend of history and memoir that reveals in rich, poignant and often heartbreaking detail a story that had been hidden from her by her own parents. . . . The beating heart of the book is Albright’s searing account of her intimate family saga.” (The Jewish Journal)
“An extraordinary book. . . . Albright artfully presents a wrenching tale of horror and darkness, but also one in which decent and brave people again and again had their say.” (István Deák, The New Republic)
From the Back Cover
Before Madeleine Albright turned twelve, her life was shaken by the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia—the country where she was born—the Battle of Britain, the near total destruction of European Jewry, the Allied victory in World War II, the rise of communism, and the onset of the Cold War.
Albright's experiences, and those of her family, provide a lens through which to view the most tumultuous dozen years in modern history. Drawing on her memory, her parents' written reflections, interviews with contemporaries, and newly available documents, Albright recounts a tale that is by turns harrowing and inspiring. Prague Winter is an exploration of the past with timeless dilemmas in mind and, simultaneously, a journey with universal lessons that is intensely personal.
The book takes readers from the Bohemian capital's thousand-year-old castle to the bomb shelters of London, from the desolate prison ghetto of Terezín to the highest councils of European and American government. Albright reflects on her discovery of her family's Jewish heritage many decades after the war, on her Czech homeland's tangled history, and on the stark moral choices faced by her parents and their generation. Often relying on eyewitness descriptions, she tells the story of how millions of ordinary citizens were ripped from familiar surroundings and forced into new roles as exiled leaders and freedom fighters, resistance organizers and collaborators, victims and killers. These events of enormous complexity are nevertheless shaped by concepts familiar to any growing child: fear, trust, adaptation, the search for identity, the pressure to conform, the quest for independence, and the difference between right and wrong.
"No one who lived through the years of 1937 to 1948," Albright writes, "was a stranger to profound sadness. Millions of innocents did not survive, and their deaths must never be forgotten. Today we lack the power to reclaim lost lives, but we have a duty to learn all that we can about what happened and why." At once a deeply personal memoir and an incisive work of history, Prague Winter serves as a guide to the future through the lessons of the past—as seen through the eyes of one of the international community's most respected and fascinating figures.See all Product Description
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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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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