Book Review: Prague Winter
A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948
Madeleine Albright, with Bill Woodward
Harper Perennial Books 2012
To the shock and dismay of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, early in the 1990’s she found out her grandparents and much of her extended family had perished during the WWII Holocaust in her native Czechoslovakia. Summoning her courage and scanty family photographs Madame Secretary later plunged into research of what happened to her grandparents and family (her parents escaped to the UK for WWII, where Madame Secretary Albright spent her early childhood), with Prague Winter as the result, a personal and Czechoslovakian history circa 1937-48.
Like many Americans my former historical knowledge of Czechoslovakia had as its sole kernel of fact the great failure of Neville Chamberlain, so Prague Winter is an excellent historical foundation for the modern republics of Czech and Slovakia. Interesting in its own right as the cradle of Bohemia and former empire of Moravia, the story is far more interesting with the personal antidotes of Madame Secretary Albright’s family history, along with excellent organization and a good, sincere author’s voice.
From an outsider’s safe, macro view Czechoslovakia was a small landlocked country in central Europe, notable for its arts, intellectualism and independence, yet still overrun in the last century with two hideous political evolutions, Nazism and Communism. Out of many political elements in Prague Winter what struck me the most was the central political event of the book, Nazism, and how the hell a modern industrialized society ever ran so vastly amok in hideous, racial institutionalized violence.
An old historical and political topic, perhaps, but one well worth visiting on occasion nonetheless. Practitioners of blithe American exceptionalism would do well to remember American history of brutal genocide to indigenous Indians, appalling racial slavery and persecution with us this very day, and that charming episode of Japanese internment during WWII. No, it’s extremely unlikely America would ever descend into the hell of Nazi violence and persecution, but that obviously doesn’t mean we can’t get lost into some seriously disastrous side paths we damn well could have avoided had we just learned from history, even just a little.
Glenn Greenwald would define current American political treatment of Muslims as a disastrous side path, I’m fairly sure. Simply for no other reason than being Muslim many Americans have been stripped of travel and 4th amendment rights, faceless cruel American bureaucrats being brutally efficient as any German as they confiscate laptops at the airport.
At any rate a proud nation beaten in war, starved with a shortsighted treaty, hijacked by a violent party with racial hatred as a huge cornerstone, this generally and inadequately explains the phenomena of Hitler, Nazism and the Holocaust. No, that particular combination will never happen in the United States, but of course we would be damn well prudent in not letting a few contributing factors fester as huge problems, like unemployment and immigration reform, for side paths have a disastrous habit of becoming overwhelming diversions, it’s very much better not to start on them at all.
Many, many political paths were attempted Czechoslovakia, as Prague Winter makes clear, yet while inflicted by some of the worst horrors humanity can come up with Czechoslovakia persevered as a people and eventual republic by indefatigable humans who simply never gave up. Contemplating the book I’m strongly reminded of Madame Secretary’s parting words, there are no simplistic easy answers to the problems of humans, yet there are no issues so complex that an attempt to fix them cannot be tried. Indeed, the record of human progress is often shown not in great sudden evolutions, but the steady application of simply trying in ways both big and small.