Prague Winter (2012), by Madeleine Albright


To comment on Prague Winter is to tiptoe through a minefield. The author, our first woman Secretary of State, tells us she has written the book, subtitled “A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948,” to acknowledge and do justice to her discovery decades after World War Two of her Jewish ethnicity (the catalyst, we’re told, having been an investigative story in The Washington Post) as well as to dramatize the tragic history in the war years and since of her native Czechoslovakia and many members of her Czech family lost among the millions swept away in the Nazi and Soviet storms and as well to draw lessons from that drama, from the Czech diplomatic and leadership dilemmas to those of the major players in the general war against the Nazis, about leaders making decisions under great constraints.

Warning signs everywhere here for commentators.

Not only the mines, but the peril of stumbling into the Great Bog of Incorrectness.

So…. Give me a moment here in Club Paradise to down my Bombay Sapphire martini with the two olives. Ummm. Great as always. Thanks, Niccolo. You may be dour but you really know how to make ’em. See you later.

OK. It’s gotten colder out here on the sidewalk. Just buttoned my jacket.

Well, I think Prague Winter neither has the unity of a valuable and compelling book nor brings any real news. The history, except the most personal one, is not only seemingly entirely derived and truncated but varies in sections in tempi, none of them right. We crawl along through what honestly seem inconsequential (if very sad) Czech politics and cultural disasters of that era which the first few pages of The Prince teach you will almost always beset small countries caught near dreamful monsters prowling in their primes: Prague Winter is like having a problem you already grasp explained in detail. But some long roads are always worth yet another observant drive well within the speed limit. Yet we almost flash past Churchill’s terrible days alone in the late 1930s into 1940, and the titanic drama of the Eastern Front. From writers and documentarians like William Shirer through Leni Riefenstahl and Hugh Trevor-Roper and Alan Bullock to Timothy Snyder, we have already become knowledgeable lay people about that era: we learn no especially revealing history in Prague Winter. As to how to make leadership decisions in crises–of course, there’s a formidable variety here in histories of History–Prague Winter invokes for me a comment I’ve seen attributed to Truman about economists, namely (and to paraphrase for gist) that he only wanted one-armed economic advisors so that they could not say, “On the other hand.”

Fairly or unfairly, eerily you have an intimation, not so good, of Albright’s diplomacy. Clumsy in a china shop? Bromides of the interview and lectern but not that improvisational grace of opportunism in the unpredictable moment of the actual face-to-face? Either indecision or too much decision? Perhaps it’s impressionism, but she seems to talk much more about diplomacy from weakness than from strength.

To sum: not much of a history; a heartfelt personal story that melts into the horrific cosmos of 1937-1948 for the long-ago stunned and disillusioned reader of histories of the period…. Your mind is cued to wander off Albright’s pages and into the awful grand accounts given by others.

You try not to do so, but here you start thinking about those meetings in the HarperCollins conference rooms. Were mines carefully laid then? Was there a formula? Say: celebrity + the natural drama of World War Two + the personal story + particular new readers (thanks, Niccolo, I’ll take your advice here and not elaborate) = You can move ’em off the shelves and you can download ’em onto many, many eBook readers.

I have my own sense of the Czechoslovakia lost forever when the monsters clashed. I’ve imagined a beautiful little country of notable culture and a good life from the end of the Great War to the late 1930s. I took tennis lessons from the Czech expatriate and international tennis star Jan Kozeluh in the early 1950s years after he had escaped Czechoslovakia for America. He was in his fifties, a small man like his more famous older brother, Karel (once the world professional tennis champion in the 1930s), and Jan was ranked in the top ten men tennis players in the world in the 1920s tennis era of Tilden, LaCoste and Cochet. He was a self-contained master. Wore the long whites. Served as the tennis pro at a club in Boca Raton in the winters and at my club in Charleston, West Virginia, in the summers. His wife, Magda, was a heavy, pleasant woman. Both showed a stunned spirit. They’d escaped but not really. Their primes had coincided with what I think were a few golden years in Czechoslovakia. Over here they were in first class but at the gunwale looking seaward. You had a clear idea of their tragedy.

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