The Longest Season

by Chandler Rosenberger
Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948
By Madeleine Albright
Harper, 480 pages, $29.99
  • Comments (0)
  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Text Size A A A

Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937–1948Madeleine Albright once famously asked General Colin Powell why he would not support sending US forces into the former Yugoslavia to halt Serbian atrocities. “What are you saving this superb military for, Colin,” Albright asked in exasperation, “if we can’t use it?”

Albright’s frustration was a response to the bloody ethnic violence that descended on the Balkans and also Rwanda in the early 1990s. As US ambassador to the United Nations and later as secretary of state, Albright ’68SIPA, ’76GSAS, ’95HON pushed hard for intervention against human-rights abusers, especially the Serbs. In 1999, she insisted that the Serbian military withdraw from Kosovo, even though the province was still internationally recognized as a part of a sovereign Serbia. When Serb leader Slobodan Miloševic´refused, Albright had NATO bombers ready to force his troops out.

At the time, Albright seemed to be responding to the chaos of the post–Cold War period. But her latest book reveals just how deep her commitment to resisting wicked regimes runs.

In Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937–1948, Albright may well have written the most poignant account we have in English of the tragic destruction of the so-called First Republic — the Czechoslovakia of interwar Europe — at the hands of Hitler and Stalin. Not much of this account is truly autobiographical: Albright was born only in the last years of the Republic’s existence and spent much of her childhood either in exile in London or with her diplomat father in postwar Yugoslavia. Like her contemporary, the future Czech president Václav Havel, Albright was too young to understand the larger forces undoing her country.

For contemporary reflections on the Republic’s fate, Albright turns to the letters, journals, and articles of her parents’ generation, especially those of her extraordinary father, Josef Korbel. This perspective allows Albright to infuse old political debates with the warmth of conversation at the family dinner table. Korbel and his contemporaries were not merely serving a historical state — they were building a home for their children. Albright portrays Korbel’s colleagues, especially Czechoslovak foreign minister and future president Eduard Beneš, in a detailed historical setting that feels as personal as a family photograph.

This intermingling of the familial and political gives Prague Winter unusual force as Albright discovers the true extent of her family’s suffering. Albright’s parents had raised her as a Roman Catholic; growing up she never knew that her parents had converted from Judaism or that dozens of her relatives had perished in Nazi camps. Albright did not even know that her own paternal grandfather had died at Terezín until the Washington Post explored her background in 1997.

Albright eventually discovered that while her parents were married in a civil ceremony and identified on their marriage certificate as bez vyznáni (“without religion”), they converted to Catholicism while in exile in England. Why, Albright wonders, did her parents convert then? They no longer needed fear the Nazis. Why convert once safely abroad?

  • Email
  • ShareThis
  • Print
  • Recommend (75)
Log in with your UNI to post a comment

The best stories wherever you go on the Columbia Magazine App

Maybe next time