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
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Albright’s answer is utterly convincing, and also troubling. Working for a government in exile, she writes, the Korbels wanted to “underline our family’s identity as Czechoslovak democrats.” In the Czech political culture of the time, Jews were often disparaged as serving an international financial conspiracy or nostalgic for the Habsburg Empire. The Korbels’ concerns were quickly confirmed when a Czech group that had organized to resist the Nazis reported to London that they would be happy if the Jews who had fled stayed away.

Even a country as proudly humanitarian as the First Republic was not untainted by the ethnic prejudices that we associate with other Central European countries. The accommodations made to minorities could not disguise the fact that the First Republic was ultimately the fulfillment of the national aspirations of two nations: the Czech and, to a lesser extent, the Slovak peoples. The Czechs had built themselves a home, but Czechoslovakia’s roof stretched over peoples who had not been asked whether they wanted to move in.

This led to a bitter irony. Even the anti-Semites in the Czech resistance saw that the true threat to their country came from another minority, the country’s three million Germans, themselves centuries-long inhabitants of the territory. Many Sudetendeutsch welcomed their brethren from Germany proper when they marched in to dismantle the First Republic in 1938. This treason convinced the Czech leadership that any sizable German minority was now intolerable; at the first opportunity, the reconstituted government in Prague expelled nearly all of its Germans, regardless of individual innocence or guilt. Thousands were killed on the spot; thousands more died in transit. Millions lost their own ancestral homes.

Albright recognizes that innocent Germans were harmed in these purges, though she makes clear that her sympathies are with the Czech government. “Small countries can survive hostile neighbors,” she writes, “but the odds lengthen when a significant national minority identifies with the enemy.” This sentiment may well be of a piece with the tough-mindedness that Albright showed in protecting Kosovo’s Albanians from the Serbian army some fifty years later. But as Albright herself acknowledges, Havel and other Czech anti-Communists came to see the expulsions of Germans as a step down the path to totalitarian rule. No one, it turned out, could out-demagogue the Communists on questions of collective guilt: a party that could portray all the “bourgeoisie” as criminals could also portray every German as a national traitor. One can admire Albright’s excellent book and the moral urgency that she brought to US foreign policy. One can also recognize that the homeland she loves suffered when it did not live up to the ideals it was meant to embody.


Chandler Rosenberger is the chair of the International and Global Studies Program at Brandeis University. He wrote about the collapse of Czechoslovakia as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs.

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