Bill Crandall

Václav Havel and Madeleine Albright at a Plastic People of the Universe concert, Washington, D.C., May 2005

In early March 1998, after the massacre of over sixty Albanian Kosovars by a Serb “anti-terrorist” force at Prekaz, in Kosovo, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright issued a statement (she called it laying down “a marker”) outlining America’s position: “We are not going to stand by and watch the Serbian authorities do in Kosovo what they can no longer get away with in Bosnia.” To rally support, Albright flew to London to meet with the Contact Group, a Balkans task force consisting of four of the five UN Security Council members—the United Kingdom, France, the United States, and Russia—plus Germany and Italy. The meeting was long and hard-fought. Albright spoke “with as much intensity as I have ever mustered,” she wrote later, arguing for tough sanctions to bring Serbian president Slobodan Milošević to heel.

The British foreign secretary, the late Robin Cook, was willing, but the French dithered, the Italians postured, and the Russians filibustered while Albright fumed. Finally, her chief spokesman, Jamie Rubin, suggested that she move things along by offering a compromise. Albright glared at him and snapped: “Jamie, do you think we’re in Munich?”

It was a telling Albright moment. She was born Marie Jana Körbelová in Prague in 1937, a year and a half before Czechoslovakia’s putative allies, France and Great Britain, shamefully agreed at Munich to cede the Sudetenland, with its population of close to three million ethnic Germans, to Hitler in exchange for an all too illusory peace. Later, as Madeleine Korbel (her father had the umlaut officially dropped from the family name after the war), she came to understand that the catastrophic consequences of that agreement—two wars, one hot, one cold—had altered the course of her life, as they had, of course, for millions of others, and she fashioned that knowledge into a touchstone for her thinking about herself and about the place and role of her new homeland, the United States, in the world.

To Albright, the murderous incursions of Serbian soldiers into Kosovo on the pretext of protecting the Serbian ethnic minority must have borne an eerie resemblance to the way Hitler had used the alleged grievances of the large German minority as a wedge to pry Czechoslovakia apart and then to occupy and dismember it in 1939. Moreover, Munich had been a major stepping stone to the Holocaust, in which at least twenty-five of Albright’s relatives, including three grandparents, were murdered. With the stench of the Srebenica massacre lingering in the air and memories of Rwanda still vivid, Albright was determined not to give ground to yet another round of slaughter underpinned by insane visions of an ethnically pure empire. For her, I suspect, Munich served not so much to guide her thinking as it did to stiffen her resolve.

Historical analogies are seductive and often treacherous. Milošević was not Hitler and the Kosovar Liberation Army was not a champion of liberal democracy. On the contrary, the Kosovars frequently proved as adept at bloodletting as the Serb militias. In early 1999, when Albright pushed their representatives at the Rambouillet peace talks to agree to lay down their arms and postpone demands for independence in exchange for NATO protection, she was told by a hardened Kosovar nationalist: “If it is necessary for thirty thousand Albanians to die, so be it.” Albright said it was “one of the more bloodcurdling conversations I ever had.” So she certainly knew that the people whose lives she was trying to protect were no saints. But she never wavered in her belief that “Milošević is the problem” and continued to push doggedly for a negotiated solution backed by a credible threat of military action.

On March 24, 1999, when all other avenues of persuasion proved ineffective, NATO aircraft began bombing Serbian positions in Kosovo, and eventually, in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, as well. Milošević surrendered ten weeks later, vanquished in a conflict that Time magazine dubbed “Madeleine’s war.”

The conflict was a watershed of sorts. Among other things, it transformed liberal attitudes to military intervention, though in often questionable ways. Albright’s compatriot and close friend, Václav Havel, observed that if any war could be called ethical, the war in Kosovo could. “This war places human rights above the rights of the state,” he told the Canadian Parliament just a month before the conflict ended. Military historian John Keegan thought it proved that “a war can be won by airpower alone.” And Michael Ignatieff, in a book on Kosovo published in 2000, said it demonstrated that war could be waged with scarcely any loss of life, at least for “our side,” though he asked, prophetically: “If Western nations can employ violence with impunity, will they not be tempted to use it more often?” All three men ended up supporting the invasion of Iraq in 2003, as did Albright. Was the “success” of the Kosovo campaign a factor in their thinking?


At the very least, Kosovo cemented Albright’s reputation as a liberal hawk. She was not the first, nor would she be the last, to invoke the example of Munich to justify military action. Yet as her new book, Prague Winter, makes clear, Munich to her was far more than an abstract idea or an intellectual construct. Without it, she would not have become who she is.

In the crowded field of memoirs written by former secretaries of state, Madeleine Albright’s books stand out. Since leaving public office in 2001, she has written five, all in collaboration with her former speechwriter, Bill Woodward. Her books seem to be genuinely popular, and it’s no wonder: Albright is a charming and entertaining storyteller with an often self-deprecating sense of humor. Reading her is like being in the presence of an attentive hostess who makes sure you are never bored and your glass is always topped up. She has a refreshing habit of straight talk, an ability to bring the arcana of diplomacy down to earth without sacrificing subtlety or intellectual substance, and a generosity of spirit that allows her to convey other points of view without surrendering her own ground. As far as I can tell she is, in her books, as she is in person.

Madam Secretary, her first book, was more than just a memoir of her time as secretary of state; it was an engaging autobiography that gave readers their first more detailed glimpse of the Czech part of herself and of her rise to power. In Prague Winter, she confronts that part of her legacy head on.

The first twelve years of Marie Körbelová’s life were unsettled. Shortly after the Nazis marched into Prague in March 1939, her parents escaped to England with her, where they spent the duration of the war. She returned to Prague in the summer of 1945, only to leave again for Belgrade when her father, Josef Korbel, became ambassador to Yugoslavia. Shortly after that, she was off to boarding school in Switzerland, where she began calling herself Madeleine. When the Communists seized power in 1948, her father, who had good relations with some of the Communists in government, stayed on until the end of the year, meanwhile quietly arranging for himself and his family to emigrate to the United States. Madeleine, her younger sister Katie, her brother John, and her mother, Mandula, sailed for the United States on the SS America, arriving in New York on Armistice Day, November 11, 1948. Madeleine was eleven years old. The family soon moved to Colorado, where Josef joined the faculty at the University of Denver.

Albright’s sense of herself as a Czech, therefore, likely had little to do with a physical place called Czechoslovakia, and everything to do with her parents and their powerful identification with the fragile liberal democracy of the First Republic between the two world wars. It was a democracy personified in the country’s first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, and to a lesser extent in Masaryk’s protégé and successor, Eduard Beneš. But it was in America—in Denver—that she experienced her first real, stable, geographical sense of home.

At first, Madeleine worked hard to lose her accent and fit in. She came to realize, however, that, far from being a handicap, her Czech heritage was something to be proud of, something that could serve as an asset and an anchor as she found her way in the United States. Czechs and Americans apparently held so many democratic values in common that, far from clashing, her two heritages seemed to complement and reinforce each other.

In college and afterward, Albright worked hard, both to deepen her understanding of her background and to embrace her new homeland. As an undergraduate at Wellesley, she wrote her dissertation on Zdeneˇk Fierlinger, a Czech Social Democrat who had spent most of the war years in Moscow and then became Czechoslovakia’s first postwar prime minister, preparing the way for the Communist takeover. On graduating in 1959, she married Joseph Albright, the scion of a wealthy media family. His career took them to New York in the early sixties, where Joe worked on a family-owned paper, Newsday, and where their twin daughters, Anna and Alice, were born in June 1961.

When Joe was transferred to Newsday’s Washington bureau, Madeleine threw herself into the capital’s social life, becoming what she called “a class A volunteer.” She also started graduate work at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, completing her MA (a study of Soviet diplomacy) in 1967. At Columbia, she enrolled at the Russian Institute in an effort to better understand “the mysteries of the Soviet system.” She took a course in comparative communism from Zbygniew Brzezinski, another refugee from the Soviet bloc, and graduated in May 1976, after completing a doctoral thesis on the role of the Czech press during the Prague Spring.


That summer marked the beginning of her serious apprenticeship as a Washington insider. She served as Senator Edmund Muskie’s chief legislative assistant until 1978, when Brzezinski, now President Carter’s national security adviser, hired her as his congressional liaison officer. She and Joe were divorced in 1983. In the 1980s, in addition to teaching at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and hosting a well-attended salon at her house in Georgetown, Albright served as foreign policy adviser for Carter’s former vice-president, Walter Mondale, and his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, in their 1984 bid for the White House. She did the same for Michael Dukakis in 1987–1988. That campaign brought her in touch with Bill Clinton, who eventually named her US ambassador to the United Nations in 1992, and ultimately secretary of state in 1996. She was the first woman and the second foreign-born citizen (after Henry Kissinger) to hold that position. Given that the secretary of state is fourth in line to the presidency, she had, in effect, become the most powerful woman in the country.


Frederic J. Brown/AP Images

Albright, the first US secretary of state to visit North Korea, with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, October 2000

Less than two weeks after President Clinton had sworn her in, her life took a sudden lurch into the past when she learned that The Washington Post magazine was about to run a profile of her by Michael Dobbs. It documented the fact that Albright, who had been raised a Catholic and joined the Episcopalian church when she married, was actually Jewish and that many of her relatives had been murdered in the Holocaust.

Albright, who claimed she had known nothing about this, found Dobbs’s revelations deeply disturbing. She agreed to be interviewed just before the article appeared, but wrote later that she felt like “a courtroom witness being cross-examined by a lawyer who had all the facts while I had none.” Friends and acquaintances were quick to reassure her that indeed, her parents were far from the only ones who had concealed their past to shield their children from painful truths. “In Poland, every single day,” the director of the Anti-Defamation League told The New York Times, “Jews surface who thought they were Catholic all their lives.” But Albright was not to be consoled, and her account of these events in Madam Secretary is tinged with shame, as though she felt her ignorance were a form of unintentional Holocaust denial that required expiation. She quickly determined, as she told Michael Dobbs, to “conduct her own research into her family and its fate.”1

Initially Dobbs had been willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, but in subsequent research for his biography of her, he uncovered strong circumstantial evidence to suggest that Albright may indeed have been aware of her Jewish heritage for some time. For instance, on a trip to Prague in 1967, she had visited a cousin of her mother’s who had survived the death camps. Without denying the truth of Dobbs’s findings (she says she understood that the cousin had been sent away as a Czech patriot, not as a Jew), Albright told him that their implications had simply escaped her. “I failed to put all these pieces together,” she said. “There are things in life you just miss. I missed this.”2

What is certainly true is that Albright’s parents tried very hard to put their Jewish origins behind them and shelter their children from knowing about them. They were married in a civil ceremony in 1935 and registered themselves on the marriage certificate as being “of no religious faith.” Dobbs also learned that in London, Josef had gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal his Jewish origins, even from his Jewish colleagues, most of whom knew anyway. And in 1941, the entire family converted to Catholicism. Josef was a strong-willed man; it seems plausible to me that he would have guarded his “secret” to the end.

Dobb’s revelation, evidently still stinging after fifteen years, provided the impetus for Prague Winter. In her introduction, Albright writes that the reassurances she received from well-wishers in 1997 had not helped:

I could accept without being satisfied that there was nothing inexplicable or unique about the gap that existed in my knowledge; still, I regretted not having asked the right questions. I also felt driven to learn more about the grandparents whom I had been too young to know—especially since by then I had become a grandparent myself.

Although Prague Winter sets out to be a deeper look at her family’s background, it quickly and deliberately becomes a detailed tour d’horizon of Czech history, and in particular, the part of it framed by the 1938 Munich agreement and the Stalinist takeover of Czechoslovakia ten years later. Coincidentally, the same period covers the first eleven years of her life. Albright artfully weaves her family history, bolstered by her own awakening memories and by documents left behind by her parents, into the broader narrative.

After their narrow escape to England in 1939, her father—a press attaché with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—became deeply engaged in Czech exile politics. He was put in charge of the BBC’s Czech service, which broadcast news and morale-building messages back to his occupied homeland. Korbel worked closely with Jan Masaryk, the son of the founding father of Czechoslovakia, and with the Slovak Communist in exile Vladimír Clementis, whom he brought in to give balance to the broadcasts.

A seasoned diplomat herself, Albright illuminates an aspect of the war we seldom hear about: the complex inner workings of Czechoslovak wartime diplomacy, which focused on a single-minded goal: gaining official recognition from the allies—including the Soviet Union—for the Czechoslovak government in exile. It was a doubly difficult battle, given the perception among the Czechs and Slovaks that the Allies had betrayed them, and the widespread feeling in England and the United States that the Czechs had set off the war by caving in to the Germans.

Bestriding her narrative is the tragic figure of Eduard Beneš, Czechoslovakia’s longtime foreign minister, sometime prime minister, and two-time president, as he blunders through history, deploying brilliant statesmanship to build up, twice in one lifetime, a country in whose ruin he ultimately becomes complicit. As Albright’s account makes clear, one of Beneš’s many miscalculations was his persistent effort to sell the idea of an independent Czechoslovakia as an entity that would serve great power interests. He assured the Western powers that after World War I, the new country would be a bulwark against a resurgent Germany; and during World War II, he promoted Czechoslovakia as a bridge between East and West. His intentions were good, but each time the consequences were disastrous.

Albright retells two harrowing tales that are central to understanding what happened in her homeland during the war. One—the assassination in Prague of the Reichsprotektor, Reinhard Heydrich, by a tiny band of Czech paratroopers backed up by an underground network—is a story of heroic resistance. The other—perhaps one of the best concise accounts I have read of life in the Terezín ghetto, where her relatives were incarcerated until they died, mostly in camps to the east—is a story of heroic submission. As Albright tells them, both are tales of bravery and resilience, both end in tragedy, and both are rife with the kind of horrifying moral ambiguity displayed by people caught in anguishing dilemmas in which all the choices are hard and none of them are good. It is one of the underlying themes of her book.

The assassination of Heydrich had dubious strategic value for the war effort, but was of central importance to the Czech diplomatic effort to persuade the Allies that the Czechs were resisting the occupation. Yet the cost was enormous. Thousands were executed, the villages of Lidice and Ležáky were eradicated and their inhabitants murdered, and large sections of the Czech underground resistance were exposed and liquidated. At the time, and to this day, the event was emblematic of the irresolvable moral dilemmas of war.3

We retell familiar stories hoping that they will shed new light on the past. So it is fair to ask: Does Albright’s book enhance our understanding of Munich, and if so, how? I think it does: her account makes it blindingly clear that big, game-changing decisions like the one that handed the Sudetenland to Hitler, or that turned a duly elected Czechoslovak government over to the Communists in 1948, were not single, isolated events, but rather the final act in long and debilitating campaigns that exhausted people’s will to resist. This should not be surprising: it was a very explicit tactic on Hitler’s part.4

The three million Sudeten Germans inside Czechoslovakia had the same rights as the Czechs: they enjoyed freedom of the press; they had their own political parties and, after some initial cold-shouldering, were proportionally represented in parliament and in the cabinet. In the mid-1930s, these parties began pressuring Beneš to address their complaints—most of them solvable problems having to do with inequities in social welfare, education, and the granting of local contracts. But Konrad Heinlein’s Sudetendeutsche Partei, acting on instructions from Berlin, refused to cooperate, and as that party gathered in strength, Heinlein subjected Beneš to an escalating barrage of vague and sweeping demands that were impossible to satisfy. Having embarked on the path of concession, Beneš found it harder and harder to hold fast. So, indeed, did Britain and France, confronted with the remilitarization of the Rhineland and the Anschluss of Austria. Lesser concessions had opened the door to the ultimate one, the one the history books label “appeasement,” namely, formal acceptance of the Nazi occupation of the Sudetenland.

Albright’s father, like many Czechs, condemned Beneš for failing to stand and fight over Munich, or to stave off the advances of communism in Czechoslovakia after the war. (“In her hour of supreme crisis,” Josef Korbel later wrote of Munich, “Czechoslovkia had as her president not a leader, but a negotiator.”5) Albright herself is kinder to Beneš, perhaps too kind. He was neither a hero nor a gifted politician, she writes, and he rarely pushed back against public opinion. Still, “measured against the other European leaders of his day…Beneš was a man of lasting stature,” she concludes, without mentioning who these other leaders might be. After the war, she says, “he gave his country a better chance than others in the region to preserve its freedom.” But looking at that “better chance” more closely, you realize that she is really damning him with faint praise.

Starting in 1945 the Czechoslovak Communists, armed with a plan of action agreed to by Beneš in Moscow and Košice, moved aggressively to dominate the political system. All but four political parties were banned, leaving the Communist Party in a commanding position. In the election of 1946, they won enough seats to have their leader, Klement Gottwald, declared prime minister. They actively supported Beneš’s morally and politically disastrous policy of expelling the Sudeten Germans. Communists or Communist sympathizers occupied key cabinet posts and hence key ministries, like defense and the interior, which controlled the police. The press and radio were partially muzzled: criticism of the Soviet Union was out of bounds. Things were going so badly in the regions of Europe “liberated” by the Soviets that Churchill was able to deliver his famous “iron curtain” speech while Czechoslovakia was still nominally a democracy.

Not all of this can be blamed on Beneš, but by this time, he was largely a spent force. When the non-Communist cabinet ministers resigned in early 1948, hoping that Beneš would refuse to accept their resignation and call a new election, he instead relented and asked Gottwald to form a new government. Czechoslovakia’s brief period of postwar democracy, such as it was, was over for another forty-one years.

At the beginning of her book, Albright makes a telling confession: “I never had an academic course in Czech history,” she writes.

Instead, I absorbed information piecemeal from random bits of conversation, research while in college, and the books that my mother read and my father wrote. Over time, I became conditioned to think of my homeland as exceptional, a country filled with humane and democratic people who had struggled constantly to survive despite foreign oppression.

The rather gloomy story Albright tells us in Prague Winter prompts one to ask whether this immersion in some of the darkest aspects of her homeland’s history and its people had caused her to change her mind about them in any way. She gives an answer of sorts: “There are many examples of cruelty and betrayal in this book,” she writes,

but they are not what I will take away 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.

In the context of what we have just read, this is not an adequate answer. And that is what I miss most in Albright’s account of an important slice of twentieth-century history. She is famous for being tough and plainspoken. Here, however, I think she’s missing something, perhaps, dare I say it, by not asking the right questions. And to me, the key question her book raises is: How strong was Czechoslovak democracy between the wars? How workable was it between 1945 and 1948? At the time, the prevailing view was that the Czechs enjoyed democracy and were better at it than any other country in the region, and they were not alone in thinking that. Respect for Czechoslovakia’s interwar democracy was widespread, and that view persisted among ordinary Czechs and Slovaks even through forty years of Communist rule.

But given how horribly wrong things went, not once but twice in the course of a single decade, it’s surely fair to ask why this happened. Mainstream and popular Czech historiography has tended to seek answers by looking for flaws in the Czech character. The proximity of Hitler and Stalin, of course, was also a major cause. But more recently, some historians have been looking elsewhere for answers.6 Might there not have been something wrong, something undemocratic, in this best of all possible democracies, some missing ingredient, some structural flaw that made it vulnerable to antidemocratic forces, something that might perhaps have been fixed, had they mustered the will to do so?

Albright tells us that when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Eduard Beneš, who by this time had resigned as president, was in the United States, giving lectures on democracy. This was something that Václav Havel, who was determined not to repeat Beneš’s mistakes, would never have presumed to do. On becoming president himself, Havel moved quickly to make peace with the expelled Sudeten Germans. And unlike many of his countrymen, he took a cautious view of the prospects for creating democracy overnight, as it were. In his eloquent speech to a Joint Session of Congress in February 1990, Havel said, “As long as people are people, democracy in the full sense of the word will always remain an ideal.” He went on to suggest that if the Czechs and Slovaks had anything to offer, it was the benefit of their experience as a result of having lost what democracy they did have, twice, and with terrible consequences.7

In today’s world, knowledge of how democracies can be lost may be as valuable an instrument of diplomacy as an understanding of how they are won.