Madeleine Albright, a Democrat who served as the first female Secretary of State in US history (1997-2001), has written an incredible memoir of her early life in Prague Winter. Subtitled ‘A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1945’, it deals with her family’s experiences during and after the Second World War, and also serves as a wider history of what was then Czechoslovakia, and is now Czechia.
Before she was twelve years old, Albright’s once settled life was upended by the Nazi invasion of Prague, where she was living with her mother and father. Other pivotal incidents which occurred during her early life were the Battle of Britain, ‘the near-total destruction of European Jewry, the Allied victory in World War II, the rise of communism, and the onset of the Cold War.’ When the Nazis invaded Prague, and went on to absorb the entire country of Czechoslovakia into Germany, Albright notes that her parents temporarily sent her to live with her grandmother, ‘and did their best to do what their beloved country had done: disappear’.
Her family spent the Second World War in London, as her father’s job in radio broadcasting allowed them an opportunity to relocate. He worked on BBC broadcasts, which many could still pick up – although illegally – in their homeland. Of her father during this period, Albright reflects: ‘My father worked hard because his of passion for democracy but also because we needed money; the more he wrote, the more he was paid, which was still not much.’ Being in London meant that Albright and her younger sister were now in the path of the Blitz, but both thankfully emerged relatively unscathed. The Korbels later moved to quieter towns on the outskirts of London, which were far more peaceful.
In her memoir, Albright has chosen to make extensive use of a number of sources – her own memories, the written memoirs of her parents, interviews with her contemporaries, and documents which have recently become available to the public. She begins her memoir by giving a rather thorough history of how Czechoslovakia, as she knew it, came to be; in its earlier chapters, at least, Prague Winter feels more like a sweeping history book of a geographical location rather than a personal memoir.
In something which seems astonishing, but is perhaps not due to the circumstances in which the Korbel family lived, Albright was unaware of her family’s Jewish heritage until ‘many decades after the war’. It was only when she began to serve as the US Secretary of State at the age of 59, that she learnt that over twenty of her own relatives had perished in the Holocaust. She comments: ‘I had been brought up to believe in a history of my Czechoslovak homeland that was less tangled and more straightforward than the reality.’
Touchingly, Albright’s thorough and heartbreaking memoir has been dedicated ‘to those who did not survive but taught us how to live – and why.’ As one would expect, there is much emphasis on Hitler’s rise to power within the pages of Prague Winter, and its effects are felt throughout, both on a personal level, and throughout her home country. I was a scholar of this period in history for many years, and still read about it keenly. I am pleased to note that Albright’s account did offer some historical context which I was previously unaware of, and proved quite a learning curve in several places.
Split into four distinct parts, Prague Winter moves chronologically between the pre-war period, and November 1948, when the Korbel family emigrated to the United States. Really well situated historically, and evidently a product of extensive detailed research, Prague Winter is a readable and accessible memoir. I very much admired the way in which Albright places herself within the narrative; she is both part of the action, and an overseer. I also liked the way in which she intertwines the personal and political, and the way in which she deals with such a fractious, and fractured, time. Her prose is filled with confidence and certainty, and is a wonderful choice to pick up for anyone interested in this period, or in Czechia generally. Prague Winter is very moving, and highly recommended.