Thursday, September 26, 2013

Book Review - Prague Winter, Madeleine Albright

Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948


Madeleine Albright

Category: Nonfiction: Memoir: History; Czechoslovakia; WWII

Synopsis: Secretary of State under President Clinton, Albright recounts the events and aftermath of World War II in her homeland of Czechoslovakia.

Date finished: 2 September 2013  

Rating: ****


Two things.

First, my definition of “personal history” differs widely from Secretary Albright’s. I knew I was in for a different reading experience when I realized Albright was much too young during World War II to have much of any remembrance of it. So, out of necessity, this book relies on historical accounts and her father’s personal papers to piece together not only the war but her family’s life before, during, and after it. But do not confuse this book, as I did, to be a memoir. It most decidedly is not.

Second, do not, as I did, expect to see any American history in this book. This is a history of Czechoslovakia, its entry into WWII, and the aftermath of the war. When recounting the events of the war, Albright’s scope extends to other countries in Europe as well as Russia, but America is mentioned more in passing than anything. I believe the words “Pearl Harbor” were mentioned, but only once as I remember. Her state allegiance here is not to the country she served as Secretary of State, it is to her homeland. This made me (can you tell?) a little defensive. But more defensive out of boredom (forgive me, Czechs) for learning about ancient Bohemia than a perceived lack of statehood impropriety on Albright’s part.

Once I got over my disillusionment of expectation—not to mention the early chapters of Czech history, which almost made me quit reading—I learned to enjoy the book. It is quite academic, and at times it read like a textbook. More than occasionally, though, the author used a word like “absurd” or “ill-fated” in an explanation of a leader’s actions or beliefs. This took it out of the realm of unbiased textbook (as if they exist…) and made it ever-so-slightly more personal. This rendered it infinitely more readable.

What I was most interested in, and what made me buy the book after dithering over it for a year or so, was the fact that Albright didn’t know her family were Jews until she was in the process of becoming Secretary of State. She spends the first six decades of her life believing she’s a Catholic, not knowing that 20 of her relatives perished in Nazi concentration camps. Her parents take this knowledge to their grave. Although she dealt with this revelation in this book, she didn’t speak of it in depth at all. She postured some guesses as to her parents’ reasons for “converting” though since they were secular Jews, and since they converted before the news of the death camps had spread throughout Europe, this part of the story never came to much. Going in, I thought it was to be the heart of the book. (I haven’t read her autobiography Madame Secretary, and perhaps this part of her history is discussed in more depth there. In fact, I believe she may have made reference to that in her introduction of this book.)

I enjoyed the refresher of WWII history, even if I didn’t retain much of it. It brought me back to my Western Civilization class in college. What I came away from the book with was not only a sadness over what man is capable of—every single life in Europe was changed by the action of one man—but also what nationalism means, and what it should mean. America seems to be at low ebb when it comes to national pride. Have we reached a point in American history (and perhaps it’s this way with other countries now, I don’t know) where our cynicism outweighs our love of country? Or have we come to a point in American history (and again, perhaps world history) where patriotism must fall to more important concerns? I can’t decide. On the one hand, nothing swells my heart like seeing my neighbors flying the flag or seeing a man’s hand over his heart at the national anthem. On the other hand, as I read the history of Czechoslovakia and what she’s gone through for democracy (at least twice), I realize every country on earth has a history rife with triumph and bloodshed—often triumph because of bloodshed. Perhaps those two hands aren’t so far apart? It’s food for thought at any rate.

All in all, I’m glad I stuck with the book. And I’m glad my expectations could fall away to an open mind, because I really did enjoy this learning experience.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes, with caveats.

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