You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Two Darknesses

Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937–1948
By Madeleine Albright with Bill Woodward
(Harper Collins, 467 pp., $29.99)

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, née Korbel, is the first woman and the second foreign-born person to have attained to the highest-ranking Cabinet position in the American government, that of secretary of state. She is also the first East European to have served in any Cabinet position. Add to this her warm and convincing style, the generally favorable judgment about her tenure in the Cabinet, and her highly unusual life, and it is no wonder that Prague Winter made the best-seller list. This book is an innovative amalgam of personal reminiscences, tales told by parents and friends, lessons learned in the schools of three countries, and conclusions drawn from her use of printed and unprinted sources. The book takes us from the medieval beginnings of Czech history through the post–World War I creation of Czechoslovakia, to the Nazi occupation, World War II, the Communist takeover, and the Korbels’ arrival in the United States in 1948. This is not really a memoir, nor could it have been: Albright was only eleven when these dramatic events concluded. How much could she have remembered of the great tragedies of those years?

The intensely personal approach that makes Prague Winter such enjoyable reading inevitably provokes the question of Albright’s command of issues that she herself considers crucial for her story. They include the historical role of interwar Czechoslovakia’s two leaders, Tomáš Masaryk and Edvard Beneš; the willingness of Czechoslovakia’s many ethnic minorities, in 1938, to oppose an eventual German invasion; the nature of Czech collaboration and resistance under German occupation; the assassination of Acting Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich in 1942; and the circumstances of the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945. And these all precede the two most burning issues in recent Czechoslovak history, each boasting its own harvest of fine scholarly studies: the partial massacre and wholesale expulsion of the German minority after the war, and the question of whether the success of the Communist putsch in February 1948 was at least in part the fault of the Czech democrats.

On these issues, Albright takes alternately a classical and a somewhat revisionist stand. In general, she seems to agree with her father, whose memory she reveres: the journalist, diplomat, and scholar Josef Korbel. A member of the Czechoslovak government in exile under Edvard Beneš, Korbel obviously did not see things the way some of today’s younger historians do. The latter make Beneš directly responsible for the darker chapters in modern Czechoslovak history, such as declaring the country’s German and Hungarian population collectively responsible for crimes committed by individuals within these communities and such as subjecting post–World War II Czechoslovakia to the whims of Stalin.

Albright’s writings reflect her patriotic, liberal, and secular Czech upbringing as well as the defiant and brave social milieu in Britain where she lived between 1938 and 1945 and where, toward the end of the war, she experienced the German rocket attacks. Her book also radiates her liberal academic training and her progressive politics in the United States. One thing, however, that does not seem to color Albright’s thinking is her Jewish origins. She was, after all, fifty-nine, and already secretary of state, when she learned from a newspaper that her parents and immediate relatives, as well as all her known ancestors, had been born Jewish. Only at that point did she find out, she tells us, that a large part of her family, including three grandparents, had perished in the Holocaust.

A cultivated person’s complete ignorance of her ethnic, religious, and cultural origins seems almost inconceivable in our age when people tend to think and talk about themselves to exhaustion, and when privacy is no longer respected. Even if at home the young Albright had been discouraged from asking questions about the death of her grandparents and other close relatives, it is still nearly incomprehensible why it never occurred to her, a highly trained specialist in East Central European studies, that her mother’s maiden name, Anna Spiegelova, was typically Jewish. How could she have avoided the time-honored East Central European custom, both Jewish and non-Jewish, of peeking into other people’s origins through discreet or not-so-discreet questions? It was, and to a lesser degree still is, a veritable game among those in the region, and also among émigrés, to sniff out who is and who is not a Jew. Had no one ever asked Albright such questions or indicated such suspicions?

AGAINST ALL THESE musings there is the actual and baffling history of Central and East European Jewish assimilation, which used to be a basic requirement for social and professional success. In the nineteenth century, whether in Prague, Berlin, Vienna, or Budapest (but somewhat less so in Vilna/Vilnius, Warsaw, Lemberg/Lviv, and Bucharest), entry into middle-class careers demanded a willingness to embrace the culture and the mores of the locally dominant nationality. In German-speaking cities, one tried to become a full-fledged German; in Prague, educated Jews first became Germans and later Czechs, whereas in nineteenth-century Brünn/Brno, which was Moravia’s capital, Jews were under intense pressure to choose between a German and Czech nationality. In Budapest, it was preferable to imitate the Hungarian aristocracy and gentry. Young Jews were expected to serve in the army of their country and, if need be, to fire on Jews in different uniform.

Assimilation was supposed to be a smooth and inconspicuous process (not that this helped against the simultaneous charge of abject Jewish servility and arrogant Jewish clannishness), as in the reformed versions of Judaism, and even the abandonment of the Jewish religion. Josef Korbel became a secular liberal Czech patriot, and he converted to Catholicism; but I doubt that anyone in the know ever forgot about his origins. Yet Korbel and his friends acted as if Jewishness was a non-issue. In reality, of course, even in the region’s most democratic country, which Czechoslovakia was, the “Jewish question” could not be ignored. But in post–World War II Eastern Europe, Communists and democratic politicians of Jewish descent were foremost among those who would under no conditions confess to their true origins. Never mind that they had lost family members in the concentration camps or had personally suffered persecution. Maybe they honestly believed that the postwar purge of Nazi collaborators and the interdiction on right-wing political activity had put an end to anti-Semitism.

Josef Korbel and his wife were not alone in hiding their origins even from their own children. The journalist and writer Kati Marton, for example, was very much an adult when she learned that she had come from purely Hungarian Jewish stock. And in Hungary in the 1970s, under an increasingly tolerant Communist regime, a group of “Red Diapers,” as the children of high party functionaries were called, published fascinating essays on “how I found out that I was a Jew.” The Holocaust savagely destroyed the illusion that baptism would do away with Jewish origins, and after 1945 it became gradually clear that the assumption of a Communist or a liberal cosmopolitan identity altered nothing in the eyes of even the friendliest Gentile: a person of Jewish descent remained a Jew, even if perhaps a beloved Jew. The generation of Josef Korbel had put itself in a spiritual straightjacket, outwardly and inwardly.

But assimilation was not a failure in every respect. No doubt, most assimilationists felt truly comfortable only in the company of fellow assimilationists—as opposed to their more strained relationships with Gentiles and traditional Jews and those Jews who had refused to carry assimilation to the logical extreme of conversion. Still, assimilation and the resulting presence of Gentile relatives and friends could be helpful in the hour of crisis. Even fanatical Nazis sometimes treated a World War I hero decorated with an Iron Cross better than they treated a Polish Jew in traditional garb. Ordinary Gentiles automatically distinguished between “our Jewish compatriots” and other Jews, and as a result of this unpleasant distinction assimilated Jews had a better chance to survive the Holocaust.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT was lucky to have been born in Prague, the capital of a country in which the tradition of religious dissent and the presence of the multiethnic Hapsburg monarchy made persecutions milder, blood libels less popular, and religious toleration more widespread than in many other parts of East Central Europe. The Czech lands were no paradise, to be sure, and by the middle of the nineteenth century political and business ambitions had produced fanatical Czech and German nationalisms. Never mind that it took quite a long time—as Albright skillfully explains—for individuals and families to decide if they had a nationality, and whether it should be Czech or German. Czechs are right to look back on their nation’s democratic practices with pride. But they do not always add that it was imperial Hapsburg arbitration, the repeated intervention of the central administration in Vienna, which had made ethnic and sectarian conflict less lethal. In Bohemia and Moravia, Jews could have played an important role as a third force, but their attempt to stay neutral only provoked the enmity of both dominant camps. To give only one example, the appointment by Pope Leo XIII and Emperor Francis Joseph of Theodor Kohn, a baptized Jew, as prince-archbishop of the ancient seat of Olmütz/Olomouc in Moravia, in the early 1890s, only exacerbated the ethnic conflict between Czechs and Germans and the hostility of both groups toward the Jews.

The triumphant course of Czech nationalism began in 1918 with the defeat and dissolution of the Hapsburg monarchy. Albright pays due respect to the eminent humanism and democratic mentality of Tomáš Masaryk, who was Czechoslovakia’s founder. Yet it was Masaryk who during World War I successfully propagated the notion among the Western powers that the Czech and Slovak soldiers were violently opposed to Hapsburg rule, and that they were voting with their feet when they went over to the Russians and later to the Italians. But it has been recently shown that the Czechoslovak Legion in World War I encompassed only a fraction of the prisoners of war from the two groups, and that most Czech soldiers of Austria-Hungary had become prisoners not because they had run over to the enemy—which would have been extremely dangerous—but because their commanders had surrendered large units at a time. (At Przemyśl Fortress, in 1915, 120,000 Austro-Hungarian soldiers of eleven nationalities were marched into Russian captivity.)

Still, the British, the French, and the Americans accepted the concept of a friendly, allied Czechoslovak nation. In the fall of 1918, when Germany and thus also Austria-Hungary lost the war, the Czech, Slovak, Polish, Ukrainian, Romanian, Serbian, Croatian, Slovene, and Italian-speaking soldiers of Austria-Hungary emerged as victors, while their trench-mates, the German-Austrians and the Hungarians, were the losers. The greatest blow to newly created Czechoslovakia’s neighbors was its acquisition of vast regions inhabited by Germans, Hungarians, Ruthenes, and Poles.

There was also something fatally wrong with Masaryk’s claim that Czechs and Slovaks were one nation. Albright could have stated even more forcefully that if one counts the Slovaks as a separate nation—and they have been proving this fact mightily since 1938—then the Czechs constituted only one-half of the population in Czechoslovakia. Hence the tragedy of the Munich Agreement in 1938—but also of the expulsion of the Germans from Czechoslovakia after the war, as well as the attempted simultaneous expulsion of the Hungarians.

INTERWAR CZECHOSLOVAKIA functioned as a smaller version of multinational Hapsburg Austria. President Masaryk was as benevolent a ruler in matters of nationality and religion as Francis Joseph had been. But Edvard Beneš, who became his successor as president in 1935, was different, and so were the international circumstances.

Life in Czechoslovakia had been more prosperous, socially and ethnically more judicious, and politically more democratic than in other parts of Eastern Europe; but following the rise of Hitler, this no longer satisfied many of the over three million Germans or the less than one million Hungarians. For a while interethnic cooperation seemed a distinct possibility, but then Hitler ordered the nationalist leaders of the Sudeten German minority to demand complete autonomy, a concession that the Czechs could not grant.

The great test of Czechoslovak national unity came in 1938, when negotiations between Prime Minister Chamberlain and Hitler temporarily foundered with the latter threatening to attack the country. Here one must deal with a contradiction in traditional Czech historical opinion, which also reflects Albright’s opinion: on the one hand, historians argue that the large, well-trained, and well-equipped Czechoslovak forces, supported by a strong line of concrete bunkers and excellent Škoda-made guns and tanks, were ready and able to fight the Germans. As Albright puts it, “Long fearful of conflict, the country in its excitement could not wait for the clash to begin.” On the other hand, the same historians state that the German minority, constituting nearly one-fourth of the total population, was preparing to betray their country, and that the other minorities were not much better. As Albright writes, “Many, perhaps most, of the Sudetens would have provided the enemy with a fifth column.”

I myself doubt that the ethnic German soldiers of the Czechoslovak army, and its Slovak, Ruthene/Ukrainian, Hungarian, and Polish soldiers, not to speak of the Czech Communists, were ready to die for Czechoslovakia. At best one can suggest that many of the non-Czechs, who in late 1938 and in 1939 feverishly celebrated the arrival of the German, Hungarian, and Polish invaders, may well have been the same people who a few months earlier could not wait to fight in defense of the fatherland. World War II showed that such things are not uncommon: think only of the masses of Parisians who, in 1944, gave a roaring welcome, first to Marshal Pétain and then not too long afterward to General de Gaulle. Newsreels show the same type of faces, the same radiant young women throwing kisses, the same Republican Guard in shining armor, and the same crowds intoning the “Marseillaise.”

Albright does not hide her justified contempt for France’s and Great Britain’s betrayals of Czechoslovakia. She argues forcefully that instead of giving in to great power pressure, her country should have resisted a German military attack. Ironically, Hitler and some German commanding generals were of the same opinion: Hitler, because he wanted to crush Czechoslovakia, and the German military conspirators, under the leadership of Chief of the General Staff Ludwig Beck, because they were anxious to show that Germany would again lose a two-front war and that the Führer should therefore be overthrown. But the early German military opposition to Hitler withered away because of the indifference of the Western powers, and of Hitler’s diplomatic and, later, military victories.

By the end of 1938, the Germans had occupied the Sudetenland; Hungary and Poland had received their chunks of Czechoslovak territory; and Slovakia had made itself autonomous. President Beneš resigned and went into exile in London, to be followed there by many Czech and some Sudeten German democratic political leaders—as well as by the Korbel family, including the one-year-old Madeleine. She makes clear that at this moment the truncated Czech lands underwent a great change: the conservative establishment under the new President Emil Hácha experimented with the same kind of “national revolution” that marked France under Marshal Philippe Pétain. The Germans had not dictated such changes: they were part of a European-wide desire to move away from the parliamentary system. In the still-unoccupied and independent Czech lands, a purge of Jews from public service began, and Hácha’s troops and police deported a good number of Sudeten German anti-Nazis, primarily Social Democrats, to Germany.

A dramatic change came in March 1939, when German troops marched into Prague creating the Bohemian-Moravian Protectorate. It now became a matter of national survival to outwit the Germans. Five years later, the Czechs would emerge triumphant from the contest, with comparatively small losses in men and matériel. Could the Czechs have put up at least a symbolic resistance to the German military invasion in 1939, now that there were no more ethnic minorities? Possibly yes, but the bloodless surrender in Prague was in fact only the first in the long series of surrenders that marked Europe in those years.

In 1938, Austria fell into the arms of Nazi Germany; in the following year the Germans occupied the remaining Czech lands and Slovakia proclaimed itself an independent German ally. Early in 1940, while expecting a German invasion, the Danish high command withdrew its puny forces from the German border, thus allowing the bloodless occupation of their country. By then, Norway, the Netherlands, and Belgium had proclaimed their strict neutrality, but when the German troops entered nevertheless, these countries put up only minimal resistance. France, with an army that was at least as strong as that of Germany, collapsed in a few weeks; its political, military, and business elite, as well as its ordinary citizens, overwhelmingly preferred surrender to a continued struggle.

At no point had these countries coordinated their actions, when together they could have defeated Germany. And this does not take into account British and Commonwealth assistance. The great exceptions to this miserable tale were Poland, which never surrendered, and, in 1941, Yugoslavia and Greece. In the same period, however, Italy, Romania, Finland, Hungary, and Bulgaria, as well as Slovakia and re-created Croatia, joined the war on the German side.

In 1939, the abandoned little Czech Protectorate chose accommodation with the mighty German power. Traditional Czech historians have yet to recognize this awkward but important fact. The heroic Czech resistance movement, although present from the very beginning, was a relatively minor affair. Throughout the German occupation, that is until 1945, Czech agriculture and industry worked at full steam for the German war effort; sporadic acts of sabotage did not influence overall production figures, and the industrialists, the engineers, and the workers performed impeccably. Without Czech-made tanks (one-third of the total German production in 1940) and artillery pieces, the German army would have suffered grievously. In exchange for their services, Czech workers received better food than and the same salaries as their German counterparts. The Czechs who worked in the Reich, whether freely or under labor obligation, were treated like their Reich German counterparts.

Since many Sudeten Germans migrated to the Reich following annexation, while most German men were at the front, ethnic Czechs began to move into the Sudetenland. Moreover, under Nazi rule, Czechs enjoyed a hitherto barely acknowledged but crucial advantage over the citizens of the Reich, which now included the Sudeten Germans: they were not called on to do military service. Meanwhile, as Albright explains, the Czechs, being mostly at home, produced an unusual number of children. In other words, the Czech ethnic element was winning the contest with the German ethnic element even before the defeat of Nazi Germany.

The year 1942 brought a series of major events that changed the history of the Protectorate less than is usually assumed. The exiled President Beneš decided to stimulate flagging resistance activity at home by sending in British-trained Czech and Slovak parachutists to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the newly appointed Nazi viceroy of the Protectorate. In this famous and much disputed incident, the satanic “Acting Reich Protector” was killed, as were subsequently all the parachutists, many Czech resistance activists, and thousands of uninvolved civilians, including all the men in the village of Lidice. Albright wisely admits that Beneš’s hope of stimulating Czech resistance was a mistake; the resistance movement was not revived until the last months of the war.

Still, as she explains, the exile leaders were successful in using these events to achieve recognition as the sole legitimate representatives of the Czechoslovak nation. Moreover, renascent Czechoslovakia (including fascist Slovakia) had gained an aura of martyrdom. It is unlikely that the plot to kill Heydrich, which inevitably led to massive German revenge, had been undertaken with the secret purpose of convincing the world that the Germans were not “worthy of living in the same land with Czechs and Slovaks” (these were Beneš’s words), but the exile government fully exploited the propaganda value of the massacre at Lidice to that effect. By the end of the war, Beneš had gained the unofficial permission of Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union to rid the country of its German inhabitants. Or as he awfully put it, “to achieve the final solution of the German question.” But for the time being, life in the Protectorate went on as before the Heydrich assassination, which, as Albright shows, had been unpopular among the Czechs. The Protectorate remained a much coveted safe haven for German soldiers, something similar to the role played by Denmark during the war.

Albright devotes a good deal of attention to the terrible fate of the Czech Jews, who included dozens of her relatives. The journey to Auschwitz usually led through the pseudo-haven of the “model concentration camp” at Theresienstadt/Terezín. By the end of the war, despite initial emigration, between one-third and one-half of the Jews of the Czech lands had survived. Avoiding deportation was difficult, owing to the thoroughness of the Czech bureaucracy operating under German supervision, but some Jews managed it with the assistance of non-Jews and owing to the lack of violent popular anti-Semitism. Albright cites a message from the Czech resistance to London, which stated that the resisters were extending humanitarian aid to Jews wherever they could but that, after the war, Jews should not return to the country because in the past “they had sided with the Germans.”

THE WAR WAS NOT  over when President Beneš entered Czechoslovakia, coming from the Soviet Union, and in his notorious Kosice decrees announced the reunification of Czechoslovakia as well as the collective guilt and the coming expulsion of the German and Hungarian populations. Or as he stated, “Czechs and Slovaks no longer wish to live together with Germans and Hungarians.” In August 1945, “Czechoslovak state citizens of German or Magyar race” were deprived of their citizenship. At the end, however, only the Germans were expelled. This travesty happened in two phases. The first, the so-called wild phase—which was not truly “wild” because orders for it had come from above—included the massacre, mostly by soldiers and “Partisans,” of at least ten thousand civilians. In many places, German civilians had to wear special distinguishing marks, and were harassed and humiliated; thousands were thrown into concentration camps such as Theresienstadt. Germans received greatly reduced food rations or none at all, and hundreds of thousands of them were marched on foot to the German border. There the survivors of the marches were often rebuffed by American or Soviet guards because ruined Germany was rapidly filling up with millions of German refugees and expellees from the East.

The second phase, hallowed at the Potsdam conference by Truman, Churchill, and Stalin in July 1945, was called “expulsion in an orderly and humane manner.” Here, among other things, the Czech authorities faced the problem of who exactly was a German. What the Nazis used to call Mischlinge, or half-bloods, and female members of mixed Czech-German marriages, were often but not always exempted, as were some miners, highly skilled workers, and proven anti-fascists. But a number of Jewish survivors, who figured in the old census reports as German-speakers, were put in the cattle cars to Germany. (A lucky break, some would say, as Czechoslovakia under Communist rule soon closed its borders.) All German property was confiscated, and German farms were soon re-populated by Hungarians and others transported from eastern Czechoslovakia.

Albright is correct in stating that almost no one protested, abroad or in Czechoslovakia, against the massacres, the torture, and the cruel deportations. She also admits that her father and family saw the deportation of German civilians as an inevitable and necessary process. She strongly condemns the brutalities and other excesses, but she voices no unequivocal outrage over the very phenomenon of deportations. Note that the main victims were not the active Nazis, most of whom were no longer present in 1945, but women, old people, the sick and the dying, and children. Nazi arguments and methods should never be imitated by anyone, but especially not by a population whose vast majority had quietly worked for the German overlords. The Czech lands were not Poland or Russia, where the German troops and administrators had behaved monstrously. Albright, who during her brilliant career repeatedly expressed outrage over crimes committed against innocent people, and who actually did something to stop them, should have long ago publicly condemned the expulsion from Czechoslovakia of more than two and a half million German civilians. Ethnic cleansing is an abomination wherever it is committed. Albright’s public statements to that effect would be all the more important as the Beneš decrees have not been officially revoked and the Czech government and public have not yet fully acknowledged the crime of the “transfer of the Germans,” even though it has been amply documented and analyzed by Czech and non-Czech historians.

THE EUROPEAN WAR was barely over when the Korbels returned to Prague, only to leave for Belgrade, where Josef Korbel served as ambassador. By then Madeleine had become a bright little eyewitness, but mostly in Belgrade and not in Prague; also, she was sent to a school in Switzerland some time before her parents chose to move to the West. All this should have been the happy ending to a family story fraught with dangers. But of course history had another totalitarianism in store for the East Europeans. In the last months of the war, the anti-Nazi resistance had been re-started in Czechoslovakia, mainly by armed Partisans who were largely Communists. In May 1945, they entered Prague together with the Red Army, and soon acquired power and influence far in excess of their assigned role in the new democratic coalition government. Among other things, the Communists gradually took over the all-important security services, which meant that they were controlling the population transfers and the purges.

Unlike in Poland and Hungary, however, the Communists and the Soviet Union were not unpopular in Czechoslovakia. There were many reasons for this: the generally favorable experience with the legal Communist Party in the interwar period; the heroism and the suffering of the Communist resistance in wartime; a sense of Slavic brotherhood among many people; the relatively acceptable behavior and early departure of the Red Army soldiers from the Czech lands; and the continued bitterness over Czechoslovakia’s abandonment by the Western powers in 1938. Nor can there be any doubt that the fear of German revenge, even if not realistic, caused many people to believe that active Soviet support of their country was indispensable.

In his historic Iron Curtain speech, in March 1946, Winston Churchill erred by referring to Czechoslovakia as the only free and democratic country in Sovietdominated Eastern Europe. Astonishingly, Hungary, the former German ally, was also allowed to hold free parliamentary elections, in November 1945, in which the Communists received only 17 percent of the votes. In the free parliamentary elections held in Czechoslovakia in May 1946, the Communists gained an equally astonishing 38 percent of the votes. For the first and only time in European history, a democratically elected Communist, Klement Gottwald, assumed the prime ministry. But Hungary’s relative freedom ended in 1947, and Czechoslovakia’s ended in February 1948, in a Communist putsch. Who was more responsible for all the Communist takeovers, Stalin or the local Communists? This is an eternally vexing question, as is the question of whether it was the Marshall Plan—which the Soviets did not allow the countries of Eastern Europe to accept—that led to the creation of the infamous Soviet Bloc. In any case, by the spring of 1948 all these countries were one-party states.

President Beneš was too ill and too weak to oppose the Communists. The only democrat left in the Cabinet after February 1948 was Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk, the son of Tomáš Masaryk. But he was too hesitant, too brooding, too Hamlet-like a character to make much of a difference. At least this is the picture that emerges from Albright’s highly sympathetic portrait of him. Jan Masaryk was Josef Korbel’s friend, and she met him quite a few times. Yet even she cannot answer the question of whether Masaryk’s death in Prague in March 1948 was a murder or a suicide. She merely suggests that the cause of death was murder, perhaps by Soviet agents.

So this extraordinary book is a book of tragedies—and yet it does not conclude on a pessimistic note. In prose that grows increasingly philosophical, Albright briefly but revealingly hints at later developments in the Czech lands, in Europe, and in the world. There came the unforgettable Prague Spring and there stepped forward her remarkable friend Václav Havel, all of it ending with the victory of democracy. Wisely suspicious of those “who claim full possession of the truth” but also of those “who suggest that all is too nuanced and complex for us to learn any lessons,” Madeleine Albright artfully presents a wrenching tale of horror and darkness, but also one in which decent and brave people again and again had their say.

István Deák is an emeritus professor of history at Columbia University. He is the author, most recently, of Essays on Hitler’s Europe (University of Nebraska Press).