Tag Archives: Czech Republic

Formidable Thinker, Reluctant Politician, President of Two Countries



Michael Žantovsky, Havel: A Life

     In our time of rising xenophobia, ethnic nationalism and raging populism, Václav Havel, if he is remembered at all, seems anachronistic, a quaint figure from a bygone era. The first president of post-communist Czechoslovakia, Havel (1936-2011) was elected during the “Velvet Revolution” in December 1989, barely a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall and just days after Soviet control of Czechoslovakia collapsed.  After the 1992 “Velvet Divorce” split the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Havel served as Czech Republic president from 1993 to 2003.

     Although both Czechoslovakia’s last president and the Czech Republic’s first, Havel was more than just president of two countries. He was also a towering moral symbol in Eastern Europe’s remarkable transition to democracy in the 1990s after decades of communist rule.  Michael Zantovsky demonstrates in his engaging biography, Havel: A Life, how Havel was instrumental in bringing about the demise of communism in Eastern Europe, “one of the most dramatic social transitions of recent history” (p.1). As president of two countries, Havel should be credited with “finally putting to rest one of the most alluring utopias of all time” (p.1).

     Havel may fairly be paired with Nelson Mandela, the most visible and best-known engineer of late 20th century transitions to democracy. Before becoming political leaders, both Mandela and Havel were jailed on account of their dissident activities.  Like Mandela, Havel advocated non-violence “not only as a matter of moral principle but as a weapon of political struggle” (p.437). But unlike Mandela, who was a man of action par excellence – a boxer as a young man, then a civil rights lawyer – Havel was an intellectual par excellence.

    Zantovsky describes Havel as a “formidable thinker, who consistently attempted to apply the results of his thinking process . . . to his practical engagement in the realm of politics” (p.1-2).  Havel’s deep thinking on the individual in the modern state is as much a part of his legacy as his actual steering of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic through the post-communist years.  Havel was already known as a playwright when he became a dissident challenging the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. If he had never entered politics, we would likely remember him as one of the 20th century’s most noteworthy  playwrights, on par with the likes of Eugène Ionesco, Samuel Beckett and Berthold Brecht.

     Zantovsky’s book divides into two roughly equal parts: Havel the playwright and dissident in the first half; Havel the politician in the second. Zantovsky himself is an important figure in his story. A clinical psychologist by training, a correspondent for Reuters, and once an aspiring rock music lyricist, Zantovsky served as a primary advisor and press secretary to Havel during the early transition years. Later, he received appointments as Czech Ambassador to both the United States and the United Kingdom. Zantovsky admits to having shared with Havel “many laughs, moments of sadness, quite a few drinks and some incredible moments together, both before and after he became president” (p.5).  Zantovsky’s insider’s view, seen only rarely in biography, does not preclude him from presenting a balanced portrait of his one-time boss that includes Havel’s shortcomings and failures. Zantovsky also indicates that this is his first book in English. His crisp, straightforward style, coupled with wry observations and humorous digressions, reveals a high comfort level not only with his subject but also with the English language.

* * *

     Havel’s early years coincided with the critical events that marked the life of his country and indelibly shaped his adult perspective. In 1938, when Havel was two, France and Great Britain abandoned the defense of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in the infamous Munich accords of 1938, the “prime trauma of modern Czechoslovak history” (p.336). The Nazis invaded the country in March 1939. After their defeat in World War II, Stalinists in 1948 seized control of the Czechoslovak government in a non-violent putsch and instituted a communist regime that lasted four decades, until the Velvet Revolution of 1989 (these events are set forth in Prague Winter, the memoir of Madeline Albright, a fellow Czech native and prominent contemporary and friend of Havel, reviewed here in May 2013).

      Havel grew up in comfortable circumstances, but his moderately wealthy bourgeois background was not an asset once the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia. Havel’s privileged upbringing left him feeling “’alone, inferior, lost, ridiculed’ and humbled” (p.21). This feeling of being outcast, isolated and unfairly privileged, Zantovsky writes, “remained with Havel throughout his life. In his own thinking it endowed him with a lifelong perspective from ‘below’ or from the ‘outside.’” (p.21). From his teens onward, Havel was a “leader, setting agendas, walking at the front, showing the way. . . [but] with a diffidence, kindness and politeness so unwavering (and often unwarranted) that Havel himself caricatured it some of his plays” (p.3). At age 19, when he fell in love with his life-long partner and wife Olga Šplichalová, Havel already had the “gravitas of really believing what he was saying” (p.53).

     Havel’s bourgeois background precluded him from being accepted in an arts and science faculty at a Czech university. He was able to gain admission to a program in the economics of transportation, an arcane field that did not interest him, and he dropped out to join the Czech military. After completing military service, Havel became a playwright and an established member of the “shadow, non-conformist, bohemian underworld” (p.41) of the Prague intellectual class. Whatever he did  in the future, Zantovksy indicates, Havel’s loyalties always remained with this shadowy underworld.

     Havel’s plays explored how inauthenticity, alienation, the absurd, social isolation and depersonalization affected individuals in Czechoslovakia and totalitarian societies generally.   In one of his best known plays, “The Memorandum,” Havel posed the question of “passive participation in evil” (p.93), a question that he would return to repeatedly. Havel sought to demonstrate how totalitarian control drives individuals to “isolation, and makes them fear, suspect and avoid others” (p.95). But the human capacity to “’live the truth,’ to reaffirm man’s ‘authentic identity’” constitutes in all of Havel’s plays what Zantovsky terms the “nuclear weapon” that “gives power to the powerless. As soon as the system is no longer able to extract the ritual endorsement from its subjects, its ideological pretensions collapse as the lies they are” (p.200).

     In the 1960s, Havel gradually became associated with dissident opposition to the Communist regime. With his principal themes of identity, responsibility and the elusive notion of “living in truth” by this time fully formed, Havel came to the hazardous conclusion that rather than “waste time by hopelessly tinkering with the [communist] system in the effort of making it livable and sustainable, it was necessary to replace it as a whole” (p.96). Havel became a full-fledged leader of the dissident movement at the time of the “Czech spring” of 1968, when the Czechoslovak government sought to institute modest reforms under the guise of “socialism with a human face.” In August of that year, the Soviet Union brutally suppressed the fledgling reform movement in one of the “most massive overnight military invasions in European history” (p.115). Twenty oppressive years of what the communists termed “normalization” followed.

     The early years of so-called “normalization” following suppression of the Czech Spring were for Havel a period of “shapeless fog” (p.132). But by the mid-1970s, Havel had become the driving force behind the Czechoslovak dissident movement.  His essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” dissected the nature of the communist regime and argued that sustained opposition on the part of ordinary citizens could eventually topple it. Havel became one of the principal authors of Charter 77, written in late 1977 in response to the imprisonment of members of  Czech psychedelic rock band.  Charter 77 became the defining document of the Czech dissident movement and helped raise awareness in Western countries of human rights behind the Iron Curtain. The charter criticized the Czechoslovak government for failing to implement human rights provisions in its constitution and in a host of international instruments that it had signed.

     During his dissident years, Havel landed in prison on multiple occasions, the longest being nearly four years, between 1979 and 1983. While imprisoned, Havel wrote an extensive series of letters to his wife Olga, later published as “Letters to Olga” — “hybrids of creative writing, philosophy and political prose” (p.3). Although in jail when Czech dissident activities surged in the early 1980s, Havel was nonetheless directly or indirectly linked to these activities, as an “instigator, an inspiration, a spectator or as a friend. It almost appears as if he were a spider at the center of a web, spinning and waiting” (p.275). Around this time, Havel “must have realized himself that he was on a transitional trajectory from being an artist and dissident to becoming a politician” (p.275). His prison experience had made him “uniquely well prepared for the single-minded focus towards the tasks ahead, culminating with his leadership of the Velvet Revolution” (p.231).

     A dizzying six weeks after the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, Havel, leading a disparate group termed Civic Forum, became his country’s first freely elected president since the legendary post-World War I leader Tomas Masaryk.  Havel “probably never dreamt about being president, nor did he particularly wish to assume the office. Throughout his life he thought of himself primarily as a writer; what people thought about his writing affected him much more personally than what they thought about him as a politician” (p.317). But in what Zantovsky terms the “reality play of his life,” Havel had “set the stage in such a way that, when the final act arrived, the logic of the piece inexorably led him to assume the leading position” (p.317) as the newly independent state set upon an uncertain transformation away from totalitarian rule and toward democracy.

* * *

     Both as a protester and as a politician, Havel advocated what Zantovsky terms “socialist humanism,” an idealized version of the social welfare states of Western Europe. Despite his voracious reading and self-education, when Havel became president he was “ignorant of the fundamentals of economic theory” and “totally unfamiliar with the practical workings of a real economy” (p.392-93). Only “grudgingly” did Havel come to “acknowledge, and even to respect the role of political organizations as agents of change and condensers of political energy” (p.204). In an interview after he left office, Havel said that his most serious mistake as president was that he had “not more energetically promoted his vision of a humanistic and moral society during his time as president.” To many people, especially his detractors, Zantovsky wryly notes, “he had done little else” (p.459).

     Havel seemed embarrassed by the power that his political position yielded, “always wary of trying to elevate himself or of exaggerating his own importance” (p.405). In leading the transition away from communism and toward democracy, one of Havel’s strengths, but arguably also a weakness, was that he rejected the “concept of the Enemy.” He consistently went out of his way to “understand rather than to demonize the motives of the other side and, if at all possible, always to extend to them the benefit of the doubt” (p.108-09). Havel’s conciliatory approach “led to accusations that he was soft on the exponents of the previous regime, or even that there was possible some secret collusion between them” (p.109).

     The most significant issue Havel had to deal with as President of Czechoslovakia was the Velvet Divorce, when a Slovak independence movement split the country in July 1992 into a new Czech Republic and a southern and eastern neighbor, Slovakia. Havel could not endorse separation, which “ran against the grain of his conviction, his philosophy, his understanding of democracy and his sense of responsibility” (p.419). But neither could Havel take a “heroic stand” against separation, “in view of the risks and uncertainties this would pose for 15 million of his fellow citizens” (p.419). It was better to have two functioning countries than a single, dysfunctional one, Havel reasoned. Havel resigned as president of Czechoslovakia after Slovakia’s official July 1992 declaration of independence.  He had no involvement in the working out of details of the separation over the following six months. But he was persuaded to run for the presidency of the new Czech Republic and became its first president in January 1993.

     As Czech President, Havel had a complicated relationship with Vaclav Klaus, his Prime Minister who went on to succeed Havel as Czech President in 2003.  Klaus was in many ways the opposite of Havel. A free-market economist, Klaus battled with Havel over the “character of Czech society and over the values and principles it should abide by. For Klaus, these values could be reduced to individual economic and political freedom and a vague allegiance to the national community as the conduit of history, culture and traditions” (p.456). Klaus was a Eurosceptic, whereas Havel “emphasized time and time again the great opportunity that the process of European integration offered for ‘civilizational self-reflection,’ and promoted the idea of ‘Europe as a mission’” (p.449). Havel’s relationship with his Polish counterpart Lech Walęsa, another hero in Eastern Europe’s transition to democracy, was less complicated, in no small measure because Walęsa shared Havel’s dedication to European integration for former Warsaw Pact  countries.

     Walęsa embodied the “heroic past of the Polish nation, with its brave if sometimes futile resistance to foreign oppressors,” whereas Havel “exemplified the fundamental unity of Central Europe with the rest of the West in terms of culture, philosophy and political thinking” (p.444). But despite differences in the two men’s character and outlook, they were a forceful single voice for expansion of NATO to Eastern Europe and accession of former Iron Curtain countries into the European Union, which both US President Bill Clinton and major Western European leaders initially opposed. Havel and Walęsa “complemented each other as well as any pair since Laurel and Hardy. It is hard to imagine that the enlargement would have occurred without either of them,” Zantovsky contends. “If most of Europe today is safer than at any time in its history, it is not least thanks to the vision of statesmen like Bill Clinton, Lech Walęsa. . . and Václav Havel” (p.444-45).

     When Havel left the Czech presidency in 2003, he was a widely known and respected figure worldwide, and he traveled extensively throughout the world.  His wife Olga had died in 1996 and Havel married an actress (Havel had more than his fair share of extra-marital affairs while married to Olga, which Zantovsky mentions but does not dwell upon). Havel became a Visiting Fellow at the Library of Congress in Washington, where he wrote a memoir, “To the Castle and Back,” which Zantovksy describes as an “existential mediation on the meaning of life, politics and love, for which the presidency is not much more than a backdrop” (p.504). He also wrote a play, “Leaving,” that seemed to foreshadow his own death. After several years of declining health, brought about in part by a lifetime of heavy cigarette smoking, Havel died at his country home in December 2011, age 75.

* * *

     Zantovsky summarizes the “remarkable balance sheet” of his former boss’ presidency by noting that Havel should be given credit for the “peaceful transformation of the country from totalitarian rule to democracy; [and] for building a stable system of democratic and political institutions, comparable in most respects, flaws included, to long-existing systems in the West” (p.497). Further, Havel “successfully brought the country back to Europe and made it an integral part of Western political and security alliances; and he remained an inspiration and identifiable supporter in the struggle for human rights and freedoms around the world” (p.497). Even the Velvet Divorce, Havel’s greatest setback as a political leader, was mitigated by its “peaceful and consensual character” (p.497).

    Yet Zantovsky also notes in his affectionate portrait that Havel “conspicuously failed at making the society at large adhere to his ideals of morality, tolerance, and civic spirit, but that said more about society than about him. Arguably, he had never expected to succeed fully” (p.497). Today, the ideals of this enigmatic, brilliant man and reluctant politician seem far more elusive than in Havel’s time.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
November 19, 2016


Filed under Biography, Eastern Europe, European History, History

Far Away Country


Madeline Albright with Bill Woodward, Prague Winter:
A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-48

           Although it is easy to forget, Madeline Albright was the first woman to serve as United States Secretary of State, nominated for the position by President Clinton shortly after Clinton’s re-election in late 1996. Prior to becoming Secretary of State, Albright served as US Ambassador to the United Nations. But in addition to being a distinguished diplomat, Albright is also a first-rate storyteller, as she demonstrates in “Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-48.” Combining a mellifluous style with what strikes me as a distinctly Central European sensitivity to history’s capriciousness, Albright offers a riveting account of the daunting challenges which her native Czechoslovakia confronted between 1937 and 1948, along with personal remembrances of her earliest years.
1937, the year Albright was born in Prague as Marie Jana Korbelová, marked the onset of a tumultuous and dispiriting period for Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovak Republic that had come into being after World War I had a rich, humanist cultural tradition and seemed ideally suited to transition to democratic governance. Yet, liberal democracy in Czechoslovakia during what Albright terms the “Prague Winter,” 1937 to 1948, faced steep obstacles it was unable to overcome by itself. A “beacon of humane government until snuffed out by Adolph Hitler,” Albright writes in her introductory chapter, Czech democracy enjoyed a brief post-war revival, only to be “extinguished again by the disciples of Josef Stalin,” (p.1-2)

           Albright also indicates in her introductory chapter that much of her motivation to write this book, which is about one third personal memoir and two thirds Czech political history, came from the revelation in the 1990s that her family had been Jewish. With little to no fanfare, her parents converted to Catholicism in 1941, when Albright was a young girl. As she grew up, Albright’s family said nothing about its Jewish roots or the conversion. Albright thinks that her parents considered Catholicism “more Czech” than Judaism. She surmises that her parents could see the suffering and prejudice to which Jews in Europe were subjected, and wanted their children to avoid such stigma. But Albright says she would really like to know more, speculating that her parents’ 1941 decision, when the “grim unfolding of the Holocaust was still in its earliest stages” might have been different in 1945. By war’s end:

acting to substitute a Christian identity for a Jewish one would have been – in the absence of a genuine religious calling – hard to conceive. When viewed through the lens of the Holocaust, the moral connotations of such a choice had been altered irrevocably. Perhaps that is why my parents never found a good time to discuss the decision with me and seemed to avoid doing so with others. Before the slaughter of six million Jews, they might have found the words; after it, they could not (p.193).

           Albright moves back and forth between her life with her family as a young girl, and the plight of Czechoslovakia between 1937 and 1948. But her book also contains a good background primer on the country prior to 1937. Czechoslovakia was created in the aftermath of World War I, carved out of the former Hapsburg Empire. A small country, surrounded by larger and more powerful neighbors, notably Germany, it was made up of three major ethnic blocks, the Czechs, the Slovaks, and the South Germans. Each dominated in a portion of the country, and each portion included a substantial Jewish population.

           In the 1920s, the young country looked like it was set to prove that liberal democracy could succeed in the heart of Central Europe. It had a forceful and widely revered President, Tomáš Masaryk, the “rare leader who taught as he led” (p.402), whose vision was to “embrace religion without the straightjacket of the Church, social revolution without the excesses of Bolshevikism, and national pride without bigotry” (p.39). Masaryk, “could easily have been elevated president of Europe,” Albright speculates, if such a post had existed in the inter-war period (p.47). Czechoslovakia had a literary rate twice as high as neighboring Hungary, even higher than Germany. Guided by a national motto, “in work and knowledge is our salvation,” the Czechs were industrial leaders in Europe. By 1930, their country ranked 10th world wide in industrial production. An obscure insurance agent from Prague and part-time writer named Franz Kafka introduced the safety helmet into workplaces, while a young German physicist, Albert Einstein, propounded on new theories of matter at Charles University in Prague.
But in Albright’s view the country’s most basic problem was its “system of ethnically distinct schools and social organization” among its three major ethnic groups, an “obstacle to building a united Czechoslovakia” (p.65). By 1937, the year Albright was born, it had become clear that Hitler had his sights on the Sudentland, Czechoslovakia’s German speaking region. In broadcast after broadcast, Nazi propaganda announced that the Czechs were conducting a “passionate fight for extermination” against the Sudetens (p.78). German-owned businesses were being “forced into bankruptcy, children were starving, the level of oppression was incredible,” Albright writes, going on to note that this propaganda was “carefully disguised as independent reporting to deceive international audiences” (p.78).
One year later at Munich, without consulting Czech leaders, Great Britain and France (along with Italy) gave into Hitler’s demands in October 1938 to cede the Sudentland to Germany in a futile quest for peace with the obstreperous dictator. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain explained in still-chilling words the rationale for what would come to be the classic instance of pre-World War II appeasement: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.” Albright describes Chamberlain as a “practical, business-oriented man, supremely confident in his judgments and disdainful of critics” who “did not believe that war was a solution to any problem and felt sure that all intelligent men would conclude the same. . . In Chamberlain’s universe, people might be flawed, but they worried about their souls and did not set out to do monstrous things” (p.71).
Less than six months later, the German Wehrmacht moved into and occupied the remaining Czech territory. Czechoslovakia’s President Edvard Beneš, who had succeeded Masaryk in 1935 when the latter resigned because of poor health, fled to London, where he headed a Czech government-in-exile. “Small countries can survive hostile neighbors,” Albright writes, “but the odds lengthen when a significant minority identifies with the enemy” (p.62). What happened in Czechoslovakia in 1938 was “not an inevitable consequence of ethnic diversity” but rather the tragic convergence of events, most notably the “failure of governments in and outside Central Europe to comprehend the scope of the danger they faced” (p.62).
Albright ‘s father, Josef Korbel, was a diplomat who served before the war as press attaché in the Czech Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. When war came, he took his family to London. During her years in London, from 1939 to 1945, Albright had many contacts with Beneš, by then Czech President in Exile. Even at her early age, Albright developed a fondness and admiration for the man who is the lead figure in this historical narrative of Czech history between 1937 and 1948. A less commanding figure than Tomáš Masaryk, with less intellectual range, Beneš nonetheless “worked consistently within the confines of the democratic and humane values that Masaryk championed. . . [and] performed miracles in holding the government in exile together and realizing its goals” (p.401-02).
Several members of Albright’s extended family were less fortunate during the war years than Albright and her immediate family, winding up in Terezín, a Czech city converted into a concentration camp after Czechs in 1942 assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the German protector of Czechoslovakia and Hitler’s personal envoy. There were no gas chambers at Terezín. It was not an extermination camp but was a killing ground nonetheless, because the “deaths from supposedly natural causes were due to unnatural conditions” (p.245). In all, 25 members of Albright’s family were sent to Terezín, including three of her four grandparents; none survived.
Albright recounts the heroism of the Czech resistance during the war. But after the war, Czechs turned savagely upon the ethnic German minorities still within the country. During the late spring and early summer of 1945, “due process was widely neglected” (p.333), Albright writes with considerable understatement. In some cases:

alleged collaborators were simply killed; in others, they were hauled off to makeshift prisons to be interrogated and tortured. In many towns, the maiming of local Germans became a spectator sport, as crowds gathered to jeer. To the local guardians of security, the rough treatment was not lawlessness but justice. Germans were given the same rations that Jews had been allotted during the war and were prohibited from entering hotels, restaurants, and shops. They could no longer speak their language in public. In some towns, they were required to wear specially colored armbands; in others, swastikas were painted on their backs. . . Czech women who had a reputation for fraternizing with Germans were humiliated (p.333).

           At the 1945 Potsdam conference, Great Britain and the United States approved the “orderly and humane” expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czech territory (p.337). Roughly 3.5 million ethnic German Czechs were formerly expelled to the American and Soviet zones of Germany, along with the uncounted thousands who were pushed out before the program officially began. In the end, only about 250,000 ethnic Germans remained in Czechoslovakia, about 10% of the pre-war population. Albright recognizes the post-war treatment of ethnic Germans as a dark chapter in Czech history, an indiscriminate imposition of collective war guilt which fell most heavily upon the innocent, the defenseless and the weak. Still, she says, her father supported the expulsion, although he qualified his support by admitting that it was “sometimes accompanied by excesses of brutality which no decent man can condone” (p.339).

            After the war, Albright’s father returned to Belgrade, this time as Czech Ambassador to Yugoslavia, and watched at a distance as his country succumbed to another totalitarian power, the Soviet Union. The post-World War II Soviet-led takeover of Czechoslovakia was more gradual, more nuanced than that of the Nazis, but the end result could not have seemed appreciably different to most Czechs.

            As the war ended, Beneš concluded that he could not depend upon Great Britain or France to guarantee the country’s future security. Nor did the distant United States seem likely to be an effective guarantor. Accordingly, Beneš let Stalin and his Kremlin associates know that he sought good relations with the Soviet Union and Czech Communist Party leader Klement Gottwald. As Albright explains, “Establishing a firm bond with Moscow was an essential element in Beneš’s postwar strategy. . . Beneš believed that his country needed a powerful friend” (p.256-57). As the war ended, Beneš faced the tall order of “trying to champion democracy, implement leftist economic policy, mollify the West and butter up Stalin all at the same time” (p.295).

           Together, Beneš’and Gottwald planned for a post-war Czechoslovakia that would give each a leading role. When Beneš’returned from exile in London, he added seven communists to his government. The Communists dominated the security forces, with the power to investigate and arrest, giving them enormous leverage over the government. In response to an attempt in February 1948 by the Interior Minister to purge non-Communist elements within the Ministry, the government’s non-Communist ministers resigned. After about two weeks of Communist-inspired labor unrest and violence, Beneš accepted the resignations of his non-Communist ministers and appointed a new government under Gottwald’s leadership. These resignations proved to be a huge tactical error, giving Gottwald the “chance to seize power through what many would see as constitutional means” (p.385-86).

             The only important non-Communist to remain in the government was Foreign Affairs Minister Jan Masaryk, Tomáš Masaryk’s son and Albright’s father’s boss, the nation’s “emissary to the world” (p.231). Two weeks later, Masaryk was dead under mysterious circumstances. The Communists maintained that Masaryk’s death was a suicide. Albright thinks he was murdered, but even today the question has not been definitively resolved. After Masaryk’s death, Czechoslovakia became the last of Stalin’s Eastern European satellites. The country’s 1948 fall to the Communists was a turning point in the Cold War, with Masaryk’s death and the Soviet takeover erasing “any lingering hope that collaboration between the Soviet Union and the West – so essential during the war – could survive even in diluted form” (p.411).

           Albright’s family immigrated to the United States one year after Masaryk’s death, in 1949, settling in Denver, Colorado. Josef Korbel found a job teaching international politics at the University of Denver and went on to found the school’s Graduate School of International Studies. Before Korbel died in 1977, he almost certainly never imagined that in addition to his daughter becoming the first female Secretary of State, one of his students, Condolezza Rice, would become the second woman to hold the position and the first African-American. Czechoslovakia remained within the Soviet orbit until 1989, when it threw off the communist yoke in the “Velvet Revolution,” only to split into separate Czech and Slovak republics in the “Velvet Divorce” of 1993.

           Czechoslovakia was surely not a far away country to most in the West in 1938, Chamberlain’s cringe-inducing description notwithstanding. That year and the full period of the Prague winter may nonetheless seem like a far away time for many readers, including Czechs and Slovaks who came of age after 1989. The Nazis have now been gone from Czechoslovakia and Central Europe for nearly 70 years and the Communists for almost 25. But, as Albright reminds us in the conclusion to this powerful story, twice in her lifetime, “Central Europe lost and then regained its freedom; that is cause for celebration – and also for vigilance” (p.411).

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
May 8, 2013


Filed under European History, History, Uncategorized