Sunday, August 19, 2012

Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 by Madeleine Albright (2012)

With Bill Woodward.  How much was Madeleine Albright and how much was Bill Woodward.  Her speech writer - I did some research.  Regardless of who wrote what, it was really engaging book.

I grew up in the Czech Capital of Kansas, and I've always considered myself something on an honorary Czech.  Because of my interest in history, I've occasionally thought about what "Czech" really means.  I've also wondered why, in the Czech Capitol of Kansas, there wasn't really any education on Czech language, history, folklore, etc.

We grew up eating what we called Czech food (kolaches -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kolache - are most definitely Czech; my educated guess about bieroch -- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bierock -- was right, they are Volga).  Sausage with English names but most likely Czech origin.  Jeternice, which is Czech sausage for sure, is vile stuff, by the way.  Head cheese.  When we went to eat in a Czech restaurant a few years ago, I didn't recognize anything on the menu.  But foods change, and if you move, are influenced by your neighbors, and influenced by new ingredients, so this is no surprise.  The recipes a group of settlers brought 130 years ago are bound to change, as are the recipes back in the homeland.

As the subtitle says, Albright's book is  a "personal story."  Her personal story of being a small child during war time, is really just gloss; obviously a baby doesn't have a whole lot of insight on what's going on in the world around them, politically or culturally.  What she really provides for us is the personal story of her family as a vividly described tragic backdrop to the story of Czechoslovakia.  I certainly learned much about Albright - I don't even think I knew she was Czech.  I also learned quite a bit about the history of the Czechs.

You'd think growing up surrounded by Czechs, some of the history would have been a part of our lives.  That wasn't true.  Maybe because my family was neither Czech nor Catholic, we just weren't exposed to Czech history.  It's a shame, because the history of the Czechs is kind of a history of Europe in a nutshell.  Before coming into this book, I knew that Woodrow Wilson wanted to carve a country out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire called Czechoslovakia.  I knew about Munich and the appeasers.  I knew about Sedutenland.  I knew about Ma Vlast by Smetana.  Although this book stops with the Communists, I knew a little about Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution.

As a history of Czechoslovakia, the book can be divided into four parts, and each added significantly to my scant knowledge of Czech history.  In the first, shortest part, she gives some pre-history of the Czechs, their nationalism under the Austro-Hungarians, and their country being created after World War I.  The second part is the 1930s and how the Nazis tricked the world and invaded Czechoslovakia.  This bleeds into the third part, which is Czechoslovakia under the heels of the Nazis and during World War II; Albright's family provides the backdrop here, as anyone who wasn't able to leave the country as rounded up and sent to concentration camps, where all of them were killed.  The fourth part was the immediate post war, when Czechoslovakia became Communist.  This was the part of Czech history that I knew the least about and learned the most.  I just assumed that the Russians, in their march towards the west, simply controlled Czechoslovakia from the outset, as they did with Poland and East Germany.  I didn't know that Stalin actually allowed elections - and that the Czechs pretty much chose Communism over the West - although I can't see that they had much choice; nor were these elections altogether free.

I do wonder if we weren't exposed to much Czech history because of this - the modern Czechs were communists.  If there were connections between the old country and the new, I wasn't really aware of them.  If they were talked about, it wasn't in school.  In going through surnames at my church, none of the Czech names stick out; I know there were a few Czech protestants, but most were Catholics (the Klemas were Lutherans; the Zelenkas were Baptists).  I know there were visitors from Czechoslovakia - I have vague memories of that.

No one ever explained the difference between Slovaks and Czechs.  I heard the terms Bohemian, not as much as Czech.  And Moravian, which I think I heard as part of a discussion of kraslice - Czech egg painting, which we were taught to do.

I think that's subtly political too, and even Albright's book talks a bit about that.  The Czechs were far most interested in having the Slovaks as part of the greater country than vice versa.  During World War II, Slovakia was an allied country of Germany, and pretty brutal (the Czech part essentially no longer existed).  Of course, now Slovakia has broken away.  Albright writes that she and her family were against the separatists who wanted two countries.

I say it's political, but it could be that "Czech Capital of Kansas" is all about marketing, and the "Czechs" that were left neither knew or cared very much about anything that happened back in Europe.  They were all farmers and small town business people who cared far more about their livelihoods than anything else.   Albright quotes Jan Masaryk, the beloved, murdered Czech diplomat and politician, son of the first president of Czechoslovakia:  "My father was the son of a Slovak coachman and a Moravian housemaid, who were serfs.  I can't prove what the blood of their parents was and neither can anyone else."  In the end, all those Czech Wilsonians are just Americans, and who can prove anything else beyond that.


Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 by Madeleine Albright
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Madeleine Albright's personal story of her experiences during World War II are limited - she was just a little child.  But the personal stories of her family are vividly described and provide a tragic backdrop to the history of Czechoslovakia.  We get some background information on the Czechs and why the country existed, but the tale is really that of the betrayal of Czechoslovakia by the rest of Europe, the country as it was under the Nazis, and what happened immediately afterward.  Albright's extended family were Jewish, and she details what happened to them as well,  as sad examples of Czechs of Jewish origin.  A well written, interesting history from various points of view, including that of an adult Albright with years of diplomatic experience.


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