Caren's Reviews > Prague Winter

Prague Winter by Madeleine Albright
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May 19, 12

bookshelves: adult-nonfiction
Read in May, 2012

I picked up this book because I love the Czechs, those intelligent, gracious people. This is a well-told story of one Czech who later became a very influential American. If it is a curse to have been born in interesting times, Dr. Albright was certainly well and truly cursed. But, as in the best fairy tales, the curse was balanced by having been blessed with wonderfully prescient parents who stayed one step ahead of events and kept their little daughter safe. The nation of their birth, Czechoslovakia, did not fare as well during the twentieth century. The author has woven a nuanced tale of her own childhood place within the story of the fate of her homeland from 1937 to 1948. Her father's career as a diplomat gave the family some agility which others in those years probably lacked. Thus, the family spent the years of World War II with the exiled Czech government in London. After the war, with her father assigned to to the Czech embassy in Yugoslavia, they were once again able to keep a step ahead of the communist takeover in Czechoslovakia and seek asylum in the USA. By such roundabout paths is a future secretary of state made! This book is rich with detail and, because of the personal aspects of the story, a feel of "you were there" history. I found the book to be extremely well-written. I see by the title page that is was written "with Bill Woodward"; the collaboration of the two is quite successful. I think most people are familiar with the outline of the history of World War II, but there are many accounts of the heroism of ordinary people here, and I imagine most readers will come away learning of some incidents from those years about which they had not previously heard. There are stories of the famous and of the unsung, and I was struck yet again at the absolute horror of those years. Dr. Albright says it so much better than I ever could in some of the concluding remarks to her book:
"Given the events described in this book, we cannot help but acknowledge the capacity within us for unspeakable cruelty or--to give the virtuous their due--at least some degree of moral cowardice. There is a piece of the traitor within most of us, a slice of the collaborator, an aptitude for appeasement, a touch of the unfeeling prison guard. Who among us has not dehumanized others, if not by word or action, then at least in thought? From the maternity ward to the deathbed, all that goes on within our breasts is not sweetness and light." (p. 413-414)
She then goes on to quote Vaclav Havel's perception of this human quandary:
"...Amid the repression of those [Cold War] years, he discerned two varieties of hope. The first he compared to the longing for 'some kind of salvation from the outside.'...'On the other end of the spectrum', said Havel, there are those who insist on 'speaking the truth simply because it [is] the right thing to do....' " (p. 414)
She then closes her book with these powerful lines:
"I have spent a lifetime looking for remedies to all manner of life's problems--personal, social, political, global. I am deeply suspicious of those who offer simple solutions and statements of absolute certainty or who claim full possession of the truth. Yet I have grown equally skeptical of those who suggest that all is too nuanced and complex for us to learn any lessons, that there are so many sides to everything that we can pursue knowledge every day of our lives and still know nothing for sure. I believe we can recognize truth when we see it, just not at first and not without ever relenting in our efforts to learn more. This is because the goal we seek, and the good we hope for, comes not as some final reward but as the hidden companion to our quest. It is not what we find, but the reason we cannot stop looking and striving, that tells us why we are here." ( 415-416)

This is so well said, and is the reason I love reading. How else could I ever learn the thoughts of this wise, experienced woman? Through books such as this, our journey is enhanced, our life experience enlarged, as we all seek after our purpose on this earth.
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