Prague in Winter & On Fascism – Madeleine Albright

21-8-18

Dear Partners in thought,

I wanted to tell you about two books from Madeleine Albright, the former Secretary of State under Bill Clinton and a personality whom we know well and is always very engaged in the defence of Western liberal values. She is 81 years old now and still very active, having written a recent book on “Fascism” that depicts her fights for democracy worldwide as part of her long mandate (in another time for U.S. diplomacy and leadership) and “Prague Winter” about her childhood in Prague and also London as a Czechoslovak child born in 1937 (in Smichov, my very neighbourhood), something that some people (not us of course) do not realise or have forgotten but is a key aspect of whom she became and she is.

“Prague in Winter – A Personal History of Remembrance and War – 1937-1948”, published in 2012 narrates her life in Prague (based on family accounts that she researched in the nineties and later) and in London during the war before returning to Prague in 1945 and then finally going to America in 1948. She was not just a Czechoslovak child like any other. She was born Marie Jana Korbelova, the daughter of Josef Korbel, who was a senior Czechoslovak diplomat, working as the right end man to Jan Masaryk, himself the son of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the founder and first President of Czechoslovakia in 1918. Jan went on to become Ambassador to London during the Munich Agreement, (I recommend you the great 2017 movie “Masaryk” with top Czech actor Karel Roden in the lead role), then part of the London-based government in exile during the war and Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1945, only to fall from his window at the ministry in the Bohemian defenestration tradition after the Czech Communists won the parliamentary elections in 1946, setting the stage for a long and dark journey. Josef Korbel, his main aide, who had gone to be Ambassador to Yugoslavia after the war, then emigrated to America and taught International relations while settling his family in Denver. The University of Denver’s school of foreign policy is now named after him. One of the strange aspects of MA’s story is that she had not realised by the age of 59, when she became Secretary of State, what her true roots were and that she was actually Jewish (having been raised a Catholic and having converted to Episcopalianism for her marriage to Mr. Albright in 1958). MA only discovered this rafter defining fact while traveling to the country of her birth in her role of top American diplomat, which led to the writing of her book. “Prague in Winter” that became a personal journey into her Jewish roots as well as into totalitarianism in her country of birth and gradually all of Central & Eastern Europe. One part that is especially gripping is the period of 1945 to 1948 when all was still possible for the future of Czechoslovakia which then went into the post-war Communist and then Stalinist camps, following the local Communist party win and gradual takeover of the young, reborn, democracy following the Nazi occupation. There are great accounts of this period and I also recommend little-known Boston University’s Igor Luke’s “On the Edge of the Cold War – American diplomats and spies in postwar Prague”. The American legation in Prague was always a place with interesting game changers such as George Kennan, who became famous for his “Long Telegram” from Moscow in 1946 and was actually stationed in Prague in 1937. The period before the fall in 1948 was indeed one of intense activity by American diplomats in Prague to try to keep Czechoslovakia from falling for the then highly popular Czech Communist Party basking in the key role of the Soviets in defeating the Nazis. Of note in today’s debate about immigration, MA became a U.S. citizen only in 1957. One criticism, echoed by the late Philippe Kerr, back in 2012 was that MA did not have in her book a word of thanks for Britain, which while arguably tainted (like France) by the 1938 Munich agreements, ensured that MA and her close family were rescued and did not end up in Theresienstadt or Auchwitz like some other family members. The book is a first hand account of a period not well known by most unless one lives in Prague, though with memories vanishing or not wanting to be triggered locally. It is a must read for lovers of history, particularly about the onset of the Cold War. I also recommend you the excellent “Iron Curtain – The crush of Eastern Europe 1946-58” (2012) by Anne Applebaum, the well-know commentator of that period and also spouse of Radek Sikorski, the former Polish Foreign Minister in the Donald Tusk government from 2007 to 2014, also in a different time for Poland.

“On Fascism – A Warning”, which was well reviewed in the FT earlier this year, is about MA’s experiences dealing with totalitarianism while being Secretary of State and afterwards. This is also based on exchanges with her students as she went on to teach international relations at Georgetown University after her role in the Clinton Administration. The book deals with the main question that is: “Can it happen here?” and is of course linked to the rise of populism and the attacks against Western liberal values and our democratic system. She focuses on Europe and America looking at the needed ingredients allowing the rise of fascism which she sees as economic, social and political chaos as in the case of interwar Germany and Italy with their high unemployment and left and right wing gang battles in the street (developments when incivility takes root in the political discourse) that lead to despair for the citizenry of these countries. MA looks at parallels with Hugo Chavez’s rise to power in Venezuela, Viktor Orban’s economic backdrop in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s gradual suffocation of democracy in Turkey or Vladimir Putin in Russia which, even if he was desired to restore order and dignity, also benefitted from a country having lost half of its economy in the 1990s. She thus sees problems being opportunities for fascists and other anti-democrats. She also mentions the connivence of the conservatives who always think they can control fascism and can use its popular support to achieve their own goals. She hopes that Democrats and Republicans will work together, worrying that Trump’s isolationism, protectionism and fondness for dictators are weakening America’s ability to solve international challenges (which may no longer be a goal), while deepening divisions among allies and strengthening anti-democratic forces. In the end, MA remains hopeful, looking at Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela as guides who did save their countries when they were going through immense and irreconcilable challenges in their own times. She feels strongly that we need to recognise history lessons and should never take history for granted. As she says: “The temptation is powerful to close our eyes and wait for the worst to pass, but history tells us that for freedom to survive, it must be defended and if lies are to stop, they must be exposed”. It is clear that MA also writes thinking much of Trump and the direction taken by America on a number of key topics. She would also advises, like me if I my say, that those who like Trump because of a low unemployment rate and good economic growth, all of which are temporary and the result of many factors, not to think that style and values no longer matter in the way freedom, democracy and indeed the indispensable country should be conducted.

I dedicate this note to Bert, born Hubertus in the low countries, Yale Law School graduate and a great globalist who has done so much for impact investing in emerging markets from his great firm and with his amazing team in DC, the latter which I also salute chapeau bas.

Warmest regards,

Serge

 

Serge Desprat- 21st August, 2018 (Washington, DC)

 

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