Madeleine Albright on ‘Prague Winter’

She was raised in war-torn Czechoslovakia, but moved up the ranks of U.S. diplomacy to the very top spot: secretary of state. We speak with Madeleine Albright.

Read an excerpt from her new book, “Prague Winter,” below.

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Chapter 1

An Unwelcome Guest

On a hill in Prague there is a castle that has stood for a thousand years. From its windows one can see a forest of gilded cupolas and baroque towers, slate roofs and sacred spires. Visible too are the stone bridges spanning the broad and winding Vltava River as its waters flow northward at a leisurely pace. Through the centuries, the beauty of Prague has been enriched by the labor of artisans from a plethora of nationalities and creeds; it is a Czech city with a variety of accents, at its best in spring when the fragrant blossoms of the lindens burst forth, the forsythia turns gold, and the skies seem an impossible blue. The people, known for their diligence, resilience, and pragmatism, look forward each winter to when the days lengthen, the breezes soften, the trees regain their covering, and the river banks issue a silent summons to play.

On the morning of March 15, 1939, that promise of spring had never seemed so distant. Snow lay thick on the castle grounds; winds blew fiercely from the northeast; the heavens were a leaden gray. At the U.S. Legation, two disheveled men cornered a diplomat en route to his office and begged desperately for asylum. They had been Czechoslovak spies in Germany and were known to the Gestapo. The diplomat, a young Foreign Service officer named George Kennan, turned them away; there was nothing he could do.

Czechs had awoken that morning to a startling announcement:

“Today at six o’clock German troops crossed our borders and are proceeding to Prague by all routes. Stay calm.” The light of dawn was still searching for cracks in the clouds when the first convoy of jeeps and trucks roared by, heading toward the castle. The vehicles, plastered with ice, were driven by red-faced soldiers wearing steel helmets and wool coats. Before long, the people of Prague had had their coffee and it was time to go to work. The sidewalks filled with men and women stopping to gape at the alien procession, defiantly waving their fists, crying, or staring in stony silence.

In Wenceslas Square, voices were raised in a spontaneous rendering of patriotic songs. On and on the mechanized battalions came, penetrating every neighborhood of the ancient city. At the train station, artillery pieces and tanks were unloaded. By midmorning, heavy-footed Germans were striding purposefully into government ministries, the town hall, prisons, police offices, and barracks. They seized the airfields, deployed field guns on the snow-covered slopes of Petřín Hill, draped flags and banners across the fronts of buildings, and attached loudspeakers to lampposts and trees. Martial law was declared and a 9 p.m. curfew announced.

In the early-evening darkness, a motorcade arrived from the north. Its passengers were ushered through the deserted streets, across the river, and up the curving byways to the castle mount; and so that night, the fabled home of Bohemian kings served as headquarters for the ruler of Germany’s Third Reich. Adolf Hitler and his top aides, Hermann Göring and Joachim von Ribbentrop, were in an exultant mood. “The Czechs may squeal,” the führer had told his military commanders, “but we will have our hands on their throats before they can shout. And anyway, who will come to help them?” Ever mindful of a statement attributed to Bismarck that “he who controls Bohemia controls Europe,” Hitler had long planned for this day. He thought the Czechs, because of their cleverness, to be the most dangerous of Slavs; he coveted their air bases and munitions factories; he knew that he could satisfy his ambitions in the rest of Europe only when the Czech homeland had been crushed. Now his triumphal march had begun. The German language was dominant within the castle walls, above which the German flag had been hoisted. Ordinarily a vegetarian teetotaler, Hitler treated himself to a victor’s communion: a bottle of Pilsener and a slice of Prague ham.

The next day, Ribbentrop commandeered the main radio stations to proclaim that Czechoslovakia had ceased to exist. Bohemia and Moravia would be incorporated into greater Germany, and their government, now a protectorate, would take orders from Berlin. Citizens should await instructions. Hitler, meanwhile, was receiving visitors. First Emil Hácha, the Czech president, pledged his cooperation, then the minister of defense, then the mayor; no one wanted a bloodbath.

Around noon, a crowd of German-speaking civilians and soldiers gathered to cheer the führer when he appeared in a third-floor window. The resulting image so pleased the Nazis that they put it on a postage stamp.

In succeeding days, the snow stopped but the air remained bitter and cold. German soldiers occupied the local army barracks; Nazi administrators made themselves at home in the finest residences and hotels. Each morning before dawn, men in long coats moved swiftly about the city; they carried nightsticks and lists of names. My parents sent me to stay with my grandmother and did their best to do what their beloved country had done: disappear.

Copyright © 2012 Madeleine Albright. From the book "Prague Winter," published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted with permission.

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