Friday, July 20, 2012

the last book I ever read (Madeleine Albright's Prague Winter, excerpt eight)

from Madeleine Albright's Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948:

Years ending in eight have an outsize role in Czech history. Charles University was founded in 1348; in 1618, Habsburg emissaries were thrown from the castle window, triggering the Thirty Years’ War; in 1848, the first pan-Slav congress convened in Prague; the Czechoslovak Republic was founded in 1918; Munich occurred twenty years later. In its first three months, 1948 would earn a place on the less fondly remembered side of that list of milestones. In January, my father went to Prague for a consultation with Beneš. Having witnessed the cutthroat proclivities of Communist leaders in Yugoslavia, he hoped to find the president fully aware of the danger that democratic forces faced and in possession of a clear strategy to fight back. When he entered Beneš’s office in Hradčany Castle, he was greeted by an intellectually alert but ill man. Beneš had been a major world figure for three decades and the leader of his strife-torn land for a dozen years. The stroke (or strokes) he had suffered caused him to drag one leg slightly but did not prevent him from striving to work, as he always had, twice as hard as other men.

For four hours on January 12, two in the morning and two in the afternoon, the president and the ambassador reviewed the world situation, with the former exhibiting his characteristic doubts about the West but now reserving his strongest criticism for the aggressive policies of the Soviet Union. My father finally succeeded in shifting the discussion to his own primary concern: the internal situation in Czechoslovakia. Was Beneš prepared to defend the Constitution against the Communists? Did he have a plan for uniting the democratic forces? Did he realize how extensively Gottwald’s men had infiltrated the army, police, trade unions, media, and even the Foreign Ministry?

Few words could have been more alarming to my father’s ears than the Panglossian ones offered by Beneš. “As much as I am pessimistic about international developments,” he said, “I am calm about the internal situation. The elections will be held in the spring. The communists will lose and rightly so. People understand their policy and will not be duped. I just don’t want them to lose too much. That would arouse Moscow’s anger.”

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