Personal History

Eastern Europe has been on the hearts and minds of the world this past month with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A part of the world that many in the United States, including the Jewish community, often ignore, has suddenly come to the fore. So it is poignant that Madeleine Albright, a refugee from the area who rose to become the first female Secretary of State, passed away this week.

While suffering recently from cancer, she was still active in foreign affairs, and the New York Times republished an op-ed she wrote just days before the war in Ukraine in which she recounted the moment she became the first senior US official to meet with Vladimir Putin after he became acting president of Russia. Albright’s life and career are instructive as we try to make sense of the conflict currently consuming Europe.

Albright was forced, as a child, to flee her homeland twice, first in 1939 from the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, and again in 1948 with the communist coup in the country. Throughout her career she advocated vigorously for American intervention around the world, particularly in places where there was a threat of genocide and ethnic conflict.

In the 1990s she also pushed for the expansion of NATO to the east, in what had been the Soviet sphere of influence. For some in the foreign policy community, this was a mistake because it threatened Russia. They argue that the current war is a result of Russia’s fear of being encircled by Western forces hostile to its very existence.

What these arguments often fail to account for, however, is the wishes of the countries who eventually joined NATO, including Albright’s native Czech Republic during her time as Secretary of State. Many East Europeans felt doubly betrayed by the West in the 1930s and 40s. When Germany threatened Czechoslovakia in 1938, the Western powers gave in and allowed the Nazis to take over the Sudetenland without firing a shot, even though the Czechs may have stood a good chance of resisting a German invasion with support from the allies. They were a democracy with a strong, if limited military, and a defensible mountainous border.

Instead of supporting a Czech resistance in 1938, the allies decided to fight after the invasion of Poland in 1939, giving Germany a year more to build up its military. The result was a resounding Nazi victory as the United Kingdom became the sole holdout to Germany by 1940. To add insult to the “Munich Betrayal”, after the war Eastern Europeans felt that the West abandoned them once again as the Soviet Union suspended democracy as it extended its reach west.

This history is important in understanding the situation in Ukraine today. Once again Russia seeks to dominate a vulnerable democracy. Perhaps one can see the Ukrainians in the position of the Czechs in an alternate 1938, fighting successfully to repulse an invasion by a larger neighbor looking for a quick victory. Certainly President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s desperate pleas for help from NATO echo the calls in the 1930s to stand against German aggression.

Albright’s personal history is also one that resonates today. Around the time she became Secretary of State, a newspaper article in the Washington Post revealed that she was born Jewish. Her parents converted to Catholicism during World War II and hid their background from their children. They even made up fake family memories of Christian holidays to fortify the ruse.

At the time, some in the Jewish community questioned how Albright could not have known or suspected her true background. After all, her father was an important diplomat, and the family’s lineage was not a hidden. But the trauma of war and displacement can create secrets, and sometimes it is better to create a new reality than dig into the old. Unfortunately today as millions flee the war in Ukraine, new psychic wounds are being created to go along with the physical toll of conflict. Perhaps among the refugees in Poland and Romania is the next Madeleine Albright, a little girl or boy who one day will try and use their experience to bring peace and democracy to the world.

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