The deaths of three Czech soldiers in Afghanistan this month provided both a bracing reminder of the sacrifices being made by our NATO allies in America’s longest-running war, and a counterpoint to disparaging comments about NATO’s supposed “free riders.” After Martin Marcin, Kamil Benes, and Patrik Stepanek died in a suicide attack, the Taliban boasted of their responsibility, saying they had killed or wounded “eight American soldiers” in a “tactical explosion.” It was a grim but unsurprising case of mistaken identity. The white-red-and-blue Czech flags on their uniforms can be easily confused from afar with our own soldiers’ red-white-and-blue, just as our two national stories have long been intertwined. Czechoslovakia, after all, was one of the “small nations” for whose benefit Woodrow Wilson said he brought the U.S. in to the War to End All Wars, and which did emerge at Versailles as a new state. On the long circuitous road to NATO membership—which they finally secured in 1999—the Czechs endured years as a vassal state to Nazi Germany and decades as a totalitarian client state of the Soviet Union.
In this centennial of the birth of Czechoslovakia from the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Norman Eisen has written a timely and engaging narrative of the turbulent century that ensued. As xenophobic passions surge across Europe today, and as a malevolent Russian despot again probes for weakness in Western democracies, this book reminds us how the quest for a Europe whole, free and at peace has been a daunting one—and of the central role that America has played, time and again, in determining the outcome.
Whoever and whatever ideas and ideology holds sway in Prague has consistently been a bellwether of larger European developments. Like our own American society through these past hundred years, the Czechs, too, have been visibly torn by conflicting sentiments—in their case variously and simultaneously between affection or deference to Russian interests, Western liberal democratic traditions, and nationalist, xenophobic (and distinctly anti-Semitic) sensibilities. Today, the Czech Prime Minister is a billionaire businessman who has built an anti-establishment political movement with ambiguous (and ever-evolving) policies. The less important post of President is filled by an unambiguously pro-Russian figure who nonetheless narrowly won a hotly contested re-election last January. (Does any of this ring any American bells…?)
The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House is a marvelous and original work of history, thinly disguised as a memoir of Eisen’s time as U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic from 2011 to 2014. But Eisen himself deftly fades into the background as narrator of the tale of the magnificent residence in which he and his family lived during their time in Prague. The result is a very readable, thoroughly researched, and historically interesting narrative about a unique 148-room mansion brought to life by the vivid stories of some of those who lived there—from the visionary who designed and built the palace; the (secretly anti-Nazi) German general who was military overlord of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia during the Nazi occupation; and the three American ambassadors and their families that followed.
The palace’s builder, Otto Petschek, was a true Renaissance man, hugely capable in business, music, languages—and architecture, as it turned out. But Petschek also possessed a gift for seeing what others did not. He correctly predicted, early in the Great War, that the U.S. would intervene and prevail, and anticipated the importance of America to the creation and survival of the Czech nation. Born to a wealthy and well-known German-speaking Czech Jewish family, his probing intelligence and stout determination led him to the commanding heights of the Czech economy. Petschek and his businesses were central to the early vibrancy of the Czech economy, which before the Great Depression was the 10th largest in the world, a remarkable feat for a small, landlocked country.
Petschek was also a staunch supporter of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the country’s “Founder Liberator,” and friend to Edvard Beneš, the second President of Czechoslovakia. With them, Petschek sought to tether their new and vulnerable country to an American anchor, though these Czechs’ faith in the West and in liberal democracy was often unrequited. The moral and strategic failures of the British and French that paved the way for the Second World War—epitomized by Neville Chamberlain’s fateful 1938 decision to cede the Sudetenland to Hitler—are matched in Eisen’s telling by General Eisenhower’s fateful instruction to General Patton to halt his fast-moving Third Army 50 miles away, precisely so that Stalin’s armies could capture Prague in April 1945.
During the Nazi occupation, Petschek’s palace had been home to Wehrmacht General Rudolph Toussaint, a frustrated artist who protected the Petscheks’ many treasures until the war’s end while governing the occupied lands. He was also, like many in the professional German military, appalled by the criminality and the unparalleled incompetence of the Nazis and the SS. Among the many fascinating historical anecdotes that dot the book, one of the more riveting is the tale of how several generals preparing to mount a coup against Hitler lost their nerve when the Western democracies failed to press their clear advantage against Nazi Germany’s earliest aggressions. Toussaint and many others kept telling themselves they would stand up when things got just a bit worse, but that red line constantly kept shifting. Toussaint himself cuts a somewhat cowardly figure. Eisen recounts how the good general comforted himself that his own regular army soldiers did not partake in early mass executions in Bohemia, but notes that when he learned that they actually did play key roles he did nothing about it.
After the war, and following a brief period of pillage by the Soviet invaders, the palace was secured by a daring American, Ambassador Laurence Steinhardt, a confidant of FDR who had incurred the wrath of Stalin during his previous posting in Moscow. The story of Steinhardt’s schemes to seize and keep the palace for the United States—outfoxing the Soviets, maneuvering amidst dueling Czech administrations, and foiling deliberate bureaucratic obstruction back at Foggy Bottom—is well told. Steinhardt seems to have been a daring and debonair diplomat, an American James Bond avant la lettre.
The real star of the book, however, turns out to be Shirley Temple Black, the most famous child movie actor ever, who in the prime of her life served as President George H.W. Bush’s Ambassador in Prague from 1989 to 1992. Having personally met her—in the very palace Eisen’s book centers on, when I visited with Madeline Albright in the heady days of the Velvet Revolution in January 1990—I confess I terribly underestimated Ambassador Black’s prowess as a diplomat, and as an activist for human rights. She had been an eyewitness to the brutal crackdown on the Prague Spring in 1968, stepping past the bodies of Czechs murdered by Soviet soldiers to personally lead a convoy of Westerners out of the city—a searing experience that galvanized her political instincts. Eisen retells how Black aided Vaclav Havel and other dissidents who endured decades of mistreatment and imprisonment for daring to speak against oppression. Just days after arriving, she invited Havel, recently released from prison, and others to her salon, a safe space where they can discuss and plan—and where she realized both how low key and how influential Havel was with other dissidents. Realizing that the Communist government has surely wiretapped much of the house, Ambassador Black alternates between communicating with her guests, embassy staff, and even her family by passing handwritten notes and occasionally speaking to the hidden microphones to throw the eavesdroppers off guard. After she ordered her embassy staff to stay away from the series of demonstrations that eventually lead to the collapse of the communist regime, but well before the outcome is clear, she and her husband Charlie on multiple occasions walked discretely and directly from their residence to the front lines to observe and to show support for the demonstrators.
The everlasting horror of the Holocaust looming over Prague and the palace is conveyed in Eisen’s narrative in the person of his mother, Frieda, who grew up in the Czech countryside in a devoutly Orthodox Jewish family, as poor and as uneducated as the builders of the mansion were rich and steeped in high European culture. She survived slave labor camps and numerous near-death experiences to make her way eventually as a refugee to California. It is there that she and her husband ran an all-American hamburger stand, and where Norm Eisen was born and raised. In a deft maneuver that is unusual in a memoir—especially for a Washington memoir by a public figure—Ambassador Eisen remains almost invisible in his own narrative; he almost renders himself a literary device for conveying his mother’s life’s story of survival. The enduring wariness and fear that haunts her, even as her son returns to Prague on Air Force One with President Barack Obama, is a testament to the horrors she endured. This narrative element powerfully underscores the perils of backsliding to atavistic hatreds in a part of the world still given to the ugliest aspects of nationalism and violence.
As the best American diplomats do, Ambassador Eisen during his tenure in Prague goes toe-to-toe with rising forces of ugly and emotional nationalism on the one hand, and cynical accommodation to Russian efforts to undermine the West on the other, and he is frank in describing the Czech leaders with whom he engages. Feckless and bombastic politicians are apparently part of the landscape of democratic polities these days, which is why the center of gravity of the Western liberal democratic sensibility has moved outside of official circles these days. Norm Eisen’s terrific book reminds us that unknown people do remarkable things all the time, and that individuals often outperform their governments, notwithstanding all the mayhem in the world. This is as true of three enlisted Czech servicemen on a battlefield in Afghanistan, as it is true of a girl named Frieda from a shtetl in the Czech countryside. This American son of asylum seekers from the carnage of faraway wars has captured the essence of the American idea in this riveting story of a grand old home in Prague.