Albright’s Teachings and Writings Can Light Our Way to a Better World 


A frightened young Czech girl who fled with her family as a refugee from Nazi Germany grew up to become one of the most influential women in the world as the first female Secretary of State of the United States.  

Madeleine Albright, who passed away on March 23, 2022, at age 84, left us a legacy of principled and decisive action that during the close of the 20th century helped tilt the world toward democracy. She also left us the rich knowledge of her four decades of teaching at Georgetown University, as well as several notable books giving insights into the extraordinary person she became and the pivotal events that continue to shape our lives. 

Prague Winter 

In Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 (Harper, 2012), we get to meet the young Marie Jana Korbel, daughter of a Czech diplomat who instilled in her a passion for democracy and human rights. This book tells her family’s story, along with her own, culminating in her discovery of her family’s Jewish origins and what that meant to her.  

In these pages, she writes of the effects of the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, focusing on relatives who survived or perished during the Holocaust. (Three of her grandparents died in concentration camps.) The book, in the words of a review published in the magazine of her alma mater, Columbia University, may just be “the most poignant account we have in English” of the disasters meted out on Czechoslovakia at the hands of, first, the Hitler regime, and second, the Soviet-backed Communists who took over in 1948.  

Little “Madlenka” was not yet 2 years old when Hitler invaded Prague. Her family fled to London, and her father, Joseph Korbel, began leading the radio broadcasts from the Czech government-in-exile. Exiled Czech leaders were frequent dinner companions at her family’s table, giving the young girl a first-hand view of diplomacy. 

Her family endured the Blitz, the bombings of the British capital by German warplanes, alongside their new neighbors. Albright’s parents hoped that a Western-style democracy would be restored in Czechoslovakia, so they returned after the war. But within three years, their homeland fell behind the Soviet Iron Curtain. From Yugoslavia, where her father was serving as Czech ambassador, the Korbel family made their way to the United States and settled in Denver, Colorado, where her father accepted a post teaching international politics. 

Marie Jana changed her name to Madeleine and became a naturalized American citizen in 1957. Two years later she completed her undergraduate degree at Wellesley College and married Joseph Albright, heir to the Medill publishing dynasty. They would become the parents of three daughters before their divorce 24 years later.  

Albright earned master’s and doctoral degrees from Columbia and developed her language skills to the extent that she needed no interpreter when meeting Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1997. She also spoke fluent Czech and English. She worked in the Jimmy Carter administration as an employee of National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski in the 1970s and as the American ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton. She was unanimously confirmed as US Secretary of State in 1997, serving until 2001.  

Madam Secretary 

In her memoir Madam Secretary (Perennial, 2003), Albright focused on those years representing her adopted country on the world stage. Just as she had demonstrated as UN ambassador, she proved to be a tough-minded but optimistic advocate for democracy and American interests abroad as Secretary of State. “You cannot stand by,” she wrote, while “terrible things happen.”  

Under her leadership, the US defended the values of freedom and human rights, intervening in bloody ethnic conflicts in the Balkans and elsewhere. Notably, she advocated for military intervention in the cause of alleviating human suffering. In 1999—after diplomacy failed—she moved NATO to institute a bombing campaign against the military forces of Yugoslavia’s president, Slobodan Milosevic, that were subjecting Kosovo to genocidal “ethnic cleansing.” Kosovo Albanians, who still consider her a hero and friend, met the news of her death with public mourning. 

During her tenure, Albright promoted the causes of nuclear non-proliferation, the stemming of climate change, normalization of relations with Vietnam, expansion of the Oslo Accords to build peace between Israelis and Palestinians, NATO expansion to include Czechoslovakia and other nations of the former Soviet bloc, and the fostering of vibrant free markets and civil societies across developing nations. Her policies were based on her personal experiences as a child fleeing dictatorship and repression. Her moral compass told her that one must never appease a tyrant.  

Her book also discusses the challenges associated with being the first female Secretary of State in a male-dominated diplomatic world. An outspoken woman of strong character, she was a fierce advocate for the importance of women’s voices. “Ask questions,” she told women. After years of developing her strength to speak out, she said, “I am not going to be silent.” 

The last warning, and a lasting legacy 

In her 2018 book Fascism: A Warning, Albright used that voice and her decades of in-depth experience to give us what amounts to her cumulative words of wisdom as we confront new monsters of totalitarianism in the 21st century.  

Noting the rise of strongman authoritarians to public office around the world—including in the US—she recounts her first-hand knowledge of the fascist mindset, the temptations it offers to many, and the tragedies that result when it comes to power. Albright defined fascism less along strict ideological terms and more as what she described to an interviewer as a way of “taking and holding power.” She outlined how fascists exalt one aggrieved group at the expense of scapegoating and demonizing others, fomenting chaos and violence that are then used to tighten control on the reins of power. 

In a way that is both her warning and her legacy to us, Albright demonstrated in this book, and her final interviews and teachings, that the fight for human freedoms she waged with such devotion over her long life is now ours.  

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