Madeleine Albright dies, age 84: Honoring the Czech-born leader's heritage and legacy

The former U.S. Secretary of State was a key supporter of the Czech Republic’s integration into the western international order.

 William Nattrass

Written by William Nattrass Published on 24.03.2022 11:11:00 (updated on 24.03.2022) Reading time: 4 minutes

Madeleine Albright, the U.S. politician born in the Czech Republic and America’s first female Secretary of State, has died of cancer at the age of 84.

Albright played a pivotal role in steering Western foreign policy after the end of the Cold War. Thanks in part to her Czech heritage, she was particularly involved in the integration of the Czech Republic into the western international order.

Albright was born Marie Jana Korbelová into a Prague Jewish family in Smíchov. Her father Josel Korbel was a Czechoslovak diplomat, and upon the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Adolf Hitler in March 1939, the family escaped to London. After the war they returned to Czechoslovakia, but not for long, leaving the country again for the U.S. after the communist takeover in 1948.

Albright later said she was not aware of her family’s Jewish heritage until she read about it in a Washington Post report shortly after she became Secretary of State in the Bill Clinton administration in 1997. The report described how as many as a dozen of her relatives in Czechoslovakia had been murdered in the Holocaust.

During her subsequent career at the top of U.S. politics, Albright played a major role in ensuring the Czech Republic’s accession to NATO, confirmed in a ceremony at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. Albright said joining NATO meant the integration of the Czech Republic into the European community “fully, finally and forever.”

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Albright continued to play something of a prophetic role after her retirement from top-level politics. In a guest article published in the New York Times a day before Russia invasion of Ukraine began, she warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that aggression against Ukraine would be a “historic mistake.”

“Instead of paving Russia’s path to greatness, invading Ukraine would ensure Mr. Putin’s infamy by leaving his country diplomatically isolated, economically crippled and strategically vulnerable in the face of a stronger, more united Western alliance,” she wrote.

Albright was never able to run for U.S. president because she was not born in the country. But she was tipped as a potential successor to Václav Havel as the second president of the independent Czech Republic. Albright was a major supporter of Havel during his lifetime and after his death.

Albright also pursued a successful publishing career. Her books include “Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War,” “Fascism: A Warning,” and “Madam Secretary: A Memoir.”

President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.

Tributes

Tributes from the world of politics have poured in for Albright since her death was announced. Current U.S. President Joe Biden wrote that “when I think of Madeleine, I will always remember her fervent faith that ‘America is the indispensable nation.’”

Bill Clinton meanwhile said, “Few leaders have been so perfectly suited for the times in which they served. As a child in war-torn Europe, Madeleine and her family were twice forced to flee their home. When the end of the Cold War ushered in a new era of global interdependence, she became America’s voice at the UN, then took the helm at the State Department, where she was a passionate voice for freedom, democracy, and human rights.”

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said, "Few of the world's leaders did so much for our country as Madeleine Albright."

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg described Albright as "a force for freedom, an outspoken champion of NATO, an inspirational colleague and friend."

Controversies

Unsurprisingly, for a politician operating at the pinnacle of global affairs, Albright’s career wasn't without controversy. In 1996, a television interviewer asked her whether UN sanctions were worth their alleged role in causing the deaths of half a million children in Iraq. Albright replied that “we think the price is worth it.” Albright later expressed regret for the statement, which she said made her come across as “cold-blooded and cruel,” and apologized for her “totally stupid” remarks in a 2020 New York Times interview.

Later, in 2012, Albright was approached by a group of activists at a book signing in Prague with photos showing Serbian victims of the Kosovo War in 1999. Videos emerged of Albright saying “disgusting Serbs, get out!” to the Czech group. The activists reported Albright to the police on grounds of spreading ethnic hatred.

Meanwhile, Albright said that failure to act over the Rwandan genocide of 1994, which saw the murder of 800,000 people in 100 days, was “my greatest regret” from her time in the Clinton administration.

Pins

An idiosyncrasy for which Albright was known was her use of brooches to express political opinions during diplomatic exchanges. She described these pins as “gentle implements of statecraft, teaching tools and a different form of communication.”

A famous example of her use of wardrobe to make political points was the brooch in the shape of a serpent entwined around a stick which she wore when meeting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 1997. The unusual item of jewelry was chosen after Hussein’s poet-in-residence called her “an unparalleled serpent.”

READ MY PINS|Albright was well known for making powerful political statements with her collection of pins and brooches which famously included snakes and bugs taking aim at dictators and other notorious world leaders. An online exhibit (which toured the States from 2009 to 2018) "Read My Pins: The Madeleine Albright Collection" features more than 200 pins Secretary Albright wore before, during, and after her years of public service. A number of pieces from her jewelry collection were made by Czech designers. See the exhibit here and read more about her connection to Czech designers here

Throughout her career at the summit of international diplomacy, Albright's Czech heritage was never far from her mind. On the 103rd anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia, she described herself as a "Czechoslovak-American" and said she was "proud of my birthplace and forever grateful to be an American immigrant."

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