War and diplo­macy in a Prague palace.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY ALICE CRITES

In 1938, the rich­est and most po­lit­i­cally con­nected fam­ily in Cze­choslo­vakia aban­doned their home, Petschek Palace, and fled the coun­try. When my grand­mother learned of this, she turned to my grand­fa­ther and said, “That’s a sign, we should leave.” Sev­eral months later there would be the Mu­nich Ac­cords, grant­ing Hitler land in Cze­choslo­vakia in re­turn for peace. And by March 1939, Ger­man troops had en­tered Prague. (Sadly, only one of my grand­par­ents made it out of the coun­try alive.) The Petschek res­i­dence, a sym­bol of the so­phis­ti­ca­tion and op­ti­mism of the new coun­try af­ter World War I, would later be­come home to Ger­man gen­er­als and Amer­i­can ambassa­dors, in­clud­ing Shirley Tem­ple Black.

In his new book, “The Last Palace,” Nor­man Eisen, who lived in the Petschek Palace for three years as U.S. am­bas­sador to the Czech Repub­lic be­gin­ning in 2011, uses the 1920s neo­clas­si­cist man­sion and sev­eral of its most in­flu­en­tial res­i­dents to tell the tur­bu­lent his­tory of a coun­try torn by war, oc­cu­pa­tion and rev­o­lu­tion. Eisen, now a se­nior fel­low at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, is a metic­u­lous re­searcher, and his fas­ci­nat­ing book brings to­gether new in­ter­views, di­aries, let­ters, archival re­search and freshly de­clas­si­fied doc­u­ments.

Eisen be­gins with the story of Otto Petschek. Petschek had wanted a ca­reer in mu­sic, but his fam­ily for­bade it, so he stud­ied law and joined the fam­ily coal and bank­ing busi­ness. His artis­tic ex­pres­sion man­i­fested it­self in his ob­ses­sion to cre­ate the most beau­ti­ful and tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced palace, sur­rounded by glo­ri­ous gar­dens. It took about seven years to build, and Petschek’s pur­suit of per­fec­tion bankrupted him and forced him to bor­row from his fam­ily to fin­ish the home. He cel­e­brated the com­ple­tion of his vi­sion by en­ter­tain­ing no­ble­men, politi­cians and busi­ness­men on a grand scale. But al­most as soon as his fam­ily moved in, Petschek be­gan to have health prob­lems and died just three years later. In May 1938, the whole ex­tended Petschek fam­ily picked up and left.

In 1941, Rudolf Tous­saint moved in. He was a Wehrma­cht gen­eral and a World War I vet­eran, but not a Nazi Party mem­ber. Tous­saint first came to Prague as a mil­i­tary at­tache in 1936 and tried to dis­cour­age Nazi en­thu­si­asm for in­vad­ing Cze­choslo­vakia. Once Hitler in­vaded, Tous­saint was sent to Bel­grade, but he re­turned to Prague in 1941. At the end of the war, af­ter Hitler com­mit­ted sui­cide, and with the Amer­i­can and Soviet armies ad­vanc­ing on Prague, the cit­i­zens of the city re­volted against the Ger­mans. Tous­saint dis­obeyed or­ders to vi­o­lently crack down on the up­ris­ing and ne­go­ti­ated a way to peace­fully with­draw his troops while sav­ing the city from both Nazi and Soviet de­struc­tion.

The first Amer­i­can diplo­mat to live in Petschek Palace was Lau­rence Stein­hardt, who took res­i­dence in 1945. His twin ob­ses­sions were to keep Cze­choslo­vakia as an ally of the West af­ter World War II and to keep the rented palace as the per­ma­nent home of the U.S. am­bas­sador. The Amer­i­cans al­ways seemed at a dis­ad­van­tage in Prague: The U.S. mil­i­tary had al­lowed the Rus­sians to lib­er­ate the city, which gave them a huge pro­pa­ganda ad­van­tage. To make mat­ters worse, by 1946 Amer­i­cans wanted their soldiers home, which would leave a mas­sive Soviet pres­ence in Prague. Stein­hardt man­aged to ne­go­ti­ate a with­drawal of the Rus­sian troops at the same time as the Amer­i­cans.

But Stein­hardt was not so suc­cess­ful at keep­ing com­mu­nist in­flu­ence out of Cze­choslo­vakia. By 1946 the com­mu­nists had the most leg­isla­tive seats of any po­lit­i­cal party, but they did not yet have an ab­so­lute ma­jor­ity. In 1947 the Cze­choslo­vak gov­ern­ment de­clined the Mar­shall Plan agenda and be­gan mov­ing ever closer to Moscow, cul­mi­nat­ing in the Fe­bru­ary 1948 com­mu­nist power grab. Stein­hardt wrote in a let­ter a few weeks later: “What has taken place in Cze­choslo­vakia is merely con­clu­sive proof that it is not pos­si­ble to com­pro­mise with Com­mu­nism and live in the same house with it. Like fire, it ul­ti­mately con­sumes ev­ery­thing it touches.” Stein­hardt con­tin­ued to ne­go­ti­ate with the com­mu­nists for the palace, and just be­fore he de­parted in July 1948, a con­tract was signed hand­ing it over to the U.S. gov­ern­ment.

Shirley Tem­ple Black ar­rived in Prague to be the U.S. am­bas­sador in Au­gust 1989. Her ca­reer in in­ter­na­tional af­fairs had been in­spired by her ex­pe­ri­ence in the city in Au­gust 1968, dur­ing a trip as an ac­tivist on be­half of mul­ti­ple sclero­sis re­search. Caught in the vi­o­lence and chaos of the Rus­sian in­va­sion of Prague, she re­turned home and em­barked on work at the United Na­tions. Next came an am­bas­sador­ship to Ghana and sev­eral other gov­ern­men­tal post­ings be­fore Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush of­fered Black her dream job in Prague. She en­tered the Petschek res­i­dence with a de­ter­mi­na­tion to use her celebrity and po­si­tion to sup­port and en­cour­age dis­si­dents and de­mand that Cze­choslo­vakia honor its Helsinki Ac­cords obli­ga­tions, in­clud­ing the pro­tec­tion of hu­man rights.

Cracks in the Iron Cur­tain ap­peared in the re­gion that fall and soon spread to Prague, start­ing with demon­stra­tions on Na­tional In­de­pen­dence Day, Oct. 28. The hard-line gov­ern­ment de­manded that thou­sands of cit­i­zens be chased away, blocked, boxed in and at­tacked. Black bravely went to ob­serve and let the peo­ple and the au­thor­i­ties know that she was there to wit­ness his­tory. More demon­stra­tions con­tin­ued, at­tract­ing even more peo­ple. Within three weeks, the gov­ern­ment re­signed.

Through­out the book, Eisen weaves in his ex­pe­ri­ences and fam­ily his­tory. His mother, Frieda, came from a deeply de­vout Jewish fam­ily who lived in a small vil­lage in the Cze­choslavak coun­try­side; they were all trans­ported to Auschwitz. Though she sur­vived, Frieda’s story is one of loss, van­ished op­por­tu­ni­ties and end­less hard work. She is proud of her son, yet she can’t share his Amer­i­can op­ti­mism or stop wor­ry­ing about his safety in such a pub­lic role. She saw how quickly big­otry and ha­tred could be un­leashed, and that democ­racy and free­dom are nei­ther in­evitable nor con­stant with­out con­tin­ual vig­i­lance.

Read­ing this book, you are re­minded of the many missed op­por­tu­ni­ties that the United States and other Western al­lies had to en­cour­age and as­sist democ­racy in Cen­tral Europe. It is not clear that we have learned from his­tory as we are once again con­fronting na­tion­al­ist, na­tivist and an­tidemo­cratic politi­cians and move­ments backed or am­pli­fied by Rus­sia in Europe and be­yond.

The cur­rent oc­cu­pant of the am­bas­sador’s pala­tial res­i­dence is Stephen B. King, a Repub­li­can op­er­a­tive nom­i­nated by Pres­i­dent Trump, whose con­tri­bu­tion to Amer­i­can his­tory is as the for­mer FBI agent and Nixon cam­paign se­cu­rity staffer who, ac­cord­ing to mul­ti­ple news re­ports, kid­napped, drugged and as­saulted Martha Mitchell to keep her silent af­ter the Water­gate break-in. Alice Crites is a re­searcher and li­brar­ian at The Wash­ing­ton Post who spe­cial­izes in gov­ern­ment and pol­i­tics. She was part of the team that won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for in­ves­tiga­tive re­port­ing.


Ger­man Gestapo troops leave their head­quar­ters in the Petschek Palace dur­ing the Prague up­ris­ing in May 1945. The Ger­man gen­eral in charge of the city ig­nored or­ders to vi­o­lently stop the protests.

By Nor­man Eisen Crown. 416 pp. $28

THE LAST PALACE Europe’s Tur­bu­lent Cen­tury in Five Lives and One Leg­endary House

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