Remembering Madeleine Albright through her books

I was saddened by the news of the death of the first woman who served as Secretary of State of the United States whom as a foreign diplomacy enthusiast, I considered one of my idols.

Ever since I read her first book and became familiar with her work and her personality, I was always looking forward to learning her take on whatever happened in the world. The last time she shared her thoughts was about the war in Ukraine, published one day before it started, and about a month before she passed away. Though I have never met her in person, I have learned a lot from her through her books and other writings, her speeches and lectures, her interviews. Here I recommend four of her books that I have read.

This one was actually the very first memoir from any world leader I have read. She wrote it after her term as Secretary of State ended, and in it she reflected upon not just her decades of work at the US foreign service, but all of her life. Her remarkable life story makes an interesting read, starting from her childhood spent first in Prague, the Czech Republic, then different exiles around Europe fleeing World War II and later communism, through her youth as a refugee in the United States, finding out about her family’s past as an adult and of course her professional journey to becoming the first female Secretary of State. I loved this book so much! I read it around the time that I became interested in foreign affairs, and this book started me on a journey to read more and more memoirs of world leaders in order to understand more about their decisions and experiences. I just realised though that out of the four books this is the one I don’t own, as back then I read a copy from the library. It’s time to get one of my own!

This was a very eye-opening read, I’ve read it shortly after it got published. It is about how religion played or plays a part in every major conflict around the world. Starting from wars in history, the book deals with very contemporary wars too, like the Israel-Palestine conflict, wars in the arab world, the Hutu and Tutsi distinction in Rwanda, even the Balkan war of the 90s and explains how the root cause of all of them can somehow be traced back to differences in religious beliefs. This is a must-read for everyone who wants to learn about world affairs and international conflicts. She also made a strong point in the book that understanding certain regions’ religious beliefs should play a key role in foreign policy.

I actually bought my copy of this one in Prague a few years ago. In this book she writes an almost literary history of her place of birth, through the story of her own ancestors who lived there. It got briefly mentioned in her first memoir that when she was already Secretary of State she very publicly found out from the press that her grandparents died during the Holocaust, after she was brought up not having a clue about her jewish roots. This book is sort of making up for not knowing that history, finding out everything there was to find out about her family and writing a worthy tribute to them that also makes an exciting read.

This one came out in the middle of the Trump-era, and it actually was, or rather, still is a warning. The book starts with a brief history of how Hitler’s and Mussolini’s fascist regimes succeeded, citing the famous saying of Mussolini that “if you pluck a chicken one feather at a time, nobody notices”. To make an argument that there’s a lot of chicken plucking going on in the world these days, there are descriptions of evidently national-socialist regimes of late, like Putin’s Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey, Orbán’s Hungary, to name just a few, comparing their ideologies and methods to those before. The book is indeed a warning that what starts as innocent, almost explicable differentiation between us and them, could subtly lead to something the world should never experience again.

These are the four I have read so far, I haven’t got around to read her last book yet, of course I will get it, although I know it will be a sad read now. I remember when I first heard about it coming out, I was hoping there might be a book launch event somewhere in Europe I could attend. Then it came out during the first wave of the pandemic and I suspect she already had health issues by then, although she seemed tireless in giving interviews and attending events mostly on Zoom, sometimes in person too. With the advertising of this last book came the anecdote that when the Secretary was leaving office she was often asked how she wished to be remembered. Her answer was: “I don’t want to be remembered. I am still here and have much more I intend to do. As difficult as it might seem, I want every stage of my life to be more exciting than the last.” True to these words, she has remained active until the end of her life.

She will be greatly missed.

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