The Last Palace Europe's Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House

Review :

This book covers the life and times of a great house in Prague, amid a tumultuous century for the city and the country. It's worth noting that the book comes to print at a time of several anniversaries: 50 years after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 and the crushing of the Prague Spring; 80 years after the September 1938 Munich conference and the abandonment of Czechoslovakia to Nazi occupation; 100 years after the end of World War I and the proclamation of Czech independence.

This is also the story of four people who cared for this beautiful landmark, beginning with the Jewish coal baron Otto Petschek, who built the palace in the 1920s, spent much of his fortune constructing, landscaping and furnishing it, and dealing with labor trouble, red tape and popular resentment of this display. It's the story of Gen. Rudolf Toussaint, the German general who occupied the place but sought to preserve it as intact as possible, even keeping Petschek's caretaker; the General would, by 1945, barely survive the liberation with his life and that of his son.

It's the amazing story of the first postwar U.S. ambassador, Laurence Steinhardt, who would take up quarters there and act to preserve the house and its contents from Soviet soldiers, and try to save the house and the country from communist seizure. He would end up procuring the house as an embassy, mostly intact, despite resistance from the new city rulers and from the Petschek family estate -- but was unable to save democratic Czechoslovakia.

Two future ambassadors would come to the embassy in later years because of ties to Czechoslovakia. The author, Norman Eisen, would want this post because his mother, Frieda, a Czech Jew, survived the Holocaust and returned to a bleak Prague, and her story is part of this book. Shirley Temple Black would come to Prague in 1968 as a socialite, a former child star now visiting on behalf of a charity, would witness the invasion and its bloodshed, and came away determined to somehow rise in U.S. diplomatic circles and return, which she did in 1989. We see a determined, steely side of her personality, and her presence in Prague as the communist régime was tottering would be important. Her appearances, as ambassador, at demonstrations and resistance meetings, would be a key part, although she did acknowledge that the real stars here would be the resistance leaders like Vaclav Havel. The reader will sense the very real danger, as the régime was desperate and tempted to use armed force, as did happen that year in Romania and China.

Norman Eisen tells a compelling story, and when he comes to Prague as ambassador, he would absorb the palace's history and charm. He would be startled to find inventory labels under the furniture, bearing the Nazi eagle and swastika -- and find U.S. government inventory labels as well from the late 1940s, and more markings from the Petschek period well before. He would also find new controversies as ambassador: the country had become more conservative and the then-president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, was making trouble over an LGBT pride festival and U.S. support for it.

In all, a highly compelling read, with vivid characters in a rich setting -- in every sense -- amid a scary and eventful century. Highly recommend.

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