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Memory Goes to War

Madeline Albright’s foreign past and America’s foreign policy

Cynthia Johnson/Getty Images
Madeleine Albright: A Twentieth-Century Odyssey
by Michael Dobbs
(Henry Holt, 466 pp., $27.50)


Down from the heavens he came a decade ago this month, descending by helicopter onto the Field of Blackbirds in Kosovo to deliver a speech that still reads as a paradigm of nationalist madness. About a million Serbs gathered that day to hear Slobodan Milosevic. The occasion was the six-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, lost by the Serbs to the Ottoman Turks but later transformed through prayer and song into a celestial victory that outweighed earthly humiliation, and into the emblem of the ongoing Serbian quest for a nation-state with stable borders.

Milosevic, new to power and giddy with its aura, seized on the battle’s upside-down symbolism to propose a vertiginous program: a militant Serbian irredentism to fill the vacuum of a crumbling Yugoslav political system. The whole gamut of lethal Serbian pathos was invoked: the Serbs as heroes “perennially liberating themselves and, whenever they could, helping others to be liberated”; the Serbs as a “humiliated people” needing to understand at last that “the fact that we are the big nation in this region is not a Serbian sin or shame”; the Serbs thanklessly sacrificing themselves “on the ramparts protecting European culture, religion, and society as a whole.”

By the end of the speech on June 28, 1989, Milosevic came as near as such a closed man can to being in full, impassioned flight. He vowed that in the name of their rediscovered “state, national, and spiritual integrity,” the Serbs were ready to fight new wars. “For six centuries now,” he declared, “the heroism of Kosovo has inspired our creativity, fed our pride, and not allowed us to forget that once we were an army great, brave, and proud, one of the few that in defeat stayed undefeated. Six centuries later, today, we are again in battles and facing battles. They are not armed, although such battles cannot be excluded yet.”

Back in 1989, with the Cold War waning, few people outside Yugoslavia paid much attention to these ravings of an apparatchik ex-banker turned Serbian deity. Even Washington foreign-policy wonks with Balkan experience would never have imagined that NATO’s front line would quickly shift from Berlin to Sarajevo, or that in dismal Pristina the mighty alliance might one day seek a raison-d’etre for the new millennium.

Madeleine Albright, a Georgetown professor fresh from an outing as chief foreign policy adviser to the failed presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis, was among those with other things on their minds. She had been frustrated by Dukakis. He was never able, in her words, to break through “the threshold of machoism” necessary to be taken seriously. In Europe, she was concerned above all with the fate of her native Prague. She was about to be named president of the Center for National Policy, a liberal think tank. And she had a dying mother, Mandula Korbel, on her hands.

On October 4, 1989, three months after Milosevic spoke at Kosovo Polje, a month before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mandula died. As portrayed in Michael Dobbs’s intriguing book, she was a woman of often infectious vivacity. She was also the warm foil to Albright’s darkly ambitious father, Josef Korbel. This driven man began his life as a modest Austro-Hungarian Jew, found himself in newly formed Czechoslovakia after World War I, dropped his Jewishness to survive in World War II, rose to become a polished Czechoslovak ambassador to Belgrade, fled the Communist takeover of his country in 1948, and eventually settled in Denver, where he headed the university’s Graduate School of International Studies.

Along the way, Josef Korbel changed his name in order to re-invent his identity. Indeed, he hid his family background so effectively that for at least some significant part of her life--how much remains in dispute--Madeleine Albright did not know that all her forbears were Jews and that three of her grandparents died in the Holocaust. “Understanding Josef is the key to understanding Madeleine,” Dobbs writes. He continues: “She inherited his easygoing social skills mixed with an iron determination. The combination of gentleness and steeliness was the product of a lifelong struggle for acceptance, both in Europe and America.” From her father’s uneasy construction of a successful American career on a suppressed European past, Dobbs suggests, comes his daughter’s “seemingly contradictory mix of insecurity and assertiveness.”

It is an interesting notion. What does seem clear is that Albright’s toughness is tied to an intimate sense of European tragedy. The growing confrontation over the past decade between Milosevic and Albright, culminating in the eleven-week Kosovo war, has been unusually personal. It has involved Albright seeing the Serbian leader through the prism of her own life, a life marked by the genocidal slaughters of what Isaiah Berlin called this “most terrible century.” In the place of the miserable “yes-buts” of the David Owens of this world, and in place of the world-as-quagmire of a no-body-bags Pentagon, and in place of Bill Clinton’s many (belatedly regretted) meditations on the theme of the incorrigible south Slav savage, Albright has brought a certain shambolic conviction to the Balkans.

Madeleine Albright, nee Marie Jana Korbelova, wanted vindication of her own past’s lessons; perhaps she also wanted atonement for her own past’s omissions. And so she had little choice but to cross her own “threshold of machoism.” She came to see Milosevic not as a necessary evil, but as evil, period. Consider the symbolism. As a Communist, Milosevic represents the forces that drove her beloved father from his country. As the man who hounded the Muslims of Bosnia into concentration camps, and seven years later revived his trademark brutality for the Kosovar Albanians, he represents the forces that took three of her grandparents to their deaths in Terezin and Auschwitz. He appears to fuse the dark forces in Madeleine Albright’s disjointed life. He is the fixed point of moral turpitude around which she has searched, often clumsily, for a Balkan policy.

Dobbs makes it clear early in his book that he believes the Secretary of State has been dishonest with him. Although the dishonesty concerns her personal life, his charge is still a serious one. Albright has claimed that it was only Dobbs’s research for an article in The Washington Post Magazine that revealed her tragic Jewish family background to her in early 1997. He quotes Albright as remarking that “hindsight is a wonderful thing but there are things in life you just miss. I missed this.” Nonsense, says Dobbs. “As I completed the research for this book,” he writes, “I came to the conclusion that Madeleine learned the essential details of her family’s past long before February, 1997.” There are “too many contradictions and inconsistencies in her story for it to be believable.” It is clear that “too many people, both in America and Europe, knew what had happened for the secret to be kept forever from such an intelligent, inquiring woman.” She “stretch[es] the bounds of credibility”; she behaves with a troubling coldness after 1989 in embracing the end of the East-West conflict but doing “very little about the wall within her own family.”

The evidence that Dobbs accumulates is ample. He notes that in 1996 the Czech Foreign Ministry presented Albright with the personnel records of her father. These included a birth certificate describing Josef as “Jewish and legitimate” and a letter from the Defense Ministry in 1938 that stated explicitly that “Dr. Korbel and his wife are Jews.” Two years earlier, in 1994, the local newspaper in Letohrad, her father’s Czech birthplace, had published a detailed account of her family’s life and death at the hands of the Nazis. The mayor had sent a letter to Albright, then ambassador to the United Nations, presenting the story.

Dobbs chronicles Albright’s meeting in Prague in 1967 with a Jewish relative named Petr NovAk, who was a survivor of Terezin and Auschwitz and so “exceptionally well placed to tell her the family story in great detail.” He recounts her deep historical interest in Czechoslovakia--beginning with a thesis at Wellesley in 1958--that repeatedly put her in touch with officials aware of the Korbel family background. He describes her curious shunning of her Prague cousin Dasha Sima when she began to visit Prague regularly in the 1990s, an attitude that mortified a relative who had lived with her in London during World War II. “Madeleine’s claim that she needed time to do her own research into her family background is disingenuous,” Dobbs concludes. “Had she wanted to verify or disprove the rumors that were swirling around her by the fall of 1996, she could have done so with a couple of telephone calls. There were any number of people who could have told her the true story, including her own first cousins in Prague and London.”

But the true story was somehow threatening. Certainly it was at odds with the fairy-tale Albright saga, constructed by her father and consolidated by her marriage in 1959, three days after graduation from Wellesley, to Joseph Albright, a wealthy member of a newspapering dynasty with links to the Chicago Tribune and Newsday. This fairy tale involved her baptism as a Catholic in 1941, when Madeleine was four years old; her arrival in the United States when she was eleven years old; her second conversion, to Episcopalianism, to wed Albright; her rapid absorption not merely into her adopted land but into the high society of Long Island’s North Shore and later Washington; and her stunning mid-life emergence from an existence dominated by motherhood and family onto a political fast-track in the Democratic Party that eventually led to her appointment as America’s first female Secretary of State.

It is an almost iconic American tale, built around new identity, unimagined wealth, energetic talent, and the future’s restless lure. There were struggles and pain: a stillborn child in the mid-1960s, a rough divorce in 1982. But opportunity was overwhelming. The vast new land was a clean slate: the Jewish past was erased. As Dobbs writes, “So successful was this granddaughter of a Jewish stationmaster in penetrating America’s WASP Establishment that she even has a pew named after her in Washington’s National Cathedral, in recognition of her services to the Episcopalian church.”

And what of it? Concealing the Holocaust to escape its trauma was a common trait in Josef Korbel’s assimilationist generation; his daughter’s quick grasp of America’s transforming possibilities was extraordinary, but it was hardly unique; and the woman’s religion is ultimately her own business. All this is true. Yet it is hard to believe that this intelligent and inquisitive woman failed to grasp the truth about her origins, and the inevitability that they would one day become known, once the Berlin Wall fell and she began to visit Prague on a regular basis and information started to flow freely from the former Communist bloc. Formal recognition of that past did not come until 1997--a very long wait. It is difficult also to escape the conclusion that this odd story of a historian’s manipulation of a European past, and his daughter’s less-than-forthright and not-quite-credible response to that story, are central to understanding her and the Balkan half-war that she has fought.


For many people, Bosnia and now Kosovo have represented a coming of age, an abrupt understanding, in flesh and blood, of Europe’s twentieth-century tragedy, and of the fact of the wholeness of a long-divided continent. Yugoslavia’s protracted death, spread over four wars, has amounted to an admonition. It has been a reminder for a complacent post-war generation of the presence of the past in the bitter embers of fascism and communism that Milosevic has cynically exploited and fanned.

Albright was never a complacent American; this is one of her conspicuous qualities. Her life was always framed in terms of an escape from old-world tyranny to new-world freedom. The Danube and the Drina were always more vivid to her than the Dow. Still, in some measure she was deluded, long cut off from a family story that, when it was finally flushed into the open, imbued the camps and the killings of Milosevic’s little gulag with a particularly personal resonance.

Shading the truth in various ways, Josef Korbel went to sometimes extraordinary lengths to hide the racist persecution that sent his parents to their deaths in Nazi camps. In its place, for his daughter’s consumption, he placed the horror of the various betrayals of Czechoslovakia and its takeover by the Communists. “The total perfidy of the Communist mind” was Korbel’s obsession, the more overwhelming because it supplanted the Holocaust.

The crimes and the capitulations that he chronicles in his books are legion: the Allied abandonment of Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938, the weakness of the Czechoslovak president Eduard Benes (“not a leader, but a negotiator”) as he confronted Hitler, the slaughter of “Czech patriots” by the Nazis, the Germanization of Czech culture, the Soviet-backed totalitarian takeover of 1948. But to the 140,000 Czechoslovak Jews, including his own parents, put to death by the Nazis, Korbel devoted scarcely a word. His book The Communist Subversion of Czechoslovakia, 1938-1948, which appeared in 1948, is dedicated “to the memory of my parents,” and it repeatedly assails the “long night of Communist totalitarianism,” but it makes no mention of the Nazi slaughter.

Such an attitude goes beyond a mere desire for assimilation. It amounts, more reprehensibly, to a historian’s serious distortion of the truth. Dobbs quotes Avigdor Dagan, a Czechoslovak Foreign Ministry official during the war who admired Korbel’s intellect but found that “the Jewish thing was always a wall between us.” Dagan, who later emigrated to Israel, says that Korbel “did everything possible to hide his Jewishness.... His ambition was obvious to everybody. I think he felt that being Jewish somehow stood in the way of realizing his ambitions.”

A more charitable view, the one that his daughter has adopted, is that Korbel, whom she adored, merely wanted to protect his children from the horror his parents suffered. That is why he converted to Catholicism, dropped the umlaut on “Korbel” in a change registered in Prague in 1945 that made his name sound more Czech and less Germanic-Jewish, and raised his daughter in ignorance of her background. She had escaped--but from the Reds, not from the Nazis. This was the family myth, imparted with a European rigor right up until her father’s death in 1977. As the Secretary of State says, with a certain pathos, she was long motivated by a sense “that somehow I had been saved--I thought only from the Russians.”

Exactly when did Albright understand the full scope of her family tragedy? This is still uncertain. But it seems safe to say that her Jewish past came into sharp focus at about the same time that Milosevic revived horrors not seen in Europe since World War II. In this way, Sarajevo and Pristina cast light on her hitherto hidden or denied life. No wonder that she chose to declare in 1994, during a visit to the besieged Bosnian capital, “Ja sam Sarajevka,” or “I am a Sarajevan.”

Dobbs ends his book, rather weakly, by saying that Albright has so many sides, she cannot be summed up in a single sentence, adding that “she is not a saint. She is a human being.” What seems clear is that a doting and perfectionist father instilled in her an unstinting desire to excel, but also left her with a trace of the brittleness of any fabricated life. Dobbs cites several questions on which Josef Korbel appears less than candid--various career moves and the provenance of some excellent paintings acquired after World War II are among them--and he contrasts the historian’s high moral judgments with some of his deeds. One of those deeds was to mislead his daughter about her origins. An immigrant girl, thrust suddenly through marriage into a world of old money, was certain to feel some insecurity. In facing her past, when it finally loomed, that insecurity resurfaced, expressing itself in a disturbing mixture of emotional evasiveness and political calculation.

After all the fumbling and the prevarications, the truth was most movingly expressed following a visit to the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague, where Albright found the names of her murdered paternal grandparents, Arnost and Olga Korbel, painted on the wall amid countless others. In all, she now avowed, more than twenty of her relatives died in Nazi concentration camps. “I have always felt that my life story is also the story of the evil of totalitarianism and the turbulence of twentieth-century Europe,” she said in a statement in Prague. “To the many values and many facets that make up who I am, I now add the knowledge that my grandparents and members of my family perished in the worst catastrophe in human history.”

Yet it seems fair to say, as Dobbs demonstrates, that she had in fact been “adding” that knowledge for several years. Perhaps it was subliminal, but the knowledge was certainly there. As she did so, she took in something else: the “catastrophe” that delivered her relatives to their agonizing deaths was a catastrophe with contemporary Balkan echoes, and her confrontation with it was no mere historical exercise.


For a decade Slobodan Milosevic has behaved consistently, wreaking devastation in a wide arc. His actions have left over 200,000 people dead and ruined the lives of millions. With a slow-motion horror, the cynical program hatched in Kosovo a decade ago has returned to its twisted womb. Over the years, the West’s approach to this singularly destructive man has changed, but only belatedly, and too late and too little to prevent the Serbian rampage in Bosnia from rolling on with a nightmarish predictability through Pristina, Pec, and Prizren.

About a year after becoming Secretary of State, as the long-simmering tensions in Kosovo intensified, Madeleine Albright vowed that this would not happen: “We are not going to stand by and watch the Serbian authorities do in Kosovo what they can no longer get away with doing in Bosnia.” But then a year of dithering followed; and, although the West did not “stand by” in Kosovo as it did in Bosnia, the Serbs have now done in Kosovo precisely what they did in Bosnia, accelerating an already conceived and partially executed program of murder and eviction of Kosovo’s largely ethnic Albanian population beneath the NATO bombardment. Because the West did act, there is a better chance than in Bosnia that this new round of “ethnic cleansing” can be reversed, Serbian crimes be identified with precision, and over one million ethnic Albanian refugees returned to their homes. But Kosovo, for now, is in shreds.

Given the West’s frequent bouts of Balkan amnesia, it is worth noting that this huge Serbian pogrom in Kosovo was consistent with what are, by now, well-honed and well-known Serbian methods: selective execution of men of influence or fighting age, the imprisonment and torture of others, the sale of salvation for a few thousand German marks, the humiliation and the rape of subsequently evicted women, the eviction of children, the wholesale destruction of homes and mosques--all played to the tune of accusations of “genocide” against the Serbian people. Seldom in history has a people clung so tenaciously or so blindly to the image of “victims” in the hour of their murderous shame.

It is also worth noting that Milosevic has never disguised Kosovo’s central place in his nihilistic universe. His first major political act was to strip the province of its autonomy. We know from the diaries of Borisav Jovic, long a close associate, that Milosevic based his rejection of multi-party democracy in Serbia on the fact that there would then be an Albanian party “and we would lose Kosovo.” When, eight years ago, Lord Carrington tried to engineer a peaceful break-up of Yugoslavia, he came up against Milosevic’s bedrock contradiction: the Serbian leader wanted areas of Bosnia and Croatia on the basis of their majority Serb populations, but he also wanted Kosovo, whose population was overwhelmingly Albanian, on the basis of “history.” Serbian “nationalism” was always a fancy word for grab-what-you-can-get.

Dobrica Cosic, the president of Yugoslavia from 1992 to 1993, understood the delusion. He advised Milosevic early on that parts of Kosovo would have to be ceded, and he urged the creation of a Serbian nation-state from Yugoslavia’s ruins. Yet Milosevic preferred the illusion of the truncated “Yugoslavia” to which he still fatuously clings. He also preferred the treacherous rhetoric of Serbian armies “that in defeat remained undefeated” to any form of constructive coherence. The son of parents who committed suicide, he has always been Samson in the Temple, ready to deposit the Kosovo Albanians--along with the rest--beneath the spreading rubble of Serbia’s victories-in-defeat.

To her lasting credit, as Dobbs shows, Albright understood the man earlier than most. Her prism was Munich--and, it seems, the emergent Terezin-Auschwitz connection. For Albright, the Balkans were not the Pentagon’s “Vietmalia,” the preposterously cautious legacy of Vietnam and the American deaths in Somalia in 1993. Albright had lived in Serbia and she felt that she understood the Serbs’ respect for force. As early as August 1993, she wrote a memorandum to the president called “Why America Must Take the Lead,” suggesting that only a bombing campaign could force the Serbs to the negotiating table.

Two years later--with the West’s Bosnian policy of inaction, containment, and even-handed hypocrisy still in place--the Serb massacre of several thousand Muslims at Srebrenica clearly shook her to the core. Dobbs quotes her as telling her deputy Edward Gnehn that “this happened before. I just can’t believe it. We said in 1945 that we would never, ever let this happen again. It has. Look at us. It did, it did.” It did, indeed: and it also happened in Bosnia in 1992 and Rwanda in 1994.

Albright told me in 1996 that one of her few moments of satisfaction during the Bosnian war came in August 1995, when she was able to show the Security Council American satellite photographs of the mass killing near Srebrenica. “It just goes to show you how awful it all was that my greatest sense of achievement came when I was finally able to bring in the pictures of Srebrenica and so show that we could prove what had happened,” she said. “At that moment, I was able to use what America had in a positive way to demonstrate the horror.” Of course, as we now know, there were also photographs, three years earlier, of the Serb camps; but they were shown to nobody, and Milosevic was invited to the London peace conference of August 1992 because the Bush administration had decided that intervention to stop the Serbian leader was undesirable. The West’s Balkan fuite en avant has been one of truly catastrophic proportions.

How effective--rather than merely noisy--Albright was in trying to change this policy remains murky in Dobbs’s book. But among the many quotations in his book--far too many, making the book appear at times like a hugely extended magazine article--is an interesting one from Anthony Lake, the former National Security Adviser. “Madeleine had a view and was able to articulate it very well,” Lake says. “Her weakness was working it through and translating it into real policy terms in ways that would help convince others.” This view is consistent with a widespread notion of Albright as excellent at the sound-bite expression of firm principle, but less good at thinking policy through, acting with strategic nimbleness, avoiding an America-is-best bossiness, and standing up for her principles when ambition might dictate otherwise. Her self-confidence is a lot less robust than her lapidary one-liners might suggest. Her frankness, like her father’s, is a lot less clear-cut than she projects. Under questioning, she is not quick on her feet, tied as she is by fear of putting a foot wrong and appearing less than totally in control.

“She got to where she is today,” Dobbs observes, “not by rebelling but by conforming. Her entire life--and the life of at least three generations of her ancestors--has been marked by a struggle for acceptance. As an immigrant and a woman, she was in a doubly vulnerable position. She had to prove her loyalty and indispensability over and over again.” On Bosnia, from her post at the United Nations, she railed with commendable persistence, but she also conformed, with an attempted nudge here and there, to the craven policy of the president whom she was serving.


Kosovo has been another matter. Operation Allied Force has not quite been “Madeleine’s War,” in the Washington phrase, but it has been something very close to it. Albright will be judged, in large measure, by the results of the conflict.

The run-up to the NATO bombardment, which began on March 24, was bizarre in many respects. The Serbian massacre of more than forty ethnic Albanians at Racak on January 15, 1999 clearly injected a belated urgency into Western efforts to stop the fighting in Kosovo and led to the convocation of a sort of Dayton bis at Rambouillet, near Paris. Albright played a central role in the negotiation, conducted under the threat of NATO bombing. In the absence of Milosevic, however, there was precious little “negotiation.” And when the fragmented Albanian delegation finally agreed to terms--including substantial autonomy for Kosovo, the deployment of a NATO force, and a review of Kosovo’s status in three years time--the Secretary of State acquiesced to an event perhaps unique in diplomatic history: the public signing by one party of an “accord” that was not an accord at all, because the other party had rejected it.

It was a curious ceremony, and it was clearly a stage-managed prelude to war. Surely the corollary of this sort of one-sided approach ought to have been the prompt deployment of a significant NATO military force on Kosovo’s southern borders. Such a force might have made Milosevic think twice about his defiance, and it might have acted as a deterrent to Serbian atrocities if he continued in his defiance and used NATO bombing to move ruthlessly against the Albanians and the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Mountains of verbiage about Serbian valor notwithstanding, the Serbian army has distinguished itself over the past eight years only by its ruthless effectiveness against unarmed civilians, and by its lack of any stomach or talent for anything that could be reasonably dignified with the term “war,” in the sense of a conflict between armies. It is very likely that a NATO invasion would have been met not by defiance but by flight. Yet NATO did not have the resolve for such a course, and the Pentagon did not have the requisite tolerance for casualties. And so NATO bombed; and bombed and bombed and bombed. After Milosevic’s decade of terror, it was the right policy, the just policy, the honorable policy--and the belated policy.

Albright’s instincts were right, but her preparation was wayward. The campaign was ineptly planned, based on her false premise that a few days of rather mild and highly selective bombing would lead Milosevic to sue for peace. Operation Allied Force was marked also by the handicap of trying to engage in that modern military perversion, a “no-loss” war, and so a war without ground troops. For days after the bombing began, the Serbs roamed Kosovo with murderous impunity; the thousands of Albanian lives lost then were lost in part to the terrible misjudgment of American policymakers. As Francois Heisbourg has written, “War is a contest of wills, and a protagonist who demonstrates a complete unwillingness to run risks is unlikely to bend his adversary’s will. The `zero-loss’ constraint also leads targeters to destroy easy-to-reach assets rather than run the risks required to destroy what is militarily relevant to the alliance’s proclaimed war aims.” I would add that an objective for which an army is willing to fight but not willing to die is one that will only be partially attained, at best.

Needless to say, Albright could not single-handedly sway the Pentagon. Indeed, her influence on the actual war planning appears to have been slight. It was probably not helped by the fact that, as an official at the National Security Council in the Carter administration, she had penned a rather poisonous note on then-Senator William S. Cohen: “He has an overestimation of his intellectual capabilities but is a clever self-promoter.”

The NATO bombardment almost certainly went on much longer owing to the imprecision of the high-altitude bombing imposed for safety reasons, and to the American hesitation about going for punishing targets. For this reason, the “collateral damage”--including the destruction of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade-- was wider than it might have been. (Still, I spent too long in Sarajevo to rouse any sympathy for Serbian victims of misdirected bombs.) The huge Albanian exodus was crueler. The general outcome has been messy; the toll, human and financial, has been onerous.

Without a doubt, Albright’s circumscribed war against Milosevic was better than no war at all, and it has led to a defeat for the Yugoslav army. Yet a genuine victory cannot be claimed as long as Milosevic still presides over Serbia. Experience overwhelmingly suggests that his presence in power is incompatible with Balkan stability. It is certainly incompatible with the “Europe whole and free” that has been the West’s avowed goal since the end of the Cold War. But the means to achieve that goal--the use of ground troops to defeat Milosevic’s tottering Serbia--was again eschewed in the Kosovo war. As a result, the status of Kosovo remains ripe with potentially explosive ambiguity, and Serbia remains the sick man of Europe. While Western leaders talk of a protectorate independent of Belgrade in all but name, Milosevic talks of his enduring sovereignty and claims, not without any plausibility, that his eleven-week defiance eliminated “questions on possible independence for Kosovo raised before the aggression.” It is true, and troubling, that the review of Kosovo’s status after three years promised at Rambouillet has been dropped in the agreement with Milosevic.

Enormous questions remain, and NATO’s standing--as well as Albright’s--will hinge in part on how they are answered. Will most of the refugees go back? Will the Kosovo Liberation Army, its ranks swelled by the exodus and Serbian cruelty, fulfill its promise to disarm when no prospect of independence is held out in the accord reached between the West and Milosevic? Will an effective NATO chain of command exist that ensures that the Russians and the Serbs do no mischief? What status is Kosovo ultimately to be accorded? Will the West seriously seek the ousting of Milosevic, as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair now suggest?

And yet there have been some real achievements, for which the Secretary of State deserves real credit. Serbian troops and paramilitary thugs have been forced out of Kosovo, the province that propelled Milosevic’s rise to power and may now, when the dust settles, become the source of his downfall. Disavowed even by the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has called for his resignation--it was offended by his failure in Kosovo, not by his atrocities there--Milosevic seems increasingly isolated and vulnerable. The wars that emanated from Belgrade for almost a decade--to Slovenia, to Croatia, to Bosnia--have finally been brought home to the Serbian heartland. A good principle, albeit one that requires application with prudence, has been established at the end of a century of manifold horror: a state engaging in gross and massive violations of human rights will not be protected by its “sovereignty.”

Europe has been galvanized to regard itself as a military entity as well as a commercial entity. In this sense, to use a phrase doing the rounds in Germany, Kosovo has been a kind of “military euro.” Spurred by the atrocities of the war, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has at last indicted Milosevic. How gratifying it was, after all the mealy-mouthed official descriptions of the man since 1989, to hear Louise Arbour, the chief prosecutor, say simply that she had put out an international arrest warrant for the Serbian leader. And she added a useful reflection: the evidence raised “serious questions” about how Milosevic could be the guarantor “of any deal, let alone a peace agreement.”

Of course, the same sort of evidence existed in 1995, when Milosevic came to Dayton. One salutary effect of the Kosovo conflict has been that it has led Bill Clinton to look back in anguish. His statement last month to a veterans’ group was extraordinary:

There are those who say Europe and its North American allies have no business intervening in the ethnic conflicts of the Balkans. They are the inevitable results, these conflicts, according to some, of centuries-old animosities, which were unleashed by the end of the Cold War restraints in Yugoslavia and elsewhere. I myself have been guilty of saying that on an occasion or two and I regret it now, more than I can say.... We do no favors to ourselves or the rest of the world when we justify looking away from this kind of slaughter by oversimplifying and conveniently in our own way demonizing the whole Balkans by saying that these people are incapable of civilized behavior with one another.

The President’s words will not bring back the dead who perished in Bosnia as the West waved away the slaughter with that long-pervasive and dismally dismissive phrase, “This is the Balkans, you know.” The Balkans, as well as other conflict-ridden parts of the world, have paid a high price for Bill Clinton’s learning curve. Still, his recent words were important; and they reflect a view espoused by Albright long before others in high office in Washington.


In his superbly researched book, Michael Dobbs has performed a significant service in bringing together the threads of a life that--like the 73-year existence of Yugoslavia itself--reflects major themes of the twentieth century: fascist terror, communist oppression, the nationalist fever of post-Communist societies, America’s changing role in the world. This is not an elegant book. Its prose rarely takes flight, and its pace can be plodding. But in its way it is a rigorous and important book.

In 1942, just before she was deported from Prague to her death at Auschwitz, Albright’s grandmother Olga Korbel wrote a letter to her daughter Grete and son-in-law Rudolf Deiml:

It was exactly 9:45 a.m. when they brought us the summons. I don’t think I will be able to do much today. First of all, I have to get used to the thought that we are actually leaving. I am going to wash my hair, I am going to do some shopping, and I am going to clean the house. In the evening, I will prepare dough for the challah bread from 1.5 kilos of flour. I will bake the bread in the morning....

I hope that once I get [to Terezin], I will calm down. I am not calm right now. In fact, I haven’t been calm for a long time. Especially yesterday. I learned the news that Anka Weilova has committed suicide. I felt sorry for her parents.... I would like to ask you, my dear Gretichka, not to waste your strength worrying about us. You will need it for yourself. I promise that I have a very strong will to survive. Somewhere, in some foreign land, we will meet again. I hope that God will help us, and I beg Him to take you under His wing.

Father must take [Drollo] to the pound, where they are collecting the dogs of the Jews. I know that he will feel awful, but I also feel sorry for the dog.

As she was leaving the next day, Olga scribbled a last note that ended: “I am strong. I think we will see each other somewhere on the other shore. I kiss you with passion, your Mummy.” Over the next two years, Olga and her husband Arnost would die in the Holocaust. So, too, would Grete, her husband Rudolf, and their twelve-year-old daughter Milena.

It is poignant to think that, for many years, Madeleine Albright was denied knowledge of these crimes against her immediate family; and it is disturbing to contemplate her awkward, stumbling course toward a public avowal of this past. She was a child of a divided world, and she carries its wounds. In the latter part of her life, at least, she seems to have strived--haltingly but with a kind of flailing conviction--to make whole the emotional links that led her to fight for Kosovo. This was the “other shore” on which she finally encountered her murdered relatives.

On his return from a visit to central Europe, Dobbs presented Albright with a photograph of herself, Milena, and her cousin Dasha as young girls in Czechoslovakia, and asked if she could identify each of them. As he recounts early in his book, Albright instantly replied that she recognized everybody. Then she pointed to her cousin Milena--who was killed in 1944 at Auschwitz--and said: “This is me.” What a shattering moment, of simultaneous truth and error, this must have been!

It is safe to say that in the long lines of Hadzics and Mrehics and Sestovics taken to their deaths in Serbian camps in Bosnia, and now in the Beqiris and Imeris and Jasharis slaughtered in Kosovo, Albright glimpsed her own flesh and blood. Her Balkan challenge has amounted to a kind of agonizing reconciliation. And that, on balance, has been good for blithe Bill Clinton and his blithe America.

This article originally ran in the July 12, 1999, issue of the magazine.