Madeleine Albright was just two years old when the Nazis marched into her hometown of Prague.
She didn’t understand what was happening but she does remember this:
“We escaped, we hid, and we were able to get out. I am a refugee and a very grateful refugee.”
The future ambassador to the United Nations also remembers what it was like to see U.S. soldiers arrive after the Nazis were defeated.
“That’s when I fell in love with Americans in uniform,” she said.
With wit, humility and candor, the former secretary of state captivated a standing-room-only crowd in Coral Gables last week during a stop to promote her new book, “Fascism: A Warning.”
On a range of topics that covered the political and the personal – “I’m an optimist who worries a lot” – Albright’s sharp observations elicited laughter and applause throughout an hour-long conversation with former Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence Jr., who described Albright’s book as a “stunning explication of what is going on in the world.”
One of the most compelling moments of the evening came when 11-year-old Rania Ishoof – daughter of FIU’s Vice President for Engagement Saif Y. Ishoof and his wife Amira – asked Albright if she had any advice for young people today.
“You’re the answer,’’ Albright said, pausing for the loud applause that erupted. “What we need to do is support your age group. We need to make sure that we listen to you. We should learn from you.”
Albright’s visit was co-hosted by the Václav Havel Program for Human Rights and Diplomacy at FIU’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs, in collaboration with Books & Books, HarperCollins and the Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ.
“I think it is fitting, as Secretary Albright was a dear friend to the former Czech president (Václav Havel),” said John F. Stack Jr., founding dean of the Green School.
“My own career as a teacher and scholar owes much to Secretary Albright’s family,” Stack added. “Her father, Dr. Josef Korbell, was the catalyst for the international prominence of the University of Denver’s Graduate School of International Studies, where I received both my master’s and Ph.D. in international studies.”
As a diplomat and a scholar, Albright said she is concerned with the “fear factor” she sees influencing modern political dialogue.
“We have to learn to have discussions with people we disagree with in a civil way,’’ she said to more applause. “We need to speak out. We cannot normalize what is going on now.”
Although her book was in the works long before the election of President Donald J. Trump, Albright noted she has been asked repeatedly if she considers him a fascist.
She does not.
“He is just the most undemocratic president of the modern era,” she said. “He doesn’t understand what the role of the press is. He does not respect the institutions. And he thinks that the laws don’t apply to him.”
Asked to clarify her definition of a fascist, Albright said, “The definition is that he – and it’s always a he –is willing to use force to get his way. A bully with an army.”
Albright – known for her own straight speaking manner – noted the similarities between the political rhetoric of today and that of totalitarian leaders in the past.
“(Italian dictator Benito) Mussolini was very good with quotes,’’ she said. “He was ‘draining the swamp’ too. Yes, he said that. In Italian.”
And Russian President Vladimir Putin?
“He is popular … he’s showing off all his weapons and parades,’’ she said. “Which is leading someone else we know to want a parade in Washington.’’
Regarding the rising influence of Facebook and other social media, Albright noted that Facebook was not “magic” or all-powerful.
“I think if you give all your information to some operation like Facebook and then they actually have the information and you’re mad, you bear some responsibility for that.”
“We need to make clear that a free press is the essence of democracy,’’ she added. “We lose if we don’t really cherish a free press.”
Albright – who wore one of her trademark pins of Mercury, the messenger to the gods – saved some of her most pointed commentary for the importance of America’s role in the world – and the need to safeguard democracy.
“Democracy is resilient but also fragile,” she said. “We need to be the ones to remember that and push back.”
“We have this motto now in the United States,’’ she added. “If you see something, say something. I’m adding to that: do something. And that’s why I wrote this book.”
This event was co-sponsored by the Green School’s Ruth K. and Shepard Broad Distinguished Lecture Series and European and Eurasian Studies Program.