Madeleine Albright: Given their own histories, I’m stunned by CEE states’ treatment of refugees

Source: Radio Praha / / By Ian Willoughby /

Having served as US secretary of state from 1997 to 2001, Madeleine Albright ranks as one of the most accomplished of all Czech-Americans. I got to speak to the Prague-born politician recently when she was special guest at the Reality Czech evening in New York, organised by the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association and the Václav Havel Library Foundation to mark the centenary of the founding of Czechoslovakia. Our conversation eventually turned to that landmark anniversary – but it began with Secretary Albright’s recently published book Fascism: A Warning.

© Elizabeth Andrews

In your book you outline various characteristics that for you define fascism. Which for you are some of the most chilling characteristics of fascism?

“There are divisions in every society and the chilling part about fascism is that it makes the divisions even worse.

“That it is a leader which identifies himself with one tribal group at the expense of the minority – and that is very chilling.

“But the thing that I think differentiates a dictator or an authoritarian from a fascist is the use of violence.

“Every fascist is a dictator, but not every dictator is a fascist.

“So I think that use of violence to get power and keep power is actually the most chilling aspect of it.”

You stress that Donald Trump isn’t a fascist. But does he share some characteristics with typical fascist leaders?

“The thing that I say about him is that he’s the most undemocratic president in modern American history.

“So the kinds of things that are common are the lack of respect for the rule of law, to think that he is above the law.

“Then also the whole concept that the press is the enemy of the people.

“And then the lack of respect for the judicial branch of the government.

“Also, somewhat, the business of scapegoating; if something is wrong, it’s somebody’s fault, a different group.

“One of the things that he’s done is to label people, particularly Muslims, that are coming into the country, or Mexicans as being drug dealers and terrorists and a number of different things.

“And that part is similar to this combination of authoritarian and fascist.

“I do not call him a fascist, but I think that there are a number of tendencies that make me very nervous.”

President Trump’s election does to some degree reflect, I think, a rise in populism in recent years. Why do you think it’s happening at this particular historical moment?

“By the way, in the book I am not negative about populism. I mean, democracies need people and so populism can go one way or the other.

“But I do think that what has happened is that there’s no faith in institutions at the moment.

“So there is an anti-government kind of aspect. What I think – and one of the things that I’ve talked about– is that the social contract is broken.

Donald Trump, photo: Jette Carr, U. S. Air Force, Public Domain “People gave up their individual rights to be protected by a government and neither [side] is fulfilling its responsibilities.

“So I think the people have no faith in institutions and you need institutions to have a modern society.”

If we look back at your time as secretary of state in the late 1990s, there was so much pro-Western energy in the Central and Eastern European region. All these countries wanted to join NATO and the EU. Today things looks rather different. Where do you think that pro-Western energy went?

“I ask myself the same question.

“I think that there is still is kind of an ambivalent feeling, because I think many of the countries want to be part of the European Union – they see that as important. They did want to be members of NATO.

“I think that there is a disappointment in how Brussels works and kind of a sense that they are not taken seriously.

“I think there is a sense, if I may say so, that Western Europeans look down a little bit at Central and East Europeans.

“But it’s something that I’m trying to look into.

“In ’91 I did this huge survey of all of Europe and one of the responses to questions was that people wanted to be Europeans – they had been kept out of the European story.

“So as I go back and look at things I want to know why that happened, just exactly to be able to answer the kind of question you ask.

“Because it was so evident that at that time in ’91 people felt that as a result of the Wall, the Iron Curtain, that they really had been kept out of something and they now wanted to be a part of it.

“I don’t know if they don’t like the rules, the thinking.

“And some of the leaders that are making things worse, the Orbans of this world, are making it seem as though the rules are taking away the sovereignty of the countries, and that the rules are a bunch of rules made up by bureaucrats that don’t reflect their needs.”

As a child you were made a refugee by not one but two totalitarian regimes. Today we see a lot of countries where politicians are using strong anti-migrant rhetoric and scoring electoral success with that. What do you say to that trend?

“I’m appalled by it, frankly.

“I certainly am a grateful refugee but I am stunned – and that is the only word I can use – by the behaviour of countries in Central and Eastern Europe who depended on the goodwill of other countries, in terms of welcoming people and doing all those things, now to be so arbitrary in keeping people out.

“What I’m also appalled about is that given what has just happened in the United States, where the numbers of people who are welcomed into the US have been lowered consistently by the Trump administration, it’s very hard for the American government to tell governments in Central and Eastern Europe, or in Europe generally, to take more refugees, because the US is not doing its share.

“So it’s a very bad time in that regard. And I am shocked.

“I was shocked, frankly, when, of all countries, the Hungarians, that depended on people going into Austria, all of a sudden having a free life… then some of the things that happened when some of those buses went from Hungary to Austria, and just generally the behaviour of Orban on this particular issue.”

If we accept that Putin is trying to undermine the West, particularly via elections, what – apart from sanctions – can the West do in response?

“Well, I think the main thing is to expose it and to keep warning people about what’s going on.

“I think obviously it is a huge mistake when the president of the United States talks about the press as the enemy of the people, and even puts forward a word like ‘fake news’.

“Because Putin has learned to use the word ‘fake news’ and Trump has learned to use the words ‘enemy of the people’ about the press, which was a term that Stalin used.

“But I do think that we need to keep exposing it, explaining to people how the disinformation process works and making clear to them that some of the things that come out from Russia Today, and various other aspects, is the weaponisation of information.

“What the Russians are trying to do, systematically, is to undermine democracy Europe and certainly also in the United States and then separate us from our allies.

“So I think that anti-Americanism is something that Putin wants – and he wants to separate us from all of the people in Central and Eastern Europe.”

From today’s perspective the 1990s, for instance, looks like a kind of great age for liberals. Are you confident that there can be a swing back, away from populism, away from hatemongering?

Madeleine Albright Ian Willoughby
Madeleine Albright with Radio Prague’s Ian Willoughby at the Bohemian National Hall in New York, photo: archive of Ian Willoughby

“Yes. The truth is I’m often asked if I’m an optimist or a pessimist – I’m an optimist who worries a lot.

“And I’m worried about the things that we are kind of forgetting that this is not normal.

“We need to speak out against what is going on, not normalise it, and to explain what the issues are.

“I have to say, the best quote in my book comes from Mussolini, which is if you pluck a chicken one feather at a time, nobody notices.

“So we need to point out when the feathers are being plucked, what is going on, that these are small steps that lead in the wrong direction.

“That is why I wrote the book. I’m very glad it’s been translated into a number of different languages, especially for Central and Eastern Europeans.

“My book is called Fascism: A Warning and there are some people who think that it’s too alarmist. It’s supposed to be.

“It’s supposed to be a warning, which is why I decided that I wanted to begin historically and then look at what’s going on now.

“The part that I think people need to be aware of is that Mussolini was the first fascist and then Hitler and Franco. Those three men actually came to power by constitutional means.

“In the case of Mussolini after World War I there were a lot of parties and a lot of discontent and King Emanuel turned power over to him.

“In Germany as a result of the financial problems, the Treaty of Versailles and the punishment of the Germans various issues came up and Hindenburg turned power over to Hitler.

“And in Spain also there was a government that fell and Franco was a general and it was turned over to him.

“The other part of the current people that I talk about, whether Orban or Duterte or Chavez, they were all elected.

“Only the Soviets, the Russians, and the Chinese had a revolution.

“And by the way, I don’t make much of a distinction between left and right; fascists are on both parts of the spectrum.

“I think we have to be aware of the election part of this – I think there’s a real lesson in it.”

My final question is, this is a year of many significant anniversaries for Czechs, with the “eight” anniversaries. Then next one is the centenary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia. What would be your message to Czech people at this time?

“I think the message is that those of us that were born there and are Czechs need to remember the foundation of our country.

“It was based on democratic principles, with a close relationship with the United States.

“Thomas Garrigue Masaryk, I think, was one of the most remarkable presidents anywhere.

“[His presidency] was based on democratic principles, on equal rights for women and on a sense of patriotic duty and also of understanding that the country benefitted by having relations with other countries.

“[People need to remember] that it’s a glorious history with Masaryk in office and then hopes, at various times, to reconstruct that. I think, for instance, moments like the Prague Spring in ‘68, or obviously after the Velvet Revolution.

“Václav Havel was a recognised humanist and a person that so believed in the power of the powerless and his vision of things is something that Czechs need to remember.

“I’m very proud to have been born in Prague and very hopeful that people will remember the great history of the country that we all come from.”

The Vaclav Havel Center