The Last Palace

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

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Norman Eisen
  • New York, NY: 
    Crown Publishing Group
    , September
     2018.
     416 pages.
     $28.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780451495785.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In The Last Palace: Europe's Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House, Norman Eisen—a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as US Ambassador to the Czech Republic from 2011 to 2014—has penned an engaging, vivid, and superbly written story worthy of a spy novel in recounting that country’s turbulent 20th century history. Viewed through the lives of successive inhabitants of Prague’s Petschek Palace, this narrative brings to life the history of the city from the 1920s to the end of the century. The palace, built by wealthy Jewish financier Otto Petschek in the late 1920s, is a Beaux-Arts masterpiece of more than 100 rooms. After the Petschek family fled what was then Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II, the Palace was appropriated by the Nazis for the duration of the war, and afterward became the permanent home of the US ambassador.

Eisen’s narrative focuses on the lives of four remarkable people who successively inhabited the Palace: Petschek, a larger-than-life, optimistic businessman whose obsession with building the most elegant palace in Europe unhappily coincided with the rise of anti-Semitism in Prague; Rudolf Toussaint, head of the Wehrmacht in Prague during the war, about whom we ask “Can there be an honorable German?”; Laurence Steinhardt, the first US Ambassador to Czechoslovakia after the war, whose mission was “to help democracy recover and to push back on Soviet influence” (177); and Shirley Temple Black, who on a private visit to the city in 1968 was eyewitness to the crushing of the Prague Spring by Soviet tanks. When Black was named US Ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1989, she made it her mission to stand up for human rights. 

Threaded through the narrative is the story of Eisen’s mother Frieda, a Czech Jew who was sent to Auschwitz but managed to survive the Holocaust, eventually immigrating to the United States. During the course of his tenure as US Ambassador, Eisen tries many times to persuade her to visit him in Prague, but, due to her painful memories, she declines.

By putting a human face on the story of the upheaval in Czechoslovakia from the 1920s to the close of the century, Eisen creates tension-filled historical drama, judiciously interweaving a wide variety of primary source documents including letters, diaries, cables, official papers, memoirs, personal papers, and interviews. In addition to copious and meticulous source notes at the end of the book, Eisen directs the reader to a dedicated website for a more extensive bibliography and expanded set of notes that could not be accommodated in the print volume. To his credit Eisen strikes a balance between historical accuracy and human stories. 

A powerful symbol of the history of the Palace, and by extension 20th century Prague, is a French antique table—original to the Palace—that the long-time butler shows Eisen on his arrival to take up his post in 2011. Affixed to the underside of the table is a worn label with a swastika, denoting it as property confiscated by the Reich. This shocking discovery sets in motion Eisen’s idea to use key historical moments represented by the Palace as a framework for the narrative. 

Each successive inhabitant of the Palace becomes embroiled in the turbulence of the time. Toussaint, with the temperament of an artist—which he would rather be—is a complicated man who mistakenly thinks he can divorce himself from Nazi policies and actions as he is an honorable soldier; although not a Nazi sympathizer, he finds he must compromise his principles. Eisen puts it best: “[t]here was now no moral boundary left between the Wehrmacht and the SS, between Hitler and Germany. They had bled into one another” (146). At the end of the war, as the Soviets march west and General Patton’s army marches east—both determined to capture Prague—Czech insurgents sieze Toussaint’s son and threaten to kill him if Toussaint does not surrender the city to them. Toussaint defies both the insurgents’ demands and his superior’s orders to keep on fighting and courageously brokers a deal. As riveting as a scene in a novel, this narrative highlights the drama of his predicament, his bravery, and his negotiation skills. 

Likewise, Ambassador Steinhardt is a determined and shrewd negotiator who tries to wrest Prague from Soviet control after the war. Coming across as fearless and tough, he is the most colorful character in the book. A New York lawyer experienced in “crisis resolution,” he needs all his skills as a negotiator in his effort to stave off a Communist-led government. However, despite these efforts, the Iron Curtain falls.

Finally, Black proves to be another fearless and determined public servant. Dedicated to human rights, she experiences firsthand the Prague Spring uprising in 1968, literally wading into the demonstration on the streets of the city as Soviet tanks steamroll through. In her tenure as US ambassador years later she stands up for free speech on the 50th anniversary of the Nazi crackdown on Czech universities. 

A riveting collection of dramatic incidents narrated in eloquent prose and based on extensive research and a plethora of primary sources, Eisen’s book is both an exciting story and a unique window into the turbulence that was Prague in the 20th century.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Barbara Rader is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
February 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Norman Eisen is a Senior Fellow at Brookings and a CNN commentator and chairs the watchdog group CREW. He served as US Ambassador to the Czech Republic from 2011 to 2014, and as President Obama’s ethics czar from 2009 to 2011. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and many other publications. The Last Palace is his first book.

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