Prague-born former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright celebrates 70th

Madeleine Albright

Madeleine Albright, the Prague-born former United States secretary of state, is celebrating her 70th birthday. Born Marie Jana Korbelova on May 15 1937, she was forced to flee her native country twice, first from the Nazis, then from the Communists. Her career reached a peak in 1997, when she became the first woman in history to head the US State Department.

Madeleine Albright at the studio of Radio Prague
Madeleine Albright visited Radio Prague a few years ago, when she was in town promoting the Czech version of her memoirs. We asked her how much she felt at home in Prague.

"Well, it depends on the time. I used to come here quite a lot, even during the Communist period, because I did things for the United States Information Agency, and it didn't feel at all like home. It felt very strange, and everybody looked at me in a different way.

"It felt much more like home when I first came in 1990, and first met President Havel, and I was just so proud of the way people were remembering the good things about the First Republic that I'd grown up with and were making such a great effort for democracy.

"But it's mixed, it's very mixed. I enjoy coming to Prague. I try to imagine what my parents' life was like here in the 30s, when they lived here and were part of intellectual Prague."

Madeleine Albright and her family fled to London in 1939 when the Germans annexed Bohemia and Moravia, and again experienced being uprooted almost a decade later, when they moved to the US in 1948. She accepted that her background had shaped her outlook on international affairs.

"I do think that what I learnt as a result of being born here was that when the United States was not involved, as in Munich, terrible things happened. When the United States came into the war, things were reversed. When the decision was made to let the Soviet Union 'liberate' this country, terrible things happened.

"So my theme and my life has been the importance of American engagement, and to stand up when you can in whatever way. So yes, people are definitely right in saying that."

Because she wasn't born in the country, Madeleine Albright could never have become president of the United States. But she could theoretically have been made Czech president, an idea floated by her friend, former Czech president Vaclav Havel. When she spoke to us in 2003, the former US secretary of state said that while she wouldn't dismiss the idea out of hand, she didn't believe she had the qualifications for the job.

"Well it's hard not to take it seriously when somebody you admire as much as I admire President Havel suggested it. But as I explain in the book, I am a very proud American, and I will stay that.

"The other part that makes me think that it's not appropriate to take it seriously is that I didn't live here through the worst times. No matter how much I know about this country, and how much I've studied it and how Czech I feel, I really do think that the president of this country has to be somebody who lived through those horrible Communist times; the distrust and the horror and the poverty and the intellectual strictures that existed here.

"I love this country, and I would love to be of any help I can, but I think that it's not appropriate."