Prague-born Madeleine Albright became Secretary of State 25 years ago

Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton

Madeleine Albright became the first female Secretary of State on January 23, 1997. She now holds both the Order of the White Lion and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

She was born on May 15, 1937, as Marie Jana Korbelová in Prague's Smíchov neighborhood. She got the nickname "Madla" from her grandmother, who named her after a character in what was then a popular movie - Madla zpívá Evropě (Madla signs for Europe). Her mother called her Madlen and other still Madlenka.

Madeleine Albright | Photo: Madeleine Albrightová,  Pražská zima/Argo

Although her parents were of Jewish origin, they converted to Catholicism and Madeleine was brought up in the spirit of the teachings of Czechoslovakia's first president - Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. Shortly after she was born, her parents moved to Belgrade, where her father, Josef Korbel, worked as a diplomat at the Czechoslovak Embassy in Yugoslavia.

Mr Korbel wanted to join the mobilization of the Czechoslovak Army during the Autumn of 1938, during the height of the Munich Crisis. However, Europe's great powers decided Czechoslovakia was on its own and Hitler's Germany occupied the Sudetenland. When the Germans invaded the rest of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939, the family chose to emigrate. Albright recalls in her autobiography that her grandmother moved her to Prague on March 25, from which she took a train with her parents out of the country.

Josef Korbel | Photo: Czech Television

The family first moved to Belgrade and then to London. Josef Korbel started working for the Czechoslovak Government in Exile, specifically for Foregin Minister Jan Masaryk. Listening to him give a speech on the BBC was among the first childhood memories that Albright remembers, she wrote in her biography.

After the end of the Second World War, Josef Korbel returned to Czechoslovakia on board the same aircraft that flew President Edvard Beneš. The Korbel family, which lost more than thirty family members during the war, followed him soon thereafter. Madeleine Albright would only find out about her lost relatives much later in life, when she started searching for them.

First woman to become US Secretary of State

Madeleine Albright in 1988 | Photo: Michael Geissinger,  Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

Albright's father was declared an enemy of the state and sentenced to death after the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948. The family asked for political asylum in the United States and Madeleine would go on to study politics, public law and International Relations. She received her doctorate in 1976, specializing in Eastern Europe and East-West relations.

Before graduating, Madeleine had to interrupt her studies to take care of her children. She married journalist Joseph Albright in 1959 and had three daughters with him - Katherine and twins Anne and Alice. The marriage did not last, but she kept rising in her career.

During the mid-1970s, Madeleine Albright worked in the election staff of the Democratic Party and, in 1978, she accepted the offer of Zbigniewa Brzezinsky to become a National Security Advisor. She would also help the democrats during presidential elections, including Bill Clinton's successful run for office in the early 1990s. He would pick her as the US's represenative to the UN in 1992. Five years later, in January 1997, Albright was named Secretary of State. Her tenure saw NATO's expansion into Central Europe and included the accession of the Czech Republic into the alliance in 1999. During her time in office she was considered the most powerful woman in the world.

President Havel's advisor

'Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat's Jewel Box' | Photo: Práh publishing

Madeleine Albright frequently visits the Czech Republic. Her first visit came right after the Velvet Revolution, in 1989, when she also acted as councilor to future President Vaclav Havel. In 1997, he awarded her with the highest order in the Czech Republic - the Order of the White Lion. She would also attend Havel's funeral, together with the Clintons, in December 2011. Four years later, she would also unveil a commemorative plaque to Holocaust victims from her family in Terezin.

Albright is also an eager collector of brooches, even writing a book on the subject under the title "Read My Pins". An author of several books, Albright's latest publication came out in 2018 and was titled "Fascism: A Warning".

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