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The Last Palace

The Last Palace by Norman Eisen
Hardcover
Sep 04, 2018 | 416 Pages
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Praise

A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2018

“A deft and fascinating narrative…The Last Palace is steeped in politics, military history, architectural lore and anecdotes… Mr. Eisen’s easy, fluid style and the richness of his material make for very pleasurable historical reading.” Wall Street Journal

“The book’s main characters are captivating. The palace itself has a ghostly allure.” The Economist

“Meticulous… fascinating… Reading this book, you are reminded of the many missed opportunities that the United States and other Western allies had to encourage and assist democracy in Central Europe. It is not clear that we have learned from history as we are once again confronting nationalist, nativist and anti-democratic politicians and movements backed or amplified by Russia in Europe and beyond.” –Washington Post

“Engrossing… This action-packed yet lyrically written page-turner confers a fascinating human understanding of Europe’s past and present.” Publishers Weekly (starred)

“Eisen casts each successive caretaker of the palace as uniquely heroic and in so doing writes a wonderfully human history.” Booklist (starred)  

“Timely and engaging… a marvelous and original work of history… Eisen’s terrific book reminds us that unknown people do remarkable things all the time.” The American Interest

“Norman Eisen has written an enthralling history of a palace and its very real ghosts. By telling the story of the Prague mansion where he resided as America’s ambassador, Eisen provides a poignant reflection on the haunting twists of the past century, including his own very American family tale.” —Walter Isaacson

“Moving, engaging, and elegantly written, The Last Palace wears its erudition lightly, casts its radiant intelligence fearlessly into the darkest corners of the twentieth century and, effortlessly, reliably, breaks your heart again and again.” —Michael Chabon

“Combining both the personal and the historical, Norman Eisen’s remarkable book transports us into the battle for democracy through the lives of people who fought to save it and those who would seek to destroy it. The Last Palace is not only a first-rate work of history, but a call to action written at a time of urgent need.” —Madeleine Albright

“At a time when we find ourselves newly nostalgic for courageous public officials and American leadership on behalf of human rights, Eisen has written a pearl of a book. Using an ornate palace in Prague as the backdrop for his fast-paced narrative, Eisen tells the tale of the last stormy century through the eyes of several vibrant characters who helped shape it — from a stubborn businessman who, Willy Wonka-like, builds an implausibly ornate palace as war clouds loom; to Shirley Temple Black, the Czech-American envoy who acts decisively in the side of dissidents during the Velvet Revolution; to Eisen himself, who, as Obama’s ambassador to the Czech Republic, raises his voice on behalf of human rights amid growing populism and extremism. The Last Palace is a great read and a stirring reminder of the importance of decency in public life.” —Samantha Power
 
“As America’s Ambassador in Prague, Norman Eisen had an extraordinary relationship with the Czech Republic and its history: his mother said the Nazis took her family out in boxcars and her son came back on Air Force One. The Last Palace combines human drama with geopolitical and historical sweep and does it with evident love and painstaking investigation.” —John Kerry

“Norman Eisen pulls back the curtains to reveal history’s secrets in this rich, personal, and wise book.” —Jane Mayer, author of Dark Money

“What a revelation! With this moving memoir and history, Norman Eisen enters the front rank of writers.  A truly riveting read.” —David Axelrod, author of Believer

“Enchanting and fascinating, The Last Palace is a splendid journey through a century of modern European history, and a love letter to liberal democracy. From the adventures of an obsessive baron to the anti-Communist resistance of ambassador-actress Shirley Temple Black to his own tenure as Barack Obama’s envoy to Prague, Norman Eisen brings the inhabitants of a storied residence, and their tumultuous times, to life.”  Chris Whipple, author of the New York Times bestseller The Gatekeepers

“Eisen has written a book rich with detail, in spellbinding prose. The Last Palace reads like a novel—a page-turner— beautifully intertwining the compelling stories of families and individuals to tell a stirring story of the twentieth century.  The story is centered around a remarkable palace in Prague, but the story of the house is in fact the story of tragedy, cruelty, genocide, courage and its lack, from the 1920s through the Second World War and the Holocaust, the Prague Spring and brutal Communist rule in Czechoslovakia, the country’s subsequent freedom and its aftermath, up to the present day. I came to the book expecting a memoir, but The Last Palace is far more than that.” —Norm Ornstein
 
The Last Palace is a great piece of work: a compelling story and so elegantly written. A wonderful read.” —David Corn

“A well-told story for readers interested in Czechoslovakia, its creation, its fall to fascism and then communism, and rescue from both.” —Kirkus Reviews

 “The history of a remarkable mansion and its times…this fascinating work will appeal to those interested in 20th century history.” —Library Journal

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Norman Eisen,
author of THE LAST PALACE

 
THE LAST PALACE sweeps through the last one hundred years of European history using the lens of the Petschek house in Prague and the people who moved through it. What sparked your interest in the property? 
 
The palace was my home as U.S. ambassador to the Czechs. It’s widely considered the most beautiful of any of our ambassadorial residences and, sure enough, when I moved in, it took my breath away. But even more startling was my discovery of a swastika hidden beneath a beautiful antique table—residue from when Nazi Germany occupied the house. That hit me particularly hard as the child of a Czechoslovak Holocaust survivor who had been deported to Auschwitz by those very same occupying forces. That collision of the history—the palace’s, my family’s—compelled me to dig into what had happened on the property over the past century. What I found out amazed me—not just about World War II, but about the recurring struggle between liberalism and illiberalism in every generation, including our own. 

 
The palace has been the residence of a Czech Jewish financial baron, a German general during World War II, and various U.S. ambassadors. Each felt passionately about the home and Prague. What about this place is so inspiring and irresistible?
 
First-time visitors to Prague are astonished by the beauty and architectural diversity of the city, and the palace is a microcosm of that. Millennia of European design are reflected in the building’s 150 rooms—still packed with the original antiques, tapestries, and Old Master paintings. That eclecticism shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Thanks to the genius of the builder (its first occupant, Otto Petschek) it harmonizes; immersion in all that beauty has an uplifting effect on everyone who lives there. I believe it even helped transform the German general who occupied it. He was inspired to defy the SS and save Prague from destruction at the end of the war.
 

What was your most surprising discovery in researching THE LAST PALACE?

 
As the child of a survivor, the swastika I found and all the traces of German occupation were striking. But the most surprising single fact to me was that Shirley Temple Black was visiting Prague and the palace on the day of the 1968 Soviet invasion. The one-time child star came to see the miracle of the Prague Spring, the thaw of Communism, but instead saw the Soviets gunning down Czech protesters. She decided to become a diplomat, and to return and help end Communist rule. That is just what she did when she came back to live in the palace as U.S. ambassador in 1989!
 

Your mother was a Czech Holocaust survivor and was nervous about your return to the country where she had suffered so many losses in and around World War II. What was it like to serve in a place where your mother and your people had endured such anguish in the not-very-distant past?

 
Even on dark days—and there were some, when the past weighed on me—I always felt a sense of triumph. Here I was representing the most powerful nation on earth in a land where the Nazi occupiers had caused so much suffering to my mom, my family, and my people. And because so many others, Jews and non-Jews alike, had endured the trauma of World War II, and then forty years of a repressive Communist regime, almost everyone I met felt a kinship with me. Then Putin started making trouble and things got really interesting—the Czechs and I found ourselves side by side fighting for liberalism against the same recurring illiberal trends that had wreaked such havoc on the century.
 

Hypernationalism, anti-Semitism, and attacks on refugees are on the rise again in Europe and the United States. What can THE LAST PALACE teach readers about the tides of history? How can we use this knowledge to avoid catastrophe in the future?

 
We proponents of democracy keep thinking we have defeated the monster of dark populist nationalism. World War I. World War II. The end of Communism—all were proclaimed in different words as “the end of history.” That’s what some of my predecessors in the palace thought, too. But the cycle repeated every time; today there are illiberal regimes sprouting up all over Europe. Russia has even reached across the ocean to strike at American democracy right here on U.S. soil. The lives of my predecessors teach us that we can never let down our guard—but that once democracies wake up and fully push back, we will win. Democratic ideas and values are more powerful than illiberal ones, as I predict we will see in the coming years—if we fight like our lives depend on it. They do.
 

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended WWI. Immediately following the war, the League of Nations—an institution that your character Otto Petschek had the utmost faith in—was established to promote international cooperation. What lessons that can be applied today should be taken from the failures of the League?

 
THE LAST PALACE includes the story of how the post-WWI international order, including the League, fell victim to illiberal forces. That part of the book will feel familiar to readers because the struggle between democracy and illiberalism keeps happening in Europe; indeed, it is happening now. The U.S. invariably contributes to that deterioration—usually by getting distracted and withdrawing, though at the moment it is because we are grappling with illiberal trends here. The good news is that for the past century, democracy has always come out on top.  So the League failed, but begat the U.N. and the post-World War II international order. That doesn’t happen on its own, and I write about many of the things that must be done to preserve democracy. Above all, as Churchill (perhaps apocryphally) said:  “Never, never, never quit.” That quote gave me a chapter title, actually!
 

2018 also marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia. How do the issues that the Czech Republic faces today compare to what the newly-formed Czechoslovakia was facing in 1918? In particular, how does anti-Semitism today compare to anti-Semitism in 1918?

 
The history of the past century has been one of tremendous and repeated threats to democracy— often far worse than those faced by contemporary democracies. Like the fledgling nation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, today’s democracy in the Czech Republic faces risks posed by populist and illiberal leaders without and within its borders. Thankfully, the nation today has a quarter-century of high-functioning democracy to rely upon. While anti-Semitism there is among the lowest in Europe, there are still worrying episodes, as anywhere. I faced some myself even as U.S. Ambassador, and I write about that. The good news, however, is that the hunger for democracy that led to the founding of Czechoslovakia lives on today. I believe that it will catalyze action from the ultimate defenders of Czech democracy—the citizens of that country—to push back on those who would seek to undermine it. I was proud to do my part to help defend democratic values with my best advisor—my Czechoslovak mother! I talk about that at the end of the book, and it is one of my favorite chapters. 

 
Which writers or books have most influenced your own work?
 
Erik Larson and Edmund de Waal were major influences on this book. It is the love child of In the Garden of Beasts and The Hare with Amber Eyes—but with its own distinct flavor, I hope. I am also an avid fiction reader. Kafka was a schoolmate of one of my protagonists, and for a time lived in my former embassy before it was owned by the United States, so I reread him with pleasure while writing. John Updike gave me the title for the book, describing the ambassador’s villa as “the last palace built in Europe.” I loved his work even before that, together with other greats of his generation, including Philip Roth (who had a strong Prague connection and even set a book there), Saul Bellow, and Norman Mailer. I read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels while I was writing THE LAST PALACE and tried to bring the immediacy of her storytelling to my own pages.

 
What are you working on next?
 
An analysis of the struggle between the Trump administration and the rule of law, explaining why I believe the law will win (working title: U.S. vs. Trump:  The Fate of an Illegal Presidency). When I started writing THE LAST PALACE, I warned that the virus of illiberalism that kept returning in Europe could strike at any democracy, anywhere. And yet I was shocked to see it jump the ocean. The next book will be about how the conflict described in THE LAST PALACE is playing out on American soil.

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