Petschek Villa in Prague. Built in the 1920s, it was the home to a German general in the war and is now the official residence of the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic. Markri2

How Writing About an Old Palace Helped Norm Eisen Feel Better About the Man in the White House

The former special adviser to Barack Obama has just penned a book about the U.S. ambassador's residence in Prague. He explains why he is concerned by the rise of illiberalism, including in Israel, but says democracy always wins eventually

WASHINGTON - Norm Eisen has been very busy in the months since Donald Trump entered the White House. A former ambassador and special adviser to then-President Barack Obama, Eisen has emerged as one of Trump’s most prominent critics in the legal and ethical arenas. 

He leads a watchdog organization that is fighting the Trump administration in the courts – and also in the court of public opinion – and is frequently interviewed by leading news outlets about corruption and government ethics. 

That’s why when Eisen started promoting his new book recently, many people who follow his political and legal activities were surprised to find that he had written a history book devoted to a 20th-century palace in Prague, and the people who lived in it. 

On his Twitter feed and in his media appearances, Eisen constantly refers to Trump and his administration. In his book, however, the current president isn’t name checked even once – although careful readers might notice his presence between the pages. 

“The Last Palace,” which was published on Tuesday, tracks the history of Petschek Villa (not to be confused with Petschek Palace, which was the Gestapo's wartime HQ) – a neoclassical building that today houses the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic. Eisen himself was a resident there while serving as U.S. ambassador to Prague from 2011 to 2014.

The mansion was originally built in the 1920s by Jewish industrialist and entrepreneur Otto Petschek and houses more than 150 rooms. Eisen tells the history of Prague, Europe and the West by telling the stories of four of the residents who lived in the building over the past 10 decades. 

Besides Petschek, he also writes about a German military general who lived in the palace when Prague was under Nazi occupation during World War II, and two American ambassadors who lived there during the Cold War era: Laurence Steinhardt, America’s first ambassador to Prague after the city was retaken from the Nazis; and Shirley Temple Black, the famous child star who served as ambassador to Czechoslovakia (and then the Czech Republic) during the fall of the Soviet Union. 

Norm Eisen, left, and Czech President Vaclav Klaus at Prague Castle in January 2011, just after Eisen's appointment as U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic. AFP PHOTO / MICHAL CIZEK

Woven into the narrative is the life story of Eisen’s mother, a Holocaust survivor from Czechoslovakia who immigrated to America and later saw her son return to Prague on behalf of the U.S. government. 

When Haaretz met Eisen at his office in Washington’s Brookings Institution earlier this week, he spoke about the book’s relevance to the political realities of 2018. “The book is about the cycles of democracy and illiberalism,” he says. “When you read about the people who lived at the palace, you’re also reading about the fight for democracy in Europe, and how their own lives were affected by that struggle.” 

Eisen had originally planned to write a memoir about his three years in Prague. But after he began writing it, he says he got so bored that he “couldn’t go on writing it.” One day, during a lunch conversation with his friend Dennis Ross – the veteran Middle East expert and negotiator –

Eisen shared his frustrations about the book. “He told me, ‘The story of the house and the people who lived in it sounds interesting,’” recounts Eisen. “It turned out to be good advice.”

A particularly fascinating aspect of Eisen’s book is his attempt to learn about Rudolf Toussaint, the German general who lived in Petschek Villa when Nazi Germany occupied Prague in 1939. Eisen managed to contact Toussaint’s grandson, who today lives in Germany and, as it turns out, speaks Hebrew. “He became a very religious man and, as part of his attempts to make up for his grandfather’s doings, he befriended a Jewish Holocaust survivor and learned Hebrew from him,” recounts Eisen, who describes himself as a traditional or observant Jew.

The German general’s descendant told Eisen about his grandfather’s memories of the palace. “He belonged to a group of German military officers, part of the old elite, who were dismissive of Hitler and the Nazis – and before Hitler returned victorious from the Munich summit in 1938, even planned a coup against him,” says Eisen. “But that obviously doesn’t take away even one bit of his responsibility for what happened in Prague when he was in charge of the city.”

Democracy in danger

"The Last Palace" by Norm Eisen. Crown

The idea of focusing on the people who lived in the palace helped Eisen turn the book around. But it was the political circumstances that have emerged in Europe and the United States in recent years that helped make his story so relevant and timely. The “cycles of democracy and illiberalism,” as he describes it, “are playing out in front of our eyes these days. It’s happening in different parts of the world – here in the United States, in Eastern Europe, in Turkey. It’s a global fight,” he says. 

Eisen remains optimistic about that fight’s long-term outcome. “Democracy always wins, eventually,” he says. “But we need to be aware of the cycles and surges that are happening. Every time, this process repeats itself. There is a moment when America retreats from the world, goes into a mood of isolationism – and the repercussions of that are felt everywhere. But when we have leaders who are committed to our democratic values, and are willing to fight for them, democracy makes a comeback.” 

However, Eisen also warns that “democracy is hard to maintain. It takes a lot of effort and commitment. Freedoms are difficult to handle. Democracy asks a lot of us, the citizens. It doesn’t just preserve itself. It needs to be protected. It’s a system that is truly difficult to sustain. You need leaders and political parties and news outlets and citizens who are all willing to fight back where there is a backslide.” 

He says that under the Trump administration, the United States doesn’t have that kind of leadership. “Trump is peculiar, but historically he’s not a unique figure,” says Eisen. “There are many replicas of him throughout history, and even in present-day Europe. When you look at governments in Poland and Hungary and Italy, and also the Czech Republic today, you see very familiar figures that all share the same political style of incitement and hatred and fear.” 

Eisen also puts U.K. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn within that category, calling him “clearly an anti-Semite.” 

The ex-diplomat adds, though, that he believes democracy will overcome the dangers posed by leaders like Trump, Viktor Orbán and other extremist nationalists. “Our democracy here in America is still healthy,” says Eisen.

“We’ve had points of crisis before – just think about the damage Sen. [Joseph] McCarthy was doing a few decades ago – but there has always been enough of a pushback in favor of democracy. I see that happening today as well. I look at the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and how the Justice Department is protecting his independence against Trump’s wishes. These men are heroes for insisting that there should be accountability for everyone in this country.” 

President Donald Trump talking on the phone with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, in the Oval Office of the White House, Washington, August 27, 2018. Evan Vucci,AP

Eisen also notes that hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens have signed a pledge to demonstrate in case Trump tries to fire Mueller or shut down the Russia investigation. 

“This country is much more than Trump,” he says. “We also have politicians like senators Mark Warner [D-VA] and Richard Burr [R-NC] who are committed to a true investigation of what Russia did during the 2016 [presidential] election. It’s also the country of people like John McCain,” he adds, citing Trump’s nemesis who passed away last month

Another country Eisen feels a strong connection to is Israel, and he admits to concerns about recent developments in the Jewish state. “I think Israeli democracy overall is vibrant, but I’m not a fan of the recent nation-state bill,” he says, referring to the recently passed law that enshrines Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people.

“I think it’s a mistake to push through this kind of legislation,” Eisen adds.  “Israel hasn’t gone as far as other countries where there has been an antidemocratic surge – but the trend is worrying. I do feel like there is a lot of internal resistance to the attempts to weaken Israeli democracy. I have faith that those efforts will fail.”

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