Norman Eisen’s The Last Palace (Crown, 2018) is a sweeping narrative about the last hundred years of turbulent transatlantic history, as seen through one of Europe’s greatest houses–and the lives of its occupants.
When Eisen moved into the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Prague in 2011, returning to the land his mother had fled after the Holocaust, he was startled to find swastikas hidden beneath the furniture in his new home. From that unsettling discovery unspooled the captivating tale of four of the remarkable people who have called this palace home. Their story is Europe’s, and The Last Palace chronicles the upheavals that transformed the continent over the past century.
There was the optimistic Jewish financial baron, Otto Petschek, who built the palace after World War I as a statement of his faith in democracy, only to have that faith shattered; Rudolf Toussaint, the cultured, compromised German general who occupied the palace during World War II, ultimately risking his life to save the house and Prague from destruction; Laurence Steinhardt, the postwar U.S. ambassador whose quixotic struggle to keep the palace out of Communist hands mirrored his pitched efforts to rescue the country from Soviet domination; and Shirley Temple Black, an eyewitness to Soviet tanks crushing the 1968 Prague Spring, who determined to return to Prague and help end totalitarianism—and did just that as U.S. ambassador in 1989.
Weaving in the life of Eisen’s own mother to explore how those without power and privilege move through history, The Last Palace tells the dramatic and surprisingly cyclical story of the triumph of liberal democracy, and illustrates how we might fight to preserve it today.