Through the Story of a Prague Mansion, Norm Eisen Traces History
It’s a tale of a history-laden Czech palace, but within it lays an allegory of current American politics.
The story of Petschek Palace, a glorious mansion in the heart of Prague, is the account of Jewish European history and its tragic 20th century’s up and downs. It was built as a family home by a wealthy Jewish banker, taken over by a German Wehrmacht general during World War II, reclaimed by the Jewish resident after the German defeat, and now serves as home to America’s ambassadors to the Czech Republic, one of them a son of a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia.
And through this cycle of darkness and light, one of the palace’s latest occupants, former ambassador Norm Eisen, found not only a great story to tell, but also a history lesson. “Yes, always expect the worse,” Eisen says, quoting his mother, who was forced out of Czechoslovakia only to see her son become the U.S. ambassador to the country decades later. “But,” Eisen adds his own twist, “also expect the best, because trends affecting lives of Jews in Europe and around the world are cyclical. Even though we’re now in the middle of an illiberal trend, with Trump in the U.S. and Putin in Europe as the two anchors of this anti-democratic movement, still, it’s less bad. Each successive wave is less bad.”
It is only natural for Eisen to weave current-day American politics into this story about European architectural history. After all, he not only dwelled in the famed Petschek mansion and studied its winding history, but he is also a leading expert on government ethics and, for the past two-years, the number one thorn in Donald Trump’s side.
Eisen’s book, The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House, is first and foremost a fascinating story of the mansion built by Otto Petschek in the late 1920s, when Prague was booming and well off Jewish businessmen like Petschek were ready to put down roots for their family for 1,000 years to come. Petschek, of course, had no way of knowing that the 150-room mansion he put his heart, sweat and exorbitant amounts of money into would soon be seized by the Nazis. The palace became home to Rudolf Toussaint, the Nazi army commander of the region. Eisen notes Toussaint’s uniqueness: He never joined the Nazi Party and spoke out against attacks on the Jews. He lived in a mansion filled with Jewish books and artifacts, which he left intact. “He cared for them as if he knew that he was going to turn it over to another Jewish family,” says Eisen. But Toussaint does not get a pass from Eisen. “He tried to stay away from the atrocities, but he was complacent in them,” says Eisen. “And that brings us to Donald Trump, because certainly whatever Donald Trump may feel, the people he associates himself with are out and out anti-Semites.”
After the war, the house was briefly occupied by the Soviets and then returned to Jewish hands, this time those of Laurence Steinhart, the first American diplomat to use the house as an official residence. Another famed resident of Petschek mansion was actress Shirley Temple Black, who served as U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s. Eisen was appointed by President Obama in 2011 and served as ambassador to the Czech Republic until 2014.
His previous role in the Obama administration won him the nickname “Mr. No.” As Obama’s “ethics czar,” Eisen, who cofounded the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, was in charge of making sure the administration remains transparent and doesn’t steer away from good governance practices. After returning from Prague to Trump’s Washington, Eisen re-engaged at full-force, chasing down the newly elected president who, Eisen believes, has little regard to the rule of law or the role of democracy.
Eisen’s crusade has registered one major success with a lawsuit against Trump’s ownership of his downtown Washington, DC hotel, under the emoluments clause, an obscure article in the constitution, which forbids accepting payments from foreign governments. The lawsuit filed by CREW has been advancing in court and could be one of the few that has real impact on Trump. Eisen sees Trump as the “most unethical president” America has had, “since Nixon—and maybe ever.” Eisen and his group have also gone after Trump for lying about his payments to porn actress Stormy Daniels and has been keeping a close watch on nominations, conflicts of interests and nepotism (“no matter how talented or untalented Ivanka and Jared are, there’s the law that says you can’t do this; it’s against the law”) within the Trump administration. But the most egregious breach of ethics he sees is in Trump’s attempts to block the Russian interference investigation. “Definitely the president’s lying, and the worst is his lying about why he fired James Comey and why he’s fighting the Justice Department, because that kind of lying has a name in American law: obstruction of justice. And I think there’s very substantial evidence of obstruction of justice,” Eisen says.
It’s hard to measure success in efforts to call out the commander-in-chief for misconduct or for breaking government rules. The president is protected from many of the legal challenges ordinary citizens might face, and even those that can reach Trump are part of a lengthy legal process in which results are still years away. But Eisen believes his work is already having an impact. “I’m just a part of a very large community of people who have been speaking out and litigating,” he says. “The whole community is having a big impact. You know Trump would love to fire the special counsel Robert Mueller, and part of the reason he can’t do it is because many, many people like me, are fighting that. One of the lessons I learned from my book was that the thing that makes the difference between democracy succeeding or failing is people doing this—thousands and millions of people doing this.”