Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the fall 2008 edition of the University of Denver Magazine. It is being reposted in honor of the University’s 150th anniversary.
The thing about Josef Korbel, say those who knew him, is that he was always looking forward — that in spite of all he had seen and all he had been, he always looked ahead.
Few would have chastised Korbel had he chosen to focus on what might have been. As a rising star in the Czechoslovakian government in the 1930s and 1940s, Korbel likely would have had an exemplary diplomatic career but for the Nazi invasion that forced him to flee to London in 1939 and the Communist coup three years after his return that led to his immigration to the United States in 1948.
“There are lots of people who say that chances are pretty good he might have been [Czechoslovakia’s] foreign minister at some point,” says his daughter, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. “We’d talk about that and he’d say, ‘No such thing. You never know what would have happened under normal circumstances.’ He didn’t spend his time thinking about that.”
Instead, Korbel launched what ultimately became a 27-year career in academia. He joined DU as an international affairs professor in 1949, became founding dean of the University’s Graduate School of International Studies in 1964 and remained at DU until his death from cancer in 1977. The school he created was renamed the Josef Korbel School of International Studies in May 2008.
Still, while historians may lament a promising diplomatic career cut short and colleagues, students, family and friends reminisce about accomplishments in academia, both perspectives are incomplete.
As much as anything, the story of Josef Korbel’s life is an immigrant’s tale — a story of personal reinvention, one that is profoundly complex and uniquely American.
Josef Korbel was born Sept. 20, 1909, in the village of Kysperek, Bohemia, in the Czech Lands, an area bordered by Germany, Poland, Austria and Moravia. He was the youngest of three children. His father, Arnost, was successful enough in business to create a life Albright calls “relatively well-to-do within that framework.”
In 1928, Korbel and his parents moved to Prague, where Arnost owned and ran a large building materials company.
Ambitious and smart, Korbel went on to attend the Sorbonne and studied law at Charles University in Prague. He obtained his degree in 1933, entered the Czechoslovak Foreign Service in 1934 and married his high school sweetheart, Mandula Spieglova, in 1935.
In September 1938, France, Britain and Italy authorized Nazi Germany to annex the Sudetenland, a portion of western Czechoslovakia occupied primarily by ethnic Germans. Korbel was serving as a press attaché in Yugoslavia at the time; he was recalled to Prague just months before Nazis seized control of the city in early 1939.
By most accounts, Josef, Mandula and 2-year-old Madeleine’s escape to London — complete with fleeting stays at friends’ apartments, a lifetime of belongings packed in suitcases and doomed family members, including Korbel’s parents and mother-in-law, left behind — is the stuff of movies.
For the remainder of the war, Korbel worked with Czechoslovak president-in-exile Edvard Benes in London and supervised uncensored radio transmissions into German-occupied territories.
“He was one of the people who broadcast on BBC into Czechoslovakia during the war, kind of the way Voice of America does now,” Albright says.
When the war ended, Korbel returned to Czechoslovakia and reclaimed his role in diplomatic service, serving as chief of staff to foreign minister Jan Masaryk. Korbel was named Czechoslovak ambassador to Yugoslavia in 1945, the youngest person to assume such a position, and returned to a country he hadn’t seen since 1938.
At the end of his Belgrade assignment, Korbel was asked to represent Czechoslovakia on a United Nations commission studying the Indian-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir. Any joy he may have felt collapsed when the Communists seized power in Czechoslovakia in February 1948.
“He didn’t want to work for the Communists,” Albright says. “He was friends with the British and American ambassadors in Belgrade, and they said, ‘Take the assignment to get out, and we will then sort out what happens.’
“I was in school in Switzerland. My mother and brother and sister were pretending they were going to go back to Prague because you wouldn’t take your family with you on that kind of assignment. Instead, they went to England and I joined them. My father went to India and Pakistan. Then in November of ’48, in preparation for him to come to the United States, we came to the United States, and he came several weeks later.”
With that last passage, Korbel’s career as a European diplomat ended and his life as an immigrant, author and academician began.
An arrangement between the Rockefeller Foundation and Ben Cherrington — then director of DU’s Social Sciences Foundation — brought Korbel to the University for what was originally intended to be a one-year teaching appointment.
“The combination of scholarship and practical experience in the diplomacy of Central Europe endowed Dr. Korbel with knowledge and understanding possessed by very few American academic specialists,” Cherrington wrote in a personal reminiscence. Before the year was up, he had offered Korbel a permanent position.
The Korbels “presided over the simple cottage into which they moved with a graciousness befitting a luxurious embassy and made it a mecca where gaiety, kindness and intellectual stimulation were shared with students, faculty and townsfolk alike,” Cherrington recalled.
Korbel never spoke of his Jewish heritage or losing his parents to the Holocaust, but there was public and political chatter after Washington Post columnist Michael Dobbs broke the news in a 1997 story about then Secretary of State Albright.
“Czechoslovak Jews were very secular, in contrast to a lot of others, and my parents were both very — I don’t know how to call it — there’s a class in Europe called the intelligentsia,” Albright says. “I can try to visualize them living in Prague in the ’30s, very kind of art deco. My mother used to talk about them having an apartment that was all black-and-white. My mother used to talk about them being …”
Albright pauses, makes the universal quote sign with her hands, then speaks the words. “… very quote-unquote modern — and they were not religious … I don’t think they ever considered themselves as practicing Jews.”
Korbel, in fact, converted to Catholicism at a young age, and he and Mandula raised their children as such.
“We had Christmas and Easter,” Albright says. “Subsequently, I found out a lot of Czechoslovak secular Jews celebrated Christmas and Easter. I think [my parents] were very typical of the era and, I don’t know how to put this, kind of the social group they were a part of.”
Korbel’s heritage didn’t surprise longtime friend and colleague Arthur Gilbert, a professor in the Korbel School.
“People commented on it sometimes in ways which were extremely stupid and hurtful, but in actual fact I knew Joe Korbel from 1961 until he died. I never had a clue [and] I don’t find that to be particularly unusual,” Gilbert says. “When people came to the United States from Europe — and this was true in a million immigrant families — the idea was to start again and forget your past.
“The fact that the children did not know this was the way it was in many immigrant families. People went on because they were going to become Americans. Becoming Americans meant beginning a new life and a new life meant you put your old life behind you.”
According to Gilbert, the newly Americanized Korbel was fiercely loyal to his adopted country.
“It’s like [he had] two lives. He turned himself from an old-world diplomat into a ferocious American patriot. People forget that,” Gilbert says. “His love for the United States and what it represented was far more powerful because he was an immigrant.”
When American involvement in Vietnam sparked social and political upheaval, Korbel struggled.
“He carried very traditional views about how wonderful the United States was,” Gilbert says. “When we got into the war in Vietnam and it caused such conflict in the United States and the reasons why we were fighting were so highly questionable, it put him into a serious — I don’t know what to call it — psychological position. That was because the United States, which was his second home [and] had given him refuge, was now in a war which was truly catastrophic to this country and to Vietnam.”
To Gilbert’s recollection, Korbel felt more angst than many native-born Americans.
“His adopted country was under threat. That’s a very powerful thing,” Gilbert says. “When he came to me one time and told me we had to leave Vietnam, I could almost feel how difficult this was for him because the country he loved had gone into a situation that was so wrong.
“He was certainly not an early war protestor; that was not his role. His tendency was always to support the United States against communism.”
Welcome to Korbel Village
Korbel never returned to the international stage as a practicing diplomat, but he infused his vision of what diplomacy could and should be throughout DU.
“He was a strong believer in the value of interdisciplinary education. That’s the kind of school he set up,” says Tom Farer, current dean of the Korbel School. “He took the department of international relations and, in 1964, persuaded the trustees and the administration to turn it into a separate school like the business school or the law school.
“The Graduate School of International Studies was an interdisciplinary program focused on producing professionals who would work in institutions that worked across international frontiers.”
Korbel’s tendency to model old-style diplomatic civility also had a calming effect on his peers.
“Academics are always quarreling over one thing or another, but for Joe, overwhelming any differences we might have, was that we belonged in ‘Korbel Village,’” Gilbert says. “When he hired people like myself, the idea was we’d now entered a different world at the University of Denver. His job was not only to give us work, but to integrate us into this little community that he was setting up in Colorado. He was bound and determined that the lines between personal and professional would collapse and that we would be, in effect, people who lived in his village.”
Gilbert and other professors of the era love to share anecdotes about weekly get-togethers at the Korbel home, where professors, students and family talked about every conceivable issue.
Others, such as former student and current U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and former student and Korbel School colleague Professor Joseph Szyliowicz, revel in stories about Korbel’s skill in the classroom and his lasting influence on those who now set global policy.
“I took undergraduate courses from him shortly after he came [to DU]. It must have been about 1949 or ’50,” Szyliowicz recalls. “As an instructor, he was passionately devoted to teaching. [He was] someone who cared and who brought real-world experience in international affairs and international diplomacy to the classroom. He was very concerned with having students understand not only how foreign relations were conducted, but the values states should be pursuing.”
Szyliowicz joined DU’s faculty in 1965 and says there was surprisingly little difference between Korbel the professor and Korbel the boss.
“Dr. Korbel always treated his students with respect and affection, and he interacted with the faculty in very much the same way,” Szyliowicz says. “He felt very strongly about intellectual kinship. He also felt that the faculty should be a closely knit group that interacted not only on an intellectual level dealing with ideas and issues, but also socially. I think that the reason was that he thought that the more faculty came to know, trust and like each other, the more likely they would be able to engage in frank, honest, intellectual interchange.”
Despite his happiness at finding a new home, Korbel realized that politics had left him an exile as well as an immigrant, says Korbel School Professor Alan Gilbert. “He always felt that it was good for there to be places of exile where people in trouble could find a home.”
“When I interviewed here and got the job, Joe wasn’t there,” Gilbert says. “[But] when I came, he took me out to lunch. We had a talk about an article I had written about Marx that he liked very much. He welcomed me, then he looked at me and said, ‘You’re in exile, too.’
“I’d been a leader of the Vietnam anti-war movement at Harvard. This was not greeted with great friendliness by some of the people who ran the school,” Gilbert continues. “It has a lot of significance for me that he said that. He died two years after I came, and I will say, it was a great honor to be asked to teach with him. He was an amazingly thoughtful man.”