‘Freedom had no greater champion’

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Presidents and dignitaries gathered in Washington on Wednesday to remember Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as US secretary of state, while drawing upon her life’s work to warn of the increasing precariousness of freedom and democracy.

Family members and colleagues of Albright shared loving and affectionate memories of her during the funeral service at Washington National Cathedral, while US leaders reflected on her legacy.

“Freedom endures against all odds in the face of every aggressor because there are always those who will fight for that freedom,” US president Joe Biden said in his eulogy of Albright, who died of cancer last month at the age of 84. the 20th and 21st century, freedom had no greater champion than Madeleine Korbel Albright.”

Related: Madeleine Albright obituary

Russia’s war in Ukraine hung heavily over the service, as those who eulogized Albright remembered her denunciation of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion during her final days.

In her last opinion piece, for the New York Times, which was published just weeks before her death, Albright wrote: “Ukraine is entitled to its sovereignty, no matter who its neighbors happen to be. In the modern era, great countries accept that, and so must Mr. Putin.”

For Albright, the right of a country to determine its own destiny was personal. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1937, Albright’s family fled the country in the face of the Nazi occupation.

After enduring the Blitz bombing in London, Albright’s family returned to Czechoslovakia once second world war ended, only to be driven out again amid the rise of communism. Her family then emigrated to the United States aboard a ship called the SS America.

Former US president Bill Clinton, who nominated Albright first as US ambassador to the United Nations and then as secretary of state, noted on Wednesday at the funeral that her life was “sort of a microcosm of the late 20th century in Europe and the United States “.

“Today we see in Ukraine all too tragically what Madeleine always knew – that the advance of freedom is neither inevitable or permanent. And that in politics, where the lure of power is strong and the temptation to abuse it is often irresistible, there are no permanent victories or defeats,” Clinton said.

Albright’s funeral service came two months after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, and the war is now poised to enter a new, potentially more dangerous phase. A series of explosions in the country of Moldova has raised the threat of a larger regional conflict in eastern Europe.

Multiple speakers at the Wednesday’s service, which was attended by more than 1,400 people, referenced Albright’s 2018 book on fascism as they addressed the devastation in Ukraine. In her book Fascism: A Warning, Albright sounded the alarm about the rise of autocratic leaders and the need to protect democratic governments.

“She knew better than most – and she warned us in her book on fascism – that yes, it can happen here. And time and courage are of the essence,” said Hillary Clinton, who followed in Albright’s footsteps to become secretary of state, in the Obama administration.

“If Madeleine were here with us today, she would also remind us this must be a season of action,” Clinton added.

While the US and its allies work frantically to help fend off Russian attacks, Biden took a moment to commend Albright’s commitment to the US-led Nato military alliance, saying she had played a key role in ensuring the partnership remained “strong and galvanized, as it is today”.

The president said he learned of Albright’s death as he traveled to the Belgian capital Brussels last month to meet with European leaders and discuss their ongoing aid to Ukraine.

When he delivered remarks in the Polish capital of Warsaw, days later, there was a “deafening cheer” at the mention of Albright’s name, Biden said.

“Her name is still synonymous with America as a force for good in the world,” Biden said on Wednesday. “She always had a knack for explaining to the American people why it mattered to them that people everywhere in the world were struggling to breathe free.”

As the world now braces for a potentially lengthy and even bloodier war in Ukraine, Biden is counting on that message of shared democratic values ​​to resonate with the American people.

Reflecting upon the loss of his former adviser and longtime friend, Bill Clinton lamented that Albright was not here to continue preaching the importance of freedom across the globe.

Clinton said he last spoke to Albright two weeks before she died. Brushing aside questions about her failing health, Albright instead wanted to talk about building a better future for the next generation.

“What kind of world are we going to leave to our grandchildren? That question’s kind of up in the air. But not because of Madeleine Albright,” Bill Clinton said, adding: “We love you, Madeleine. We miss you, but I pray to God we never stop hearing you. Just sit on our shoulder and nag us to death until we do the right thing.”

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