Property Restitution

Stephen Weeks rights about two cases, The Lichtenstein and Shwarzenberg on his excellent article Waiting and Freezing

Waiting & freezing

Castle restitution drags on (and on) as two families fight for justice and their reputations

By Stephen Weeks, March 24, 2005


Among the raft of 60th anniversaries that 2005 brings, one of the most bizarre is that of the lawsuits brought by two families for the return of their estates, lawsuits that have their roots in the 1945 refusal by the Czechoslovak government to hand back (from confiscation by the Nazis) the estates of the main line of the Schwarzenberg family and those of the princes of Liechtenstein. The Schwarzenberg estates, which were mainly in south Bohemia, were centered on Cesky Krumlov and Hluboka castles (see www.restitution.cz); the Liechtenstein estates were in south Moravia, centered on Valtice and Lednice castles.

The Nazis had taken the Schwarzenberg estates because the family was fervently anti-Nazi. Opening the gardens of their palace in Vienna to Jews when they were forbidden to use public parks and refusing to entertain Hitler at Cesky Krumlov were only two of the misdemeanors that got Jindrich Schwarzenberg arrested by the Gestapo and incarcerated in concentration camps until the end of the war. The Liechtensteins likewise had refused to be intimidated by Hitler, and their tiny principality had been one of only two countries to refuse to recognize the 1938 Munich Agreement, which had meant the end of Czechoslovakia. Despite being surrounded by Nazi-overrun Europe, Liechtenstein maintained its neutrality while aiding Edvard Benes's government-in-exile in London.

Both families' roots were sunk deep in the history of the Czech lands, and they considered themselves first and foremost Czechs. But the communists had already taken hold of the country by mid-1945, despite the appearance of normality under a compromised (or maybe simply pragmatic) President Benes. No doubt Stalin had asked who the two biggest landowners in the country were and ordered the expropriation of their property. This illegality seemed modest when at the same time the wholesale confiscation of the Sudeten Germans' property — on a legalized basis — was under way; that property amounted to more than a third of the entire country's assets.

In fact, the government at first tried to use the Benes Decrees to take the Schwarzenberg estates — but it was very soon apparent that neither family was German nor Nazi sympathizers. In desperation, the government in 1947 passed a special law (the infamous Lex Schwarzenberg) that simply took the Schwarzenberg property with no excuse given. The legality of this step was highly questionable, but all these matters got swept under the carpet in 1948 when the communists took power openly — and could help themselves to anything they wanted.

To the dismay of both families, the situation hadn't changed by 1991, when property seized by the communists was to be given back. Guided tours at the castles still state that the rightful owners were Nazi collaborators or just Germans. Officially the state gave no reason for holding on, and it is by now clear that some misguided political thinking holds back these claims. Various European courts support the families — but maybe the government is afraid of popular opinion, perceived as set against old landowners after half a century of aggressive communist propaganda including weekly "fairy tales" on TV.

Currently, the castles struggle for their upkeep, underfunded by the state. The estates, should the lawsuits eventually be lost, would be sold off, probably ending up (unless they go to government cronies) in the hands of Austrian or German forestry concerns. The government doesn't seem to realize — or to look to examples in the rest of Europe — that these old landowners are the least-expensive option for historic buildings. They would be happy to spend all the income from the improved management of their estates in restoring and maintaining their castles — giving these buildings also a sense of pride and continuity, which would make them far more attractive to tourists. Also, these families have money to invest in the future of their estates and buildings. In any event, to separate the castles from their hereditary domains is no less than cultural vandalism.

Incredibly, there is still a valid law (from the First Republic) against "unjustified spending" — that is, if you spend on luxury living more than is "accepted." But who determines "accepted"? Maybe these large estates with their castles stuffed with all their centuries-old collections fall foul of this absurd notion, which could still see the state expropriate what it likes of your wealth. Huge castles are, in fact, more liabilities than fabulous assets. As for luxury living, most castle owners I know nearly freeze to death in winter and in summer suffer being overrun by eager visitors. They certainly don't have the "Beckham" lifestyle.

The government's attitude, from the legal standpoint, is that either these properties are the claimants' or they are not — 100 percent and that's it. Whenever the highest court does come to a final decision, it will be win or lose. But isn't there room for compromise? Both families would admit that conditions in 2005 are far different than those of 1945. In the rest of Europe, estates have had two or three generations of stiff taxes during that time, and now their size is more reasonable and more positively linked to historic houses with public access. Surely it is time the state started negotiations and offered reasonable restitution, perhaps linked to undertakings on the castles, rather than keeping alive two of Europe's longest-lasting — and discreditable — lawsuits.


Stephen Weeks is a writer and conservationist based in Prague. He can be reached at stephen.c@stles.org