A series of eight programmes on public broadcaster Czech Television called Modrá Krev or Blue Blood is already around half way through. The series looks at the modern Czech aristocracy, in many cases families which have returned from exile during the Communist era, with each episode focusing on one particular noble family.
Many Czechs may be familiar with the names of those families since their palaces are often dotted around Prague and their country homes and castles remain landmarks across the country. We’re talking here about the Kolowrats, Czerníns, Schwarzenbergs, Sternbergs, Lobkowicz’s, Nostitz family, Colleredo-Mannsfelds and Kinský’s.
But while the stone and bricks and mortar monuments have been a constant often going back a thousand years, Czech noble families have had much more mixed fortunes over the last 100 years or so.
Tainted, rightly or wrongly, by the Habsburg Empire and its plethora of aristocratic rules and titles, the newly former Czechoslovakia banned the use of aristocratic titles in December 1918. There was a slight change later in which a fine was added to punish those who broke the law but also allowing the use of noble titles bestowed abroad.
And in September 1939 the Czech government of the Nazi dominated Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia actually allowed noble titles to be used again. The idea seems to be that Czech nobility could be encouraged to support the government, which walked a delicate line between obeying the Nazis and covertly opposing them.
But that’s getting ahead a bit too far. The changes and character of the new Czechoslovak republic affected more than just titles. A sweeping land reform sought to deal with the problem that around a third of all farmland was in the hands of noble families and the Catholic Church. The Agrarian Party, which represented rural interests and especially those of small landowners who benefited from the reforms, was a dominant party in the inter-war period and was often hostile to the nobility. In the public sphere, where they had often played a dominant role, the noble families were now often sidelined.
Noble families did get together to oppose land reform but the opposition split into nobles who felt more Czech or German. And the latter had a wider opposition to the new republic which was to resurface later.
But while mainly nobles had difficulty getting used to the republic, some whole heartedly supported it. One of these was Max Lobkowicz, he was one of the leading nobles who prepared and signed up to the declaration of nobles supporting the Czechoslovak government in the troubled years of 1938 and 1939. He later joined exiled president Edvard Beneš in London and from 1942 was Czechoslovak ambassador in London. Before and during the war, he used his connections with the British nobility to which his wife belonged, to support the Czechoslovak cause. He was labelled a traitor by the Nazis and all the family’s possessions were confiscated. They were partially returned after the war but confiscated by the Communists in 1948 after the family fled to the United States.
Some members of another noble family who prioritized their Czech roots were the Schwarzenbergs. Adolf Schwarzenberg, of the Krumlov branch of the family, notably gave the Czechoslovak state a million crowns to complete defences against Nazi Germany in 1937. When the Sudetenland was occupied, he refused to greet Adolf Hitler at the Krumlov castle. The Nazis confiscated all the family’s property and he was forced to flee.
But there was another side of the coin as well, Ulrich Kinský, was a fanatical support of the Sudeten German leader Konrad Heinlein. And he is credited with using his influence with the British nobility to swing them round to the opinion that the German speaking areas on the border be split from the rest of Czechoslovakia. Ulrich Kinský is even credited by some with helping to persuade Lord Runciman to lead his mission to Czechoslovakia in 1938, which eventually backed the cession of the Sudetenland to Germany.
One of those present at the unveiling of the tv series was former Czech foreign minister and presidential candidate, Karel Schwarzenberg. Born in 1937, towards the end of the First Republic, Schwarzenberg regards the Nazi dominated Protectorate, interim post-war democracy ahead of the 1948 Communist takeover and the Communist regime as difficult periods for the nobility. The 1940s are remembered as a whole as a dark episode.
“In the First Republic it was already very negative towards the Czech nobility.”
“In the 1940’s, yes. Because already, I mean, in the First Republic it was already very negative towards the Czech nobility. Then there were the Nazis too and the Communists especially. I remember in my childhood, it was not easy to be a child of such a family meeting other boys of his age.”
Indeed, even under the so-called democratic interim between the end of World War II and the February 1948 Communist takeover, a special law – the so-called Schwarzenberg law, Lex Schwarzenberg – was passed by parliament in 1947 to confiscate most of the family’s massive estates. There had been no question about the familiy’s anti-Nazi credential, it was simply felt that they were too rich and that the efficient operation of their farms, estates and factories was shaming some of the new state and collective enterprises. What remained, was later confiscated by the Communists and the family was forced to flee to Austria in December 1948.
But property confiscation was nothing new, it had happened under Karel V in the 16th century, during the Swedish invasion, under the Bavarian kings, under Napoleon, and under the Nazis. Karel Schwarzenberg agrees with most who reckon that those nobles who fled the Communist regime had it better than those who stayed behind.
“Those who stayed here, they found they were suddenly in the factory working. Or like prince Lobkowicz who worked on the roads in Plzeň. He used to say that his section of the road in Plzeň was the only one that was clear when there was ice and snow because he worked through the night. And he had enormous respect for that.”
That was Jaroslav Claude Lobkowicz who had earlier worked as a manager of the nationalized family estate and later after his job on the roads worked in a warehouse for a Plzeň state books company. He died in 1985.
“He used to say that his section of the road in Plzeň was the only one that was clear when there was ice and snow because he worked through the night.”
Similar fates were shared by others who stayed behind. Some of them were described in a 1966 film documentary Citizens with emblems which showed Theobald Czernin as a lorry driver and Zdeněk Sternberg as a stagehand at the Karlín musical theatre. The director was banned for several years from making more films by the Communist authorities because this was judged too provocative.
The latter day director of the Czech Television series, Alena Činčerová, should have no such worries. She explained why she had embarked on the series:
“One of the inspirations was František Kinský, a noble who guides us through all those noble families. He was for years a very good friend of mine and I was always very happy to listen to his stories and his talking about noble families and their history. And as I am a documentary maker, I decided that it was most likely not just interesting for me but should be interesting also for the tv viewers.”
And while the history of some of these great families is outlined, most of
the focus of the series is on how those families which stayed and saw
fortunes changed overnight in 1989 or returned afterwards from exile are
now faring and how they relate to other Czechs.
“Those were the families who stayed here, they are not bitter. They do not have any bad feelings.”
“The most surprising feeling for me is that even in those families where they were really very heavily persecuted during the Communistic times, those were the families who stayed here, they are not bitter. They do not have any bad feelings, they have a nice relationship with this country because they have had it for centuries.”
And the relationship from the bottom up?
“Until now I sometimes hear the voices of xenophobia. That’s another reason I made this series because I admire those people who came from abroad, from countries which were not their native countries. But they grew up there and started to speak other languages and then they are coming back to the Czech Republic. Even as adults, they have to learn the Czech language, which is one of the most difficult languages in the world. But the people here, some of the people here, I cannot say everybody, [say] they are foreigners and don’t speak proper Czech. So, I was trying to fight against this.”
And while many of the questions over the return of land and property have been resolved. There are still some outstanding cases involving noble families where that is not the case. For the Colloredo-Mansfelds, some of the Czech castles and estates were returned. But an exception was the Opočno stately home and the collection of works of art that went with it. That’s still the subject of a legal battle. Alena Činčerová has no doubts whose side she is on.
“That’s one of the last cases and I hope that justice will win, that means that it will be returned back to Christina Colleredo.”
But, its perhaps best to end with a comment from Karel Schwarzenberg, who sees the current Czech nobility as a lot more comfortable in their country although perhaps still not accepted 100 percent.
“Historical experience disappears with a generation, prejudice goes on for generations and generations.”
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