In November 1989, after communism had been sent packing, the people of Czechoslovakia had to change attitudes overnight. All teachers of Russian were given the short Christmas break to convert to teaching English. For most of them, they would remain for some time only a very short head in front of their pupils. But in the ‘State Castles’ change happened more slowly – and in some cases, no change in attitude has been achieved at all in the past quarter of a century.
Even though the restitution of property acts came into force in 1992, many civil servants have actively conspired against the spirit of the laws, and have had a field day in tying-up restitution claims in bureaucratic red-tape. The National Heritage Institute (NPU) often dug its heels in, as its officers, who were very lowly paid, were jealous of foreigners turning up and being given back historic buildings.
Bribery and theft were also rife. Thousands of valuable antiques ‘disappeared’ in this process. In one case (still before the courts), the NPU was very unwilling to release a castle, at which a huge visitor tour ticket scam was an attractive addition to staff wages.
The idea that former aristocrats and foreign exiles – the heirs of the owners of its castles before the second world war – could get back iconic buildings was an anathema to these old Communist hacks. As late as 2008 the head of one of the districts of the NPU stated that “he’d rather see historic buildings be pulled down than fall into private hands”.
Winning restitution cases against the bureaucrats required good lawyers, connections, and patience. The return of the Lobkowicz Palace, part of Prague Castle, was once considered unthinkable. But the Lobkowiczs employed great legal skill in achieving this, and now it is the best museum and heritage attraction in the whole complex.
However, the restitution of the Kinsky Palace in Prague's Old Town Square was refused. This branch of the family had gone into exile to Argentina – where they had family connections – so it was easy for the state to drum up a story that they’d been hiding out as Nazis. Other famous Czech families – including the Schwarzenbergs and the Princes of Liechtenstein – were similarly accused wrongly of being German, and hence ineligible for restitution under the wartime decrees of president in exile Edvard Benes.
It has to be remembered that when Czechoslovakia emerged from communism at the end of 1989, its population had been subjected for 40 years to a barrage of negativity about its former aristocracy. Every year the TV Christmas special was a high-budget fairy story, always featuring an idiot king and his court of numbskull aristocrats as the butt of all the jokes. The hero was always a young village lad who would manage to convince the blonde princess that it was far more enjoyable to make soup (with him) in a grubby cottage kitchen than to live in style in the castle that towered above their mean hovel.
In the State Castles (the more than 100 castles which had been confiscated when the Communists came to power on 1948 and which were open to the public as museums, usually with most of their original furniture), guided tours repeated a litany of calumnies against the people who had built the buildings and their successors, calling them villains and accusing them of being German or Nazi-collaborators – thus legally justifying the expropriation of their property.
The gentry and the aristocracy were almost the most reviled class of citizens – second only to priests of any Christian denomination. As in all totalitarian regimes, hatred was the major stimulation of the people. Some members of the gentry who had foolishly remained in Czechoslovakia after February 1948 – perhaps disbelieving that Communism really would happen – were quickly rounded up and sent to work in the uranium mines for indefinite sentences (many dying of the after effects of radiation). Luckier ones only got sent to the coalmines – where they were referred to as the ‘black barons’.
Senior servants and estate managers also got the same treatment after they had stated, under interrogation, that working for the wicked aristocracy had actually been quite pleasant, well-rewarded and very beneficial to the communities on or near to the nobles’ large estates.
Families who escaped prison were publicly humiliated. At Pardubice, the owners of a manor with 100 acres of market gardens were moved from their manor house to live in one room in the village, sharing a lavatory with others but with the use of a tap in the corridor.
Sadly, the chance to deflate the nobility and gentry, stirred up by Soviet agitators, was a windfall that millons revelled in after the 1948 coup. Villagers at Loucen, about 40 miles from Prague, for example – who had enjoyed the munificence of the Thurn & Taxis family for 200 years – were marched to the castle where they looted the rooms, threw furniture and pictures out of the first-floor windows onto the terrace and burnt them.
In the currently restored Loucen Castle, apart from about a dozen pieces of furniture that were rescued by state conservators, only the family portraits survived as they were placed too high on the walls for the casual looter to seize.
In one of the castles of another branch of the Kinsky family, the family portraits were auctioned off for CZK5 or CZK10 (around €0.40 now) a piece (depending on size!). Many years later, one of the family tried to trace them. He even managed to find the man who had purchased them, all those years before. “I bought them frames for the glass,” he told the count, “my greenhouse needed fixing. The pictures I burnt.”
Fog of war
Apart from bureaucratic and legal obstruction, reinforced by lack of public and political support, restitution of castles has been so difficult because of the confusion of ownership during the wartime years.
The origins of the modern seizure of castles go back as far as the Nazi occupation of 1938-45. The nobility who had signed a declaration in 1937 stating their allegiance to the Czechoslovak state in the face of the impending Munich crisis had their castles confiscated by the Nazis in 1939. Those who managed to hold on to their property were accused of being collaborators in 1945, making their castles forfeit. Those owners who were Sudeten German had their castles permanently confiscated at the end of the war under the Benes decrees, unless they could prove they resisted the Nazi occupation. Many of these disputes were still being argued before courts when the tragedy of communism arrived only three years after the war’s end.
The eventual restitution laws of 40 years later would state that restitution would apply to those who were listed as owning property on February 15th 1948 – the date of the communist coup. This meant, of course, that restitution could be argued to exclude those whose names were not in the land registeries on that date as their disputes were still in court. It also excluded those Jews who had somehow managed to survive the camps and had returned to Czechoslovakia to find others occupying their property and quite shamelessly not giving it up.
In 1992 the possibility of restitution often came out of the blue for many families, now dispersed across the globe. Some had lost or even destroyed the confiscation documents or the long lists of furniture, paintings, porcelain, clocks, armour, family photographs, and tapestries. Those lists had represented a loss that seemed could never be recovered and was best forgotten.
Also, the succession of owners was not even that clear. In an active family estate, typically one person succeeds not just to the title, but to the lands and castles. Every landed family knows the necessity of keeping the family possessions intact for future generations. In Britain an estate can be ‘entailed’, making it impossible for a wayward heir to sell it. A similar system existed in the Austrian Empire, called a ‘Fideicommis’.
Some of these systems have been reawakened, but in other cases restitution eventually has fallen to a galaxy of cousins and distant cousins, all with carefully worked-out percentages of the properties involved. This multi-ownership caused by restitution has been impossible to resolve, since by law there has to be a consensus for any decisions. In the centre of Prague there are still several empty notable buildings with dangerous falling stucco where families just can’t agree to sell, to repair, or to let out the properties.
Also Czech citizenship had to be proved, in order to stop any ethnic Germans (who had largely been expelled in 1945-6) from getting anything back. But many families had dropped their Czech nationality in the interim, or had had their citizenship revoked as a punishment for fleeing the country. For some the issue of dual nationality also became an issue because Czech law required restituants to give up the joint nationality they’d shared with countries that had welcomed them in their exiles.
No compensation would be paid by the state for the wrecked condition of most of the buildings – so getting a lot of property back was a double-edged sword. Many manor houses had been deliberately debased by being turned into pig farms and the like.
A nobleman with whom I am acquainted got back a large apartment building in Prague with fifty flats, mostly let on old communist rents of about €15 a month. For the first 20 years of restitution these rents had to be maintained. My friend was often rung up at 2am or 3am in the night by a tenant complaining his tap needed fixing or some other trifling matter. The tenant just loved the idea of having a prince come round at his beck and call – and the more inconvenient the time, the better.
Restituants of castles were to face years of work either on the restitution of the buildings and the land underneath them (in separate registers), and in trying to trace the original contents, probably widely dispersed or ‘lost’, or in trying to put together a viable estate to make economic sense of it all. Only the resourceful and courageous ones managed to hang on.
Stephen Weeks is a Prague-based castle conservationist and author. This is the first of two articles on the restitution and resurrection of Czech castles.