Karel Jan Schwarzenberg: Noblesse oblige

Photo: Vojtěch Vlk

Born into a family of nobles, exiled from his native land, heir to fairy-tale wealth, chancellor to the president, and recipient of restituted property. Karel Schwarzenberg (66) now mainly tends to his legacy and speaks out on behalf of the Czech Republic as an EU candidate.

THE VICES IN MY LIFE haven’t changed. The older I get the more I smoke,” says Schwarzenberg as he begins his interview, interrupted by coughing. And then he lights up his pipe. This member of an old noble family has his office in Prague’s Břevnov section. With its ordinary furnishings, his office is far removed from the luxurious chambers in which he lived as a child up to the age of eleven, when he had to leave for Austria because of the communists. “It’s fascinating – my life changes completely every eleven years,” he says, pointing out another eleven-year cycle with a happy ending. In 1960 he was adopted by his uncle Jindřich, who made him the heir to vast properties in Austria and Germany. He welcomed the revolutionary year of 1989 in Czechoslovakia with enthusiasm. “I decided even the devil couldn’t keep me away from my home any longer!” He returned in majestic fashion – going straight to Prague Castle, where he applied for work as chancellor to President Václav Havel. “Our family always served the emperor. When the country calls, you have to help,” he says.
After he finished working for Havel, he began tending to his restituted property in Bohemia, including the Orlickočimelice estate, buildings in Karlov, Varvařov, Sedlec in Kutná Hora, and Nový Hraběšín, as well as forests and ponds. Repairing the landmarks devastated by the communists cost him no small amount of money and effort. “Now I’m mainly a maintenance man,” he says with a laugh. But he also had ambitions to become a professional politician. Last fall he ran for the Senate in the Strakonice region. Unsuccessfully. He was beaten by Pavel Rychetský, who is currently the chairman of the Constitutional Court.
He says that these days he travels between Vienna, Prague, Orlík, and Dřevíč, near Beroun, and lectures frequently at international conferences on politics and our future EU membership. “I try to convince EU countries that the Czech Republic will be a good, useful member,” he says. His work load is unbelievably heavy, and he admits that after a time he intends to slow down a bit and turn over the care of his Czech estates to his oldest descendant, his son Jan, who already takes care of foreign properties.

Three questions

You often commit yourself to civic initiatives. Why in your opinion are civic initiatives in this country less active and powerful than they are in the west?
There are several reasons. The fifty years under totalitarianism taught people to be dependent and assume the attitude of “the people above run everything, and there’s nothing I can do.” Even our politicians have failed over the last thirteen years to show us that it could be otherwise. Another reason is the chase after money, which keeps people from realizing that it’s important to work not only for oneself, but also for others. So rebuilding the civil society that functioned well here during the First Republic is terribly important.

You are at home in Austria, Germany, and Bohemia. What is the Czech Republic’s reputation in neighboring countries?
Unfortunately, our neighbors’ perception of us is a vestige of the past, connected with the expulsion of the ethnic Germans and the cruelty of present times. For example, when a citizen of Linz decides to visit Prague and crosses the border, what are his first impressions? Dozens of brothels lining the roads and hookers walking the streets. After a couple of kilometers he stops at a market with the most horrible junk in all of Europe. He walks around and discovers that his wallet is gone, so he quickly gets back in his car, unless it was stolen while he was away. Why is nothing being done about this? And I’m not even talking about people who try to do business here and have to wait forever for court decisions about even the smallest disputes. We have to realize that people from other countries aren’t stupid, and they pass their experiences on to others.

Can a person who has financial security for life still want anything?
I long to see the landmarks I inherited in a condition that makes them a pleasure to look at. I’d also like to live to see the day when I’m convinced that we chose the right way in forestry and pond management.






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