Thursday, February 22, 2024

Karel Schwarzenberg, a Czech prince who twice served as his country’s foreign minister, played a key role in the Velvet Revolution and quietly subverted aristocratic expectations, died shortly after midnight on Nov. 12 in a Vienna hospital. He was 85.

His death was confirmed by the Czech Foreign Ministry and by his daughter, Lila.

As foreign minister from 2007 to 2009 and from 2010 to 2013, Mr. Schwarzenberg was a committed Atlanticist and European, who opposed Russian imperial ambitions. Before his posts in government, as a supporter of his country’s dissidents against the then-Communist regime, he dedicated an ancestral castle in Germany and his own money to the cause. He later became chancellor under his friend Vaclav Havel when the latter was elected president.

But it was the pipe-smoking, mustachioed Mr. Schwarzenberg’s understated revolt against his aristocratic heritage, one of the grandest in Europe, that captivated and endeared him to the Czech public, leading him to run for the presidency in 2013. His official campaign poster was punk-inspired and showed him sporting a pink mohawk.

His full name and title was Karel Johannes Nepomuk Joseph Norbert Friedrich Antonius Wratislaw Mena Fürst zu Schwarzenberg, and his lineage, going back to the 15th century and even before, included barons, counts, princes and field marshals, and at least one cardinal and bishop.

For centuries their holdings included resplendent castles all over Bohemia, Austria and Germany, including the Palais Schwarzenberg in Vienna. Some are still in the family. “Metternich’s gift in the 18th century,” Mr. Schwarzenberg said to his daughter, Lila Schwarzenberg, in a long hall of rifles at the ancestral castle of Orlik, in a poignant 2022 film she made about him. “And that, that was a gift from Napoleon,” he said casually.

At the age of 75 though, when the Czech artist David Cerny suggested using a Sex Pistols album cover as a model in Mr. Schwarzenberg’s presidential campaign, the prince turned politician jumped. “Yes, it’s fantastic,” he said. “Sex Pistols, I love it,” Mr. Cerny recalled in a phone interview from Prague. “He was super aristocratic, but he was pretty, pretty punk,” the artist recalled.

He spoke the archaic Czech of his ancestors and wore a T-shirt paying tribute to the modern underground poet Ivan “Magor” Jirous. Czech critics called him a dilettante, but polls showed he had high public trust and was considered above pervasive political corruption. Mr. Schwarzenberg turned his habit of dozing off during politicians’ speeches to his advantage; a campaign billboard read: “I fall asleep when others talk nonsense.”

The punk gambit almost worked. Mr. Schwarzenberg made it to the runoff, but he lost to the populist Russia-friendly Milos Zeman, who had strong rural support. Mr. Schwarzenberg remained in public life as a member of the Czech Chamber of Deputies and leader of the conservative TOP 09 party, which he helped found.

It was as foreign minister that he made his greatest mark.

“He was like a character out of a history book, or a storybook,” Norman L. Eisen, who was the U.S. ambassador to Prague from 2011 to 2014, said in a telephone interview. “He had an utter disregard for convention, despite being the scion of the European noble families that invented so many of those conventions,” Mr. Eisen said. “Courtly, like a gentleman, but also earthy.” Mr. Eisen once invited Mr. Schwarzenberg to a Shabbat at the embassy residence, and he recalled that the princely minister responded with glee: “Oh goody, I haven’t had a Shabbat dinner in years,” he said.

Mr. Eisen recalled shopping at Brooks Brothers with Mr. Schwarzenberg for his ubiquitous bow ties, on a trip to the United States.

“He had a clear and realistic picture of what international relations were about,” said his deputy at the foreign ministry, Jiri Schneider, in a telephone interview. “It was a mix of recognizing realities and a clear vocation to fulfill some values.”

Mr. Schwarzenberg proved to be particularly valuable to Czech governments, and especially Mr. Havel’s, because of his extensive connections across Europe. “He put at the disposal of the nation his vast network of contacts,” said Michael Zantovsky, Mr. Havel’s former press secretary, in a phone interview. “He was our visiting card to courts and governments.”

Mr. Schwarzenberg was born on Dec. 10, 1937, in Prague to Karl VI, Prince of Schwarzenberg and Antonia Princess zu Fürstenberg. After the full German invasion in 1939, the family, which opposed the Nazis, retreated to the countryside. They fled again after the Communist takeover in 1948, to exile in Austria, and their vast estates were expropriated. Mr. Schwarzenberg studied forestry in Munich and law in Vienna, before taking over the family holdings in Austria and Germany in the 1960s.

His heart was elsewhere though, as he makes clear to his daughter in the film she made about him. Through political friendships in Vienna, in the 1980s he became chairman of the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, which battled Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. He was part of the resistance to the Communist government in his homeland, donating his castle in Scheinfeld, Bavaria, to be used as a center for smuggling computers and copy machines into Czechoslovakia, and smuggling dissident writings out, including Mr. Havel’s.

When Mr. Havel appointed him chancellor after he became president of Czechoslovakia in 1989, “it was the happiest day of my life,” he told his daughter.

Mr. Schwarzenberg was a man of contradictions that he bridged with self-deprecating humor, those who knew him said. “Almost everything he was, he also was not,” his daughter said in a telephone interview. “He was very, very conservative but unbelievably open-minded. He was very Catholic, but he lived a life that wasn’t necessarily very Catholic,” she said.

Mr. Havel once said of him: “He is an extraordinary Czech, an extraordinary European and an extraordinary human being who, although forced to spend most of his life outside his homeland, has always remained a patriot. Although he was born an aristocrat, he is a convinced democrat and fighter for human rights.”

Several days before he died he defied his doctors, smoking a last, forbidden pipe and drinking a glass of wine, “a first-rate vintage,” Mr. Zantovsky, the former press secretary, said.

Besides his daughter, Lila, Mr. Schwarzenberg is survived by his wife, Dr. Therese Schwarzenberg; his son Johannes, and a stepson, Karl Philipp Prinzhorn.

Barbora Petrova contributed reporting from Prague.

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