Saturday, January 26, 2013


If you keep up with politics in Europe these days, you might have
noticed that one of the candidates for president of the Czech
Republic is Karel Schwarzenberg, currently the country’s foreign
minister. Mr. Schwarzenberg narrowly trailed frontrunner Milos
Zeman, a former leftist Czech prime minister, in the first round of
balloting. One of them will win the largely ceremonial post of
president in this weekend’s final election round, and it could be
Karel Schwarzenberg.

What makes this otherwise routine election so interesting is that Mr.
Schwarzenberg, who is 75 years old, was born a Czech prince, and
comes from a fabled, very rich, and powerful family. At the age of 12,
in 1948, he fled with his family from their palace in Prague. After the
Czech revolution in 1989, he returned to then-Czechoslovakia, became
a senator, and took an active role in Czech politics, culminating with his
being named foreign minister. A self-described conservative now, he has
been part of several local political parties, and is considered pro-European
Union in contrast to retiring conservative Czech President Vaclav Klaus,
a leading critic of the EU. (President Klaus, formerly the Czech prime
minister after Vaclav Havel, is one of the few great and truly conservative
figures remaining in Europe today. I briefly interviewed him recently in
Washington, DC after he spoke at the Cato Institute.)

Mr. Schwarzenberg. emerged as a serious contender late in the
current campaign, largely through a creative public relations effort
that has portrayed him with a Mohawk hairdo and a Punk Rock
image inspired by the Sex Pistols rock band. An elderly aristocrat
who speaks the elegant but archaic Czech he learned in his youth,
Mr. Schwarzenberg’s maverick and independent politics has enabled   
this otherwise incongruous image to be credible to many young
Czechs who now amazingly form his political base.

Mr. Schwarzenberg’s royal heritage has reminded me of an encounter
I had many years ago with another member of a Czech royal family
member prominent in that nation’s political history. From 1916-18,
Count Ottokar Czernin, heir to one of Bohemia’s noblest families, was
the influential foreign minister of the Austro-Hungarian empire
(Czechoslovakia was then part of that empire). Those were the last years
of World War I, and Czernin played a significant diplomatic role in that
period. He was an architect of the pivotal Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918,
in which the new revolutionry Russian Soviet government headed by Lenin
and Trotsky signed an armistice with the Central Powers of Germany,
Austria-Hungary, and their allies, and withdrew Russia from the war.
This treaty was a major coup for Czernin and his Central Power colleagues,
since it removed the Eastern front from the war. Russian Czar Nicholas II
(overthrown in 1917) had, in fact, precipitated World War I hostilities in
1914 when, then an ally of England, France and Serbia, he mobilized the
Russian army,  forcing Germany and Austria-Hungary on one side, and
England, France and Italy on the other side, to do the same. The whole
world has not been the same since.

Of course, the actual cause of the war had been the assassination of the
heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, at
Sarajevo in the Balkans, and a series of responses to it, including an
ultimatum to Serbia by Austria-Hungary a few weeks later (before
Czernin became foreign minister).

In 1966, when I was still a student, I began a year abroad, studying and
living in Madrid, Paris and London. In my Paris sojourn of that period, the
summer of 1967, I lived in a youth hostel in the Paris suburb of Clichy.
I had financed the trip with savings from my youthful stock investments,
and had learned (during my first visit to Europe in 1964) to use my
American stockbroker firm as a bank while traveling. That firm was
Bache & Company (now Prudential Bache), and it had a large office in
Paris that served primarily European clients (and also American clients
living in or traveling to Europe). I had invested on my own in stocks since
I was 14 years old in Erie, PA, and so keeping up with stock prices while
I was in Europe was important to me. (It was also a time before the internet,
and the broker's office teletype was the quickest way to get breaking news
in English in Paris.) 'On arriving in the French capital, I quickly found my
way to the Bache office. I was assigned to a broker who was an American
expatriate living in Versailles, and who was the grandson of the founder of
one of the early American automobile companies. He lived a very
fashionable life in Paris, and he soon invited me to a dinner party at his
home that was followed by an art auction at the  nearby Versailles
Palace featuring works of legendary European painters. I think the
broker had the mistaken impression that I was heir to a great U.S. fortune
because I knew so much about the stock market, used Bache as a bank,
and had recently attended the Wharton School in Philadelphia. (I was,
in fact, only a middle class kid who had been lucky in some of his early
and modest market speculations).

The evening was quite elegant, with important Parisian guests at the
dinner party followed by the exciting auction in the nearby
maginificent Versaillse Palace of Picassos, Braques, Derains, Klees,
Miros, Van Goghs, Matisses and many other masters (at incredible
bargain prices by today’s standards). The dinner guests that evening
included a French Bourbon duke living and working in Paris. Another
guest I was introduced to was a Mr. Czernin, himself also a broker
at the Paris office of Bache & Company. Mr. Czernin, a man then
in his sixties, spoke with an accent, and was very charming,  I made a
mental note to stop by his desk the next time I went to the brokerage office
in Paris.

Mr. Czernin’s name also struck a bell in my memory, but I could
not quite place it. A few days later, at the Bache office, I asked my
broker about Mr. Czernin, and he told me, “Oh, he’s some kind of
count. You should go talk to him.” I was quite a history buff even
then, and suddenly I realized why I had remembered the Czernin
name. Count Ottokar Czernin was the legendary foreign minister
of the Astro-Hungarian empire who had negotiated the historic
Treaty of Brest Litovsk at which Leon Trostsky, representing
Lenin and the fledgling Soviet regime in Russia, signed an armistice
with the Central powers and ended the war on the Russian front.
It turned out, of course, that Mr. Czernin was the son of Count
Czernin, and had grown up in the famed Czernin palaces and
estates in and near Prague at the turn of the century. Over the course
of the next several weeks, he told me fabulous stories, including his
account of his meeting, as a boy, Archduke Franz Ferdinand who had
come to hunt at the family estate with his father for a few days circa
1910. Just before I left Paris to return to the U.S., Mr. Czernin told
me he had something very special to show me which he had gotten
out of his vault. It was a very large photograph I had seen before
printed in a history book, a famous photo of all the participants at
the meeting in Brest-Litovsk. In the front row was Count Czernin,
Leon Trotsky,  and the German foreign minister. Behind them,
several other diplomats and legendary Central Powers generals and
figures. What made this photograph so extraordinary was not
only its large size, but that next to each face, in ink, was the
signature of all the participants! It took my breath away.

I don’t know if Mr. Czernin, his children or others in his family
went back to Czechoslovakia after 1989 to reclaim their family
palaces and hereditary estates, as Mr. Schwarzenberg did, but it
is fascinating to observe how so many exiled members of 19th
and early 20th century European royal and noble families are
reappearing in various roles in their native countries in the early
21st century. Only one of them, King Juan Carlos of Spain, has
actually been restored to the throne, but many others, two and
three generations from their families’ former glory and power,
are popping up in various contemporary European states.

Take the fascinating case of Simeon II, boy czar of Bulgaria (1943-46)
and later exiled to Madrid. Half a century later, in 2001, he returned
to Bulgaria not as a royal monarch, but as the democratically chosen
prime minister. He served in that post for four years.

Mr. Schwarzenberg, if he becomes the democratically-elected
president of the Czech Republic, would write a new chapter in
the extended and fateful royal history of that continent.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman.  All rights reserved.

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