Karel Schwarzenberg, Czech diplomat, 1937-2023

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Karel Schwarzenberg, a scion of one of the great princely houses of Europe, dedicated his life to humanitarian values. In a career of public service he sought, by personal example, to show how the dark history of 20th-century central Europe could be escaped with compromise and honour.

Schwarzenberg, who died aged 85 in Vienna on Sunday, was twice foreign minister of the post-cold war Czech Republic and one of former president Václav Havel’s closest advisers. He considered himself a Bohemian before all else, despite his German lineage. 

He was born in Prague in December 1937, just months before the Nazi dismemberment of Czechoslovakia began. 

The Schwarzenbergs, courtiers of the Habsburg monarchs for centuries, had many of their sprawling estates confiscated by the new Nazi regime. Karel nevertheless still enjoyed a boyhood of great privilege, spending his early life at castle Orlik, ancestral home to his branch of the family, on a crag high above the Vltava river. 

In 1941, Reinhard Heydrich, the “butcher of Prague”, expelled the Schwarzenbergs from Orlik. Karel later recalled the change in his father, who had been an antisemite, but who began to correspond with Friedrich Torberg — the author who chronicled lost Viennese Jewish life — about Nazism’s horrors.

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The war ended, but any hope of returning to Orlik was dashed by the Soviet-backed coup in Czechoslovakia. The family fled to Austria where Schwarzenberg’s father took a job as a librarian near Salzburg.

Schwarzenberg, centre, with Václav Havel, left, in Prague in 2007. Schwarzenberg said that as Havel’s chief of staff, he was ‘the grumpy looking man always in the background’
Schwarzenberg, centre, with Václav Havel, left, in Prague in 2007. Schwarzenberg said that as Havel’s chief of staff, he was ‘the grumpy looking man always in the background’ © Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Schwarzenberg was a self-confessed “terrible student”, but he decided early to pursue a political career. “After I experienced as a child how politics dealt with us, I became involved in politics,” he once told German newspaper FAZ.

He lived the life of a bon vivant in Vienna, where his natural charm and heritage eased his way into the city’s political scene. As the political oppression of the communist regime in Czechoslovakia intensified, however, he also began to play host to a growing circle of dissident intellectuals. 

In 1960, life changed when his distant cousin Heinrich adopted him, making him the heir to the Schwarzenberg family’s main line, and with it, an inheritance of properties and titles across Europe. Karel goes to rest as his serene highness, (twice) Prince Schwarzenberg, Count of Sulz, Princely Landgrave of Klettgau and Duke of Krumlov. Seven years later, he married Countess Therese Hardegg, a doctor, and they had three children.

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Despite his advantages, Schwarzenberg insisted that his interest was always in bridging political divides. He formed one of the most consequential friendships of his career with Austria’s now legendary socialist chancellor Bruno Kreisky. 

Kreisky, said Austro-Hungarian writer Paul Lendvai, “recognised early on the extraordinary personality behind the playful appearance” that Schwarzenberg presented. He nominated Schwarzenberg to become the international head of the Helsinki Foundation — the human rights network that campaigned across eastern Europe against Soviet oppression. 

It was through the foundation that Schwarzenberg in turn became friends with the dissident Czech writer Havel. The first time they met was in the noisiest bar in Prague they could find, so as to make life hard for the state security shadows following them. 

After the Berlin wall fell, Schwarzenberg was invited to Havel’s inauguration as the first president of the independent Czechoslovak Republic in Prague’s ancient castle.

He later joked about the dread he felt upon receiving his invitation to the ceremonial state dinner, where he knew the food would be dreadful. Nevertheless, it was an important meal. Schwarzenberg became Havel’s chief of staff: “The grumpy looking man always in the background” he said. 

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As foreign minister from 2007-2009 and 2010-2013, he sought to build bridges with western European capitals and Washington. In 2013, he narrowly lost the race to become president to pro-Russian former prime minister Miloš Zeman.

He was often jokingly referred to as Pan Kníže, Mr Prince, in reference to the air of rustic ordinariness he tried — and failed — to cultivate.

As he grew older, Schwarzenberg withdrew from the frontline of Czech politics, but remained vigorously engaged in related debates.

When Russia invaded Ukraine last year, he ordered the high walls of the Palais Schwarzenberg in Vienna to be painted in the colours of the Ukrainian flag. They form the entire backdrop to the capital’s Soviet war Memorial.

Source: https://www.ft.com/content/30ae490c-9cef-40ef-8e6d-16c3d15a8c6f