Barbara Coudenhove-Kalergi – never far from home

Barbara Coudenhove-Kalergi, photo: Dominik Jůn

Barbara Coudenhove-Kalergi was born in Prague in 1932. As a member of the German-speaking minority in Czechoslovakia, she and her family were forced to flee the country at the end of the Second World War. She later settled in Vienna, where she became a journalist and author – ever with an eye on events happening in her old homeland. I joined Barbara at her home in Vienna to discuss her life and work.

Barbara Coudenhove-Kalergi,  photo: Dominik Jůn
“When I was a child, there was a large German-speaking minority in Czechoslovakia. There were three million German-speakers in the country, mostly in the western part of the Czech lands. But there was also a minority within a minority, and that was the old Austrian aristocracy, who were not German nationalists. My father used to say that he was neither a Czech, nor a German, but rather that he was part of the ‘dinosaurs’ – a species of people, who do not exist anymore, whose patriotism was bound to the land and not to the language. So in his time – and we all lived in that sort of tradition – it was not important whether you spoke German or Czech. My father called himself ein Böhmerdeutscher-Zunge, a German-speaking Czech.

“Later on, you were either a German-speaker or a Czech, and you were either a German or a Czech nationalist. This was just part of history. And, of course, the German-speaking minority does not exist anymore. I think that some young Czechs are interested in the people who used to live with them, in places like Brno or in the Böhmerwald (Šumava). It is part of history, now, but I am old enough to have experienced it as a child.”

We’ll get back to your memories a little later on. But first I would like to ask you about the Coudenhove-Kalergi name. It is hyphenated, stemming from two noble families who married during the mid-19th century.

“The Kalergis came from Greece, and the Coudenhoves came from the Netherlands. My mother’s maiden name was Pálffy – they were Hungarians living in Slovakia. So this was a mixture, and in our family there was always an element of multiculturalism. My grandmother (Mitsuko Aoyama) was Japanese, so nationalism was something that was quite foreign to the traditions in our family.”

Your parents would have remembered the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and that pan-national body, which would be something like today’s European Union – a family of nations...

“For my father (Gerolf Coudenhove-Kalergi), that certainly was his world and his environment. And for him, the demise of the multicultural Austro-Hungarian Empire (in 1918) was a much more difficult and painful experience than 1945, when we had to leave the Czech lands and practically become beggars. That did not matter to him as much as the loss of his real homeland, which was this multicultural empire.”

You have memories as a child of being forced to leave Czechoslovakia after the end of the Second World War...

Adolf Hitler at Prague Castle,  photo: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-2004-1202-505,  Prag,  Burg,  Besuch Adolf Hitler / CC-BY-SA-3.0-de
“Yes, my parents used to say ‘well, we were here before Hitler, and we will be here after Hitler.’ But this was a tragic mistake. Many Nazi people who came with the German occupation to the Czech lands left in time. But people like us did not, because we thought that we lived here before and we’re going to live here after the demise of the Nazi Reich. But, of course, this was not so. I clearly remember one day – May 5th, 1945 – suddenly some people from the Národní výbor (National Committee) came to our house and said we had to leave the place immediately. And we were interned in a ‘vozovna’ – in the place where they kept the trams parked. We stayed there for three days, and a mob tried to burn it down. But fortunately it was built strong, so nothing happened. And three days later on 8th May, the Prague Uprising happened and the German soldiers left Prague, and we were allowed to go with them.

“I remember the image of that well. It was an endless and immense procession of people. We didn’t have any luggage, and marched westward on foot along Plzenská street in Prague. We marched for two days, until we reached the US army forces – when the war draw to a close, everybody hoped that it would be the Americans who entered Prague. But, as everybody knows, they came to a halt around the town of Rokycany. And the Red Army entered Prague first.

“We had already left by that time. We asked about what would happen to the people who had not left, and then the Czech officer who entered the location where we were imprisoned informed us that we would be under Czech jurisdiction. So my parents thought that it was perhaps best to leave. And that was a wise decision, because in the following days there was a sort of pogrom and many, many people lost their lives. That was until 194(6) when the regular deportation of German citizens began. We were part of the wild, unofficial exodus of Germans – or so-called Germans – from Prague.”

During the war, was it difficult being German and living among Czechs? Did you feel that they were not making eye contact? Did you feel that they suddenly hated you? Was there a way to distinguish yourself as being either pro or anti-Nazi in some way?

“Well of course it was the Czechs who suffered. And it was not without reason that this eruption of anger and revenge happened in 1945. They were unlawfully suppressed by the German army. I have a Czech friend, who is my age, and I returned to Prague as a journalist, and we often compared memories. And very often we looked at each other and said that we could have lived on differents planet even though we lived in the same city. It was two different worlds.

“I went to a German school, and I remember once in school some Nazi functionary came to us and said: ‘German children, you must always remember that you are in enemy country here.’ And I was shocked at that and came home and told it to my mother. And she said that this was nonsense, and that I was not in an enemy country, but that this was my home, and that I lived here...”

Expulsion of Sudeten Germans,  photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 183-W0911-501 / CC-BY-SA
Did your parents consider themselves Czechs as well?


But you did...

“No, no. We were not Czech.”

You were just born in the Czech lands.

“Our language was German, but the word Böhmen (Bohemia) does not exist in the Czech language. And it means the territory of what is now the Czech Republic, and what during the monarchy was the Kronland Böhmen. It had nothing to do with language, it was just a province. So in those days a long time ago, language didn’t matter very much. You felt a relationship or a love to that country, no matter whether you spoke German or Czech. But then of course it became all-important as to whether you were Czech or German. And then of course my father served in the First World War in the Austrian army. So Austria was more of a home to us, and that is why we went to Austria in 1945 and not to Germany. This was a sort of setting that has completely disappeared. It was already in the process of disappearing at the time of the Nazi occupation, when the great divide became Czech and German. Or Jew, of course, which was another distinction.”

And a few years later you presumably would have felt the irony that you would probably have had to leave Czechoslovakia anyway, because as a member of the nobility, the communists would have had little tolerance for you. And it wouldn’t have mattered on that front whether you were German or Czech...

“Yes, well, for instance the Schwarzenbergs (the House of Schwarzenberg is a Czech and German aristocratic family) considered that they were Czech patriots, which my father’s family was not. So when the Germans entered the Czech lands in 1939, even among the aristocracy there was a divide – are you Czech or are you German? And if you were German-speaking, then you were automatically a citizen of the Reich, unless you expressly opted for Czech nationality, which some families like the Schwarzenbergs did. But we did not. That divided even families themselves.

“I remember a relation of ours said to his son: ‘Another German word and I’ll hit you!’ And that boy was very astonished because his father told him that he was not to speak German anymore. So suddenly this national divide entered even families, and good friends were also suddenly on opposite sides.”

Karel Schwarzenberg,  photo: US Department of State,  Public Domain
You mentioned the Schwarzenbergs – you’ve been a friend of Karel Schwarzenberg, a fellow member of the pan-European nobility (and former Czech politician and presidential candidate) for many years. During the Cold War years, you both kept certain ties alive with Czechoslovakia. Can you describe this period?

“I later became a journalist. And, of course, Prague was always home to me. As soon as I could, I returned there. Especially as my mother came from Southern Bohemia, specifically the town of Březnice. I spent quite a lot of my childhood there. This was (always) a Czech-speaking area, and we played with the Czech children there. And this was always a sort of home to me. So, as soon as I could, I returned...”

Which year?

“That (visit) was during the 1970s.”

During the communist times.

“Yes, during the communist times. And when I was a television reporter we did quite a lot of stories about Czechoslovakia.”

You worked as a correspondent for Austrian television and radio...

“We couldn’t have actual correspondents at Austrian television and radio in Czechoslovakia. But I travelled there with a visa. 1968 – that was the year of the Prague Spring – and this was a great experience, and I had many friends there. When the Warsaw Pact troops entered Czechoslovakia in August of that year I wanted to return, but I was banned and was unable to get another visa for many years.

“But in the late 1980s I suddenly got a visa again, and we made (a documentary film for ORF called Böhmen im Herbst, or Bohemia in the Autumn) which the authorities didn’t like. And also an interview with Václav Havel. So I was banned again, but after 1989 Austrian television and radio immediately opened a bureau in Czechoslovakia and sent me there. From 1990 onwards I was a sort of official correspondent in Prague. I remember thinking about whether I should return there, and it was quite difficult to open a bureau during this time of transition. Finding a locality and so on wasn’t easy. But I knew I wanted to go back and see the place – after all it was my home.

“I remember thinking that perhaps I would get an apartment, and spend a part of my time living in Prague, and part of my time in Vienna. And then I remember – this was before the Czech Republic entered the European Union – there was a party in Prague, with politicians and journalists and all sorts of people in attendance. And they said: ‘Ah, well, when we enter the European Union, everybody will be able to come and settle here.’ I remember thinking: ‘Well, I am not anyone. I was born here. This is my city. I want to return. I am not somebody from England or France or Germany.’

Prague Castle guard,  photo: Kristýna Maková
“I sort of realised that you cannot turn back the wheels of history. You cannot start back from where you once left. You cannot go back to the past. I was there on a job, and could come as a visitor, but I realised it was not possible to really return – what Karel Schwarzenberg, and many others did. But for me it was impossible to return and live there.”

Tell me about your friendship with Karel Schwarzenberg.

“I used to know him as a young man in Vienna. And he was then called on to help the Helsinki Committee. I liked what he did – looking after dissidents. And then I saw him occasionally in Prague when I worked as a correspondent there. I remember there was an occasion when Václav Havel introduced the guard at Prague Castle. They had new uniforms, designed by some Czech Hollywood designer. Very colourful blue, white and red uniforms. And Karel Schwarzenberg came over and said: ‘Did you see anything familiar in those uniforms?’

“And I said: ‘No, not that I know of.’

“And he said: ‘Look at their belts.’

“The belts were in the Schwarzenberg colours, with blue and white squares. These were part of the old Schwarzenberg guard in Krumlov. And there was some old merchant in Vienna, who manufactured these belts for the Krumlov guard. They took those designs for the president’s guard. And I think that to this day the guards at Prague Castle go about with these Schwarzenberg belts on their uniforms.”

And in 2001, you were awarded the Order of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk for your service in support of human rights and democracy in the Czech Republic.

“Yes, and of course it was a great honour, and I was very happy to receive this award from Václav Havel. I thought – and also said at the time – that it was a bit of a tribute to the people who were thrown out of Czechoslovakia, but still kept their friendship and ties with the old country. And I also thought that this was a tribute to the many innocent people who were either killed or deported. As far as I know Václav Havel was the sole (high Czech official) to apologise for this. Nobody else apologised. But he did, and I thought that this award was a bit of – not an apology, but a gesture towards those whom I think were unlawfully deported or thrown out of the country.”

And you have also spent some of your career as a writer, including pondering a number of Czech issues. You’ve looked into the Beneš decrees; you’ve looked into the Czech aristocracy, so are you a kind of outside observer of the Czech people?

Václav Havel,  photo: Filip Jandourek
“Of course I read the papers and observe what is happening. I still have some friends there like (former dissident and sociologist) Jiřina Šiklová, for example. But my main interest is now centred on other issues. I am working with refugees. I was a child of refugees myself, and so I have a special interest in that issue. And this is now my main interest – working with refugees coming here from Syria or Afghanistan or wherever.”

And you also continue to articles for the Austrian press..

“I write a column for a daily newspaper, Der Standard.”

Having lived now most of your life in Austria, but also having Czech roots, how do you compare Austrians and Czechs, if such a thing is possible?

“I think they are very similar. Especially the Viennese. If you look at film pictures of Viennese and Prague street scenes, you can see it is the same sort of people. They also have a similar character. They have a similar sense of humour, and they also have some less engaging qualities in common. At the beginning of the 20th century you had a large migration of Czechs to Austria, especially Vienna. If you look in the Vienna telephone book you will find many Czech names.”

Plenty of Novák’s...

“Yes, and at one point Vienna was the biggest Czech city after Prague. Many people in Austria, especially Vienna, have Czech roots, but which they have largely forgotten. We once made a film about Vienna as a melting pot where many nationalities converge, and it was easy to find people of Polish or Hungarian or Italian descent. And there were many people who said that their grandmother spoke Czech, but that they themselves did not speak a word. So I think that Czechs have assimilated very quickly and have – unlike other nations – not remembered their roots very well. It was a little different with the people who came after 1968, as they had more pride in their origins, than the people who came as mainly servants and workers at the start of the 19th century.”