Constitutional Court decision rekindles restitution battle for Opocno Castle

Zámek Opočno

The Czech Constitutional Court this week overturned a regional court's decision to return the historic Opocno Castle in eastern Bohemia to the aristocratic family that had owned it for centuries. The ruling could call into question the restitution of historic properties worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Opocno Castle,  photo: CTK
RP: Brian Kenety has been following the case and joins me now in the studio. Brian, the battle for the restitution of the Opocno Castle was fought on the regional level for nearly a decade. In May 2003, the property was returned to Kristina Colloredo-Mansfeld, whose father was the last private owner of the Castle. On what legal grounds was the property returned?

Well, it's a very complex case, which hinges in large part on interpretations of the post-World War II decrees of Czechoslovak president Edvard Benes by which millions of ethnic Germans -- and others deemed disloyal to the state -- were stripped of their property and citizenship, and expelled from the country. The basic question was whether or not the former owner of Opocno Castle was a Nazi collaborator or even a Czechoslovak citizen.

But the Colloredo-Mansfeld restitution case is also is directly related to the seizure, or "nationalization," of property by the Communists, who took control of Czechoslovakia on February 25, 1948 - and that date is the cut-off point for restitution claims set by the Czechoslovak government which took office after the fall of communism in 1989.

This is an oversimplification, but basically, if you or your ancestors were stripped of property before the communist takeover, on the basis of the "Benes Decrees," there's no chance of getting it back from the Czech state now unless you can prove that the decrees were incorrectly applied, or your property seized by the Communists on ideological grounds.

RP: And in the case of the Colloredo-Mansfelds?

The Nazis deemed the family patriarch, Josef Colloredo-Mansfeld, an "enemy of the Third Reich" and seized his properties in 1942. He was a signatory to the pre-war "Declaration of the Czech Nobility," which pledged allegiance to the Czechoslovak nation and demanded that the Sudetenland — the border regions of Czechoslovakia — not be transferred to Germany. On that basis, he briefly regained control of the castle after the war, but it was then retaken on the basis of the Benes Decrees and nationalized in 1949.

Josef Colloredo-Mansfeld was suing the state for the return of his property, but after the Communist takeover, he fled to Canada with his family, later settling in Austria, and had little recourse to continue the legal battle across the Iron Curtain.

Opočno chateau | Photo: Pavla Horáková,  Radio Prague International
His daughter Kristina took up the case in the early '90s, arguing successfully — after a decade of legal wrangling — that the Benes Decrees didn't apply, as her father hadn't been disloyal to the state and was never stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship. The regional court decided in her favor in May 2003. The government argued that Josef wasn't a Czechoslovak citizen and was in fact a Nazi collaborator. The state built its case around a 1945 affidavit containing a sworn statement by admitting that he filled had applied for German citizenship in 1940. The original application, if it existed, has never been found.

The Constitutional Court ruling on Thursday, basically, could undermine claims for the return of properties to aristocratic families and others who can't definitively prove their wartime allegiance to the Czechoslovak state; the court is saying there's no way to breech the Benes Decrees; that the February 25, 1948 cut-off date for restitution claims stands rock solid.