Czechs and the aristocracy: a love-hate relationship

Court Ball at the Hofburg (1900) by Wilhelm Gause, photo: Public Domain

Czechs have always had somewhat contradictory feelings toward their nobility. One of the country’s leading aristocrats once even bitterly complained that Czechs are either louts or boot-lickers, nothing in between. One of the first laws of the newly independent Czechoslovakia, one hundred years ago, forbade the use of aristocratic titles. On the other hand, today Czechs have developed an avid interest in the lives of their dukes and counts.

Court Ball at the Hofburg  (1900) by Wilhelm Gause,  photo: Public Domain
It needs to be said at the outset, that the native Czech aristocracy was partially decimated in the 17th century. A rebellion of the Protestant noble families started the Thirty Years' War that would engulf the whole European continent. They failed miserably in the Battle on the White Mountain near Prague. All the property and land of the Czech rebels was confiscated by Emperor Ferdinand II and handed over to the loyal Catholic aristocratic families, many of them from Germany, Austria, and other foreign countries. So two centuries later many Czechs still considered all aristocrats with some degree of suspicion.

In the 19th century, nations all around Europe became romantically interested in their past and Czechs were no exception. The national revival movement was gaining strength. If you wanted to be considered a good Czech you would also speak Czech, read Czech newspapers and books. This even though until then nearly all educational institutions used German, as did the administration, most theaters, and businesses. This might have caused some degree of confusion: who is and who is not a patriot? And the aristocrats spoke mostly German.

Zdeněk Bezecný is a historian at the University of South Bohemia. As he explains, radical Czech writers and journalists started portraying all aristocrats as an unreliable, even treacherous class of society:

"This stereotype was openly expressed by the prominent writer Josef Holeček. His novels described somewhat idealized rural patriotic life in South Bohemia. He published a political pamphlet called The Czech Aristocracy. In it, he blames the aristocrats for every misfortune that had befallen the Czechs in the course of time. His conclusion: we do not really need a Czech nobility, we are an aristocratic nation ourselves. Why should we look for an idealized Czech speaking nobility? We don’t need it!“

Francesco Kinský dal Borgo and portrait of Wilhelm Kinsky,  photo: Martina Schneibergová
And then came World War I. members of the Czech national movement started openly campaigning for an independent state. When the bloodiest conflict that mankind had experienced ended in 1918, independent Czechoslovakia was born.

Soon after, the new political representation started discussing land reform. This popular if not populist measure would break up huge estates owned mainly by aristocratic families and the Catholic Church. It triggered new attacks on the aristocracy in the press, says Zdeněk Bezecný:

"Historical or rather pseudo-historical arguments were heard more and more often. The land reform was presented as a just retribution for the Battle of White Mountain and what happened afterward. It got a populist propaganda slogan: Czech land back into Czech hands! As if all the land to be redistributed was owned by foreign German aristocracy and would be given back to good Czech patriots. At the time the whole society believed this myth, a myth that was intentinally very simplified so that everybody understood it, no matter how uneducated they might be. The newly independent nation accepted this myth simply because it needed something to stand on.“

And, to add insult to injury, the Czechoslovak Parliament hastily passed a bill that banned the use of aristocratic titles such as count, or duke. One hundred years later, this ban is officially still in place.

But times, they are a changing. Perhaps it is some sort of nostalgia, romanticism or a need to find some stable connection with the past, but Czechs now seem to enjoy hearing about the life of their aristocratic families and in some way even admire members of the nobility. A number of TV documentaries on the lives of the nobiltiy have been made and were very well received, and every now and then you can find an interview with or a profile of a member of the nobiltiy. I happen to know one of them personally – Constantin Kinský, who was born in French exile. But now he divides his time between Prague and family estate in Žďár nad Sázavou:

Constantin Kinský,  photo: Vít Pohanka
I asked him if people sometimes call him Count Kinský, even though it is officially forbidden by law:

"I leave it up to them whether they call me ‚Count‘. But I can tell you one thing: I do believe that more people start using my title at times when they are unhappy with the policial situation. I really don’t know what to make of it …“

So is the number of people calling him „count“ Kinský going up or down?

„I am afraid the number of people addressing me thus is going up. But I would rather they called me ‚Constantin‘ or even ‚Kosťa‘, only if we had polite and reasonable politicians.“ (laughs)

He and his wife Marie have opened their reconstructed family estate to the public. They built an award-winning Museum of the New Generation, and every year they organize dance festivals. For their work, they received the highest honor of the Highlands Regional government – a Glass Medal. It looks that the Czechs have finally come to terms with their aristocrats, even if they still have a law banning to use their proper titles.