Descendant of Franz Ferdinand of Austria claims back Konopiste Castle

Konopiste Castle, photo: CzechTourism

Seventeen years after the fall of communism, there seems to be no end to court cases demanding the return of property confiscated in the last century. The latest high-profile case is different, in that it goes back not to the 1940s but as far back as 1921. The claimant, a descendant of an Austrian noble family, is asking for the return of one of the Czech Republic's best known castles, confiscated after the First World War. The argument she hopes will win the case for her is a remarkable love story.

Konopiste Castle, photo: CzechTourism
Konopiste Castle, just a half-an-hour's drive from Prague, is one of the most popular castles in the country. A large park and a collection of hunting trophies remind visitors of its onetime owner - heir to the Habsburg throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand d'Este, whose assassination sparked World War I. One of the wealthiest men in Austria, with the prospect of an imperial career, he was prepared to sacrifice a lot of the privileges for love.

In 1900, he married Countess Sophie Chotek, a member of the Bohemian gentry. The unequal social status of Sophie prevented the passage of his titles and privileges to the wife and children. Legally, the descendants of Franz Ferdinand were not Habsburgs, which exempted them from property confiscations in Austria after the end of WWI. But it was not the case in Czechoslovakia. Historian Jan Galandauer is an expert on the history of the House of Habsburg:

"The matter was discussed in parliament in Czechoslovakia and one MP, Theodor Bartosek, put forward a resolution that property confiscations should concern the children of Franz Ferdinand as well. Although it was legally questionable and there were voices against the proposal, in the general anti-Habsburg mood, the resolution was approved in 1921 and their property was confiscated."

Sophie von Hohenberg, the great-granddaughter of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, lives in Luxembourg. She argues that her ancestors were deprived of their property unjustly in 1921, saying she decided to file the lawsuit because she felt responsibility towards her late father. Historian Jan Galandauer says such a property return claim is unprecedented.

"This means going back to 1921 or to the Versailles Treaty. The line we drew is February 1948 and this would be a revision of confiscations connected with WWI. In my opinion, the confiscation was legally questionable, but after all those years - where would we draw the line? Like this we could go back to the property decrees of Emperor Joseph II in the 18th century."

Sophie von Hohenberg says she is prepared to take the matter to the Czech Constitutional Court. If she wins her case, she says she will move to the Czech Republic and plans to leave the castle open to the public, complete with all its collections.