Franz-Ulrich Kinsky - the aristocrat suing the Czech Republic for over a billion dollars in property

Franz-Ulrich Kinsky, photo: CTK

The Kinskys are one of the oldest Czech noble families, with the first recorded mention of their name in the 13th century. But today Franz-Ulrich Kinsky is a figure of controversy in the Czech Republic, where he has filed over 150 lawsuits against the state and individuals; he is seeking the return of more than 1.4 billion dollars worth of property he says was illegally confiscated after World War II.

Franz-Ulrich Kinsky,  photo: CTK
I travelled to Vienna's Kinsky Palace to meet Franz-Ulrich Kinsky, who was born in this very building. Over lunch at the Palace's expensive restaurant, he tells me the confiscated property legally belonged to him as a child.

"My great-grandfather established a sort of a trust, let's call it a trust in today's terms, which was to end on the fourth inheritance. I was the fourth generation. With me the property became free - I could sell them and do whatever.

"My father died in 1938. Inheritance proceedings were started and concluded in two different countries. One was Bohemia-Moravia, the other was, you know, the German Reich."

However, today's Czech courts have so far refused to accept that Franz-Ulrich Kinsky - who chooses not to use his title 'prince' - is the rightful owner of the extremely valuable property.

The family's assets were seized under the post-war Benes decrees, which sanctioned the expulsion of Czechoslovak's German minority. The contention is that his branch of the Kinsky family, who were German-speaking, had German nationality by the time of the war.

"Never. There is an old saying in the family: Bohemia, which is Czech, is our motherland and Austria was our country. The administration in those times was for many centuries in Vienna. My grandfather - who was the manager of the royal, or imperial, carriages, horses and so on - had to live here."

There are some branches of the Kinsky family who took a different line, so to speak, and pledged allegiance to Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. And there are Kinskys today who say that you are actually not a Czech but a German.

"I don't know on what he bases the fact that I'm a German. I was never a German, Kinsky's not a German name. It's a very old Czech Bohemian name."

But some Czech historians contend that not only was Franz-Ulrich's father Ulrich Ferdinand German, he was an active Nazi in the Sudeten area later annexed by Adolf Hitler.

Mr Kinsky denies this but says his father, based in the border town of Ceske Kamenice, did support the Sudeten Germans - because he had always been on the side of the oppressed.

"My father did in fact have great means to defend minorities. He defended the Jews. He defended the German-speaking part of the population from Ceske Kamenice, and he was a good friend of Henlein.

"But Henlein in those days was not a war criminal and was not a traitor - he was the head of the second largest party in the country."

But he was on his way to being a war criminal and a traitor.

"That could be, but by the time he became such my father had died.

"My father to my knowledge, and I have asked the German archives to give me a...reason, they have confirmed that he was never a member of the party or any Nazi organization as has been reported..."

Was it the case do you know that he personally welcomed Hitler to Ceske Kamenice?

"...I have no news of that, no. I know that he never met Hitler, he never knew Hitler. And I would assume if that if he knew Hitler, when Hitler came to Ceske Kamenice Hitler would have received him or said hello to him in some way or another, because he was an important person there."

Franz-Ulrich Kinsky even suggests his father's sudden death in Vienna's famous Hotel Bristol was the result of a Nazi plot. Either way, he himself left the city at the age of three for Argentina, where he has spent most of his life.

In recent years Mr Kinsky has begun trying to win back the confiscated property. A few initial judgements in 2003 were in his favour, but since then all rulings have gone against him.

He says the Czech courts - under pressure from politicians - are biased against him.

"Let me say that the chances would be 100 percent if the judicial system were free. We have collected proof of several judges who have pre-conceived ideas. In the old representation of justice, justice was blind, only to listen to arguments and decide who is right and who is wrong. And I hope this will be the case."

Mr Kinsky - who sports distinctive white mutton-chop sideburns - is now approaching 70 years of age. I asked him if he found his ongoing legal battles draining.

"It drains a lot of my energy. I would say it drains a lot of my capital, it drains a lot of my physical and mental energy. I think about it all the time. We're a small group of people, we don't work with a thousand lawyers. I will continue as long as I can.

"Maybe one day I'll get old. And I'm sure that whoever is on the other side knows that as well and is probably counting on it. My response is don't count on it too soon (laughs)."

Kinsky Palace on Old Town Square
So do you think you'll ever be living in the Kinsky Palac on [Prague's] Old Town Square?

"That's a joke, that's a joke. I was asked that two or three years ago: where would you live if you were given back your property? Well, probably Prague, because Prague is central. Would you like to live in the Palais Kinsky? I said why not, it's a good address.

"But the times of living in palaces are gone. If I have can I'll have a little apartment - two, three rooms, and the rest will continue to be the National Gallery. Which is how it should be."

Will that ever day ever come? Mr Kinsky's next step will be to take some of his cases to the Czech Constitutional Court. He is also looking into the possibility of seeking justice in courts outside the Czech Republic.

Either way, one of the most complex legal battles in recent Czech history looks like continuing for some time yet.