“He was a rare person”: Karel Schwarzenberg recalled
Countless tributes have been paid to Karel Schwarzenberg, who died at the weekend at the age of 85. In the communist era the aristocrat supported dissidents in Czechoslovakia, before serving as President Václav Havel’s office chief after 1989. He was later active in politics and had two stints as Czech foreign minister. I discussed Karel Schwarzenberg with his friend Michael Žantovský, who was himself Havel’s spokesman in the early 1990s.
When did you two first meet?
“We first met before the Velvet Revolution, when Karel Schwarzenberg was president of the International Human Rights Federation and he attended some of the trials of dissidents in Czechoslovakia, in 1987 and 1988.
“I think we met at the trial of Ivan 'Magor' Jirous in Jihlava – and quickly became quite close.”
You worked with him later, when Václav Havel was president. I’ve been seeing a lot of photos from that time and from the pictures there seemed to be a lot of laughter around Karel Schwarzenberg.
“Oh yes. He was a very witty man and he could – which I think was a hallmark of the whole office, starting with the president – make fun of himself.
“So yes, it was a very dramatic time, but that didn’t prevent us from having fun.”
Otherwise how would you characterize him? What was he like at the personal level?
“He was a rare person. That’s the best word I can find for him. There are many qualities you find in individual people, but not too often all those qualities in one person.
“He was generous, he was very decent, he was a man with a huge knowledge of history, with a network of contacts all over Europe and with deeply ingrained humane values and principles.
“And beyond and above all that, he was a man of humour and self-deprecation. You rarely find that in one person.”
There have been many tributes to him and a lot of people have been expressing gratitude for how much he served this country. For you, what specifically did Karel Schwarzenberg do for Czechia?
“He did a lot. Especially in the beginning, because he was our calling card in many of the European capitals and many of the European royal courts.
“And in the beginning when nobody really knew who we were and where exactly the country was heading he was like a mark of quality to many people.
“That made the introductions and the first contacts and the first agreements much, much easier.”
I understand you spoke to him shortly before his death. What was his state of mind in the very last part of his life, do you know?
“I regularly visited him in the hospital, and he was in and out of hospital for the last three months or so. And at the end certainly he knew where it was headed and he was at peace with it.
“In many respects he was a very determined person and he had a few things he wanted to do, like see his granddaughters in Vienna that he doted on – and I think that was the main motivation for his transfer to Vienna last week.
“He met with them and he felt slightly better in the middle of the week, so he smoked a pipe of tobacco that he loved. And the next day he apparently had a glass of very good wine.
“The day after that he collapsed and never really recovered. So I think he checked off the last items in his diary – and then he went.”