Mercedes Dietrichstein: There were no princesses in the Third Reich

Princess Mercedes Dietrichstein, photo: CTK

Princess Mercedes Dietrichstein comes from one of the richest and most powerful Moravian aristocratic families that, in the 16th century, settled in the town of Mikulov. Her family lived there until 1945 when the chateau was destroyed and the property confiscated. In this week's Special, Mercedes Dietrichstein talks to us about what it is like to be an aristocrat in the 20th century.

Princess Mercedes Dietrichstein,  photo: CTK
Mercedes Dietrichstein has a long pedigree with a noble bearing to go with it. She was born to a family of politicians, diplomats, army leaders and clerics who, for several centuries, served the rulers of Austria. Perhaps the best known of her ancestors Cardinal Franz Dietrichstein lived at the turn of 16th and 17 centuries. He was the bishop of Olomouc and the Governor of Moravia at the same time. But the 20th century was quite a different era for aristocrats, especially in Central Europe. In 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire broke up to pieces, and several countries were established in its place, including Czechoslovakia.

"For many people it was perhaps very sad because a very powerful empire came to en end which had been placed in the middle of Europe against the East; and Bohemia was a very important part of it. But it was over in November 1918. And, of course, for many it was a big change. They took away titles here as well as in Austria which was in fact much redder than Czechoslovakia. But my father was Czech since 1918, and it did not change his life very much. It was an era that finished. But you had your heart; you served a certain regime for many years. Not my father, he was very young, but my grandfather surely did and all of my ancestors."

Princess Maria Olga de las Mercedes, as her full name runs, was born in 1932 in Vienna where her family owned a palace. In winter, the family stayed in the Austrian capital and they spent their summers in the Baroque chateau in Mikulov. That's where Mercedes Dietrichstein first went to school.

Mikulov,  photo: Archive of Radio Prague
"When I went to Mikulov to the Volksschule, or the elementary school, our administrator took me there and said, 'this is the daughter of our Prince'. 'Oh, young lady, where would you like to sit?' 'There.' And they told a child to sit somewhere else and I sat there and everything was wonderful. Two years later, the man took me to the gymnasium, to the director, and he told him that I was the daughter or our Prince. 'There are no Princes in the Third Reich'."

The Dietrichsteins stayed in Mikulov until 1944. Mercedes' memories of the little town on the Moravian-Austrian border are somewhat overshadowed by the Nazis in power when she was growing up. At the very end of the war, on the day the Red Army was approaching Mikulov, the Chateau burnt to the bottom. The family stayed in Austria, and in 1949 left for Argentina where Mercedes' mother came from. Mercedes Dietrichstein decided to become a psychoanalyst, a profession she has had ever since.

She first revisited the country of her childhood in 1986, but this time did not make it to Mikulov yet. Her impressions of the visit to Prague, still under communist rule, were very bleak.

"Well it was very sad those days. It was winterish, you know how Prague was in those years. It was all dark and black, but I wanted to see it. In Prague, in my hotel, I opened the fridge and there was a bottle of wine with my crest. That shocked me a lot. The first visit to Mikulov after almost sixty years had to wait until the communist regime in Czechoslovakia was gone. But then again, it was a visit to remember.

"Immediately after the Wall fell down, I had a lunch with a friend of mine at the Sacher in Vienna, and she said, we are going to Mikulov. I said, no, it hurts too much to go there, but said, we are going there today. So we came to the border, and I had no visa. She spoke Czech very well, and said, oh no, she is the daughter of the last Dietrichstein, she must see the people in the family crypt, we leave her passport here, let her in. And so we entered, and she went to the police station and said, we want immediately the mayor and the police boss to come here. They came, and they opened everything for us to see."

Mercedes Dietrichtein has filed a lawsuit against the Czech state to get back the former property of her family. She says her attitude to the people in Mikulov, and their attitude towards her, has changed a lot since she first came back.

"For many years I did not want to think about it because it hurt my parents a lot, they loved it. Don't forget that five hundred years is a long time. My grandmother never wanted to believe that it had burnt, and she died soon afterwards. They lived there for most of the year. I can't yet understand it very well, you see. It hurts me in a certain way, very much. But what can I do? I can only try and get it back. I think it is very unjust because there is no reason for it. Even in the Benes decrees there are exceptions for people who were not Nazis, who were persecuted by them. But I think that they don't even know about us in the town. That is what worries me a lot."

Mikulov Chateau,  photo: CzechTourism
In a world that is so different from the times when princes were riding in their carriages up the paved road to the Mikulov Chateau, a world that has often more respect for values quite alien to the aristocratic creeds, what does being an aristocrat mean today?

"Being an aristocrat is an obligation. Of course, before, you had all the power to use your obligations and to do things for the towns, for the people who worked for you, for culture, for painters, for anything. Now, I don't have that power but we try to continue in my family to take all the responsibility we can within our reach to help. I do it in Argentina, and I would do it here of course. That is an aristocrat with a title or without it."