Karl Schwarzenberg passes away
“An extraordinary European, an extraordinary man”
Hans Rauscher 16 November 2023

In memory of Karl Schwarzenberg, one of the founding members of Reset Dialogues on Civilizations, who passed away on November 11, 2023. 


In the summer of 2019, Karl Schwarzenberg said the following about Russia in an interview with the Standard on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe: “You must never, never, never give up hope. It will take a long time, but it will happen anyway. A civil society is developing. The Putin regime is firmly in the saddle and it will take a very long time, you can’t make hundreds of years of autocracy disappear. But there are already many Russians who study around the world, travel around, there is a middle class. They will change the country. It will take longer, it will be different from ours, but I’m not saying that Russia is doomed”.

Karl (Prince) Schwarzenberg, head of one of the most famous Austro-Bohemian noble families, political activist in Austria and party founder and foreign minister in the Czech Republic, never gave up hope.

Even at a time when no one dared to think that the iron-fisted communist dictatorship in Eastern Europe would simply collapse – “with a whimper, not a bang,” as the American saying goes.

When the time came in 1989, Schwarzenberg was there. Years earlier, from Austria, he intensely supported the persecuted and imprisoned Czech dissidents, especially the writer Vaclav Havel, against all probability that the communist system of oppression would ever be replaced by a democratic movement. In 1968, the then Soviet Union, together with its “socialist brother-states”, had crushed the so-called “Prague Spring” with tanks. But Schwarzenberg did not give up hope. His profound knowledge and awareness of history told him that no dictatorship would last forever. In 1984, at the suggestion of Bruno Kreisky, he took over the presidency of the Vienna-based Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, a non-governmental organization that, in the wake of the Helsinki Accords between the Western and Communist world, was dedicated to the enforcement of humanitarian rights, especially in the Eastern bloc.

On eye-opening trips, Schwarzenberg showed Austrian journalists and politicians the reality of a completely frozen, repressive and helpless regime, with whom officially Austria was still on “good terms”. Meetings with Vaclav Havel, who had just been released from prison and whose motto was “Live in Truth,” were unforgettable. But it also showed what was happening beneath the surface when a hotel porter asked an Austrian guest in an almost clichéd Bohemian manner: “Are you with His Lordship?”


Fall of 1989

In the fall of 1989, the miracle happened. With mass demonstrations of more than a million people, the Czechs and Slovaks brought the Communist regime to its knees. Schwarzenberg stood with Vaclav Havel on the balcony of Prague’s Wenceslas Square during the “Velvet Revolution” as the crowd chanted “Havel na Hrad!” or “Havel to the Castle!” – referring to the Hradcin, Prague’s historic government palace complex overlooking the city. When Havel was elected president by the new National Assembly, he appointed Schwarzenberg as his “chancellor” (chief of staff).

For several years, Schwarzenberg helped the poet-president manage the transition from one of the most repressive communist regimes to a democracy. In the following years, Schwarzenberg successfully ran for the Czech Senate, founded a liberal, civic party (“Top 09”), and twice became Czech foreign minister – from 2007 to 2009 and again from 2010 to 2013 (the Czech and Slovak republics had separated 1993). In 2013, he ran against Milos Zeman in the Czech presidential election and lost in the runoff with 45 percent of the vote. Some say that his differentiated view on the post-war treatment of the so-called Sudeten Germans in a TV debate with Zeman cost him the election. The “Prince” was certainly popular. Meanwhile, Schwarzenberg had Slavicized his first name to “Karel” and successfully lobbied for the partial restitution of the Schwarzenbergs’ former vast holdings in Bohemia. What remained was essentially the Orlik castle and reservoir in South Bohemia. Unlike other Bohemian aristocratic families, the Schwarzenbergs were eligible for partial restitution of property expropriated under communism by the new state. However, one branch of the family felt that Schwarzenberg had been too modest in its claims for restitution and took legal action.


Never an Austrian Citizen

Born in Prague in 1937, Karel Schwarzenberg was always a Czech citizen (and also a Swiss citizen by virtue of an old sovereign right). Although he inherited and managed a very large estate, especially in Styria and Vienna (Palais Schwarzenberg), he was never an Austrian citizen, which prevented him from pursuing a political career.

Vaclav Havel once told an Austrian government delegation led by Chancellor Franz Vranitzky: “He is an extraordinary Czech, an extraordinary European, and an extraordinary human being who, although forced to spend most of his life outside his homeland, has always remained a patriot. Although he was born an aristocrat, he is a convinced democrat and fighter for human rights.”

Originally from Franconia, the Schwarzenberg’s acquired large estates in Bohemia and Austria in the 15th century. In 2017, a major 400th anniversary celebration was held in Murau/Styria to mark the marriage of the then Imperial Count Schwarzenberg to the immensely wealthy 81-year-old Anna Neumann, who laid the foundation for the Austrian fortune.

The Schwarzenberg’s, now princes, made a not inconsiderable contribution to the fortunes of Austria and the House of Habsburg. Field Marshal Karl Philipp Schwarzenberg achieved the feat of bringing his corps back from Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign of 1812 largely intact. At Metternich’s instigation, he became supreme commander of the Allies against Napoleon and defeated the Corsican at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. Felix Schwarzenberg, in turn, was appointed prime minister by a Habsburg family council during the 1848 revolution. Although he was a staunch anti-revolutionary, he was also a realist and a reformer: under his guidance, he granted basic relief to the peasants and began the process of reforms to the administrative, legal and educational systems. In foreign policy, he succeeded in preventing the Frankfurt National Assembly from incorporating the German-speaking areas of Austria into a greater German nation-state, which in practice meant the preservation of the Austrian monarchy and the multiethnic state.


“Hereditary Prince”

After his family fled Bohemia, Karl Schwarzenberg grew up in relatively modest circumstances in Vienna until he was adopted by his uncle and made a “hereditary prince”. This meant that the young man was suddenly responsible for a very considerable fortune. However, he had never been an heir as his main profession, but had always been a political being. In his younger years, he was also a bit of an aristocratic playboy, but with intellectual and artistic interests, who commissioned contemporary star architects such as Hans Hollein and Hermann Cech to decorate the large Renaissance palace at the Belvedere, which was also run as a hotel. He was a guest and host in intellectual circles, such as a “floating salon” in the mid-1980s with other representatives of intellectual life. He was a liberal-conservative with a deep aversion to the extreme right and right-wing populism, which has quite a strong base in Austria, but also in Bohemia (he only ever spoke of “Bohemia” when he meant the Czech Republic).

Schwarzenberg had no illusions about politics, politicians, or the electorate’s occasional inclination toward authoritarian and populist “solutions” – but he never became cynical. “We in Central Europe have a certain subjugated mentality,” he said in an interview with Falter. “We are always waiting for the enlightened ruler to lead us.” Nevertheless, he believed that one must persistently fight for democracy, for tolerance, against racism and anti-Semitism, and never give up. This attitude ran through his time as an intellectual stimulator, especially in the “rebellious” Styrian ÖVP, which focused on modernizing the old Christian-socialist idea, then very strongly as a supporter of the democracy movement in Eastern Europe, and finally as a Czech politician. He always said that liberal parties had no chance in Central Europe – until he himself successfully founded one in the Czech Republic.

When right-wing extremist Jörg Haider described the Austrian nation as an “ideological freak” in 1988 on the 50th anniversary of the Anschluss, Schwarzenberg said that Haider was so “out of his depth that he dared to insult the many Austrians who gave their lives for this nation or endured endless suffering in prisons and camps”. In 1987, at the height of the “Waldheim affair,” [i] Schwarzenberg participated in a “vigil” in front of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, where the sign of the resistance movement “O 5” (for Austria) is carved, together with his colleague, director and publicist Axel Corti. “It was nothing more,” he said of the action, which was attended by numerous members of the intellectual circles and led to some quite violent reactions from the public. Many Austrians were slow to realize that a president could not say, as Kurt Waldheim did, that he had “only done his duty” in the German Wehrmacht. For Schwarzenberg, “duty” meant responsibility for his own country, but above all for democracy and human rights.

He had no illusions about the tendency of certain post-communist politicians in Eastern Europe towards nationalism and aggression. In an interview with the Standard, he expressed alarm at a Hungarian nationalist speech by Viktor Orbán in Transylvania (Romania!). Long before Putin’s war against Ukraine, he said that the annexation of Crimea was just the appetizer and that the main course was yet to come. In the aforementioned Standard interview, he referred to Putin’s concept of “Rus”: “This is the whole Eastern Slavic-speaking area, consisting of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia itself. There is no doubt in my mind that he wants to reunite them.”

He has always had a soft spot for journalism and journalists. When the young Oscar Bronner, whom he had met in Bronner’s father Gerhard’s bar “Marietta”, founded the liberal magazines “trend” and “profil” in 1970, Schwarzenberg contributed a certain amount of money – and his name – to help him get started, so to speak. Much to the displeasure of some of the more conservative members of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP).


Quirky, often biting sense of humor

Karl Schwarzenberg’s trademark was an often quirky, often biting sense of humor. And self-deprecation: when asked about his ability to take a short nap at exhausting state banquets and then wake up to say something sensible, he replied: “I have 700 years of experience at this.”

As outgoing and unpretentious as he could be with new acquaintances who interested him, he could be formal and demanding with closer family members. His relationships were complicated for a while: “I’m a bad partner, I go my own way,” he once said. He married Therese (Countess) Hardegg, a physician, in 1967; they divorced in 1988 and remarried in 2008. With his biological children, Johannes (“Aki”), who took over the inheritance, and the filmmaker Anna-Carolina (“Lila”), things were not always harmonious, but a warmer relationship developed later in life; a touching film by Lila tells their story. Therese’s relationship with the industrialist Prinzhorn produced a son with whom Schwarzenberg developed a particularly good relationship.

The management of the properties is now in the hands of Johannes, and the Palais in Vienna, which has long been a hotel, is being extensively renovated with a German partner. In the magnificent, extensive park of the palace, the extremely successful “Theater im Park” is now a summer fixture. When the war in Ukraine began, “Aki” had the palace’s surrounding wall, which lies just behind the “Russian Monument” for the fallen soldiers of the Red Army, painted in the Ukrainian national colors.


Spiritual influence

The aristocracy, in particular the high aristocracy, played an ambivalent role in Austria’s Second Republic. The nobility has been officially abolished since 1919, and there is even a fine for holding a title of nobility. On the other hand, many aristocrats, who have also made a name for themselves in “bourgeois” professions and not just as landowners, still see themselves as a native elite. The general public views the activities of the few aristocrats who “make themselves visible” with both fascination and suspicion. On the other hand, ORF, the Austrian state broadcasting company, in particular is full of more or less admiring reports about Austria’s castles and their owners. But the nobility is part of Austria’s history and must be properly classified therein.

Karl (Karel) Schwarzenberg was an intellectual and political influence that should not be underestimated for the Czech Republic and Austria, indeed for Europe, for their politics, culture and democratic leanings. He was the combination of an old Austrian historical consciousness with a clear democratic outlook and a love of intelligent debate with modernity. He was a not inconsiderable intellectual and political influence in an increasingly flat political landscape.


A pessimistic conclusion

A few weeks before his death, Karl Schwarzenberg spoke to the Standard again and drew a not overly optimistic conclusion: “The US is drifting apart. The same is happening here in Europe, in Austria. We have really become tepid. I remember the 1980s, when we had political battles, but no personal enmities. I was friends with many socialists. That has disappeared. The spirit of cooperation was also determined by self-interest, but that’s not a bad thing. But there was an attempt to understand the other person. I’m not sure if that can be restored. The right is gaining ground – everywhere in Europe – I have no real explanation for this. Nobody is fighting against the right. Politics works when the centrist parties have common opponents. But they don’t realize that their seats are being pulled out from under them. Politicians who, like me at least, spent their childhood in an authoritarian system have a different horizon of experience than today’s statesmen. That makes a difference.“

Karl Schwarzenberg died on Sunday night in a Viennese hospital in the presence of his children. He had been in poor health for some time. (Hans Rauscher, 12.11.2023)



[i] https://www.britannica.com/event/Waldheim-Affair – The Waldheim Affair was a controversy involving Kurt Waldheim. When running for president in 1986 elements from his past as a member of the Sturmabteilung (SA) and German military in the run up and then during WWII. This brought questions regarding his personal involvement in war crimes, which he firmly denied and claimed that he had only “done his duty” has a soldier. He went on to win the presidential elections in a run off and remained in office until 1992.



This article was originally published on Der Standard on November 12, 2023. 

Cover photo: former Czech Foreign Minister Karl Schwarzenberg during a ceremony demonstraiting opposition to violence and racism to be held in commemoration of the victims of National Socialism in the Austrian Parlament in Vienna, 5 May 2014. (Photo by Robert Jaeger/APA-PictureDesk via AFP)

Follow us on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn to see and interact with our latest contents.

If you like our stories, events, publications and dossiers, sign up for our newsletter (twice a month).  



Please consider giving a tax-free donation to Reset this year

Any amount will help show your support for our activities

In Europe and elsewhere
(Reset DOC)

In the US
(Reset Dialogues)