Friday, April 23, 2010
If the history of the 20th century in Europe could be encapsulated in the life of one man, that man might be Dr. Karel Des Four Walderode.
He was born in 1904 and died in 2000, and his life sat at the intersection of the social and political upheaval that radically transformed, and re-transformed, and re-transformed again property rights in Europe.
Of French and German descent, he was born in the Kingdom of Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, where his wealthy family had lived since the 17th century and owned, among other property, vast estates and a castle. Until age 14 he was a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian empire. But the Austro-Hungarian empire ceased to exist in 1918 with the reformation of Europe following World War One. Walderode found himself situated in the newly formed Czechoslovak Republic, of which he was now a citizen.
In 1939, Germany invaded and occupied the parts of the Czechoslovak Republic it had not already grabbed under the Munich Agreement of 1938. Germany dissolved the Czechoslovak Republic, and proclaimed the creation of a new state: the German Protectorate of Bohemia. Walderode now found himself not only living in the German Protectorate of Bohemia, but also declared by Germany a German citizen, because his first language was German.
In 1945, with the defeat of Germany, the German Protectorate of Bohemia ceased to exist. The Czechoslovak Republic came back into existence.
The restored democratic Czechoslovak government under Edvard Benes issued what are now known as the Benes Decrees. Under the Benes Decrees, people of German descent were presumed to have aided the German occupation. As a result, they had their property confiscated without compensation, had their citizenship revoked, and were expelled from the country (although expulsion is not required under the Decrees, people who lost their citizenship were in fact expelled). If, however, people of German descent could prove their loyalty to the Czechoslovak Republic during occupation, they could retain their citizenship and stay in the country. Walderode was one of the very few able to prove that he remained loyal to the Czechoslovak Republic during the occupation (even though he had been conscripted for a year into the Wehrmacht), so he retained his Czechoslovak citizenship and was not expelled. However, he still lost his property rights in his family's estates. [You can read more about the seizures of property and expulsions under the Benes Decree in this excellent article by Timothy William Waters].
In 1948, the Communists seized power in the Czechoslovak Republic, eventually renaming the country the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Walderode was forced into exile by the Communists, who didn't care for his privileged lineage and most certainly were not impressed by that fact that he had recently proven his loyalty to the democratic government that they had just overthrown. When he went into exile, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic revoked his citizenship.
In 1991, after democratic government had been restored, he returned to a country now named the Czechoslovak Federative Republic and settled in Prague. He was made a Czechoslovak citizen again in 1992. Also in 1992, the Czechoslovak Federative Republic passed a law for the restitution of agricultural and forest property seized under the Benes Decrees, provided the claimant could demonstrate: (1) he had been a citizen at the time the property was seized; (2) he was now a permanent resident of the country; (3) he was loyal during the German occupation; and (4) he was a citizen at the time he submitted his claim for restitution.
6 months later Czechoslovak Federative Republic itself ceased to exist, with the creation of separate Czech and Slovak Republics. Walderode now found himself living in the Czech Republic. The Czech Republic retained the restitution law. Walderode met all four of the conditions for restitution, and so submitted his claim. But . . . .
What happened next will appear in Part II of this post!