With the emergence of Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg as one of two finalists for the Czech presidency in a runoff to be held later this month, it’s worth taking a closer look at the House of Schwarzenberg and its role in European history throughout the centuries.
The house dates back to the Middle Ages, and perhaps its most illustrious member was once referred to as the ‘Austrian Bismarck’ for guiding the Austro-Hungarian empire during the tumultuous and revolutionary 1840s.
So if he wins the runoff on January 26, Karel Schwarzenberg will become an elected head of state with familial ties running throughout the remnants of European monarchy. Schwarzenberg’s mother belonged to another princely family, the Fürstenbergs, making him cousins with the late fashion designer Egon von Fürstenberg. He was also second cousins with Ranier III, who was the prince of Monaco from 1949 until his death in 2005.
The family was initially based Franconia, in what is present-day Bavaria in Germany, and you can tour the ‘Schloss Schwarzenberg’ near Scheinfeld in Bavaria today. Rebuilt in 1618 after its destruction by a fire, it was increasingly less important as the family’s base moved from Franconia to Bohemia in the heart of what is today the Czech Republic in the 17th century (though the castle was occupied by the Nazis during World War II, used as an American hospital on their march to Nuremberg, and it was transformed into a center for Czech literature in 1986).
One of the most influential of the earliest Schwarzenbergs was Johann, a close friend of Martin Luther, an episcopal judge who revised his court’s code of evidence and an influential member of the government of the Holy Roman Empire.
Adam, Count of Schwarzenberg, played a unique role as a top adviser of the Brandenburg Privy Council in the 1630s during the reign of elector George William, keeping Brandenburg neutral during the Thirty Years’ War, though he was ultimately forced to raise an army to expel invading Swedes and became the de facto ruler of Brandenburg from 1638 to 1640 when George William was forced into exile.
The Schwarzenberg coat of arms (pictured above) features a rather graphic tale about central Europe’s battles with the Ottoman Empire — a raven is pecking away at the head of a Turkish man, which was meant to symbolize the 1598 capture of a fortress, Raab (which translates to ‘raven’) in present-day Hungary.
Despite his family’s historical antipathy to the Ottomans in the 16th century, Karel Schwarzenberg, as the Czech foreign minister, has been relatively friendly to a possible Turkish accession to the European Union when the Czech Republic held the rotating six-month EU presidency in 2009, and he even used European history as a way to tweak France’s strident opposition to Turkey’s EU bid:
In the 17th century when central European countries all together fought fierce battles with Turkey, during the Ottoman offensive in Europe, France was practically an ally of Turkey. In the 19th century, as you know, in the Crimean War, France was an ally of Turkey. And now they are opposing it. You see, alliances and attitudes come and go and change, and sometimes we see that even during our lifetime.
In 1661, the family married into an alliance with the House of Eggenberg, thereby giving them extensive land holdings in Bavaria. By 1670, when the House of Schwarzenberg had been elevated from counts to princes, they had taken up primary residence in Krumlov Castle in Bohemia.
Perhaps the family’s most well-known figure was Felix, Prince of Schwarzenberg (pictured, right), who ultimately became the minister-president and the foreign minister of the Austro-Hungarian empire from 1848 until his death in 1852. Prior to his appointment, he spent much of his adult life bouncing around as a diplomat from embassy to embassy within Europe — in London, he had an affair with an impregnated a British woman, which led to some amount of ridicule.
Appointed as the top official in the Austrian government in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions, he was instrumental in restoring the Habsburg family to stable rule over the empire and laying the economic and administrative foundations of the empire for the coming decades.
A proponent of Austro-German union (which led to a bit of mistrust within Austria), he was a strong monarchist who pulled back previously enacted democratic reforms, though he was a proponent of various education and legal reforms. His four years in office found him often balancing both conservative and liberal camps in a way that left with popular with neither camp.
The head of the House of Schwarzenberg since 1979, Karel left Czechoslovakia at age 9 after the communist coup in 1948, emigrating to Austria with his family as a Swiss citizen. In the 1960s, he was active in Austrian politics and a key figure in the center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party). His interests soon moved back to Czechoslovakian politics, however, and he became a key supporter of Václev Havel’s dissident movement that toppled Czechoslovak communist rule in 1990, and he served as Havel’s chancellor when Havel ascended to the Czechoslovak presidency.