Court orders Opočno castle restitution
Government officials claim ruling for former owners weakens Beneš Decrees
By KEVIN LIVINGSTON - The Prague Post staff writer
A court's decision to return the Opočno castle to its former owners raises questions about the state's reliance on the controversial Beneš Decrees as a justification for refusing to restitute some properties, government officials said.
A regional court in Hradec Kralové ruled May 13 (2003) that the castle, seized by occupying Nazis and later the communist regime, must be turned over to Kristina Colloredo-Mansfeld. She has battled the state for control of the property for more than nine years.
"It can definitely serve as a precedent," said Jiří Švec, head of the Pardubice office of the National Heritage Conservation Institute, which fought to prevent returning the east Bohemia castle to its former owners.
The government had claimed that Josef Colloredo-Mansfeld, Kristina Colloredo-Mansfeld's father and previous owner of the Renaissance-era castle, was not entitled to restitution because he had applied for citizenship in Nazi Germany in 1940. The regional court rejected that claim.
Decrees an issue
Švec said the decision called into question the legitimacy of the Beneš Decrees. Under the terms of the decrees, about 2.5 million ethnic Germans, often called Sudeten Germans, were expelled from Czechoslovakia after the war. 'The decrees also stripped anyone who had applied for citizenship in Nazi Germany of Czech citizenship and authorized the government to seize their property.
Czech leaders have repeatedly rejected requests from Sudeten German politicians to repeal the decrees, partly out of fear that billions in property would have to be given back. The decrees have been used successfully in court to halt other restitution claims.
Švec said his department, which is part of the Culture Ministry, has not decided whether it will appeal the verdict to the Supreme Court. Although the deadline to file restitution claims has passed, Švec said he was concerned that lawyers would be able to use the verdict to bring new claims to trial.
Culture Minister Pavel Dostál told reporters after the verdict that the ruling could inspire a wave of new restitution litigation.
"Law is not the same as justice," he said. Lawyers who specialize in restitution law and who watched the case closely offered mixed interpretations of its potential impact. Some said that if the decision stands, it could help the arguments of other restitution claimants challenging the government in court.
Viktor Pak, a Prague attorney, said the decision deviates from past rulings because the court rejected the state's claim that Colloredo-Mansfeld had applied for German citizenship.
"It means that in the future the courts can decide the same in similar cases," he said. But he added that several similar rulings would be required before a legal precedent could be established.
Others, however, remain skeptical that the case would have much impact.
"It will not have any major influence on restitution claims in the Czech Republic," said Tomáš Homola, a Prague lawyer who also handles restitution cases.
Homola said he was not convinced that courts would use the ruling as a benchmark for future cases unless those cases involved similar historical details, a situation he said was unlikely. "The Beneš Decrees are still valid and will be used as defense arguments," he said.
The government's lawyer in the case, Miloš Hošek, had charged that Josef Colloredo-Mansfeld had collaborated with the Nazis during the 1939-45 German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia.
The only document that supported the government's case was a 1945 affidavit that contains a sworn statement by the elder Colloredo-Mansfeld; admitting that he filled out the application for German citizenship. Švec said the original application was lost after the war.
But Colloredo-Mansfeld's attorney, Vlastimil Nedomlel, said the father was an anti-Nazi whose name did not appear on an official list of Czech citizens who applied for German citizenship during the war.
He also compared the family's effort to reclaim the castle to efforts by Jewish victims of the Holocaust to reclaim assets stolen by the Nazis, a comparison supported in a Supreme Court ruling that had sent the case to the regional court for review.
Nazis grab property
Citing Josef Colloredo-Mansfeld's public stance against the 1938 Nazi takeover of the Czechoslovak territory known as the Sudetenland, the Nazis labeled the family "enemies of the Reich" and confiscated the castle in 1942. The family had owned the property for more than 300 years.
After the war, Josef Colloredo-Mansfeld was able to convince authorities that he was not a collaborator and briefly regained possession of the castle. But the communist government that came to power in 1948 took control of the property in 1949, and the family fled the country. Josef Colloredo-Mansfeld died in Austria in 1961.
Kristina Colloredo-Mansfeld, 62, could not be reached for comment. Real estate specialists estimate the castle and its associated properties ase worth billions of crowns.
Peter Bartoň, who heads the Sudeten German Landsmannschaft office in central Prague, declined to comment on the case.
Lenka Ponikelská contributed to this report:
Kevin Livingston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
RETURNED ASSETSThe Opočno castle is the l5th of 28 east Bohemia castles to be handed back to their original owners. In addition to the castle, Kristina Colloredo-Mansfeld, daughter of the castle's former owner, has received: