Time is trickling away for those religious entities wanting to lodge restitution claims for the return of property confiscated after the February 1948 Communist coup. Just a few weeks remain. Following controversial property claims made by two chivalric orders, the Teutonic Order and the Knights Hospitaller, which prompted big headlines in the autumn, it seemed that there could be no more surprises surrounding the return of religious bodies’ property before the year was out.
But it’s not so. The Roman Catholic Church has decided at almost the very last possible moment to fight on for one of the most valuable cultural and historic examples of heritage in the country. The Olomouc Archdiocese is set to request the restitution of the 17th-century baroque Kroměříž Palace along with its largely intact baroque Pleasure Garden, which both have UNESCO cultural and natural World Heritage Site status. Interiors of the palace were extensively used by director Miloš Forman in his 1984 film “Amadeus”. “We will file a request for the return of the chateau by mid-December,” Václav Tichý, of Olomouc Archdiocese’s restitution department, told Euro magazine, a sister publication of E15 Weekly. The request will be filed with the National Heritage Institute (Národní památkový ústav, NPÚ), the chateau’s current administrator.
The decision to lodge the claim came as a real surprise to observers. The Church considered filing a claim in accordance with the property settlement law some time ago, but in the summer the Archdiocese announced that it would not proceed. The return of the chateau would have great symbolic value for the episcopal see. In the past, the chateau served as the principal residence of Olomouc bishops and later archbishops. First mentioned as a market village, Kroměříž was purchased by Bishop Jan II of Olomouc as early as the beginning of the 12th century. The Church built a castle that was later converted into a chateau. Following the communist takeover in February 1948, the state took over the property.
The NPÚ, defined under the church property restitution law as one of the liable entities, declined to comment on the specific restitution proceedings. The same procedure that was applied to all other lodged claims would be followed, it said.
Dita Roubíčková, spokesperson for the NPÚ, said: “First of all, all requirements defined by the law are thoroughly verified, as is the fulfilment of conditions defined by the law for the relenistrator Lesy České republiky, indicates that the state has been asked to return forests previously owned by the Cistercian 13thcentury Burgundian-Gothic monastery in Osek, near Teplice in northwestern Bohemia. The monastery, no longer inhabited by monks, is endeavouring to recover approximately a thousand hectares of woodland. As with the restitution cases presented by the knights’ orders, this claim will also involve analysis of compliance in terms of the restitution eligibility start-date. In other words, whether or not the Cistercians lost their property after the communist putsch in 1948, or earlier, must be established. The Czech government imposed national administration on some monasteries in the border regions as early as the end of World War II. It also ensured that monks with German natioase of the requested property. It would therefore be too early to comment on any release or otherwise of any property.”
However, people from the NPÚ have been involved in a long-term collaboration with the Church in Kroměříž because priceless chateau adornments, including collections of paintings by Old Masters such as Titian, Van Dyck and Cranach the Elder, remained the property of the archdiocese even after 1948.
According to Euro, the Kroměříž Palace claim is not the only one raised close to the cut-off date that could make headlines. For instance, a register of claims, published by state forestry administrator Lesy ČR, indicates that the state has been asked to return forests previously owned by the Cistercian 13thcentury Burgundian-Gothic monastery in Osek, near Teplice in northwestern Bohemia. The monastery, no longer inhabited by monks, is endeavouring to recover approximately a thousand hectares of woodland. As with the restitution cases presented by the knights’ orders, this claim will also involve analysis of compliance in terms of the restitution eligibility start-date. In other words, whether or not the Cistercians lost their property after the communist putsch in 1948, or earlier, must be established. The Czech government imposed national administration on some monasteries in the border regions as early as the end of World War II. It also ensured that monks with German nationality were displaced. Lesy ČR has not provided any detailed public response to the Osek monastery claim but it is already quite likely that it will have to be decided by a court of law. Extant post-war documentation seems to give the monastery a better chance of success than what the Teutonic Order can hope for with its requests for the return of thousands of hectares of woods and other property in northern Moravia and Silesia.
In the latter part of this year, an increasing number of the religious bodies’ claims have focused on movable historic properties. The claims were often only prepared after requests were duly filed for the return of forest and other land plots. It is the Roman Catholic Church which is also behind the vast majority of the movable property claims; unsurprising, as the Church is by far the most active entity involved in seeking the restitution of property confiscated in the former Czechoslovakia. It is unlikely that the claims will involve art pieces with values as high as those of, for example, the medieval set of Vyšší Brod altar paintings or paintings by Rubens at the Augustinian monastery in Prague’s Lesser Town. But there will no doubt be valuable items involved. The list of requested items, provided by the National Gallery to Euro, was recently expanded, for example, with 10 sculptures claimed by the Discalced Augustinians of the Lnáře monastery in southern Bohemia. Some of the sculptures date back to the 16th century. It remains to be seen whether the National Gallery can reach an agreement with the Augustinians similar to that concerning the Vyšší Brod medieval paintings or the Rubens works. For the time being, it is “examining the original ownership and the issue of functional relationships”; in other words, it needs to be established whether the sculptures were demonstrably owned by the Church in February 1948 and whether other restitution prerequisites are met.
In addition to the National Gallery, numerous other public benefit organisations under the culture ministry will be approached again with claims. They include the National Heritage Institute as well as museums and libraries. These institutions have refused to provide churches with detailed inventories and have demanded the identification of specific items for restitution. However, individual dioceses often have no such available documentation. The culture ministry itself has been no more helpful when it comes to accessing necessary records. The dioceses have thus formulated general appeals to the ministry – in the hope that subsequent processes to accurately determine claims would enable requests to be properly specified.
So what is the outcome of the restitution process so far? It is becoming apparent that the monastic orders have been the fastest to lodge claims, as opposed to the dioceses which have been held back by the need to collect considerable volumes of fragmented documentation from individual parishes. For example, the Premonstratensians of Prague’s Strahov monastery – the wealthiest monastery in the country – have demonstrated high levels of readiness. They managed to file all their claims by the end of July. “We now only supplement our claims with documentation requested by the respective liable entities,” Euro was told by Petros Alexandridis, Director of the Strahov Monastery Central Office.
At the beginning of December, The Knights of the Cross with the Red Star were about to file their final claims for farmland. There are less than 20 knights in the order but the extent of the property they are claiming considerably exceeds what is claimed by orders with more members. “We do not expect the newly claimed acreage to be overly extensive. We estimate it at no more than five percent of the total covered by previously lodged claims,” said Alena Slačíková, of the order’s administrative office.
Dioceses succeeded in filing most of their claims in the first 11 months of this year. “As of early December, we had filed 300 claims. We expect the final number to be around 330. The extent of the property that we intend to claim before the end of the year should be in the tens of hectares, and be mostly farmland and woodland,” said Martin David, Vicar General of the Ostrava-Opava bishopric. He said he thought the bishopric would be capable of submitting claims for all property eligible under the restitution law.