I thought I had seen it all because I had seen nothing. The further eastward I traveled in Europe, the emptier the manor houses, chateaus and aristocratic palaces. Those that had been lucky enough to survive World War II were mostly shells of their former selves. Bodies without a soul, skeletons lacking flesh and bones, remnants of a lost world that lacked life. The heart was missing, the core had been hollowed out, swept away in a maelstrom of war and occupation. First the Nazis took whatever they desired, then Red Army soldiers reduced these once immaculate structures to squalor. A little bit later the communist authorities would re-imagine them as schools, sanatoriums and housing stock for state institutions. Anything other than what they had once been. With their post-war usage so radically altered, these structures were severed from the past. If the past was a different country, nowhere was this truer than in a region that had been forced to abandon the history of its most beloved structures.
In the post Iron Curtain era, these buildings enjoyed a slow and uneven resurrection. Many had their exteriors refurbished. They were given fresh coats of paint and new plaster work while busted stone stairwells were smoothed over. Sculptures were remolded and set back in place. A pale representation of the past slowly materialized. Such cosmetic makeovers were most notable on facades. The interiors were an entirely different story. The contents had been so thoroughly thieved that everything was left to the visitor’s imagination. There was a choice between empty rooms and those furnished with replacement items. These were poor substitutes for what had once existed.
Most of the furnishings and exhibits had nothing to do with these places at all. It was as though a stranger had come along and decided to display random objects because that seemed the right thing to do. Context proved to be as irreplaceable as the original items which had long since been lost or stolen. Recreating the past proved impossible. Sometimes there would be a photo of what a room looked like pre-World War I or II. The effect was stunning. A room that had once held a library, near priceless reliquaries, hunting trophies and ornate furniture was now altered beyond all recognition. History in these places could not even be called a shadow of its former self. It is a disconcerting feeling to know exactly where you are at and still feel totally lost. That was the present and past working its way away from me.
Points of Comparison – A Sense Of Emptiness
I can still vividly recall a visit to the Esterhazy Palace, also known as the Hungarian Versailles, in the far western corner of Hungary. Years of reconstruction work had resulted in the palace regaining a vestige of its former splendor. Once the grand playground of Miklos the Magnificent and home to Haydn, it had been reduced by theft, indifference and neglect to a pale representation of its former splendor. The guided tour took me through some amazingly reconstructed rooms. While in other areas there was nothing but emptiness. One room on that tour managed to lodge itself into my memory. The room’s marble floors shimmered in the morning sunlight, but this was most noticeable because there were no furnishings. That space could only be filled by the imagination. At other palaces in Hungary I witnessed the same effect. Invisible scars from the war had left their mark in the form of an austere emptiness.
I came to recognize this emptiness as a symptom of the destruction of Hungary’s aristocracy. Dispossession had penetrated nearly every historic home in one form or another. I tried to imagine the way these places had been during the first half of the 20th century when the aristocracy still ruled over great landed estates. That was almost impossible until I visited the same types of places in southern Bohemia. This gave me a point of comparison. Bohemia had escaped the war relatively unscathed. Many of the aristocrats had managed to flee with their belongings intact. Though occupation by the Nazis was long and could be brutal, the destruction wrought upon aristocratic homes was minimal compared to what Hungary suffered.
Old Haunts – Taking On A Life Of Their Own
The scale of destruction was largely due to the country being overrun by both the German and Red Armies in 1944. Hungary’s architecture as well as its people were caught in the crossfire of ultra-destructive battles. The war was then followed by long term Soviet occupation which resulted in massive amounts of theft. Bohemia’s experience was very different. Fighting came very late to the area. It also helped considerably that part of the region was occupied by the United States military which was largely law abiding. Thus, a much greater amount of art, artifacts and décor survived in Bohemia than in the nations of Eastern Europe. The latter items would eventually be returned and displayed once again in their old haunts, those magisterial palaces, chateaus and castles that dot the countryside.
I saw just how many antiquities had survived the war when I visited Hluboka Castle (also known as Chateau Hluboka nad Vltavou) on a snowy day in early January. The mock Tudor-style Castle, which looks as though it was built in Legoland, is located about 20 minutes north of Ceske Budejovice not far from the Vltava River. The winter tour schedule was sparse, only taking visitor’s through a few parts of the Chateau. The tour was also done in Czech. Those who could not speak the language were given an information sheet in English. The history and explanations were interesting, but the most impressive part of the tour needed no explanation at all. Every room was filled with artifacts, reliquaries, period pieces of furniture. The lavishness, attention to detail and sheer number of objects was stunning. The rooms took on a life of their own. Each communicating just how rich a life the Schwarzenburg Family had led before the war.
All That Has Been Lost – Casting A Shadow
This led me to the realization of just how much had been lost due to World War II and its aftermath. Looking at a room crowded with the finest objects at Hluboka Castle brought back to me the memory of all those empty rooms at aristocratic residences in Hungary. The losses inflicted upon aristocratic society in Eastern Europe were incalculable. It was an armed robbery, a totalitarian sanctioned theft on an entire way of life. Hluboka Castle was the exception rather than the rule. The legacy of World War II and totalitarianism has a very long afterlife. It still casts a shadow over all those empty rooms in Hungary.