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Princess wants Franz Ferdinand's castle back in the family

Princess wants property taken after empire collapsed

KONOPISTE CASTLE, Czech Republic: When a young Serb named Gavrilo Princip stepped forward on a Sarajevo street and fired a pistol at a middle- aged couple 93 years ago, he sent history stumbling down an unexpected path.

The targets, of course, were Franz Ferdinand, archduke of Austria-Este, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife, Sophie. They were killed. The world went to war. Millions of people died and the political map of Europe was redrawn.

Now, Franz Ferdinand's great- granddaughter, Her Serene Highness Princess Sophie von Hohenberg (or Sophie de Potesta to her neighbors), is trying to right what she sees as one of the wrongs from those years. She hopes to get Franz Ferdinand's castle back in the bargain.

The 1919 Treaty of Saint-Germain- en-Laye carved up the old Hapsburg empire into new states: Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and parts of Poland.

The Hapsburg family, which had ruled that part of Europe for more than 600 years, was stripped of its properties and titles.

Franz Ferdinand's children had already been turned out of their parents' beloved home, Konopiste Castle, in the empire's province of Bohemia, now the Czech Republic. It was taken by the state.

The problem, von Hohenberg says, is that Franz Ferdinand's children — Sophie, Maximilian and Ernst — were not Hapsburgs and so the castle and its dependencies, 6,070 hectares, or nearly 15,000 acres, of woodland and a brewery, should never have been seized.

That is because Franz Ferdinand married a woman a rung below his royal status. His uncle, Emperor Franz Jozef, would allow the union only on the condition that Sophie and any children she bore never be considered heirs to the throne. He gave the young bride her own title and a new name instead: Princess von Hohenberg, which has been passed down to her great- granddaughter.

In part because of the tension caused by his marriage, Franz Ferdinand preferred to stay at Konopiste rather than at his official residence, the Belvedere in Vienna. When he and his wife left for Sarajevo that fateful June, they intended to return in just a few days. The children were left behind in the care of nannies.

But Franz Ferdinand and Sophie died in Sarajevo and his children inherited Konopiste Castle, which he had bought with money from the sale of properties in Italy that he had inherited from his uncle, Francesco V d'Este.

By the time the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye was signed, von Hohenberg argues, the castle was a Hohenberg, not a Hapsburg, estate.

But in 1921, Czechoslovakia passed Law No. 354, whose Article 3 mandated the seizure of royal properties from the Hapsburgs, including Franz Ferdinand and "his descendants."

"What happened in Czechoslovakia was an overenthusiastic way of interpreting the Saint-Germain treaty," von Hohenberg said recently over tea at an elegant Brussels hotel. "They associated my grandfather Max with the Hapsburgs, though he was not a member of the family any more."

The newly minted Republic of Austria seized all of the Hapsburg palaces there but left Franz Ferdinand's children with the Hohenberg properties, which included the Artstetten Castle where Franz Ferdinand and his wife are buried and where von Hohenberg's sister, Anita, lives today.

The children were sent to live in Artstetten Castle. The eldest, Sophie, was 17 at the time. She lived until 1990 and von Hohenberg remembers her stories.

"What has always shocked my family is that our whole history, our private history, the letters, the photos, is all in Konopiste," she said.

The family fought the Czech law, even after the Communists came to power after World War II, to no avail. They made diplomatic inquiries after the collapse of communism, but got nowhere.

Then, in 2000, the princess's mother entrusted her with the battle. In December, von Hohenberg filed a lawsuit at a court in Benesov, the town nearest the castle, hoping to successfully challenge the law.

"What I'm trying to do is attack this law which is unjust and wrong," said the princess, 46. "If I win my case, they have to give back what they confiscated, logically, but my first wish is to make this article of law disappear."

She recalled her first visit to the castle after the Velvet Revolution, which brought about the fall of the Communist government. She was accompanied by her husband, Jean-Louis de Potesta.

"I was very, very moved," she said. "I suddenly knew where I belonged, which I never felt before. I suddenly knew where my roots were."

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