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Count Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi (RCK) wrote a political bestseller in 1923 and set up a pro-European political movement to rival the Nazis. The great and the good came to his Pan-Europa congresses held in Vienna, Berlin and Basel in the 1920s and ‘30s. Einstein rubbed shoulders with Richard Strauss, Leo Amery with Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann with Tomas Masaryk. The Count was the first to create a European flag and choose an anthem – Beethoven’s Ode to Joy - and to call for a European passport, a European stamp and a common European currency.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler dammed RCK as a “cosmopolitan bastard”, a reference to his Jewish wife, Ida Roland, the leading Viennese actress, and to his Japanese mother, a geisha who married his diplomat father after his birth in Tokyo to secure an inheritance back in Europe.
The young and charismatic Count twice escaped assassination, once through the quick-witted action of his wife in a Munich hotel during the Communist Putsch in 1919, and later when Austrian Chancellor Schuschnigg was targeted at a private dinner in their Viennese apartment in the 1930s.
And twice he evaded the Gestapo. First in March 1938, after a tip-off at the last minute, the night the Nazis marched in. He and his wife were driven to the border (with their pet dogs) by the Swiss ambassador’s chauffeur and then sweet-talked their way into Czechoslovakia with the former Chancellor’s widow and her children in the next car. The second time, in June 1940, their daughter drove the Count and Ida (again with their dogs) across France just ahead of the German tanks to neutral Spain and from there to Lisbon, where the CIA spirited him with his family to New York in a luxury flying boat, the Yankee Clipper.
The Count’s offices the Hofburg, the seat of government in Vienna, were next to the Chancellor’s and the Gestapo raided them in 1938, taking all his papers to Berlin to be filleted for names of anti-Nazis across the continent. Later the Red Army rescued them from a salt mine where the Nazis had hidden them at the end of the war. They took them to Moscow for the KGB to make use of, and they are there still, held as booty from the war.
In Casablanca Viktor Laszlo, the leader of the anti-Nazi Resistance, is modelled on the Count. He flies to Lisbon en route for New York in 1940, as did RCK. Paul Henreid, a family friend who had been at school with RCK’s youngest brother, plays the character in the film, and the scriptwriters knew all about the Count from mutual contacts in Vienna.
In New York RCK rallied fellow Europeans in exile and held another Congress in 1943 to plan for a post-war Europe that could be an equal partner for the United States. Initially he had an uphill struggle to convince the American Administration under Roosevelt that Soviet Russia would become as serious an enemy as Nazi Germany when the Second World War was won. Truman, on the other hand, was open to his ideas, and the Count gained a face-to-face interview both with the President and with Secretary of State George Marshall. The Marshall Plan clearly reflected his demand for coordination and cooperation among European states, and the creation of NATO embodied his lasting concern to contain the threat of Soviet aggression.
Back in Europe in 1946, RCK met Churchill on Lake Geneva to brief him just days before his Zurich speech. Acknowledging his debt to RCK, he called for a United States of Europe, as peaceful as Switzerland and as prosperous as America. RCK canvassed over 4,000 MPs from a dozen countries across Europe on their views about the future of the continent. In 1947 the Count called several hundred of them to Gstaad, near his Swiss country retreat, to set up the European Parliamentary Union (EPU) which would fight for Churchill’s goal.
RCK visited Churchill at Chartwell both before and after the war, lunched with him in his flat in Hyde Park Gate, and was the first speaker after Churchill at the opening of the 1948 Congress of Europe in the Hague. The Count’s influence spread through the EPU to every government in Western Europe, and the creation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in 1949 was largely credited to his lobbying. In 1950 he was the first recipient of the prestigious Charlemagne Prize, awarded for his contribution to European unity. It was five years before Churchill received the same honour.
Growing disenchanted with only lukewarm support for European integration in British political circles, RCK developed a special relationship with De Gaulle. He became his confidant and go-between with Adenauer, arranged the first networking meetings between French and German MPs in 1948 and 1949, encouraged de Gaulle to broadcast in German to the ‘youth of Germany’, and took his seat directly behind the two leaders in Rheims Cathedral in 1961, celebrating the spirit of Franco-German friendship. He was awarded the Légion d’honneur and the Bundesverdienstkreuz.
The Count’s private life was equally colourful. He married three times. First, at just eighteen, against his family’s wishes, to Ida Roland, divorced, twelve years older than him, and with a five-year-old daughter. His first wife shaped him and they were devoted until her death in 1951. Then he married the widow of a rich Silesian landowner, whose promised inheritance never materialised. His third wife was the widow of the hugely successful composer of the musical White Horse Inn, a former dancer who enlivened his final years and very much enjoyed the status of Countess.
RCK lived an itinerant later life in grand hotels and elegant rented apartments, flitting between Paris, Vienna, London, Berlin and Zurich. He networked annually at a fashionable clinic in the Austrian Vorarlberg with the great and good, where he died unexpectedly in 1972, just as the United Kingdom joined the Common Market.
In August 1972, outside a small Swiss village, Hitler’s ‘cosmopolitan bastard’, the man who was the model for Casablanca’s Viktor Laszlo, was finally laid to rest near the graves of both his first wife, the love of his life, and his second. There were only family and close friends at his graveside, but letters of condolence flowed in from Europe’s political elite, including prime ministers and presidents.
Streets, squares and parks are named after him in Vienna, Prague, Berlin and Paris. French President Macron and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov have both quoted him in recent speeches. His ideas of continental unity still make waves today. He led a truly fascinating life.
Martyn Bond has enjoyed three careers, as a journalist, an academic and a European civil servant. After a degree in Modern Languages at Queens’ College, Cambridge, he gained his D.Phil at Sussex with further study at the University of Hamburg. He taught West European studies in Northern Ireland, was BBC correspondent in Berlin, and spokesman for the Council of Ministers in Brussels. He also directed the office of the European Parliament in London, and now advises the University of Surrey’s Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence while writing on Britain and Europe.
Claudia Hamill shares the author’s enthusiasm about the importance of this charismatic Count. In pursuit of the story, she travelled with him across Europe, researched, helped assemble the material and edited the biography. Her professional career, with a law degree, working alongside the EU institutions included: training continental politicians to become MEPs; setting up the European Parliament All-Party Disability Group and her role as European & Overseas Director of The National Trust. Recently she lectured on BA courses and ran MA modules on the EU at the University of Maastricht. A former Council Member at Chatham House, she is Senior Adviser to the European Forum of Manufacturing. She wisely married a former graduate of Churchill College.
HITLER’S COSMOPOLITAN BASTARD: COUNT RICHARD COUDENHOVE-KALERGI AND HIS VISION OF EUROPE is to be published in the UK by McGill-Queen’s University Press on 15 April 2021.
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