Posts Tagged ‘Thyssen-Bornemisza’

The indispensability of “impertinence” or An explanation to a Berlin book blogger concerning Sacha Batthyany and the Thyssen-Bornemiszas (by Caroline D Schmitz)

The aggressiveness of the reaction of many German-speaking commentators following our article in the Feuilleton of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2007, „The Hostess from Hell“ (previously published in Britain in The Independent under the title „The Killer Countess“), has always shocked me deeply. Here was the powerful Thyssen dynasty, who not just kept quiet about their overwhelming participation in the National Socialist regime, but who had their role pro-actively denied through the propagation of misleading reports. And there were we, an English author and a German researcher, who chance had brought together in England in 1995 and who, through a very small number of outstanding personalities, namely Steven Bentinck, Heini Thyssen, Naim Attallah, George Weidenfeld, Frank Schirrmacher and Ernst Gerlach, were put into the lucky position of being able to pierce the narrative of the corporate-academic-media establishment on the subject of Thyssen and save the truth from being entombed.

From the beginning, we were „impertinent“ in the original sense of the word which is „not being part of (the establishment)“, and our research always took place at the original locations. We did not learn of the Rechnitz massacre on the Internet, but in Rechnitz itself and from Rechnitz people. At the time our article was published in FAZ, we knew nothing of Eduard Erne, who had made a documentary film on the event entitled “Totschweigen” (i.e. “Silencing to Death”) as far back as 1994 (and who currently works for Swiss television), or of Paul Gulda, who in 1991 founded the Rechnitz Refugee and Commemoration Initiative (Refugius). When we met them both at the Rechnitz-symposium at the Burgenland County Museum in Eisenstadt (Austria) in 2008, they too treated us in an unfriendly manner, which we thought could only be because they felt we had ignored their work on purpose. This was not the case and moreover, because of us, their work was now much more prominent than before. So why were they attacking us and protecting the Thyssens and the Batthyanys who had obviously rejected or ignored their work in the past?

Now, a decade later, a sizeable statement by a member of the dynasty, Sacha Batthyany, has been published in Germany in the form of the book „What’s that to do with me?“, and is due to be released in Great Britain by Quercus in March 2017 (translator: Anthea Bell) under the title „A Crime in the Family“, (a line remarkably similar to the cover headline „Shame and scandal in the family“ we used on our book „The Thyssen Art Macabre“, and which was a statement originally made to us by Heini Thyssen himself). Great efforts of promotion are being lavished on Mr Batthyany’s book, which is to be distributed as widely as Israel and the USA.

In his press work, Sacha Batthyany tirelessly pretends that it was „chance“ that he came across the negative sides of his family history and in particular the Rechnitz massacre. He says it was all „unknown“ until one day he started investigating things of which he knew absolutely nothing before, which he says is because he grew up in the „padded“ country of Switzerland, where one knows nothing, for instance, about the Second World War… This from a journalist, whose family was financially supported by the Thyssens’ wartime profiteering organised from Switzerland, who is a member of one of the most influential European (originally Austro-Hungarian) dynasties, has studied in Madrid, has worked for various big international newspapers (e.g. Neue Zürcher Zeitung) and spent a big part of his youth not in Zurich, but in Salzburg (although he admits the latter very exclusively only when he happens to be speaking in the major Austrian towns of Salzburg or Vienna – his press work does not seem to have led him to the Burgenland provinces of Eisenstadt or Rechnitz so far, whose mayor Engelbert Kenyeri, poignantly, does not seem to be too impressed by Batthyany’s book).

Even FAZ (Sandra Kegel), which during its original coverage of our story had to fend off huge ill will from Neue Zürcher Zeitung and others and without whom the German-speaking version of our book would not be available, now withheld mention of our impulse and, as so many others showered by the promotion of the Kiepenheuer & Witsch publishing house, praised Batthyany’s work as a heroic act of self-motivated honesty. And this despite the fact that his book would not exist if FAZ, ten years ago, had not had the courage to allow our „impertinence“, thereby exposing itself to the risk of serious reputational attack at the hands of their rivals in the media.

At the end of May, the Berlin book blogger „Devona“ (www.buchimpressionen.de), having reviewed 75 works of fiction, decided to review a non-fiction audio book for the first time in her life and chose „What’s that to do with me?“ to do so. In her review, she made statements about the role of Margit Batthyany nee Thyssen-Bornemisza in the Rechnitz massacre, which, according to the rudimentary state of her knowledge about the case, were not hers to make. For instance, she described the fact that Margit covered up for two main perpetrators of the crime after the war as mere „conjecture“. So we wrote a comment to her, pointing out the inaccuracy and coarse fatality of her statement. Even the statement concerning the Rechnitz massacre on the official website of the Batthyany family, which is still far from extensive enough, has been admitting for a few years now that this cover-up did happen. So why should an anonymous person, who is obviously not part of the family, disseminate contradictory information?

Devona reacted at great speed and very angrily to the content of our critical analysis. Then she revised her reaction. Now, it was no longer so much the content of our criticism that angered her, as our manner of expressing it, which she alleged to be „impertinent“. And then the author of „Buchimpressionen“ did something truly astonishing. She first took off the name of the German version of our Thyssen book („Die Thyssen-Dynastie. Die Wahrheit hinter dem Mythos“) from her platform, which had been part of our statement. She then accused us of not having provided the German public with a German-speaking version of our work. When she subsequently found out that a German version of our book has existed since 2008, she refused to recognise this fact, because, as she said, „to this day Wikipedia does not refer to a German version“.

The blogger now added that she would „not research to the ends of the Internet after every commentator“. But in truth she had not researched anywhere near the ends of the Internet, she had come to rest at its very first stop. Our book on the Thyssens exists in German, but for Devona it did not exist in German, because on Wikipedia it did not say that it exists in German. This was so indicative of German-speakers’ refusal to engage with the factual content of our book. Was this information handler just too lazy or did she not want to know about the correction? Devona’s statements, in their unfiltered emotionality, were highly revelatory. She had now also stopped addressing me and directed herself exclusively to „Mr Litchfield“, as if the book were the product of an Englishman only and not an English-German co-production.

Wikipedia as a reference point is problematic to us, particularly because FAZ in 2007, during the translation of our article from English to German, carried out several changes to our text, after, amongst other things, conversations with the presumptious head of the ThyssenKrupp archives, Professor Manfred Rasch, and after checking various Wikipedia-pages. The most important one of these changes is this: Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza did not settle permanently in Switzerland in 1932, i.e. one year before Adolf Hitler came to power, but only in 1938, as we found out during our research. The Independent article said 1938, but the FAZ article says 1932. People with adequate historical knowledge know what that means and the roles of Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and of Switzerland during the Second World War have been explained at length in our book. To the less experienced we say simply this: it is a swap that might appear tiny, and which yet has a meaning that is both fundamental and monumental.

Devona thought of our comments to her as being „impertinent“, although they were merely strict. And she refused emphatically to look into the matter in a way that was befitting its gravity. The „impertinence“ of the matter, however, does not lie with us. The outrageousness and the aberration lies with the crimes that were committed in the name of the German people during the Second World War. The impertinence lies with the fact that the Thyssens (who had married into and financed parts of the Batthyany family) gave aid to the anti-democratic, grievously inhumane Nazi-regime, that they set the parameters in which the monstrous crimes against above all the Jews, but also against other people, including the crimes against the German people and their honour, could be carried out. It is impertinent that they have remained silent about it for 70 years, have denied their role and glorified their deeds. It is impertinent that they, in short, have misled the general public and that in large parts they continue to do so. It is only because of their behaviour that this book blogger at this time was still able to express her assumption of Margit Batthyany-Thyssen’s guiltlessness.

The families in question enjoy a comfortable supremacy in society, within the public discourse and in the „regard“ of people, based on their membership of both the world of the financially privileged and of the aristocracy. (NB: the latter is strictly long since defunct both in Germany and in Austria and can be accepted in a democracy only if it does behave in an impeccably democratic manner). Furthermore their status is due to the fact that ThyssenKrupp is still one of the major German employers and that the coal and steel industries, which the Thyssens were unfortunately allowed to continue to control after 1945, helped prevent a total collapse of the country following the Second World War (as Herbert Grönemeyer sings in his song „Bochum“: „your pit gold lifted us up again“).

In arch-conservative Austria, the Batthyanys (who Sacha Batthyany obviously considers himself part of and vice-a-versa, as he lets himself be and is pictured in their midst on their homepage – last row, second from right in the big group picture of the younger generation) continue to have a special status which derives from their long feudal history (the current head of the clan, Count Ladislaus Pascal Batthyany-Strattmann, is a Gentleman of the Papal Household!…).

In view of this, the general public continues „pertinently“ to content itself with its submissive role of being recipients of Thyssen and Batthyany misinformation. One member of the dynasty, Sacha Batthyany, has now written a book, which purports to be an honest examination of the past. But not everyone remains convinced (see in particular Thomas Hummitzsch in “Der Freitag”, but also Michael André on Getidan, and even Luzia Braun, Blue Sofa, Leipzig Book Fair).

Most of the commentators of the Rechnitz massacre say they agree that the graves of the victims have to be found. But while local people have claimed they know where the graves are and the original Russian investigations certainly located them, not everyone amongst the more powerful members of the community, both past and present, seem to be equally willing to contribute to such transparency.

While it appears to be utopic to hope that this might change, times have moved on rapidly since 2007, when our book first appeared. Thyssenkrupp is now an ailing colossus, whose name quite possibly might not exist in its present form in the foreseeable future, following a sale or take-over of all or parts. And German legislation concerning the prosecution of Nazi crimes no longer assumes automatic guiltlessness if a direct participation in acts of killing cannot be proven. A presence and role in the overall crime suffices, and an administrative office some distance away from a gas chamber is close enough for its essential contribution to the effectiveness of the killing machine to be proven. The same goes in the case of Rechnitz for the castle (which was requisitioned by the SS but continued to be financed by the Thyssens) and the Rechnitz murder pit of the night of 24/25 March 1945.

Today it is still mainly the small fish that get dragged before the courts, people such as John Demjanjuk, Oskar Gröning and Reinhold Hanning. But the clock of historical honesty is ticking relentlessly for the big fish too, who still are not working through their past voluntarily and comprehensively. Those Thyssens and Batthyanys, who played unsavoury roles during the Second World War, are dead. It is the democratic duty of their descendants finally to cut through the web of misinformation and stick by not only the positive sides of their history but the negative sides too. Only through their confession can the general public learn the last serious lessons from this history. Only then can permanent healing and reconciliation happen.

But the Thyssen-Bornemiszas and Batthyanys, it seems, do not wish this to happen, possibly because a free, enlightened, democratic public can be better controlled through unsettling, divisive manipulation. The history of the Holocaust could be comprehensively settled by now, if these families had not shirked their responsibilities. The German people could finally be released from a continuation of the drip-drip-drip of Aufarbeitung which is so bone-grinding and thereby effectively counter-productive, if these families did now come clean and accepted the fact that our book is an accurate, independent, historical record.

Deep in the souls of the German and Austrian people, the names Thyssen and Batthyany are inextricably linked to the feelings of honour and pride. However, these families (the Thyssen-Bornemiszas through their head Georg Thyssen, board member of the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and backer of the series „Family – Enterprises – Public. Thyssen in the 20th Century“ (which so far does not mention the Rechnitz massacre at all) and the Batthyanys through their head Count Ladislaus Batthyany-Strattmann, backer of the tomes „The Batthyany Family. An Austro-Hungarian Dynasty of Magnates from the End of the Middle Ages until Today“, which rejects outright any involvement of Margit Batthyany-Thyssen in the Rechnitz massacre!) fail to act honourably by avoiding independent scrutiny and controlling their cooperation in authorised historical publications.

Their shielding leads to a situation where even Germans and Austrians who are anti-Nazi, or purport to be so, cannot recognise the full extent of the Holocaust and thus unwittingly help cover up the true nature of some Nazi crimes, such as the Rechnitz massacre, a process that can all too easily appear to be that of a silent approval.

In the case of Germans and Austrians this is of course particularly devastating. But this kind of dodging is also especially contraindicated for citizens of supposedly „neutral“ countries such as Switzerland, and particularly for Sacha Batthyany. The number of statements he makes in his book and in his press work that are offensive, such as „Marga and Mirta had the Holocaust that they could hold on to. What did I have?“, is also inacceptable.

As long as Sacha Batthyany will continue to claim sympathy rather than guilt for the questionable honesty of his revelations, we will be persistent in this matter. And that is not an „impertinence“. It is our holy duty.

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Ein Eingeständnis der Schuld der Batthyany-Thyssens – serviert durch eine Drehtür

UND WAS HAT DAS MIT MIR ZU TUN? mag einen literarischen Wert haben, oder auch nicht; insoweit es mich angeht ist dieser Punkt ohne Belang. Im Sinne der sachlichen Kritik, und meiner wohlüberlegten Ansicht nach, ist Sacha Batthyany ein arroganter, ichbesessener, scheinheiliger, überholter ungarischer Adeliger, dessen kleines Buch sich schwer dabei tut, den Stellenwert eines Sachbuchs zu erreichen, während der Interessenkonflikt seines Autors immer offensichtlicher wird.

Ich müsste zugeben, Sacha Batthyany gegenüber nicht besonders nachsichtig eingestellt zu sein, was mit seiner Kritik an der Genauigkeit meiner Arbeit zusammenhängt, von der er behauptet, sie sei der Anlass für sein Buch gewesen. Während ich die Quellen meiner Information offenlege ist es jedoch auffallend, dass er dies seinerseits nicht tut, abgesehen von einem hochstilisierten Zurückgreifen auf die Tagebücher seiner Großmutter (die er seltsamerweise plant zu vernichten, nachdem er deren bearbeiteten Inhalt veröffentlicht hat), sowie auf die Tagebücher eines der jüdischen Opfer seiner Familie.

Doch ausser einer gewissen Dankbarkeit für Sacha Batthyany’s Bestätigung, dass das Rechnitz-Massaker tatsächlich stattgefunden hat, und dass seine “Tante” Margit Batthyany (geborene Thyssen-Bornemisza) tatsächlich beteiligt war, muss ich auch eingestehen, dass er einen weiteren, ganz bemerkenswerten Zweck mit großer Fertigkeit erreicht. Durch eine Art literarische Alchemie und ohne jegliche formale Qualifikation (ausser einem Journalismus-Diplom) oder beruhen auf wissenschaftlichen Erkenntnissen hat Sacha Batthyany die Härte der Schuld (ein selbstauferlegtes Gefühl, welches Scham hervorruft) in eine Last der oktroyierten Verunglimpfung verwandelt (wodurch er Mitleid für sich erweckt). Dies könnte durchaus in großen Verkaufszahlen Ausdruck finden, hinter denen er und weitere Gleichgesinnte ihre erwähnte Schuld verbergen können, ohne weiterhin auf die mittlerweile ausgediente Floskel zurückfallen zu müssen, dass die Verbrechen der Vorfahren nur auf ihrem “Befehlsgehorsam” gründeten.

Es gelingt Sacha Batthyany auch, einige Momente in denen er einer Demonstration von Anti-Semitismus sehr nahe kommt, hinter seiner Haltung gegenüber der von ihm angegebenen jüdischen Rolle in der Entwicklung des Kommunismus zu verbergen. Sein virulenter Anti-Kommunismus und seine spektakuläre Dämonisierung Josef Stalins wird bei denen ein offenes Ohr finden (viele davon auch in England und Amerika), die ebenfalls der Meinung sind, dass Stalins Verbrechen so viel schlimmer waren als die von Adolf Hitler. Aber sein größter Stein des Anstoßes gegenüber den Kommunisten scheint sein Beharren darauf zu sein, sie seien dafür verantwortlich gewesen, dass die Familie Batthyany ihr Land, ihre Macht und ihren Ruhm verlor; wobei er vergisst, seine Leser darauf hinzuweisen, dass im Fall des Rechnitzer Schlosses (ehemals Schloss Batthyany), seine Familie es, zusammen mit fünf tausend Morgen Land, vielmehr weit vor 1906 an finanziell besser situierte Besitzer (und schlussendlich an die Thyssens) abtreten musste.

Sacha Batthyanys Beschäftigung mit dem Rechnitz-Massaker von 1945 bildet nur einen kleinen Teil seines Buches; quasi nichts weiter als einen Prolog. Er bevorzugt die offizielle Version der Geschehnisse durch die österreichischen Behörden und wiederholt die altbekannte Angabe, die Juden seien nur getötet worden, um die Ausbreitung des Fleckfiebers zu unterbinden und als direkte Konsequenz eines Telefonanrufs, der von höherer Stelle im Rechnitzer Schloss einging. Er sät Zweifel an der Anwesenheit von “Tante” Margits Ehemann, Ivan Batthyany, in der verhängnisvollen Nacht. Auch weist er alle Beweise zurück, die ihm vom verstorbenen Historiker des Städtchens, Josef Hotwagner, zur Verfügung gestellt wurden. Er lehnt unsere Beweise ab, ignoriert die veröffentlichten Resultate der russischen Untersuchungen und beschuldigt die Einwohner von Rechnitz, das Schloss geplündert zu haben, statt dass er die Hinweise akzeptiert, dass sie vielmehr versuchten, das Feuer zu löschen, welches die flüchtenden deutschen Soldaten gelegt hatten, um eine Nutzung des Gebäudes durch die herannahende Rote Armee zu verhindern (dies ein Teil des Nero-Befehls, dessen örtlicher Vollzug ein viel wahrscheinlicherer, übergreifender Grund für den erwähnten “Telefonanruf” gewesen sein dürfte).

Die gleiche abwertende Haltung den Einwohnern von Rechnitz gegenüber wurde schon von Christine Batthyany in Beantwortung von Fragen des Jewish Chronicle 2007 an den Tag gelegt. Sie stritt jegliche Teilhaberschaft von Margit Batthyany-Thyssen am Massaker ab und behauptete, dass gegenteilige Angaben von “missgünstigen Dorfbewohnern verbreitet” worden seien. Angesichts der Tatsache, dass Rechnitz mit umliegendem Landbesitz vor dem 20. Jahrhundert ein Lehnsgut war, über das die Batthyanys regierten, die, wie die Thyssens, Nazi Kollaborateure wurden, ist es vielleicht verständlich, dass einige Einwohner nicht unbedingt voll von Wärme und brüderlicher Liebe waren; obschon Sacha Batthyany darauf besteht, dass die Rechnitzer Bürger, die er traf, “peinlich” unterwürfig ihm gegenüber auftraten.

Sacha Batthyany vervollständigt seinen Kommentar zum Rechnitz-Massaker mit einer ungestützten Aussage, dass er “sicher” sei, dass “Tante Margit nicht geschossen hat…..Sie hat keine Juden ermordet, wie die Zeitungen behaupten. Es gibt keine Beweise. Es gibt keine Zeugen.” Obwohl er natürlich nicht sicher sein kann. Ich habe nie behauptet, dass sie persönlich Juden erschossen hat, aber, da Zeugen ausgesagt hatten, dass sie ein offensichtliches Wohlgefallen dabei hatte, zuzuschauen wie jüdische Zwangsarbeiter, die im Keller des Schlosses untergebracht waren, geschlagen und getötet wurden, und da sie in der Benutzung von Feuerwaffen versiert war, war es äusserst wahrscheinlich.

Nachdem er nun das Gewissen von beiden Familien (sowohl Thyssen als auch Batthyany) hinsichtlich des Rechnitz-Massakers beschwichtigt hat, ohne dabei viel an sich entschuldigender Betroffenheit über den Tod von hundert achtzig Juden an den Tag zu legen, (oder angesichts der Tatsache, dass sein Zweig der Familie sich noch viele weitere Jahre auf die Profite der deutschen Kriegsmaschinerie, via “Tante” Margit, verlassen hat), ging Sacha Batthyany dazu über, weitere Verbrechen gegen die Menschlichkeit in seiner Familie anzusprechen, um damit seine ichbesessene Suche nach Absolution zu befriedigen. Man sollte ihn vielleicht daran erinnern, dass die finanzielle Unterstützung seines Zweiges der Familie durch seine Großtante und ihre Bereitstellung eines sicheren Hafens für sie, Margits Bruder Heini Thyssen zu der Äußerung veranlasste, sie seien nichts weiter als eine Bande untauglicher Schmarotzer. Diese etwas extreme Meinung wird möglicherweise verständlich, wenn man sich Heinis Aussage vor Augen hält, dass Margits Ehemann “Ivy” eine Affäre mit Heini Thyssens erster Frau, Prinzessin Theresa zu Lippe Bisterfeld Weissenfeld unterhielt, um seinen gesellschaftlich höher gestellten Rang den Thyssens gegenüber auszudrücken.

Erstaunlich fand ich es letztlich auch, dass die angeschlagene UBS Bank, die natürlich jegliche Werbung gut gebrauchen kann, dieses Buch gesponsort hat; genauso wie eine ominöse schweizer Stiftung mit dem Namen Goethe Stiftung Zurich. Bisher haben weder die Thyssens noch die Batthyanys (vor allem die Zweige der Familie, die sich nicht einer bequemen Abhängigkeit von Thyssenscher Finanzkraft hingegeben haben) “Und Was Hat Das Mit Mir Zu Tun?” in irgend einer Weise kommentiert; zum Beispiel indem sie Sacha Batthyany’s Werk für seine vermutlich geschätzte Beschwichtigung hinsichtlich des Rechnitz-Massakers dankend anerkannt hätten. Wir schauen mit Interesse auf die weiteren Entwicklungen in dieser Hinsicht.

Der Heilige Sacha, beim Umwandeln eines schuldigen Gewissens in eine leidvolle Unschuld (photo copyright: Maurice Haas)

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Thanks For The Memories……………of Villa Favorita.

I often wondered what my reaction would be if and when Tita finally sold Villa Favorita; the Thyssen-Bornemiszas’ “ancestral home”, or the closest thing they had to one, on the shore of Lake Lugano. Now I know, but I have to admit it did come as some surprise, when I realised that I was feeling quite emotional. As if I have suffered some personal loss and, in a way, I suppose I have. For during my various visits to Francesca or Heini and sometimes both, at the Villa Favorita, some twenty plus years ago, I never had anything less than an extremely enjoyable time.

But that was in those golden days before I wrote The Thyssen Art Macabre and everyone but Heini and Tita blamed me for their forbears’ misdeeds. For it is a little known fact that the rich often don’t like journalists or writers because they have managed to convince themselves that it wasn’t their fault that they, or the aforementioned forbears, did what they did, but the messenger’s fault for revealing it.

Now there were three ways to get to Villa Favorita, and probably still are: by road, by plane to Milan and taxi to Lugano or by plane to Geneva and a local connecting flight to Lugano (which has a notoriously short runway that Prince Charles overshot. Thus successfully diverting attention away from the purpose of his visit, which Heini insisted was to persuade him to move his art collection to Britain.)

I tried all three options, the latter part of the second being arranged by the staff at Villa Favorita and consisting of a reliance on the services of an ancient Packard, Dodge or Chevrolet driven by a man calling himself The Swiss Cowboy, who, with little or no encouragement, accompanied his renditions of Hank Williams classics on an ancient Gibson acoustic, while simultaneously challenging three lanes of busy afternoon traffic. His passengers’ eventual arrival in a state of catatonic shock subsequently awarding Heini and Francesca endless amusement!

Actually, you can also get there by train, which I seem to remember doing once, but I can’t remember anything about it, apart from being picked up by Francesca in her brand new BMW M3 convertible, which she drove with sufficient speed to replace my calm well-being with, for her, an amusing degree of terror.

I also tried the more local flight path via Geneva, but the second part of the journey involved navigating through the mountains with only a matter of feet between wing tips and snowy peaks, thus resulting in even greater terror and subsequent hysteria.

Sometimes we slept in one of the guest rooms, behind and above the Villa where the motley crew of dogs would come and wake us before waiting for breakfast to arrive. I also stayed with Francesca at her separate house, looking down on the Villa and out over the sparkling lake. And other times at the little Italian Hotel, down on the lakeside where the owner would sing Puccini while serving the customers supper, as God supplied the instrumental accompaniment, in the form of a magnificent thunderstorm.

The Villa’s banqueting hall was designed to seat eighty guests so, weather permitting, we ate lunch on the terrace and supper in an alcove with Tita or Francesca and sometimes Simon Levie; the highly entertaining art historian and director of the Rijksmuseum who, when I complained about the long-stemmed wine glasses with the miniature green bowls engraved with hunting scenes, and how they held insufficient wine and looked like something Heini had bought in a charity shop, giggled and said, while we doubtless all agreed, they were very old Hungarian glasses worth at least ten-thousand pounds each.

We also drank much better wine than Tita would ever serve in all the years I dined with Heini in Spain. One night with supper at the Villa we started on 1970 Margaux Grand Cru and stayed up all night drinking ever more expensive wines. Giorgio, his wonderfully elegant Italian butler, eventually started to plead with Heini not to be asked to open bottles worth thousands, because we were so obviously way past the point where our critical faculties were any longer operating. But Heini giggled and took even greater pleasure in his demands. After that Giorgio used to welcome me back with a resigned smile, while shaking his head from side to side.

Some evenings we would all go out to a restaurant. Heini and Tita would be driven in his Mercedes 600 Pullman, for which he had paid a premium for the removal of the glass division between the driver and his passengers. We would follow in another Mercedes with two bodyguards and their guns; the same bodyguards who Heini later told Tita, had drunk all his most expensive wines; while smiling at me across the table.

Tita often wore a solitaire diamond ring in which the pillow-shaped, pure white diamond must have been nearly two inches long. She also wore diamond and emerald earrings that were so heavy she had to have gold hooks over the top of her ears to support them. But this was in the days when Heini had his own jet and an ocean-going yacht, as well as the second biggest art collection in the world.

Two or three times he took me round the museum and into the storage room, which was like being inside a giant filing cabinet containing huge files on which pictures were hung; hundreds of them. He never talked much about the paintings or the artists, just anecdotes relating to their acquisition; how much he paid for them and how much they had become worth after being restored; though once, when we were both feeling rather emotional, Heini quietly cried and told me that he would have given his entire collection in return for being able to paint.

Another day, the entire board of directors from General Motors arrived for a meeting with Heini, which should have had nothing to do with me. But before I could arrange alternative entertainment for myself, Tita informed me that the men had arrived with their wives, for whom she was apparently expected to act as hostess and entertain for lunch on the terrace and expected me to help her. It wasn’t an order but it was close! And much to my surprise, it proved to be an enjoyable and valuable experience. It was the first time that I had seen Tita in full charm mode and I have to admit, it was extremely impressive, to both me and to the corporate wives.

As the only male guest I didn’t really have to work very hard. The palatial backdrop helped me give my best Noel Coward impression and the rest was down to the hot sun and ‘ennnnndless’ champagne.

Heini didn’t like the Villa very much. No one did. Only his father had done and Sandor Berkes, Heinrich’s surviving, deeply wonderful Hungarian chauffeur, manservant, curator and companion still did. It was fusty and damp and styleless; full of fake grandeur and art and guilty secrets.

I felt sorry for it. For despite the fact that Villa Favorita and Switzerland had protected the Thyssen-Bornemisza fortune, it had never been appreciated or a real home to any of them. Just a monument to a very, very rich but dysfunctional family, including four banished ex-wives and their children.

The last time I stayed at the Villa, I spent two days on Francesca`s beautiful faux Renaissance terrace, making a piece of sculpture. It consisted of a cracked wooden heart with a giant cast iron nail driven through it; in anticipation, perhaps, of how I already sensed the Thyssen-Bornemisza family would come to an end, at the Villa Favorita, by the side of Lake Lugano.

Grand Cru Classe: Heini Thyssen and David Litchfield at Villa Favorita, ca. 1989 (photo: Nicola Graydon)

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‘Killing’ Thyssen Party

On the night of 27 November 2009, Francesca Habsburg (nee Thyssen) gave a party to celebrate her gold medal award by the county of Vienna, for her services to art. To present the niece of Margit Batthyany (nee Thyssen), owner of Rechnitz Castle and hostess of the party in March 1945 during which 180 Hungarian Jews were murdered, with a gold medal, while the investigations are ongoing, is, in my opinion, extremely questionable. But for Francesca to indicate on her invitation that she expects her guests to come ‘DRESSED TO KILL’ is more than a step too far. Let us hope that it is purely the result of her arrogance and thoughtlessness, rather than some insulting gesture to the memory of the victims of the Rechnitz Massacre.

Unfortunately, I cannot voice my reaction as explicitly as I would like, for legal reasons. Interestingly, some of the Austrian commentators were also less than impressed:

23. November 2009, 17:08 (Andrea Schurian, DER STANDARD Printausgabe 24.11.2009)

‘Eine Frage der Ehre (Verdienstvolle Zeichen)

Wien preist seine ehrenwerten Bürgerinnen und Bürger in sieben Abstufungen; da gibt es Halsdekorationen mit und ohne Bruststernen; nur Bruststerne. Oder, in den hinteren Rängen: Medaillen. Das Goldene Verdienstzeichen des Landes Wien ist eine Medaille mit goldenen Strahlen, vergeben für große Verdienste. Danach kommt nur mehr Silber. Alles klar so weit.

Am Donnerstag vergoldet Wien der Kunstmäzenin Francesca Habsburg-Lothringen, née Thyssen- Bornemisza, ihre großen Verdienste mit einer solchen Medaille. Mit ihrer Kunststiftung namens T-B A21 tut sie viel für die Kunst – und die Künstler (mitunter auch die öffentliche Hand) viel für sie und ihren Ruhm.

Kurzum: Alles sehr verdienstvoll. Auch die superlative Goldmedaillen-Party alias DJ-Battle alias Wohltätigkeits-Event: sehr ehrenvoll. Eintritt für einfache Charity-Dancer von 50 Euro aufwärts, einen Zehnpersonentisch gibt es für minimum 1000 Mäuse. Klamottencode: Dressed to kill. Auch klar.

Nur das mit der Location war nicht so ganz klar. Das Mak [Museum für angewandte Kunst] werde Schauplatz der DJ-Sause, hieß es im Profil. Aber Peter Noever wollte nicht so gut sein und das Museum gratis zur Verfügung stellen. Weil: warum? Und zu wessen höherer Ehre?

Andererseits: Wie kann man sich denn so richtig toll fühlen, wenn es die anderen nicht so gut mit einem meinen? Die Party findet nun in der Ankerbrotfabrik statt. Eine Frage der Ehre. Klar.’

Mrs Habsburg

Mrs Habsburg

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Will The Thyssen Family Be Looking For A New HQ?

Four or five years ago, a member of the Thyssen family told me his brother Georg was selling off their manufacturing companies and concentrating on investment services. Apparently, he had already been getting a regular 10% return on family money when the best anyone else was getting was 5 or 6%.

Well, it appears Georg was probably getting as much as 15 or 16% and taking the margin as profit. It was obviously good business. So good that he managed to sell the deal to others. So far, so good. But then the source of his miraculous return ceased to be so miraculous, as Bernie Madoff’s dark little secret became very, very public.

Quite rapidly those who had used the services of the Thyssen-Bornemisza company ‘Thybo Advisory’ realised that the chances of getting their money back from Bernie were non-existent, especially when he was awarded a 150-year jail sentence, so they (US-Trustee Irving Picard and the Belgian Investor Representative Deminor) decided to take Thybo Advisory to court. Judging by the fact that Thybo’s secretive Monaco offices were recently the subject of a police raid, one has to assume there may have been a certain lack of transparency somewhere down the line.

This is obviously bad news for the Thyssens, and all those who invested in Thybo. It appears that the amount lost may have been a great deal more than originally thought. The Monegasque authorities are also particularly allergic to these kind of goings on and may soon be asking the family to relocate. Perhaps the Thyssens will join many others in learning that the reluctance to pay tax and the desire to make a profit without working inevitably ends in tears.

The Monaco headquarters of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Group on Boulevard Princesse Charlotte

The Monaco headquarters of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Group and Thybo Advisory on Boulevard Princesse Charlotte

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Thyssen-Bornemisza Condom Poem

Holy Mary, we believe
Without sin Thou dids’t conceive
Holy Mary, thus believing
May we sin without conceiving

by The Great Bronzino


http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2009/oct/02/david-beckham-condoms-madrid
http://www.elmundo.es/2009/10/10/laotracronica/19688612_impresora.html

Heini Thyssen's favourite painting is used to decorate a condom. Definitely not what he had in mind, nor Domenico Ghirlandaio.

Heini Thyssen's favourite painting is used to decorate a condom. Definitely not what he had in mind, nor Domenico Ghirlandaio.

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