VIENNA (AP) — Roland Prinz, who was born as armies began marching across central Europe then spent nearly four decades covering the Cold War and the fall of communism for The Associated Press, has died. He was 85.
Prinz was a linchpin of the AP’s coverage of the turmoil that accompanied the end of the Cold War, starting with the rise of Solidarity in Poland, stretching through the Velvet Revolution in the Czech Republic, the fall of the Berlin Wall and finally the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Throughout his career, Prinz was a gentlemanly presence in the news service’s Vienna bureau, helping newcomers navigate life in the Austrian capital and guiding coverage with his broad knowledge of central Europe.
A team player, Prinz, who died on Nov. 20 in Vienna, was always anxious to contribute to stories, regardless of whether he got the byline, said former Vienna bureau chief Robert Reid.
“Roland was an old school Central European, a gentleman of courtly manners and deep personal warmth behind a dignified, sometimes gruff, exterior,” Reid said. “He was an accomplished linguist with a deep knowledge of English grammar that sometimes surpassed that of native-speaking reporters and editors.”
Born July 11, 1938 in Varnsdorf, a town in what was then Czechoslovakia, Prinz was almost immediately caught up in the geopolitical conflicts that gripped Europe for most of his life. Months later, Nazi Germany sent troops into Varnsdorf and the rest of what was known as the Sudetenland, using the region’s large ethnic German population as a pretext for the aggression that later triggered World War II.
The son of a forester, Prinz was the youngest of three children. The family moved to what is now northern Slovenia in 1942 and later to Carinthia, the southernmost state of Austria. As World War II was coming to a close, his father returned to Slovenia. He never came home.
The years that followed were marked by poverty. Prinz’s mother, who was deaf, worked in a pencil factory and a school kitchen to support her children. An uncle stepped in to help support Prinz through secondary school.
After military service, Prinz began pursuing his love of languages, taking on a series of jobs to finance six years of study as an English interpreter. He met his future wife. Eva-Maria Trimmel, toward the end of his studies and the two bonded over their shared love of language. They married in 1968, and he remained devoted to her until her death in 1988.
He is survived by the couple’s two daughters, Barbara Vanek and Nina Lamel.
Prinz joined the AP’s Vienna bureau in 1967 at a time when the Austrian capital was a hub for coverage of Eastern Europe. He was a mainstay of the bureau until he retired.
His career stretched from the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that stamped out an early drive for reform in 1968 to the mass protests that finally tore down the Iron Curtain two decades later.
Amid these pressures, Prinz considered one of his greatest triumphs to be a story he didn’t write, according to former Vienna bureau chief Alison Smale. She recounted the greatest story never told at Prinz's Nov. 28 funeral.
Soon after young people took to the streets of Prague in November 1989 at the start of what became known as the Velvet Revolution, the protesters were gripped with fear amid reports that a student named Martin Schmid had been killed.
While rivals accepted the reports at face value, Prinz and Prague correspondent Ondrej Hejma called every hospital in the Czech capital through the night to find a corpse. There was none. The lie was exposed.
“He was a stickler for accuracy and fairness,″ John Daniszewski, AP’s editor at large for standards, said. ”He represented the highest values of AP journalism.”
Prinz tried to instill that same attention to detail to the young reporters he mentored.
When editing a story, he would take time to explain everything that was wrong with it, then soften the critique by saying, “Don’t worry, these are things I can fix,” recalled Andrea Dudik, a former correspondent in Bratislava, the Slovak capital.
“I was at first scared of him, but he was the kindest person,'' said Dudik, now the senior reporter for Central and Eastern Europe for Bloomberg News. “He was very caring and protective of me. I always felt so special.''
His difficult early life also gave Prinz sympathy for others suffering similar dislocation.
Former AP Sarajevo correspondent Aida Cerkez recalled her first visit to the Vienna bureau after joining the AP during the siege of the Bosnian capital. Upon arrival, Prinz presented her with a Sacher Torte, the legendary Viennese chocolate cake that comes in a small wooden box.
“Imagine coming from the siege, no water, no food, no electricity … you come to your superior’s office, you know the names but those names get a face for the first time. You are scared, embarrassed because of your old and ugly clothes and someone puts a cake in your lap,’’ Cerkez said. “Priceless.”
After his retirement, Prinz devoted time to his passion for foreign languages. He studied French, Italian and Spanish at the same time, making new friends along the way.
He also spent time with his grandchildren Christoph Lamel, Jakob Lamel and Miriam Vanek, often cooking for them after school. Grandpa’s apple strudel was a favorite.
“Even though his life was marked by difficult times and strokes of fate, he always fought his way back,’’ his daughter Nina said. “He sought and found balance in his beloved garden. His cherry tree in particular was his pride and joy; he couldn’t rest until the last cherry was harvested and preserved.’’
Rhonda Shafner contributed from New York