Why Does Liechtenstein Even Exist?

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If I was to ask you what the wealthiest royal family in Europe was, your first guess would probably be the British Royal Family. 

But it isn’t. 

It also isn’t the royal families in Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, or even the wealthy enclave of Monaco. 

The richest royal family is also the unlikeliest. 

Learn more about Liechtenstein, how their family got so wealthy, and why the country even exists, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I’m guessing that most of you have heard of Lichtenstein, but I’d also guess that most of you haven’t been there.

It is a tiny country, one of the smallest in the world, sandwiched between Switzerland and Austria.  It is one of only two countries in the world that is doubly landlocked. In other words, it is surrounded by countries that are themselves landlocked. The other one is Uzbekistan.

I remember hiking up in the Swiss Alps in the Sardona region once and my guide pointed down in the valley and said, “you can see Liechtenstein from here”. By that he didn’t mean we could see the Liechtenstein territory from where we were, he meant that we could literally see the entire country from our vantage point. 

Liechtenstein is about 15 miles north to south and 5 miles across east to west. It only has a population of about 39,000 people. 

As with many of the micro-states in Europe, it has its origins back before the wave of national unification which happened in the 18th and 19th. Prior to then, Europe was a patchwork of kingdoms, dutchies, and principalities. 

Liechtenstein, the country, takes its name from the Liechtenstein family. Their origins date back about 900 years to Eastern Austria. The family got their name from Liechtenstine Castle which is still owned by the family and is located near Vienna. It was built in the 12th century and destroyed twice in 1529 and 1683, but it was rebuilt by the family in 1884.

The land which is today the country of Liechtenstein was mostly originally the county of Vaduz, which makes up the lower ? of the modern state.  Vaduz today is the capital Liechtenstein. 

In the 17th century, there were a series of witch trials that took place in Vaduz known as the Liechtenstein Witch Trials. There were a series of trials from 1648–1651 and another series that took place from 1679–1682. In each set of witch trials, about 100 people were executed. 

In reality, the then ruler of Vaduz was heavily in debt and everyone executed had their assets taken by the state.

In 1719, Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI decree that the county of Vaduz and the Lordship of Schellenberg would be combined into the Principality of Liechtenstein, named after Anton Florian of Liechtenstein. It was also formally integrated into the Holy Roman Empire.

At no point in the first 100 years of the Principality of Liechtenstein did the Prince of Liechtenstein ever actually visit. 

OK, so fun history lesson, but as is the case with the other microstates that I’ve covered in the past, such as San Marino and Andorra, the big question is, how did this country manage to survive to the modern-day?

As with both Andorra and San Marino, the answer has to do with Napoleon. 

After Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, the Holy Roman Empire effectively ceased to exist. Prior to the battle, Liechtenstein was almost merged into Bavaria. 

Instead, it became an independent state in Napoleon’s Confederation of the Rhine. 

After the fall of Napoleon, they joined the German Confederation until 1866 and then were closely allied with the Austrian Empire until World War I.

Technically, they were neutral in WWI but were embargoed by the Allies due to their close ties with Austria.

After WWI, they shifted their attention to Switzerland, which then became their primary benefactor. 

Just before World War II, the Prince of Liechtenstein, for the first time in the over 200 years since the Principality was established, finally took up residence in Liechtenstein. 

During the Second World War, Liechtenstein was officially neutral along with Switzerland, and during this time they took all of the assets they could from other family holdings in Europe and brought them to Liechtenstein. 

After World War II, most of the lands owned by the family in Poland and Czechloslavia were seized by the communist governments there. More on that in a bit. 

Post world war II, the country found itself in extremely bad shape financially. They resorted to selling off the family’s art collection to raise money.

In 1967, they sold one of the few remaining paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, the “Ginevra de’ Benci”. It was sold to the National Gallery of Art in the United States for $5 million dollars, which was at the time the record price for a painting. 

Liechtenstein was the last country in Europe to allow women the right to vote. In 1984 there was a referendum on the subject with only men voting in the referendum. It passed with only 51% of the vote. 

Today the country is a monarchy with an elected parliament. While the Prince is the head of state, he has more power than most monarchs in Europe. In 2003, the country by a ? vote passed a new constitution that granted more powers to the Prince, including the right to veto the parliament. 

These powers were confirmed by an even greater 76% in a referendum in 2012. 

Today Liechtenstein has one of the highest standards of living in the world. The largest company in the country is Hilti, which is a manufacturer of high-end tools. They also are a tax haven and there are more corporations registered in the country than there are citizens. 

Every August 15 is the country’s national day, and they have a celebration that is unique in the world. The entire country is invited to a party which is thrown by the prince at Vaduz Castle. Drinks are available and everyone can personally meet the prince. 

In 1990, Liechtenstein joined the United Nations and in 2007 they opened their first embassy, which was in the United States. They have embassies in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium as well. In all other countries, they are represented by Switzerland.

While Liechtenstein has been neutral for most of its history, they have been accidentally invaded on several occasions by Switzerland. In 1968, five artillery shells accidentally hit a ski resort which damaged some chairs. In 1976, 75 Swiss soldiers took a wrong turn and accidentally went a half kilometer into Liechtenstein. They did the same thing in 1992 and 2007. After the 2007 incursion, a Liechtenstein spokesperson said, “It’s not like they invaded with attack helicopters. No problem, these things happen”.

Before I mentioned that the Liechtenstein family had their lands outside of the country confiscated after World War II. Well, by far, the largest of these holdings was in Czechloslavia. In fact, the land they held there was 10 times larger than the entire country of Liechtenstein is today. 

As a result, Liechtenstein had no relations with Czechloslavia during the Cold War. Even after Czechloslavia ceased to exist, they refused to recognize either the Czech Republic or Slovakia until 2009, and even today they still do not recognize the seizure of their land. 

Today, most of the land is a UNESCO World Heritage site known as the Lednice-Valtice Cultural Landscape. I had the pleasure of visiting this site several years ago, and in many ways, it is actually more interesting than visiting Liechtenstein itself. 

Back in the introduction, I mentioned that the Liechtenstein family is the richest royal family in Europe, and this is true. They are the sixth richest royal family in the world behind Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Aub Dhabi, and Morocco. 

Their wealth primarily comes from two sources. The first is their extensive art collection. Even though they sold off many pieces after the war, they still have an extensive collection that is valued at close to $2 billion dollars. 

The rest comes from their holdings in the LGT Group. Formerly known as The Liechtenstein Global Trust, the LGT group offers high-end private banking and asset management. 

Before the 2003 constitution referendum, Prince Hans-Adam the second threatened to sell the country to Bill Gates if the election didn’t go his way. Given the total value of the Liechteinstine family wealth at around $4 billion dollars, it raises the question if such of thing could even be done. Could the Prince of Liechtenstein transfer his role and title, and basically sell a country, to someone for a price? It would almost be trivial for a billionaire like Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos to spend a few billion dollars to buy a sovereign country. 

While the question of selling the country is unresolved, the question of renting it is not. In 2011, the country was available to rent for $70,000 per day and was listed on AirBnB….and it was not a joke.

It was intended for corporate events. For $70 grand your company would get streets renamed for a day, as well as accommodations for 150 people in Vaduz Castle, the keys to the country, and a wine tasting with the Prince of Liechtenstein himself.

If anyone is up for it, I say we do a Kickstarter to raise the $70,000. If we can get 150 people, it would only cost $467 per person. 

Sure, that’s a lot for one night, but then again, when else are you ever going to have an entire country to yourself?