Why is Liechtenstein still there?

As editor of the Timemap of World History, unsurprisingly that I spend most of my time looking at the big picture of world history. But actually, I am also fascinated by the smallest countries in the world. Some time ago I put up a post about Monaco; now I want to write about Liechtenstein.

A unique relic of the Holy Roman Empire

Liechtenstein is that tiny country which lies between Austria and Switzerland. It must be almost the quintessential miniature state – set in beautiful Alpine scenery, and its people (all 37,000 of them) enjoying one of the highest standards of living in the world.

As a historian, however, what’s most interesting to me is the fact that it is a unique hold-over from the days when the Holy Roman Empire covered a huge swathe of central Europe. At that time, the German-speaking lands were littered with hundreds of principalities, many of them minuscule, all under the loose suzerainty of the Holy Roman emperor.

All these tiny and not-so-tiny states have gone, absorbed into Austria or Germany.

Germany and Austria today
Germany, Austria and tiny little (unmarked) Liechtenstein today – can you see it?

This raises two questions, in my mind at least. The most obvious is, why is Liechtenstein still there? And the second is, how did it get there in the first place?

An emperor with a throne, but little power

The second question is not really a mystery. Although I didn’t know the details of how Liechtenstein in particular came into being, I knew that there were hundreds of tiny principalities, along with several much larger ones, in that part of the world. In fact, from the 13th or 14th century onwards, that was the most characteristic thing about the Holy Roman Empire: it wasn’t a unitary state at all, but a hotch-potch of states – duchies, margravates, counties, minor lordships, bishoprics, archbishoprics, free cities – of all sizes and shapes, all presided over, with ever less actual authority, by the emperor. It was the kind of set-up which could only have come to exist in Europe’s feudal age (for the historical background to all this, see the sequence of history map pages on the Holy Roman Empire).

Holy Roman Empire 1453
The Holy Roman Empire in 1453

Confederation and Empire

But of course the situation is very different now. The Holy Roman Empire is long gone – abolished in 1806 by Napoleon. The tiniest states, the more than a thousand lordships belonging to figures known as “imperial knights” (each typically consisting of a village with a hill-top castle floating above it) disappeared along with it: the larger states within the former empire simply gobbled them up. But many small states continued to exist throughout the 19th century, some, like Liechtenstein, very small indeed. They belonged to the Confederation of the Rhine, which Napoleon set up, and then the German Confederation, which was established after Napoleon’s defeat. This lasted until the Austro-Prussian war of 1866, which led to the North German Confederation being set up, which was under Prussian domination and excluded Austria.

Prussia’s domination was soon formalized by the creation of the German Empire in 1871, but most of the small states inherited from previous arrangements continued in being, albeit with their freedom of action now severely curtailed.

The German-speaking lands in 1871

We all know what happened next. In 1914 the First World War broke out, and by the end of 1918 the German Empire had gone down in defeat. All the small German principalities within the empire were swept away in the post-war treaties, along with the German Empire itself; they were absorbed into the new German Republic.

So this leads on the first question posed at the top of this post: how did Liechtenstein survive all this?

Saved by its geography

The answer, when I managed to track it down, turned out to be quite simple. Liechtenstein did not join the North German Confederation. Because of its position, between Austria and Switzerland, it remained within the Austrian sphere – the only former member of the Holy Roman Empire to do so (apart from the former principalities and duchies which had long become part of Austria itself).

But, I hear you say, Austria finished up on the losing side of the First Wold War, so why did Liechtenstein not disappear like all the other principalities?

One part of the answer is that, although it remained part of the Austrian sphere after the Austro-Prussian war of 1866, it was not forced to become part of the Austrian empire. I’m not sure why this was. It may simply be because, as it was the only small principality within the Austrian sphere of influence, the Austrian government never got round to doing anything about it; but it may also be because, even at this late date the princes of Liechtenstein still did not actually live in their tiny state. They still lived as Austrian nobles, drawing the bulk of their income from their Austrian lands and following careers in the Austrian imperial capital, Vienna. Here they continued to live most of their time, only occasionally visiting their Alpine subjects. In fact they did not actually go and live full-time in their principality until after World War 2.

Bucking the trend

The second part of the answer to why Liechtenstein did not vanish along with all the other small German principalities is because, in the last decades of the 19th century, it began to draw closer to its other neighbour, Switzerland. This was for economic reasons. But it meant that, when the First World War came along, it followed Switzerland’s example by remaining neutral.

It was this more than anything else which saved it from the fate of all the other principalities, as it was ignored by the wide-ranging treaties which ended that war and radically re-drew the map of central Europe. This was an escape which has allowed Liechtenstein, alone of all the many German principalities, to sail serenely on into the 21st century. It is indeed a relic from a former age – and all the better for that!

By Peter Britton