The Principality of Liechtenstein is steeped in misconceptions and mystery, from the lifestyle of its inhabitants to its political system. What should we know about this country, home to the Princely Family and headquarters of LGT?
Whether or not something is exotic depends on the context. For example, when Liechtenstein citizens travel abroad, they are used to being considered exotic. When they tell people where they come from, the revelation is often met with surprise and delight, and a whole series of questions that they have answered a hundred times in the past. This phenomenon leads many of my fellow Liechtensteiners feeling like a walking, talking Wikipedia page on Liechtenstein.
The fact that small states like San Marino, Monaco, Malta or Andorra are considered exotic is hardly surprising, nor is the fact that many clichés are not exactly true. But in a way, it is precisely the misconceptions that exist about Liechtenstein that best reveal its identity. If we take a closer look at them, that is.
One of the biggest misconceptions about Liechtenstein is that it is a kind of "Monaco of the Central Alps", where the country's rich and beautiful citizens live in luxury villas with swimming pools and like to attend champagne-fuelled parties. However, this does not correspond with reality, nor with how Liechtensteiners see themselves.
Unlike, say, Monaco, Liechtenstein is and has for centuries been very rural. Rural traditions and ways of life have only started to recede in recent decades as prosperity has increased. However, a very down-to-earth mentality remains typical of Liechtenstein.
The change in Liechtenstein from "farmer to fiduciary", as the popular saying goes, is not one that everyone in Liechtenstein now embodies. The rural character of Liechtenstein, a country without a city, does, in fact, remain prevalent to this day.
The inhabitants of the Principality are often told that they are "actually" Swiss, Austrian or sometimes even German. And, due to some people's lack of knowledge about geography, Liechtensteiners are also often mistaken for Luxembourgers.
Liechtensteiners do not enjoy hearing such remarks. Why? Because most of them have a better understanding of what they are not rather than what they are. Defining what is typically Liechtenstein is not easy. However, it is clear to all Liechtensteiners that whatever this is, it is certainly not Swiss, Austrian or German.
This way of defining themselves based on what they are not is undoubtedly related to the fact that the creation of Liechtenstein was somewhat accidental. This small state still exists today for geographical and political reasons beyond the influence of its inhabitants. And this is not a big help when you want to create a national identity or engender a feeling of "us". That's why Liechtensteiners tend to define themselves based on what they are not a part of: Switzerland or Austria's history.
Those who consider Liechtenstein to be a vestige of centuries past are guilty of yet another common misconception. In reality, many institutions and symbols of the Liechtenstein state are no older than those of other European states. Just because the country is small does not mean it is necessarily older than its neighbouring states.
If you look at the castle towering over Liechtenstein's capital, Vaduz, you are not looking at a medieval building but in fact a romanticised reconstruction dating back to the early 20th century. And the Princely Family has not lived in the castle since the Middle Ages - they moved there from Austria in 1938.
States have often had to reinvent themselves over the last 200 years, both politically and economically. This also holds true for Liechtenstein.
There are many misconceptions about the monarchy in Liechtenstein. In 2019, the country celebrated its 300th anniversary and its elevation to the status of a principality in 1719. The existence of the state is closely linked to the monarchy, which explains its strong symbolic importance, and why it enjoys such broad support.
Nevertheless, this does not make Liechtenstein an absolute monarchy, nor does it negate the Principality's tradition of democracy.
People sometimes make fun of the Principality's motto: "Für Gott, Fürst und Vaterland" (For God, the Prince and the Fatherland), which can be seen on bumper stickers in Liechtenstein or written with pyrotechnics on the wall of Vaduz Castle in celebration of Liechtenstein's national day. However, this motto underscores more the symbolic nature of the monarchy, because it became especially popular in the 1930s and 1940s as a rallying cry against Nazi propaganda.
People, especially the Swiss, like to joke that Liechtenstein is actually the country's 27th canton (administrative division). And although there is indeed a close political and economic connection between the two countries thanks to their customs and currency union, there is no truth in this misconception.
Until the First World War, Liechtenstein was often described as an "annex" of Austria-Hungary. However, Liechtenstein's foreign policy since the Second World War stands in stark contrast to this idea. Since that time, Liechtenstein foreign policy has focused on sovereignty and strengthening the Principality's national identity. For example, Liechtenstein became a member of the UN before Switzerland and, as part of the European Economic Area (EEA), is also better integrated into Europe than its neighbour to the west. Whilst the partnership with Switzerland is important, few in Liechtenstein would look to join the Swiss Confederation.
There was recently a fact circulating on the internet about how, during its last war in 1866, Liechtenstein sent 80 soldiers abroad to fight, and 81 soldiers returned… This is one story that is in fact true. The 81st soldier was an Austrian lieutenant who marched back with the Liechtenstein soldiers and, as a result, achieved unexpected, posthumous fame.
A handy nugget of information when you next speak about Liechtenstein!
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