Is Liechtenstein the Monaco of the North? Or a vestige of the Middle Ages? We clear up five common misconceptions about the Principality.
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 close look at them, that is.
Below are the five biggest misconceptions about Liechtenstein - plus a true fun fact at the end.
One of the biggest misconceptions about Liechtenstein is that it is a kind of "Monaco of the Central Alps". According to this notion, the country's rich and beautiful citizens live in luxury villas with swimming pools and like to attend champagne-fueled 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 has internalized and now embodies. Although the idealization of the Principality's down-to-earth mentality may have transformed it into somewhat of a national myth, the rural character of Liechtenstein, a country without a city, does, in fact, remain prevalent to this day.
This second misconception about Liechtenstein can quickly make the person who voices it unpopular. 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 often also mistaken for Luxembourgers.
Liechtensteiners do not enjoy hearing such remarks. Why? Because most of them have a better understanding of what they are not 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, or in other words, for reasons that were 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", and of a unified Liechtenstein.
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 times long past are guilty of yet another common misconception. First of all, because according to that logic, only medium to large-sized states can be "modern". This way of thinking, however, is in line with a widely held belief in Liechtenstein in the 19th century that being small meant being out of date and "medieval". In reality, however, many institutions and symbols of the Liechtenstein state are no older than those of other European states.
If you look at the castle towering over Liechtenstein's capital, Vaduz, you are not looking at a medieval building but at a romanticized 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. If you wander through a souvenir shop in Vaduz, you will find more Swiss-inspired items referencing the Alps than any real reflection of past or present village or rural life in Liechtenstein.
States have often had to reinvent themselves over the last 200 years, both politically and economically. This also holds true for small states.
There are many misconceptions about the monarchy in Liechtenstein. In 2019, the country celebrated its 300th anniversary, and thus its elevation to the status of a principality in 1719. The existence of the state is thus closely linked to the monarchy, which explains its strong symbolic importance, and why it enjoys such broad support.
However, this does not make Liechtenstein an absolute monarchy, nor does it negate the Principality's democratic traditions. 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 the symbolic nature of the monarchy, because it became especially popular in the 1930s and 1940s as a rallying cry against Nazi propaganda.
The Prince and the monarchy are an exceptionally important part of Liechtenstein’s identity, which is why these institutions are always passionately defended.
People, especially the Swiss, like to joke that Liechtenstein is actually the country's 27th canton. 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 neighbor to the west. The partnership with Switzerland is important, however, hardly anyone in Liechtenstein is looking to join the Swiss Confederation.
There was recently a fun 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 actually true. The 81st soldier was an Austrian lieutenant who marched back with the Liechtenstein soldiers and, as a result, achieved unexpected, posthumous fame. Having nuggets of information like this at the ready can come in handy when you are traveling abroad and participating in question-and-answer sessions about Liechtenstein.
Cover image: © Liechtenstein Marketing/Martin Walser