“Eins, zwei, drei… los!” shouted Patrick Dünser, strapped behind me. This was my signal to run down the mountainside, pushing through the thick snow until I was treading air. Clearing the treetops, we kept to the near side of the Rhine. Beyond lay Switzerland. Behind us was Austria. Barely airborne, Patrick pointed out the western border before we turned round again to take in the overview of Liechtenstein – from a paraglider.
Suspended at altitude, I surveyed the length and breadth of the world’s sixth-smallest state. Having lived in Switzerland, holidayed in Austria and taught my students about the 19th-century unification of “German” territories – little lands similar to this one – I’d overlooked Liechtenstein, figuratively speaking. Now I could do so quite literally.
A little over 15 miles stretched out before me, the length of the country. The lowland landscape is scattered with settlements, but noticeably less densely than in neighbouring nations. Cattle graze the pastures; banks stand where there were once shepherds’ huts; factories cut the world’s false teeth. Thirty-eight percent of the employed work in industry, a surprisingly large proportion by international standards. To the south I could see much of the eight or so miles rising to the ski resort of Malbun. We flew on past the castle that stands watch over this tiny country – it does so for tradition’s sake only; Liechtenstein has long since dissolved its army. It still has a ruling prince. (Two, in fact: a head of state, and his son who performs day-to-day duties.) I trod air again – to warm up and in preparation for landing. A quarter of an hour after take-off – and having taken in the whole country – I landed back in Liechtenstein on my feet.
It’s easy to miss Liechtenstein on a map, or to lose it in the footnotes of history books. Like Britain, Liechtenstein is a constitutional monarchy, but with a population of around 38,000 to Britain’s 66m. The state’s story is simple. Before becoming a country in 1719, Liechtenstein consisted of just two counties, accountable to – but oddly not owned by – the Habsburgs. One of the counties, Schellenberg, was put up for sale in 1699 by the counts in charge of it because of their own exorbitant debts. Johann Adam Andreas von Liechtenstein paid 115,000 guilders for it, and another 290,000 for the second region, Vaduz, in 1712. The Liechtensteins were Austrian aristocrats who had risen to power at the Habsburg court but had no principality, or Fürstentum, which meant they lacked a seat at the ruling table of the Holy Roman Empire. Then 300 years ago, in January 1719, a sympathetic Habsburger decided that Schellenberg and Vaduz could together become the Fürstentum Liechtenstein; a country was conceived. While the rest of Europe has experienced revolution and the continuous redrawing of borders, Liechtenstein has stayed the same: politically stable, with a three-century reign by the prince’s family. In the last few decades, it has been a tax paradise with more companies than citizens.
Liechtenstein has no airport or railway station, just a bus network with double deckers from which you can look over the urban rooftops to the fields beyond. I travelled from Vienna to Feldkirch on the Austrian border by night train, after spending a day in the princely archives at the Liechtenstein Garden Palace in Vienna, still owned by the family. Standing on the platform I was blurry eyed. And anxious. Friends had insisted that Liechtenstein was not worth five minutes of my time, let alone the 15 of my planned paragliding flight or the five days I was to stay in the country. Even the early Viennese overlords hadn’t been in a rush to visit: no prince set foot in Liechtenstein until 1842. It was left to a local administrator, or Landvogt, to run the country; at first he didn’t live there, either, preferring Feldkirch. So I boarded the commuter bus into Liechtenstein with trepidation, staring at a journal of blank pages and a wad of empty time. Passengers alighted at the manufacturer of dental systems, Ivoclar Vivadent, others at the many banks that serve the country’s residents and other wealthy people attracted by its minimal personal tax rates. I got off in the middle of Vaduz, the capital.
Rays of light reflected off the glass buildings and danced across the spotless street. It was peak time, a workday. No one else was about, though a stately stream of traffic processed through. I headed for the art museum with Gaia, the photographer. We were the only visitors. We walked the few steps to the postage-stamp museum, where the crispness of the Alpine air morphed into the smell of fresh paint. It was undergoing a refit. An apologetic lady advised us to try the national museum instead. There a woman was holding two audio guides at the ready. “Wonderful, you made it!” Her colleague had phoned ahead. We felt as if we’d wandered onto a film set where we were the ones being watched; “You’ve seen ‘The Truman Show’?”, Gaia quipped. We started with exhibits of stuffed animals, moving on to gold medallions that Salvador Dalí had made in honour of the previous prince. The start of my visit was properly surreal.
That evening we hit Vaduz’s bars. Both of them. They were lively establishments, if smoky: an attribute approved by national referendum. Liechtensteiners say of themselves that they’re reserved, yet they were happy to talk about their lives. In Esquire I met bankers, an artist, a music teacher. They emphasised that Liechtenstein is one of the world’s wealthiest countries, that everything works well, and how nice it would be if the national anthem were set to a work by Liechtenstein-born Josef Rheinberger – the country currently shares with Britain the tune to its national anthem, which caused great amusement when the country twice played England at football (Liechtenstein lost both times: 0-2). The clientele in Zwei Bar next door was less conspicuously affluent and had more everyday concerns. Not all citizens are rich, the owner reminded me. But because Liechtenstein is so small, most stressed their respect for others’ points of view. Chances are they know each other.
Over the next days we talked to everyone who was anyone in Liechtenstein. And the rest. At home with the Feichtingers, a successful tax-advising family, I asked Fiona, in her early 20s, whether dating is difficult in a country that’s so familiar. She smiled. You take the time to think through the consequences beforehand, she says: “When Liechtensteiners get together, they usually stay together – they’ll have known each other a good while already, or known of them.” Her mother, Caroline, laughed: “It’s true that it’s considered. Think about how many Liechtenstein number plates there must be. And you can look them all up in a directory, anyway. So if you park at someone’s house…”
Ski instructors milled about on the main street of Malbun, a mountain resort, dressed in royal red, with crowns emblazoned across their backs. Christoph Bühler, who will soon take over the ski school from his father, cannot remember learning to ski. He was two years old. His colleagues are school friends and neighbours. They mainly teach Germans, Austrians or Swiss; day trippers who visit Liechtenstein on a bus tour do not make it this far, Christoph told me. He directed us to another family-run business for lunch, Hotel Turna. After Rösti – a light bite by Alpine standards – we wandered over to Walserhof, where we’d been tipped off that live music was playing.
Our waitress Katalin Göltl reckoned the accordions would be brought out an hour later. Liechtenstein is no Switzerland, though, and the hour turned into two and a half. She would pass by our table to pour us a glass of Liechtenstein wine on the house: Riesling-Sylvaner, and a Pinot Noir. She’d sit and briefly chat with us, as she did with all her guests. I had assumed she was a local, but she’s Hungarian. For foreign workers from elsewhere in Europe there is a lottery for residency in Liechtenstein, unless you marry a citizen. Göltl has entered the competition three times already, but wasn’t among the 28 names drawn annually. For now, she must continue living in Austria and commute. Liechtenstein is culturally open, but less so politically, in terms of rights and paperwork.
Hunting is celebrated as part of Liechtenstein’s culture. It casts a shadow over the country only in a literal sense: almost every light fitting is made from antlers, usually multiple pairs. The anti-hunting lobby is marginal, perhaps because hunting clubs are enlisted by law to ensure a sustainable mountainside and forest environment. The pastime used to be a noble privilege. Back when the princes had never seen their own country, they’d receive written descriptions of it. One five-page document from 1757 tells at length what could be tracked and found, including otters and truffles. Today, the prey is mainly deer and Alpine ibex. Markus Meier, president of Vaduz’s hunting club, explained to me that since law reforms in 1962 the sport is no longer an elite pursuit. Men and a few women from all social groups participate in Jäger parties that adhere to a national shooting plan. An annual trophy show is held as a legal obligation: officials check whether the correct species, number and sex of animals were shot. In this light, room after room of taxidermy in Vaduz’s museum speaks to a desire for organisation and national oversight rather than a bloodthirsty interest in oddities.
There was one final Liechtensteiner left to meet: the monarch, Hans-Adam II. Vaduz castle is shut to tourists and media visits are rare. Liechtensteiners are invited into the grounds on national day, August 15th. They are received inside the Schloss for special honours, sporting achievements, good grades in apprenticeships, or passing school leaving exams. Among citizens, the Princely House is held in high esteem. The revised constitution of 2003 was passed by national vote and gave the prince a veto over referendum and parliamentary outcomes, but also handed the people the right to express no confidence in their monarchy and abolish it. A subsequent referendum campaign to remove the princely veto over directly democratic decisions failed. Pride in being a principality – as both fans and critics told me – has increased among the younger generations. One twenty-something we met had Gott, Fürst und Vaterland tattooed across his chest.
“God, Prince and the Fatherland” is the national trinity, and most people in this country are committed to all three. In two of the three guesthouses and hotels in which I stayed, princely portraits hung on the walls and rooms took their names; all had religious statues on display. Liechtenstein remains staunchly Catholic: abortion is illegal here – though same-sex partnerships are legal. Patriotism is resolute and topical. As in neighbouring Austria and Switzerland, many Liechtensteiners were opposed to the United Nation’s compact on migration in December 2018, a global agreement on migration policy. The government’s executive branch and the Princely House had been in favour. In the end, Liechtenstein abstained.
We crossed the drawbridge and passed through a latticed iron gate that opened automatically. Beyond was a Gothic courtyard, overshadowed by turrets and the tips of the Alps in between. Liechtensteiners address each other with the informal pronoun – Du – by default. Yet up here, on the hill, Durchlaucht – your Serene Highness – is the correct form of address. I was nervous I’d forget.
I needn’t have been. Fürst Hans-Adam was a great storyteller with an infectious laugh. His father was the first prince to live in Liechtenstein, moving from Vienna to Vaduz when the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938. Hans-Adam was sent to the local primary school where he was the first among his peers to be caned. “That was almost a badge of honour for me as a boy,” he told us. He wanted to be one of the people. The local landscape is obviously of great significance to him: in his free time he runs through the woods. I had been told in a bar that Hans-Adam jogged barefoot, but suspected this was an urban legend. “No, it’s true,” he smiled. “Though I had to stop when the snow came.”
He had wanted to study archaeology or perhaps physics at university. But his role was to rebuild the family business after palaces and land were confiscated following the war in what is now the Czech Republic. He told me that he was christened Hans-Adam after his ancestor who had not only bought Schellenberg and Vaduz, but also restored the family’s finances after the Thirty Years War in the mid-17th century. Hans-Adam II followed suit, with spectacular success: he’s head of a global bank, Europe’s wealthiest monarchy, and one of the world’s most prosperous states. With money has come the ability to return Vaduz castle to being a proper princely residence, and to restore his two Viennese palaces with meticulous historical accuracy. I asked him if this is due to his interest in history. Partly so, he says, but above all he was prompted by duty. “It was especially my mother who used to say: if you have enough money, and if it’s possible, you should have everything restored.”
Given the emphasis on historical continuity, I wanted to talk about what could have been. I’d read reports that Russia offered Liechtenstein Alaska before selling it to the United States in 1867. Looking out onto a snow-covered mountain-scape, the outlandish proposal almost made sense. The-then prince had been a diplomat for the Habsburgs to St Petersburg, though no written sources confirm the approach.“It was of course a marvellous story to hear growing up,” laughed Hans-Adam. Would he have taken up the offer?“That would have been a terrible idea. What are the chances that we would have been able to keep it, let alone manage it well at the time? And how would we even have got there!”
Liechtenstein’s history is characterised by pragmatism and good diplomacy. The original purchase was a vote-buying exercise. Then, as the Holy Roman Empire fell apart, the Princely House kept on the right side of history. Johann I led the Habsburg’s peace negotiations with Napoleon, persuading him to include Liechtenstein in the Confederation of the Rhine. Through that move the principality became fully sovereign in 1806. After the second world war, Hans-Adam recalled, his father was approached by a politician in the Austrian Vorarlberg who wanted his region to join Liechtenstein to end France’s occupation. “I mean, even then we didn’t have an army,” he says. Hans-Adam claims that he is not a born diplomat, yet it was he who brought Liechtenstein into both the European Economic Area and the United Nations.
For years it has seemed to be rich pickings for satire, including in political works. Leonard Wibberley’s cold-war novel from 1955, “The Mouse That Roared” – later made into a film with Peter Sellers – is surely a send-up of this tiny country. Yet Liechtenstein is not as comical, antiquated or as cohesive as the fictive Duchy of Grand Fenwick. The cliché that it is a boring fairy tale is also false. It is both an ordinary modern state, and an outlier in central Europe. I departed by bus from the opposite end of the country to the one I’d entered. Taking both the long view and the bird’s eye perspective had turned the funny into the fascinating. The people along the way – from princes to barflies – were entertaining, thoughtful and saw two sides to every argument. They were pragmatic, but with a romantic penchant for tradition. In the modern world that makes Liechtenstein quite a rarity.