It’s 1866 and the Kingdom of Prussia has gone to war with the Empire of Austria. Meanwhile, the tiny nation of Liechtenstein sends an 80-strong army to play its part in the conflict and anxious citizens wonder how many of these soldiers will return home in one piece. But the end of the war will reveal the answer to that question, and it’s entirely unexpected.
But before we get into the part that Liechtenstein played in the Austro-Prussian War, let’s find out a bit more about the country. The Principality of Liechtenstein lies in central Europe, sandwiched between the western border of Austria and the eastern border of Switzerland in the high mountains of the Alps. Small, tiny and even minuscule are all words that accurately describe the country.
Indeed, Liechtenstein covers an area of just 62 square miles. That makes the smallest U.S state, Rhode Island with 1,034 square miles, look positively continent-sized in comparison. Yet little Liechtenstein is only fourth in the league of smallest European countries. Top of the table comes the Vatican City in Rome, followed by Monaco, then San Marino.
The earliest known history of Liechtenstein stretches back to when farmers occupied the territory around 7,300 years ago during the Stone Age. Fast-forwarding to recorded history, Liechtenstein was part of the Roman Empire. Indeed, it became so after Julius Caesar with six legions defeated various Alpine tribes at the Battle of Bibracte. The principal tribe the Romans fought was the Helveti, assisted by the Boii and the Tulingi.
Some 75 years later, another Roman general and future emperor, Tiberius, took control of the whole Alpine region and what is now Liechtenstein became part of a Roman province called Rhaetia. The Romans controlled their possessions in the Alps with two large military bases, one in modern Switzerland, the other in today’s Austria.
As they often did in conquered lands, the Romans also built a road running through Liechtenstein. It followed the line of the Rhine, a river which now marks the country’s border with Switzerland. However, in the 3rd century A.D. the Alemanni people destroyed the Roman forts and later settled much of the Alpine area.
Meanwhile, in later years the Franks became the next conquerors of the territory. Led by Clovis I, they vanquished the Alemanni at the Battle of Tolbiac traditionally believed to have been in 496, although some authorities place it in other years. The chronicler Gregory of Tours, born some 30 years after the battle, wrote that Clovis had promised to become a Christian if he won the battle, which he duly did.
Liechtenstein then remained the possession of various Frankish dynasties until it came under the sway of the Counts of Hohenems. Then in 1699 the Liechtenstein family appeared on the scene. This family came from Lower Austria where their castle, also called Liechtenstein and not far from Vienna, had been in the family since 1140 or possibly earlier.
The House of Liechtenstein owned lands in various parts of central Europe, which was then ruled overall by the Holy Roman Empire. For complex legal reasons involving the archaic intricacies of feudalism, the Liechtenstein family were not entitled to a seat at the top table of power within the Holy Roman Empire.
But a solution to this problem was for them to buy parcels of land in Liechtenstein, which would give them the privileges they sought. This was because in the ownership of these lands their only feudal overlord would be the Holy Roman Emperor himself. And so they purchased the lordship of Schellenberg in 1699 and the county of Vaduz in 1712, both in modern Liechtenstein.
In 1719 two decades after the Liechtensteins had acquired Schellenberg and seven years after buying Vaduz, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI made an announcement. From now on the two territories would be regarded as one called, you’ve guessed it, Liechtenstein. And so a new nation was born. And Vaduz, in fact, is the capital of today’s Liechtenstein.
The new country was named after the House of Liechtenstein, whose head at the time was Prince Anton Florian. And it seems fairly clear that he only bought the lands of Vaduz and Schellenberg for political advantage. Indeed, the fact that neither he nor any of his descendants actually visited the new country for nearly 100 years is fairly strong evidence of that.
Meanwhile, Liechtenstein remained part of the Holy Roman Empire, which controlled large swathes of central and western Europe until a certain Napoleon Bonaparte pushed his way on to the world stage. And in 1805 Napoleon comprehensively defeated the Holy Roman Empire at the Battle of Austerlitz, and Liechtenstein became under the sway of France.
In 1806 the Holy Roman Emperor of the day, Francis II, abdicated. Indeed, this action thus drew a line under a feudal system that had lasted for nearly 1,000 years, and had seen the creation of Liechtenstein. Central Europe now underwent a thoroughgoing reorganization with, among other measures, the creation of the Confederation of the Rhine.
Many historians trace the emergence of Liechtenstein as an independent nation to these early 19th century events. Indeed, Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz had helped spark the resulting disruption of the old order. Furthermore, the Liechtenstein princes, rulers of the principality, no longer owed any duty to a feudal overlord, as they had done to the Holy Roman Emperor previously.
However, Liechtenstein still didn’t enjoy complete independence. Indeed, the principality now had a new overall imperial ruler, or protector as he now styled himself, Emperor Napoleon I. But Liechtenstein had escaped the old feudal system nevertheless, even if they were now in thrall to France.
However, the Rhine Confederation lasted nothing like the 1,000 years or so its predecessor had. It was dismantled in 1813 after an alliance between Austria, Russia, Prussia and Sweden defeated Napoleon at the decisive Battle of Leipzig. Two years later, Napoleon would suffer his ultimate defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, ending his days in exile on the island of St. Helena.
In 1815 Liechtenstein joined the German Confederation led by the Emperor of Austria, consolidating its status as a sovereign nation. The confederation consisted of 39 states, almost all German-speaking. Furthermore, German is the official language of modern Liechtenstein. But tensions between Austria and Prussia weakened this confederation’s strength. And as we’ll see, this rivalry would impact on Liechtenstein later in the 19th century.
In 1818 the Prince of Liechtenstein, Johan I, granted his country a limited constitution, taking a step back from an absolute monarchy. This move was accompanied by reforms in forestry, farming and governance. The Prince apparently had ambitions to drag his principality into the modern age. But he also found time to indulge his passion for garden landscaping.
But what Johan, the 869th Knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece, didn’t find time to do was to actually visit Liechtenstein. However, in 1818 a member of the House of Liechtenstein did deign to pay the principality a visit. Indeed, Prince Aloys II, Johan’s son and heir, dropped in for a time.
It would be 1842 before a head of the House of Lichtenstein got around to visiting. That was Aloys II visiting again, who by that time, had succeeded as the head of the House of Liechtenstein. Aloys’ father John I, or Johann Baptist Josef Adam Johann Nepomuk Aloys Franz de Paula, had died in 1836.
The next momentous event in Liechtenstein’s history came in 1862. And by then Johann II was the Prince of Liechtenstein. His father Prince Aloys II had died in 1858 and Johann then succeeded to the throne at the age of 18. Amazingly, his rule of 70 years and 91 days was the longest royal reign in European history apart from that of France’s Louis XIV.
The event of 1862 was the introduction by Prince Johann of a new constitution – for the first time, Liechtenstein had a representative assembly. However, the 1860s would see events even more dramatic than that. That’s because Liechtenstein was dragged into a European war in 1866, a conflict it seems the country had little enthusiasm for.
The clash was the Austro-Prussian War. In fact, this conflict has a bewildering number of different names including the Seven Weeks War, the Unification War, the German War and the Fraternal War. And as we saw earlier, Austria and Prussia were both members of the German Confederation. But there were tensions between them.
And in 1866 those simmering differences between the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia erupted in armed confrontation. The various members of the German Confederation sided with one or other of the two main protagonists. Prussia also allied with the Kingdom of Italy, not a German Confederation member.
Meanwhile, the causes of this conflict could be traced back for centuries. The myriad of small independent entities and larger states had ostensibly been united under the Holy Roman Empire. However, war had broken out between members before. Notably, Prussia and Austria had fought in the 1740s over succession to the Austrian throne, with Prussia emerging the victor.
In the run-up to the conflict, both Austria and Prussia worked to persuade fellow members of the German Confederation to ally with them. For example, Otto von Bismarck, Minister President of Prussia, offered territory to the Grand Duchy of Hesse if it would join the Prussians. But this approach offended the rulers of Hesse so much they joined the Austrians instead.
On the other hand, Franz Joseph, the Emperor of Austria, lobbied Hanover’s King George V to join the Austrians against the Prussians. However, George decided that he would likely lose his kingdom if he fought the Prussians, so he rebuffed Franz Joseph’s approaches. Thus, the coming war exposed rifts throughout the German Confederation.
But what of the German confederation member we are principally interested in, Liechtenstein? In the event they decided to throw their hand in with neither side. But since their army numbered 100 men, if they had picked a side it would hardly have tipped the war in either direction.
Liechtenstein’s ruler, Prince Johann II, explained his choice of neutrality by saying that he absolutely refused to fight fellow Germans. After all, every participant in the conflict was a member of the German Confederation with the exception of Italy. But despite this neutrality, Lichtenstein deployed its army of 80 men.
The 80 soldiers of the Liechtenstein army took up positions to the south of the country near the border with Austria at the Brenner Pass in the Tyrol region. Their mission was to defend this territory against any attack from the Prussian-allied Italians. Meanwhile, a reserve of 20 soldiers stayed in Liechtenstein.
The main theater of the Austro-Prussian War was in Bohemia, today part of the Czech Republic. There, the day-long Battle of Königgrätz erupted on July 3, 1866. The Prussians had advanced into Bohemia and neighboring Saxony where an Austrian army was mustering in preparation to invade Silesia, most of which now lies in Poland.
Meanwhile, a shaky tactical start by the Prussians put them at risk of being outflanked by the Austrians. But then the Prussian Second Army arrived, commanded by the chief of staff Leonhard Graf von Blumenthal, and it saved the day. So the Prussians won a victory that day, despite being outnumbered.
Indeed, this battle became the decisive engagement of the Austro-Prussian war. The Austrian Empire then admitted defeat and the combatants signed the Peace of Prague treaty on August 23, 1866. Prussia would now dominate German affairs, with Austria demoted to the sidelines. Furthermore, many of Austria’s supporters during the war now became allies of Prussia.
But what of those 80 Liechtensteiners who had marched off to play their part in the Austro-Prussian War? We can only imagine the anxiety their loved ones must have felt as they saw their menfolk leave their homes for yet another of central Europe’s seemingly interminable conflicts. Would they ever see them again?
As it happens, the Liechtenstein army seems not to have had too tough a time of it. Indeed, no fighting erupted in their vicinity in the Tyrol. In fact, by all accounts they had little to do but enjoy the delightful scenery of this part of Austria. Perhaps they also found time to sample the local beers.
So when the war ended, the 80 men of Liechtenstein marched back to Vaduz. And there they received an enthusiastic welcome from the populace and their no doubt relieved families. But there was one thing wrong. That’s because instead of returning with the 80 men who had left, there were now 81.
According to the stories about these events, an Austrian liaison officer had decided to join the Liechtensteiners as they marched homewards. However, there are variations to the story – indeed, some say the extra man was an Italian deserter. Nevertheless, few times in history has an army gone to war and returned with more soldiers than it began with.
And that would be the last military adventure that Liechtenstein ever embarked on, at least up until now. That’s because in 1868 the country disbanded its army and said it would always be neutral. And this proved to be a canny decision, as during the 20th century, like Switzerland, Liechtenstein avoided the ravages of the two world wars that devastated much of Europe.
In the First World War, Liechtenstein had strong links to Austria, and the Allies imposed economic sanctions on her. After WWI, the country’s allegiance moved away from Austria. In 1919, Liechtenstein formed a monetary and customs union with Switzerland, an arrangement that persists to this day. Indeed, given that Liechtenstein is one of the world’s richest countries today, that move can be judged a success.
Although Liechtenstein avoided the worst excesses of the Second World War by maintaining her neutrality, she did not escape the economic collapse that struck Europe at the end of the war. However, the country made an excellent recovery and is now a byword in Europe for wealth and prosperity – but it still has no army.