Tiny Liechtenstein is a mouse that's roaring and annoying Czechoslovakia Prince demands compensation for ancestral lands

June 29, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Staff Writer

PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia -- The Liechtenstein mouse is roaring, and the squeak is irritating Czechoslovakian ears.

The principality of Liechtenstein, a country so small it's often missing from maps of Europe, has no army, no heavy weapons, no airport, no jail and not very many taxes.

But now, the prince of Liechtenstein snipes at Czechoslovakia from his tiny Alpine redoubt in a dispute that recalls Peter Sellers' classic film comedy "The Mouse That Roared." Mr. Sellers, as late-show aficionados all know, plays the leader of the Grand Duchy of Fenwick, who declares war on the United States so that his country can lose and get rich on U.S. foreign aid.

His Serene Highness Prince Hans-Adam II of Liechtenstein doesn't need any help in getting rich. He already has a couple of billion dollars. He's got a great art collection, a splendid palace overlooking the Rhine River, castles and vineyards in Austria, a rice farm in Texas.

Squeezed into 61.8 square miles of mountains and valleys along the Rhine between Switzerland and Austria, the prince's country is a tax and banking haven. Its banks shelter billions of foreign dollars. The 28,800 citizens are among the richest in the world, with the gross domestic product averaging more than $35,000 each.

Still, the prince wants compensation for ancestral property confiscated by Czechoslovakia both immediately after its founding in 1918 and again after World War II.

He claims mostly farm and woodland equal to something like 10 times the area of Liechtenstein, about 40 castles, artworks almost as good as the ones he already has and even such personal property as family photo albums.

The Liechtenstein family is very old, a princely line in the Holy Roman Empire and then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the Hapsburgs.

The family claims ownership of properties in what is now Czechoslovakia from about the 13th century, most of them lost when the Hapsburg empire collapsed after World War I, the rest at the end of World War II.

Luckily for the family, it still had Liechtenstein, which it bought from another royal family in 1699. The present monarch's father, Prince Franz Josef II, moved there permanently in 1938 when Nazi Germany was preparing to move into Czechoslovakia. Liechtenstein now is the last monarchy surviving from the Holy Roman Empire.

Prince Hans-Adam thought that after the fall of communism in 1989 the new government in Czechoslovakia might be responsive to his claims for restoration of his lost possessions. Lots of property nationalized by the Communists is being returned to former owners.

He was wrong. He's been rejected. Most of the holdings were, in fact, confiscated by the non-Communist governments of Thomas Masaryk and Eduard Benes.

In reply to questions by The Sun, the prince said the current government of Czechoslovakia already had begun to sell off property owned by Liechtenstein citizens, among whom, of course, he is No. 1.

Zdenek Zikmund, the spokesman for the Czech Foreign Ministry, explained: "Our law excludes any restitution of lands confiscated before February 1948. Liechtenstein's claim is before that period. Therefore, according to Czech internal law, there is no background to fulfill their claims.

"We have been repeating this to the Liechtenstein side during every discussion."

February 1948 is, by the way, when the Communists seized power.

The Liechtenstein claim tends to irritate the Czechs, especially nowthat it looks like their country might fall apart. They think of themselves as poor, Liechtenstein as very rich.

"The limited resources we have we need for our own development," Mr. Zikmund says.

But then the Czech position irritates the prince.

"In 1945, the Czechs were rich, as they had hardly suffered during World War II and had expropriated without compensation the German-speaking minority and other foreigners," he said in a biting answer to The Sun's questions.

"Liechtenstein was then still relatively poor, and my family's main support came through sale of part of our art collection.

"Through hard work and good management, the principality of Liechtenstein and my family became rich, whereas the Czechs lost more than they had taken away," the prince said.

He offers investment, know-how and sympathy to the Czech people.

"We only ask the Czech government to treat Liechtenstein the same way as they treat other countries, and to pay us either a compensation or to give us back the confiscated properties so that we can build them up again," the prince said.

His claims are worth billions in any currency, including the Swiss francs that are legal tender in Liechtenstein. (Liechtenstein doesn't print money. It prints postage stamps, as any philatelist knows.)

But the prince says it's not the money; it's the principle. He wants respect for his country. He claims to be roaring for all small countries.

"Even though we are a small state, we can legitimately claim the right to treatment equal to any other European nation," the prince said.

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