Why is Liechtenstein not part of Switzerland?

Why is Liechtenstein not part of Switzerland?

Nestled deep in the mountains between St. Gallen and Austria, Liechtenstein is a small but affluent dot on the map of Europe. As the principality already uses Swiss francs, shares the same language and relies on Switzerland for defence, you may wonder why Liechtenstein isn’t the 27th canton. Here’s why the countries remain separate:

Liechtenstein: Europe's fourth smallest nation

With an area of just 160 square kilometres, Liechtenstein is Europe’s fourth-smallest country. The doubly landlocked state is bordered by Switzerland to the north, west and south and Austria to the east, and is mostly known for its quasi-monarchical system of government, and the fact it has more companies registered in it than people.

In fact, if you put all the residents of Liechtenstein into the Allianz Arena in Munich, there would be 35.697 empty seats. Today, the country is entwined with Switzerland in a great number of areas, including a customs, monetary and defence union. What's more, Liechtenstein's top football club, FC Vaduz, compete in the Swiss leagues.

Why is Liechtenstein not a Swiss canton?

With all this in mind, it may be confusing as to why Liechtenstein is still independent and not a part of Switzerland. To find out why this is the case, we must go back into history.

Liechtenstein remained under Austrian control after Swiss independence

At first, the history of Liechtenstein is very similar to Switzerland: by the 1200s, the two countries were controlled by a number of famous families including the Houses of Savoy, Zähringer, Habsburg, and Kyburg. In 1273, 18 years before the Old Swiss Confederacy was formed, Liechtenstein came to be controlled by the Habsburgs having previously been owned - along with most of eastern Switzerland - by House Kyburg.

However, unlike the rest of the region, neither the Old Swiss Confederacy nor the Abbey of Saint Gall (modern-day Canton St. Gallen) was able to fully conquer the land we now know as Liechtenstein, and its inhabitants never declared independence from their Austrian overlords - perhaps because of the region's proximity to Tirol. The area remained under the control of the Holy Roman Empire as part of the County of Werdenberg.

How did Liechtenstein get its name?

Up until the 1700s, if you had walked into the capital Vaduz and said that you were in Liechtenstein, no one would have a clue what you were talking about. In fact, the reason for the country's modern name, and the main reason why the region never joined Switzerland, was because of the Liechtenstein Dynasty.

The family, which takes its name from Liechtenstein Castle in Austria, were owners of vast territories in Moravia, Austria, Silesia and Styria. However, as they possessed no land that was under the direct control of the Holy Roman Empire, they were not given a say in the Imperial Diet or Parliament. Therefore, they sought to purchase the land of Vaduz and Schellenberg in order to secure voting rights in the empire, which they did in 1712.

In 1719, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI decreed that Vaduz and Schellenberg would unite to form the Principality of Liechtenstein, a member state of the Holy Roman Empire. This meant that despite only being separated from Switzerland by the Rhine River, the region remained under Austrian and imperial domination.

How did Liechtenstein become independent?

Its independence from Austrian rule came thanks to Napoleon who dissolved the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. The region became dependent on the French Emperor in 1813, and after his defeat, in 1815 the country joined the German Confederation as an independent nation.

In 1818, Prince Johann I gave Liechtenstein its first constitution, and amusingly, the first-ever member of the House of Liechtenstein visited the country in the same year. Liechtenstein left the German Confederation in 1866, though remained closely tied to Austria, not Switzerland. The territory would continue to be ruled by Austrian-appointed governments in the Liechtenstein name.

Liechtenstein became dependent on Switzerland in the 20th century

Indeed, another reason why Liechtenstein is not Swiss is that relations between the two only deepened in the 20th century. Thanks to the devastation brought about by World War I, Liechtenstein finally turned away from Austria, and in 1919 it requested that Switzerland use its power and influence to safeguard its citizens and interests abroad.

Broad cooperation ensued, with Liechtenstein adopting the Swiss franc in 1920. In 1924, the two countries formed a customs union and allowed the free movement of people between both countries. In World War Two, Switzerland provided for the country’s defence, further deepening ties.

Swiss - Liechtenstein relations today

Today Switzerland represents Liechtenstein abroad unless the government in Vaduz chooses otherwise, and while the country is able to maintain its own monetary and foreign policy, much of this is still influenced by Bern and the Swiss government.

Has Switzerland ever accidentally invaded Liechtenstein?

Amusingly, there have been several occasions since the 1940s when troops from Switzerland have accidentally invaded Liechtenstein. In August 1979, 75 soldiers from the Swiss Army took a wrong turn and marched 550 metres into the country. They were offered drinks by locals, before they returned home.

The most recent incident occurred in 2007 when a company of soldiers mistakenly entered Liechtenstein because of bad weather. They travelled several kilometres before realising their mistake. Luckily, both sides choose to ignore the incident.

Liechtenstein: Neither Swiss nor Austrian

In all, the final reason why Liechtenstein is not part of Switzerland is that residents of the principality prefer to stay independent. Since the First World War, while the government of Liechtenstein has prioritised good relations and integration with Switzerland, the Princes of the tiny nation have focused on building a Liechtensteiner national identity which supersedes any idea of being Swiss or Austrian. 

The Vaduz government, currently led by Hans-Adam II of House Liechtenstein, has also made independent decisions that have gone against the government in Bern. This culminated in the country joining the United Nations before Switzerland did in 1990, and the fact that unlike Switzerland Liechtenstein is a full member of the European Economic Area.

While there were many moments in history when Liechtenstein could have joined as the 27th Swiss canton, that moment has now passed.

Thumb image credit: uslatar /

Jan de Boer


Jan de Boer

Editor for Switzerland at IamExpat Media. Jan studied History at the University of York and Broadcast Journalism at the University of Sheffield. Though born in York, Jan has lived most...

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