Vaduz, Europa 1979

Tuesday, January 15, 1980 10:12 PM

Before the feudal castle of Liechtenstein, high up in the Alps above the Rhine, thirty-two year old Franz Josef II, last of the 500 princes of the Holy Roman Empire, was invested as sovereign today before most of his 11,500 subjects. Only one thing was missing. For the first time in Liechtenstein’s 220 years of independent existence, the army was not present, and the reason was that Andreas Kleber, who proudly represented the little principality’s one-man fighting force, died last month at seventy-one. Liechtenstein is the last of the forty-four German states to remain independent.

--Paris Herald Tribune, May 29th, 1939


The afternoon bus pulled into Vaduz, the capital of Liechtenstein. I jumped off. There are no rail lines into Liechtenstein. The town must be the only European capital without a train station. I was passing through, with no specific purpose in mind. What caught my eye immediately was a fortresslike castle on the side of a mountain. It was right out of a Maxfield Parrish painting.

I walked into the nearest hotel, across the street from the post office. The girl at the reception was from Hamburg, that great German metropolis of the north with several impressive train stations. Altona, Dammtor, Hauptbahnhof. Here, you have a post office and a castle. The girl was cheery and most attractive. She was not at all certain there was any room left in the hotel. By chance, I had arrived on the most important day in the Liechtensteinian calendar. It was the Prince of Liechtenstein's birthday. Lucky for me, it turned out there had been a last-minute cancellation. 


The Principality covers sixty square miles. Prince Franz Josef II is in charge. He is not a figurehead. He has the distinction of being the sole surviving monarch of a German-speaking country. In fact, he is all that is left of a civilized consortium circa 1000 AD called the Roman Empire of the German Nation, which stretched from Oldenburg on the Baltic to Salerno on the Mediterranean.

If you are wondering how little Liechtenstein survived the crack-up of Europe, the answer is simple. The Prince of Liechtenstein refused to get involved in the crack-up. He remained aloof from the Habsburgs in the Great War of 1914 and later--prior to the second fratricidal conflagration--he joined forces with the wise and lucky Swiss. That is where the matter rests today. Liechtenstein is an annex of the Confederation of Helvetia.

The magnificent empire of Austria-Hungary did include Liechtenstein and probably would still include it today, if only Kaiser Wilhelm II had reached Paris in 1917, after making peace with Russia. Since he didn't, the age of Hohenzollerns and Habsburgs came to an abrupt end. Germany and Austria-Hungary were divided up into bits and pieces by Paris and London. 

As for the Principality's own military history, suffice it to say that Liechtenstein's last soldier died in 1939. An important year, to be sure. Having unilaterally disarmed ever since, the statelet is at the mercy of its neighbors. 

Prince Franz Josef II and his wife, Princess Georgiana, reside at Castle Vaduz, which dates from the 13th century. From that solid, rocky rampart, the princely couple enjoy a fantastic overview of the valley in all directions. The valley served as a corridor for the legions of imperial Rome through the Alps northward. Stone ruins of Roman forts and lookout towers dot the valley like the Norman forts in Ireland. Did Julius Caesar march through here? Maybe. The road east leads to Vienna, to Vindobona, the former headquarters of the Roman fleet on the Danube.

Austria is on the other side of the mountains. The Alps along the eastern border of Switzerland, say, from Vaduz to St. Moritz, are the dividing line between the outskirts of Paris and the outskirts of Vienna, the two former imperial capitals of Europe. That's how I divide up the Continent. It is a considerable distance between Paris and Vienna. By foot and on horseback, the indefatigable Romans made it to both locations, and created Europe.

Hundreds of years after Julius Caesar, Attila built an elaborate command post near Vienna, from which he ruled a Eurasian empire that commenced at the mouth of the Rhine and ended somewhere in the wilds of Siberia. Still later, Napoleon conquered Vienna not once but twice. When Napoleon decided to unite Europe to end its continental wars, he felt it wise to marry the Austrian Archduchess, Marie Luisa, daughter of Emperor Franz I. 

Next came Prince Otto Eduard Leopold von Bismarck. He complained that Prussia was nothing more than a shuttlecock between France and Austria, between Paris and Vienna. Bismarck defeated first France and then Austria on the battlefield, and united Germany through diplomacy. He could not, however, transform the Prussian capital of Berlin, now the capital of Germany, in such a way to rival the architecture of Paris and Vienna.


Kreditanstalt, Bankverein, Bankgesellschaft. The big three Swiss banks. You can’t escape them. Although an annex, Liechtenstein has its own banking system and the currency is the solid Swiss Franc. In addition, Liechtenstein prints its own postal stamps. I studied the formidable facade of the Bank of Liechtenstein (the words in English) from the hotel terrace, while having a snack of wiener schnitzel and waiting for the sun to go down. My sturdy Carl Zeiss Contaflex Super BC was off to the side. I had noticed a pair of English girls at the hotel. They were redheads, and I was hoping to get a photo of them. Then a solitary cow walked nonchalantly in front of the bank. The cow seemed to know where it was going. A marching band was forming near the post office. It was starting to get dark.

From the guidebooks, I had learned that Liechtenstein boasts a booming economy based upon banking, postage stamps, optical equipment, false teeth, artificial sausage skins, electric motors, geometrical tools, calculating machines, tourism, wine and cheese. Thousands of corporate entities and investment trusts from all over the civilized world had domiciled themselves inside the main post office. No one is hungry or homeless in Liechtenstein. It is almost the best of all possible worlds, at least for the moment. The Kaiser had not reached Paris! It was an odd thought, and it kept recurring inside my head. 


I decided to take a walk and reconnoiter. Since I had no flash, I deposited my Contaflex back in the room, and proceeded to the front entrance of the hotel. The streets were jammed. Vaduz appeared to have doubled in population. All of Liechtenstein's twenty thousand inhabitants, and more than a few cows, were streaming into downtown Vaduz. The street lamps were on, everything decked out. 

Still ignorant of the agenda, I arrived at City Hall. Except for the English girls and the receptionist at the hotel, I had not heard a word of English. Yet, most of the town-folks on the street must have been customers of the Bank of Liechtenstein, not Die Bank der Liechtenstein.     

A small motorcade arrived in front of City Hall. Two motorcycle policemen and three Mercedes. The crowd burst into applause. They were cheering the Prince, who had emerged from the first Mercedes. Princess Georgiana was right behind him. I found myself clapping, along with everybody else. The Prince went upstairs to the balcony of City Hall. A parade was getting underway. Spectators had gathered neatly along the the parade route.

The thought occurred to me that if a riot were to break out, there was nothing to keep it from getting out of control. It would have to run its course. Nothing could prevent chaos but the people themselves. If some fool were to run amuck, he would only succeed in embarrassing himself. We can make fools of ourselves later. We have time. We have all the time in the world.

A band of boy scouts marched by. Each scout carried a torch. They saluted the Prince as they passed. It is likely that the Franz Josef II felt a pang of nostalgia for Liechtenstein's disbanded army. Back in the 19th century, it amounted to eighty-one soldiers. Eighty enlisted men and one officer.

Even without an army on parade, patriotic spirits ran high. Marching bands came and went. Their music was stirring without being overpowering. A greatly reduced version of Bastille Day in Paris, with some added attractions. I observed cows, some caparisoned, some au naturel. Young men with ornamental walking sticks. Garland crowned milkmaids. Older gentlemen carrying Alpine horns twenty feet long. And a few other elements I did not entirely understand. The parade was over in no time. 

When the last group passed City Hall, the Prince and his wife and their children returned to their Mercedes. They followed the tail end of the parade as it wound its way through the center of Vaduz, heading toward the high school.


It was there at the entrance to the high school that the flags of the Principality's eleven prefectures or "parishes" were arranged in two rows. Close by, a conventional bandshell was occupied by an unostentatious orchestra and an all-male choir. The Prince and family walked down a narrow path in the throng, a path created for them by boy scouts and a handful of police. In the background, the orchestra warmed up. The ruling family reappeared on another balcony and waved to the crowd below.

The Burgermeister of Vaduz or the Prime Minister of Liechtenstein (not sure which) stepped forward to deliver a brief speech. Then he joined the crowd in saluting Franz Josef. The entire populace joined with the boys' choir, accompanied by the orchestra, in singing the national anthem.

Afterward, someone pulled the plug on every light in town, including the street lamps. It was a total, prearranged blackout. All eyes focused upon Castle Vaduz. The fireworks were getting underway, at last. Now I understood what all the excitement was about. A thousand roman candles exploded from the ramparts. The noise was overpowering, the colors fantastic. The entire town, perhaps the entire country, was illuminated by lights in the sky, reflected off the castle and the mountains.

The display ended when a multicolored, giant crown was set ablaze on the wall of the castle. Emblazoned inside the crown were the words: Gott ist mit Liechtenstein! It sparkled amid the explosions overhead. Slowly the crown faded, and the fireballs slowed down, leaving the acrid smell of gunpowder. 

The official celebration was over for another year. The crowd gave the show a well-deserved round of applause. The Prince and his entourage returned to their Mercedes and headed up the mountain to their castle through a thin cloud of smoke. The crowd drifted toward the center of town. I was being pushed in the general direction of the post office and my hotel. I felt the immediate need of a beer. 


This was a good idea, because the town had transformed itself into a kind of open-air beer hall. A sea of faces. I latched onto a makeshift refreshment stand, a stone's throw from a rock concert, which was beginning to blast in the park. I bought an outsized bottle of Austrian beer, one of the best in the world. The songs from the park were in English, just like the name of the national bank. I could decipher a few words and phrases. Otherwise, it was just noise to me.

I listened for awhile and ordered another bottle of beer, a smaller version. I had been drinking Swiss beer lately in Zurich and Lugano, but found it bland. The Swiss white wine was good as the Italian white, but the Swiss beer lacked punch and character. The Austrian beer, by contrast, was simply amazing.

I spotted the bright redheads from the hotel. They were surrounded by motorcyclists from Germany with impressive BMWs. I tossed aside the second bottle, and ordered a third. The redheads were twin sisters. That made them all the more interesting. They were stunning and they looked sober. I was not certain about myself. I tossed the third bottle into a trash can, and crossed the main thoroughfare of the nation, to my hotel.

The crowd on the terrace was drinking and laughing. On the sidewalk, people were shouting and some were walking at strange angles. I proceeded inside to the hotel bar, where a haze of cigarette smoke was vibrating in the shock waves from another rock band. The place was packed, no place to sit. I decided to go upstairs and read.

Half undressed and lying in bed, I reread the International Herald Tribune, my pipeline to America. New faces and more lies. It was the same international con game with which I had become familiar. I turned off the light, thought about JimmyZ in Monte Carlo, and tried to sleep. Impossible. Liechtenstein was determined to make up for lost time. The volume was up full blast. The Prince's birthday was the Saturday night to end all Saturday nights. I said to hell with it around 1 o'clock, rolled out of bed, and wandered down to the bar in search of yet another beer.

The receptionist from Hamburg was now off duty. She had found herself a companion. I gave her a wink, and proceeded. The bar was less packed than before. I was feeling the need to communicate, but communication was still very difficult. The band obliterated all but the most elementary conversation.

Somehow, out of the blue, I found myself on the dance floor facing a girl who was blocking my path to the bar. She had red hair, was wide-eyed and appeared only slightly stoned, all things considered. The beer could wait, I thought. I have all the time in the world. The redhead and I were dancing in an awkward sort of way. She spoke English, but we communicated via sign language. She was one of the twins, all right. She was history.

--Copyright 1980 Patrick Foy--