Thursday, May 2, 2013

Luxarazzi 101: House and Princely Family of Liechtenstein - Pre-World War II

The House of Liechtenstein is one of the most ancient noble families in the whole of Europe. Their (known) history begins around 1136 when a person by the name of Hugo von Liechtenstein was firstly documented. He had taken the name of the fortress of Liechtenstein located south of Vienna. At the time, the family mainly owned land north of the Danube.

Twice the Liechtenstein family split into different branches. In the 13th century the family was divided into the Liechtenstein, the Rohrauer and the Petroneller lines; the two latter ones died out in male line within the next generation; their property went to female heiresses who had married into other families and was thus lost. In the 16th century the family split into the Stezregger, the Feldsberger and the Nikolsburger lines. The Stezregger and the Nikolsburger lines died out after a few generations but this time around the family had been smarter as it had been agreed beforehand that the property of extinct branches would go to surviving lines of the family.

Prince Karl I of Liechtenstein
At the turn of the 16th to 17th century, the fate of the Liechtenstein family was changed forever by three brothers, Karl, Maximilian and Gundaker. Raised as Protestants, they all converted to Catholicism in 1599; they now shared the same faith as the Habsburg rulers.

Soon after, Emperor Rudolf II appointed Karl as Lord Comptroller, the highest office at the imperial court and one of the leading figures in the government. In 1606, Karl received the Great Count Palatinate, which enabled him to issue patents of nobility, to grant arms and to mint his own coinage. The same year he and his brothers signed a Family Covenant, which included the rule that the first born of the oldest descendent line has the right to the heritable title and represents the House as a regent. Two years later Karl was elevated to the rank of a Hereditary Imperial Prince.

After Karl had taken side with Archduke Matthias, who would later become Holy Roman Emperor, in the Habsburg Bruderzwist, he was awarded the title of Duke of Troppau and Jägerndorf in 1613. In 1620, the intervention of Karl and Maximilian helped the Habsburg’s and their allies to win the Battle of White Mountain and thus defeat the Bohemian rebels. Three years later Maximilian and Gundakar were also elevated to the rank of Hereditary Imperial Princes.

The three brothers were able to multiply the properties of the Liechtenstein family many times over, especially after Emperor Ferdinand II had made Karl governor and viceroy of Bohemia in 1622; that same year Karl also became a knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece. Some sources estimate that at the time of Karl’s death five years later, the family owned 5800 square kilometres of lands including 24 towns, 35 market towns, 756 villages and 46 castles in Austria, Moravia, Silesia, Bohemia, Hungary and Styria.

The family's former Moravian home:
Valtice / Feldberg Castle
Although the family had acquired those vast properties over the centuries, they were all held fief under more senior feudal lords. Thus, since being elevated to Imperial Princes, it had been the major goal of the family to become reichsunmittelbar, meaning that they would be free from the authority of any local lord and placed under the immediate authority of the Emperor. Reichsumittelbarkeit was the primary requirement to qualify for a seat in the Imperial Diet.

It almost took 100 years until the opportunity to reach this goal finally arose. In 1699, Prince Hans-Adam I purchased the demesne of Schellenberg and thirteen years later Vaduz from the Count of Hohenems who had to pay off his debts.

On 23 January 1719, Emperor Karl VI issued a decree saying that Vaduz and Schellenberg were to be united and elevated to the dignity of principality with the name "Liechtenstein" in honour of "[his] true servant, Anton Florian of Liechtenstein", who was a descendant of Gundakar. On the same day Liechtenstein became a sovereign member state of the Holy Roman Empire. A curiosity is that the country Liechtenstein is actually named after the family and not the other way around as it was usually the case.

Prince Anton Florian
of Liechtenstein
Though the new tiny principality was the family’s ticket into the Imperial Diet, it was otherwise of peripheral interest to them. The first member of the House to visit the country was Prince Alois in 1818 and in 1842 the first visit by a sovereign prince occurred. The family’s main residences were in Feldsberg / Valtice – today part of the Czech Republic – and Vienna.

Over the centuries the princes of Liechtenstein remained loyal servants of the Habsburg's while multiplying their wealth. The family was sometimes described as the wealthiest noble family of Bohemia.

Even after Austria became a republic in 1918, the primary residences of the Princely Family remained in the region of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nevertheless, Prince Johann II tried to bring his country into closer ties with neighbouring Switzerland; in 1924 the two country's entered in a costums union. The dependance on Austria during the World War I proved almost fatal; even though Liechtenstein had managed to stay neutral, the country became grinding poor and large parts of the population starved after the allies had prevented goods from Switzerland to be delivered.

The first members of the family to take greater interest in the principality were Prince Johann II's younger brother Prince Franz I, who succeeded him on the throne in 1929, and his wife née Elsa von Gutmann, daughter of a Jewish businessman from Moravia who was knighted by Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria in 1878. The couple regularly spent time in Liechtenstein and interacted with its population.

Princess Gina and Prince
Franz-Joseph II in 1943
In March 1938 very shortly after the Anschluss of Austria into Nazi Germany, Prince Franz I named his first cousin twice removed and heir Prince Franz Joseph as his regent. When he died later that same year, the son of Prince Alois of Liechtenstein, who in 1923 had renounced his own rights to the throne in favour of his son, and his wife Archduchess Elisabeth Amalie of Austria became Prince Franz Joseph II of Liechtenstein. Due to his adverse attitude toward National Socialism he moved his primary residence to Vaduz and thus became the first ruling prince who lived full-time in the country.

During the Second World War Prince Franz Joseph II managed to keep his country neutral. His role during this time is otherwise unclear; on the one hand the family directly profited from the Holocaust as concentration camp labourers worked on Austrian estates of the Princely Family, on the other hand he granted asylum to soldiers who otherwise would have been imprisoned.

In 1943 he married Countess Georgine of Wilczek, daughter of Count Ferdinand of Wilczek and Countess Norbertine Kinsky of Wchinitz and Tettau. With the much beloved Princess Gina, Prince Franz Joseph II had five children: Prince Hans-Adam II (*1945), Prince Philipp (*1946), Prince Nikolaus (*1947) who is the husband of Princess Margaretha of Luxembourg, Princess Nora (*1950) and Prince Wenzel (1962-1991).

Come back next week to see how the family fared after the end of the Second World War and how they ended up where they are now!

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