Liechtenstein sues Germany over Czech property

The tiny state of Liechtenstein has announced it is taking Germany to the International Court of Justice over property seized after World War Two. The assets involved include forests, castles, works of art and, as it happens, 180,000 hectares of the land seized is in what is now the Czech Republic. Olga Szantova has the story.

The disputed land covers an area of 1,800 square kilometers, or more than ten times the size of Liechtenstein itself. This begs the question of How Liechtenstein, Europe's fourth smallest state, with an area of just 160 square kilometers and 32,000 inhabitants, located between Switzerland and Austria, can claim rights to such a vast territory in the Czech Republic. The answer takes us way back in history, to a time when the Liechtensteins were a powerful noble family in Austria that owned land and castles on Czech territory, which was then ruled by the Habsburgs. They were ardent Catholics and stood by the Habsburgs and played an important role in the decisive victory against Bohemian rebels in 1620. After the 30 Years' War, when the Czech protestants were defeated, they were amongst the Catholic families that received confiscated Protestant property. This is the property Liechtenstein is now laying claim to.

But in the land reforms that followed the foundation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, all the nobility lost their land and have not had any right to it since. As for the Liechtenstein claims - there are some specific aspects that have to be taken into account. Liechtenstein was neutral during both world wars and it never recognized the 1938 Munich Agreement under which the border regions of Czechoslovakia were taken over by Nazi Germany.

After World War Two Czechoslovakia seized property owned by the ruling Prince of Liechtenstein and other Liechtenstein families as reparation for German occupation during the war. The issue remained dormant for years, but was revived in January 1998, triggered by a Dutch oil painting exhibited in Germany on loan from a Czech gallery. Prince Hans-Adam II, Liechtenstein's head of state, claimed ownership of the painting and asked that Germany give it to him instead of returning it to the Czech Republic. A German court, however, rejected his claim and the prince is pursuing the case in the European Court of Justice. His country has now turned to the International Court of Justice in a separate case.

Liechtenstein is apparently suing Germany and not the Czech Republic, according to Reuters, because the Czech Republic does not recognize Liechtenstein. So far the Czech Foreign Ministry has not commented on the issue.