The small Alpine state of Liechtenstein has launched legal action to return part of Czech territory confiscated from its former ruling family at the end of World War II, reigniting a conflict that has raged for more than 70 years.
Liechtenstein filed a formal complaint with the European Court of Human Rights this week, alleging “disregard” of the Czech Republic’s sovereignty over the return of nearly half a million acres of land and some of the greatest castles and palaces in Europe. They were confiscated in 1945.
“For us, the illegal application of Czechoslovak decrees and their consequences is an unresolved problem,” Katrin Eggenberger, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Liechtenstein, told the Financial Times. “Expropriation without compensation is unacceptable.”
The claim relates to the historically sensitive – largely forgotten – ethno-national fault line between Germans and Czechs in the former lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The central issue is the decree by which the post-war Czechoslovak government designated the House of Liechtenstein and 38 other Liechtenstein families as “German” and thus lost their property and assets due to the guilt of the Nazi war.
What is at stake is land more than ten times the size of the present Principality of Liechtenstein, as well as some of the largest palaces and aristocratic residences in Central Europe. This includes two Unesco World Heritage sites: the sprawling neo-Gothic Lednice Castle – home to the Liechtenstein family for over 700 years until it was confiscated – and the Baroque Valtice Castle.
Although the disputed assets formerly owned by the Liechtenstein ruling house are the most valuable in this case, those related to 38 other individuals include shareholdings and business interests.
“[The case] involves fundamental questions of sovereignty, ”said Ms Eggenberger. “We’re not doing this just because the princely house is involved. It is for our 39 citizens. . . The smaller the country, the more important it is to defend your rights. “
Martin Smolek, Czech deputy foreign minister, said his country’s preliminary opinion was that the case should not be considered by the ECHR because the Strasbourg Court did not deal with issues dating from before the elaboration of the European Convention on Human Rights.
“We also think it’s a strange use of the treaty to use it in a case where there is a very limited group of people – frankly one person – whose rights have been allegedly violated,” he said. .
He and Ms Eggenberger expressed hope that the case would not hurt their relationship. The two countries only officially entered into diplomatic relations in 2009 following a long-standing dispute.
The case, filed on Wednesday by Liechtenstein, is essentially an appeal to the ECHR of a decision by the Constitutional Court of the Czech Republic in February. He spoke out against the princely house in a test case challenging the ownership of 600 hectares of forest near Prague, formerly owned by the House of Liechtenstein.
The Liechtenstein family was one of the great aristocratic dynasties under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. With the collapse of the Habsburg dynasty in 1918, the empire imperfectly fractured into a mosaic of new states. Ethnicity became a highly charged and political issue, but seldom an issue that could be properly resolved for many of its former great cosmopolitan families.
In the interwar period, the Liechtensteinians spoke German, lived in Vienna, owned most of their land in the new state of Czechoslovakia, and were rulers of a 160 km2 strip of territory – internationally recognized as an independent country – bordering Switzerland, far from the west.
A 1930 Czechoslovak census deemed the family “German” because that was the language they spoke. At the time, Czechoslovakia was home to some 3 million “bohemian” Germans.
In 1938, shortly after the Nazi takeover of Austria, the ruling prince of the house, Franz Joseph II, fled Vienna to settle permanently in Liechtenstein itself. The principality remained neutral throughout the war.
The family remains a significant landowner in many other parts of Central Europe. However, the disputed assets confiscated by Prague remained a bone of contention, not least because they implicated family complicity in the Nazi aggression.
Ms Eggenberger said she was convinced the Strasbourg court would rule in favor of Liechtenstein, but the principality has so far had little success in challenging the confiscations.
A complaint filed in 2001 against Germany concerning a painting by the Dutch master Pieter van Laer which was confiscated by the Czech authorities after the Second World War went to the International Court of Justice before being rejected.