Liechtenstein royalty hired death camp inmates for slave labour

The Daily Telegraph 15 April 2005
By David Rennie in Brussels

Liechtenstein's royal house hired Jewish concentration camp inmates from the SS to work as forced labourers on its princely estates in Austria, a probe into the tiny tax haven's wartime past has discovered.

The findings of the four-year study stripped away the comfortable myth that Liechtenstein was a passive bystander to the horrors of the Second World War.

Instead, they showed how the country, less than half the size of the Isle of Wight, turned away unknown numbers of Jewish refugees from its border with Austria only admitting those who could pay vast sums in Swiss francs.

The report described the then poverty-stricken principality as acting with "opportunism" and "self-interest".

In addition to selling passports for up to 50,000 Swiss francs to a total of 144 Jewish refugees, it forced a further 400 refugees to deposit up to 30,000 Swiss francs in local banks, as a guarantee that they would not cost locals a penny.

The most sensitive parts of the report touched on the conduct of the princely house which has ruled Liechtenstein for 300 years. The current reigning prince, Hans-Adam II, won "absolute powers", including the right to veto bills and sack the government, in 2003 after a controversial referendum that saw him threaten to leave the principality if thwarted.

Liechtenstein was ruled throughout the war by the current monarch's father, Prince Franz-Josef II, who took over the throne in 1938, aged 31.

The principality's official website presents Franz-Josef II's war record as blameless, saying he "turned his attention entirely to keeping Liechtenstein out of the Second World War", making speeches to "fortify the inner unity and resistance of the people".

The historical commission was appointed by the Liechtenstein government in 2001, following allegations that the country's banks dealt in Nazi loot. It included academics from Liechtenstein, Israel, Switzerland and Austria, and found that Liechtenstein banks "acted correctly", though they did business with Nazi Germany.

Dr Peter Geiger, a Swiss historian and the commission's chairman, said that even though the prince did not know everything going on and did not know about the slave labour on his farms: "It does not mean of course that no responsibility lies on the prince."

The prince had vast land holdings and estates in Austria and Czechoslovakia, none of which were touched by the Nazis. Three of his farms near Austria employed around 100 Hungarian-Jewish inmates of the Strasshof concentration camp near Vienna, from July 1944 until the end of the war, the commission found.

With food scarce at the Strasshof camp, the SS rented inmates out as forced labour. All those working on the prince's estates survived the war.

Franz-Josef II, who died in 1989, also bought factories and antiques that had been stolen from their Jewish owners under the Third Reich's "Aryanisation" programme, the commission found.

In particular, he purchased "three or four" Jewish factories to add to a struggling paper-making concern he owned. "After the war, the prince paid more money to the former Jewish owners of those factories, who had fled to the West," said Dr Geiger.

The commission exonerated Prince Franz-Josef II over his purchase of a valuable antique desk later shown to have been "Aryanised", saying a dealer falsely claimed to the prince that they had an "unproblematic origin".

"No looted art was identified in Liechtenstein collections," the commission found. However, it noted that the prince went on something of a buying spree from 1938 until the end of the war, buying 270 art objects, almost all of them "household furnishings".

These included "a number of objects of problematic origin", purchased from dealers and institutions known to have traded in looted assets.

Liechtenstein's frontiers were controlled by Switzerland during the war, and Dr Geiger said there was no proof that all those turned away were Jewish.

Some were pushed back across the frontier by night, and told to try escaping through Nazi territory.

"But of course their chances were not good, and we suspect they may have ended up being annihilated," said Dr Geiger.
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