Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Lilliputians in Gulliver’s World - The odd world of the mini-state

  • Written by  Vitali Vitaliev
  • Published in Places
Lilliputians in Gulliver’s World - The odd world of the mini-state
24 Oct
In the third of his series on geopolitical oddities, Vitali Vitaliev looks at our planet’s smallest independent nations

It is common knowledge that throughout its 300 years of history, Liechtenstein – a tiny, 25km-long, sovereign principality, squeezed between Austria and Switzerland – was spared foreign invasions. Like many other commonly accepted stereotypes about the world’s smallest sovereign countries, however, this is not entirely true.

Stay connected with the Geographical newsletter!
signup buttonIn these turbulent times, we’re committed to telling expansive stories from across the globe, highlighting the everyday lives of normal but extraordinary people. Stay informed and engaged with Geographical.

Get Geographical’s latest news delivered straight to your inbox every Friday!

Liechtenstein map

The principality has no army, and its last military engagement was in 1866, when Prussia declared war on Austria. All 80 Liechtenstein soldiers were deployed on the frontier between Tyrol and Italy for one week, during which time they witnessed a blizzard (in August), but never once set eyes on the enemy. They returned to Liechtenstein safe and sound (even making a new recruit on the way back making them one of the few military forces to return from the front lines of a war with more soldiers than when they left), were welcomed by a band, given refreshments at Vaduz castle and then sent home.

And yet, two episodes in the principality’s 20th century history could indeed qualify as invasions, of sorts. The latest happened in October 1992, when a group of Swiss recruits tried by mistake to set up an observation post in the Liechtenstein village of Triesenberg on the Swiss border. A local country woman, who had never seen a soldier before and was obviously unnerved by their rifles and gas-masks, simply shooed them away across the frontier back into Switzerland, which had to apologise officially for the incident.

The first episode, however, warrants a much more detailed description. On the night of 2 May 1945, 500 fully armed Russian soldiers, under the command of Major General Holmston-Smyslovsky, crossed the Austrian frontier into Liechtenstein near the village of Schellenberg. The Russians, remnants of the First Russian Army of the German Wehrmacht, had entered Liechtenstein in search of political asylum. Unlike two and a half million other Russian soldiers and Cossacks, who fought on the German side and were captured by the Allies only to be handed over to Stalin under the Yalta agreement, these 500 were not extradited and were allowed to stay.

The tiny Ruritanian principality was firmly committed to its status of neutrality during WWII. Near the village of Malbun, there is a church, built in 1950 ‘to thank God for sparing Liechtenstein the terrors of the Second World War’. In actual fact, it was thanks not to God but to the political prowess of Prince Franz Joseph II (ironically, the nephew of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in Sarajevo precipitated the 1914-1918 war), who bravely paid a surprise visit to Berlin in May 1939. As the Prince himself later recalled, Hitler ‘was visibly ill at ease and didn’t make any impression at all’ during their 90 minute meeting in the Reich Chancellery, but since his visit ‘flattered Hitler’s ego’, the Nazis decided to leave Liechtenstein alone.

A tourist train running through LiechtensteinA tourist train running through Liechtenstein


The mini (also called ‘micro’) state is a rather confusing and ill-defined concept. Unlike the so-called ‘micronations’, mini-states are all fully sovereign and self-governing small entities, recognised as such by the UN and other international organisations. According to the succinct definition by Webster’s College Dictionary, a mini-state is just ‘a small independent nation’. The Free Internet Dictionary defines it as: ‘a very small nation that is an internationally-recognised sovereign state’. The obvious question here is: how small is small?

‘Small’ is a relative concept when applied to countries. The UK is small compared to, say, China or Russia, but Malta is very small in relation to the UK. Or take Iceland – relatively small in population (350,000), yet vast in its area (40,000 square miles). What should we take into account: area, population, both? My favourite definition, quoted by geographer Zbigniew Dumienski in his paper Microstates as Modern Protected States, describes a mini-state as being of a size ‘so small as to invite comment’.

If we narrow the bracket even further – to a maximum of 100,000 population – it leaves us with ten amazingly diverse sovereign countries: Nauru, Tuvalu, Palau and Marshall Islands in Oceania, St Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda in the Caribbean and San Marino, Monaco, Liechtenstein and Andorra in Europe. Finally there is also Niue (population 1,600) – an island nation in the South Pacific, considered an associated state (ie. minor partner) of New Zealand.

(How about the Vatican, by far the world’s smallest state, with the population of under 900 and the area of just 44 hectares? Well, I consciously chose to leave the Papal State out of the above list, for, to me, it did not quite meet the traditional criteria of a state. And not just to me, it appears: writer Thomas Eccardt in his recent book Secrets of the Seven Smallest States of Europe referred to the Vatican as being more similar to ‘the headquarters of international organisations’ than to a state in its own right. Hopefully, His Holiness will forgive us both!)

Modern Liechtenstein (area 160 square km, population 39,000), with its per capita GDP of over $140,000 is by some estimates the world’s richest country. And not only due to its tax haven status and its countless letterbox companies (their number is higher than that of the principality’s population), but also because of its proportionally extensive infrastructure, with over 1,800 industrial enterprises specialising in electronics, precision engineering, metal finishing, textile and ceramic industries. It explains why it is often called a ‘mini-industrial giant’.

MonacoMonaco is the tiny home to more than 37,000 people

We find a very different picture in the all-urban, tax-free Monaco (a principality of 37,000 people, with the world’s highest population density of 25,105 people per square km), effectively owned by the Grimaldi family, whose economy – apart from banking – heavily relies on the services sector and more recently on Prince Albert’s determination to develop environmentally friendly small industries. Meanwhile, San Marino (pop. 34,000), the world’s oldest republic, thrives on exporting its wines, souvenirs and highly collectable postage stamps.

Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

The very existence of the prospering small states is a not-so-small miracle in our immensely globalised world. Researchers Iver Neumann and Sieglinde Gstoni certainly had a point when characterising all surviving mini-states as ‘Lilliputians in Gulliver’s World’ in their eponymous paper, published by the University of Iceland in May 2004.

Yet, the mini-states’ most remarkable feature is their frantic, yet entirely peaceful, clinging to their own sovereignty. Despite their minuscule size, modern mini-states are ruled in a plethora of different ways – from parliamentary and constitutional monarchies (Monaco and Liechtestein) to unitary parliamentary republics (Palau, Marshall Islands) to San Marino’s peculiar ‘diarchy’ whereby it is governed jointly by two Captains Regent, nominated by the Grand and General Council.

Andorra, a tiny Catalan-speaking co-principality in the Pyrenees that enjoys the world’s highest life expectancy, and has been independent since 1298, retains a parliamentary democracy run by the Council General (Andorra’s parliament since 1419), but also preserves an element of diarchy by maintaining its two co-Princes, one of whom is traditionally the incumbent President of France, the other the Bishop of Urgel. Unlike in San Marino, however, their role is largely ceremonial.

In St Kitts and Nevis – a unique mini-federation of two island states – the same minister can hold several different portfolios – both in the local island government and at the federal level. The Rt. Hon. Mark Brantley, Nevis’s Deputy Premier, holds ten!

San MarinoSan Marino is just one of five diarchies – countries jointly ruled by two leaders


Liechtenstein’s head of state, Prince Hans Adam II, is Europe’s last remaining full-power monarch. He can single-handedly veto laws, call referenda and dissolve the Diet (parliament), as he did in September 1993. Hans Adam II went on to declare general elections and to reject the no-confidence vote against his then prime minister, Markus Buchel, an event normally associated with the 17th century, not the late 20th.

In 2003, he called a referendum on the expansion of his own powers and threatened to leave the country if the people voted against it. They didn’t and refused to curtail them once again in 2012 when an anti-monarchists’ proposal to do so was resolutely voted down.

Not too democratic, you may say. Yet, as the story with the asylum-seeking Russian soldiers goes on to demonstrate, at times it takes a bit of dictatorial toughness to keep the aggressor at bay.

The First Russian Army of the Wehrmacht was made of Russian émigrés and freedom-fighters, most of whom were not even Soviet citizens. Its main objective was not to contribute to Russia’s occupation, but rather to help it to get rid of Bolshevism, which was seen as the greater of two evils. Hitler never fully trusted the Army, and even had Holmston-Smyslovsky, a former Russian count, imprisoned and his unit disbanded for a couple of years. The army didn’t commit any atrocities and its involvement in combat action was minimal.

As soon as the news reached Vaduz of the 500 Russians in German uniforms, with all their arms and equipment, crossing the border, the Prince sent his representatives to Schellenberg. Baron Eduard von Falz-Fein, a long-time Liechtenstein resident of Russian/Ukrainian extraction (who passed away at the venerable age of 106 in November 2018), was asked to act as a translator. The negotiations with Holmston-Smyslovsky took place in the Zum Lowen Inn on the border. ‘It was a curious sight for our peaceful Liechtenstein,’ the Baron once told me many years later during a meeting. ‘Hundreds of heavily armed men, with their horses and vehicles, camping on the lawn behind the inn. Later we built barracks for them in the town of Ruggel.’

Franz Josef IIFranz Josef II as depicted on the country’s official stamps

Asylum was duly granted to all the Russians, but shortly afterwards Prince Franz Josef II found himself under considerable pressure from the Soviets. Unlike his counterparts in Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland, Switzerland, Sweden and Norway, all of which had agreed to repatriate the Russian POWs, the ruler of the tiny Liechtenstein firmly resisted all attempts to have the asylum-seekers extradited. ‘Despite strong pressure, and in contrast to the bad example set by other countries, these unfortunate refugees were not handed over to the executioners,’ the valiant prince wrote in 1980.

The only thing he had to agree to was to allow a Soviet delegation to come to Liechtenstein and interview the asylum-seekers. By stick and carrot, Stalin’s emissaries managed to dupe 300 into returning to the USSR. Notwithstanding generous guarantees of safety, many of them were executed on arrival and the rest ended up in Gulag.

Most of the remaining 200, including General Holmston-Smyslovsky himself, stayed for two years before moving on, most of them to the safety of Argentina. Thus two hundred human lives were saved by the tiny principality’s faithfulness to its historical and humanitarian principles.

Liechtenstein, Europe’s only nation, which did not succumb to the Soviets’ pressure, might be small indeed, but, like many other mini-states, it can teach the modern world an important lesson of true sovereignty and pride. Where some of the world’s greatest democracies effectively capitulated in the face of a gun-brandishing bully, tiny Liechtenstein stayed strong.

The latest edition of Vitali Vitaliev’s book, Little is the Light: Nostalgic Travels in the Mini-States of Europe, Is published by Thrust Books and is available from: amzn.to/2KZ8wNd

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox by signing up to our weekly newsletter and get a free collection of eBooks!

geo line break v3

Related items

(by population)

  Population Land Area (km2) Population Density (pop./km2)
Vatican City 842 0.44 1913.6
Nauru 9,488 21 451.8
Tuvalu 10,782 26 414.7
Palau 21,186 459 46.2
San Marino 32,742 61 536.8
Monaco 37,308 2.02 18469.3
Liechtenstein 37,313 160 233.2
St Kitts & Nevis 51,538 261 197.5
Marshall Islands 70,983 181 392.2
Dominica 73,449 751 97.8

geo line break v3

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

geo line break v3


DurhamBath Spa600x200 Greenwich Aberystwythherts




Travel the Unknown

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...


A new device, developed at ETH Zurich, could help communities…


A new initiative to save mangrove forests in the Dominican…


The semi-autonomous Russian republic of Kalmykia sits at the forefront…


In Mogadishu, the troubled capital of Somalia, tentative moves towards…


Researchers have predicted the birth of a new mountain range,…


Archaeological work around Lake Malawi suggests that humans manipulated the…


Maida Bilal risked all to prevent contractors building a dam…


Writer and photographer John Gilbey needed a cheap way of…


An EU project has revealed the extent of river fragmentation…


A new, double-sided world map projection seeks to minimise the…


 Water scarcity is predicted to rise – two experts share…


New collaborative research from the University of Oxford and the…


Conceived during the late 1800s, Letchworth Garden City was the…


Multiple failed attempts to build on a patch of land…


New 'deep learning' technology is helping to identify trees in…


The land around the Kinabatangan River in the state of…


Highlights from the column that keeps you connected with the…


At the end of a perplexing and thought-provoking year, we…


The city of Mosul is slowly putting itself back together…