Niklaus von Flüe: patron saint of non-intervention

by Paul Widmer*

Brother Klaus as the apical ancestor of Swiss Neutrality? School historians do not admit it. They are doubly mistaken: the National Saint has, in the course of history, coined the foreign policy of the Confederation by his words and through their interpretations.
Nobody has exerted as much influence on the Swiss foreign policy as Niklaus von Flüe. The hermit in the Ranft wanted to escape the world, but he did not succeed. Even the envoys of the Great Powers sought him out in his cell in the wild Melch Valley. Archduke Sigismund of Austria, the Doge of Venice and the Duke of Milan, they all wanted to know what Brother Klaus thought of war and peace. Why so? Because he was an opinion leader, a moral authority. The Milanese envoy Bernardino Imperiali told his prince: “The Confederation trusts him greatly.”
What made Brother Klaus so interesting for the Great Powers of the time? Above all, two things: on the one hand, he advised the Swiss to maintain a foreign policy of restraint, to renounce warlike conquests; on the other, he exhorted them to settle a dispute amicably, and to bring it to the judge only in an emergency. He therefore recommended a behaviour that was oriented towards neutrality and arbitration. He impressed not only his contemporaries. With his advice, he has influenced Swiss foreign policy up to the present day.

Spiritual father of neutrality

So people thought for a long time, all over our country, in the Federal Council and in historical scholarship. After the Second World War, Federal Councillor Max Petitpierre did not doubt that neutrality had sprung from the ideas of Brother Klaus. And in the early 1980s, Secretary of State Albert Weitnauer wrote in his memoirs: “Neutrality is the living expression of what the Swiss National Saint Niklaus von Flüe already expressed in the time of the Burgundian wars, with his well-known warning, ‘Don’t get involved in other people’s affairs!’”
But beware! This is supposedly past history now. Whoever says anything like this today will earn only a tired smile from historians. It has long ago been proved, they say, that Brother Klaus did not care two figs for neutrality. Their reasoning is something like this: First, the phrase “Don’t get involved in other people’s affairs!” does not originate from him, but from the Lucerne chronicler Hans Salat. They say that it was he who put those words in the mouth of the hermit, in 1537. And secondly, Salat did not mean to bring them across as an appeal to neutrality, but used them to denounce the Bernese for the conquest of the Vaud. Thirdly, they say, linking neutrality to the work of Brother Klaus is a concoction of the nationalist historiography of the 19th and 20th centuries. In short: to elevate Brother Klaus to the rank of forefather of Swiss neutrality is, they say, a falsification of history.
Is this really so? I am not convinced of it, and I shall try to explain why hereafter. Certainly, Brother Klaus did not pronounce the word neutrality – of course he could not. The concept of neutrality only just broke fresh ground about then. The medieval world order with Pope and Emperor at the top was breaking up. As long as it had been quite intact, there could be no neutrality. For the Christians it was, at least in theory, a sacred duty to support the cause of the supreme ruler of Christianity. His wars were just, fighting against him was sin. That only changed with the advent of sovereign nation-states. Now the rulers were equal. In a case of war, a third party could side with one or the other of the war parties – or stay out.
The concept of a foreign policy of neutrality arose in this world of sovereign states – but not overnight. As the great historian Reinhart Koselleck taught us, concepts are formed in a long process, like a distillate. Various facts flow together and form the essential features for a whole context of meaning. Just because something is not yet conceptually comprehensible, this does not mean that there are not already facts that anticipate the concept. Consequently, we must ask ourselves: did Brother Klaus really have no idea of what we call neutrality today, simply because he neither used the word nor knew the term? Let us look more closely at these objections.
The appeal not to interfere with foreign quarrels can well be understood as a call for neutral behaviour. No one disputes that. But the critics deny that Brother Klaus expressed himself in this way. They say that the dictum was not coined by him; but that it was foisted on him fifty years after his death. This opinion, however, is to be objected due to a few things, especially testimonies of contemporaries who attest an attitude of mind based on the principle of non-interference to the Swiss patron saint.

“Greed and lust for power”

Brother Klaus’ first biographer is Heinrich von Gundelfingen. He was a canon at Be­romünster and a professor at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau. In his writings, which already appeared in 1488, a year after the death of the hermit, he said that the advice of the holy man would be a great salvation to the confederates if they followed them. And what did Gundelfingen understand these recommendations to be? Not to be corrupted by foreign rulers, to hold honour higher than material advantages, not to engage in foreign conflicts, nor to bring war to one’s neighbours. This is advice which is not contrary to neutrality; it is, in fact, rather a prerequisite for the successful implementation of neutrality.
The highly educated humanist Johannes Trithemius expresses himself even more clearly, as the former state archivist of Obwalden, Angelo Garovi, recently pointed out. The abbot of the monastery of Sponheim had visited Niklaus von Flüe in 1486. In his report at the beginning of the sixteenth century, about thirty years before Salat, he put the following advice in the mouth of Brother Klaus: “If you remain within your borders, no one can overcome you, but you will be superior to your enemies at any time, and prevail. But if, beguiled by greed and lust for power, you begin to expand your power to the outside; then your power will not last long.” Trithemius thus ascribes to Brother Klaus the same reminder as does Salat. And he is not alone. In the coarse language of political debate, a Zurich flyer states in 1522: “Bruoder Clauss said that we should stay on our own muck heap.”

Sitting still as the greatest service

Now it might be objected that even if this were true, Brother Klaus also gave advice quite to the contrary. But this is not actually true. The saint in the Ranft was very consistent in his views. He always emphasised the need for peace; he never advised military conquests; and neither did he advocate the Swiss mercenary trade. As the Treaty of Stans of 1481 proves, he did not fundamentally reject the expansion of the eight old places. But this had to happen peacefully, not with weapons. Thanks to his settlement, Freiburg and Solothurn were able to join the Swiss Confederation.
Not to begin a war of conquest and not to support any war party militarily, these principles constitute the core of neutrality. Brother Klaus advised both. Whether or not the saying “Do not make the fence too wide” actually comes from him is secondary. There are several instances of lore that testify to the fact that the conception behind it corresponds to his ideas. So, there is much more speaking for Brother Klaus as the apical ancestor of Swiss Neutrality, than against.
Of course, occasionally Brother Klaus’ warnings fell on deaf ears. As early as 1512, the chronicler Anton Tegerfeld of Mellingen wrote that many years before, Brother Klaus had already advised the Swiss to refrain from their mercenary trade. Unfortunately, a deaf ear had been turned to this advice. But after Marignano (1515) the fiasco was obvious. The confederates were not able to carry out large wars of conquest. The loose alliance of rural and urban communities lacked a central power of command, which would have been necessary for this purpose. They drew the correct conclusion from the defeat and renounced superpower policies from then on. They never again entered into an offensive alliance. They preferred to preserve the great freedom of the individual communities, and did not sacrifice them to a centralist struggle for power. A contemporary South German mocking poem said that the Swiss would have been spared the ignominity of Marignano, had they followed the advice of Brother Klaus.
As important as the advice of the hermit was, it is doubtful whether neutrality would have been so strongly absorbed in the Swiss consciousness of foreign policy without the Reformation. The confessional division made an abstinent foreign policy not only advisable, but into a question of survival. After the two battles of Kappel, two equally strong camps opposed each other within. To be sure, Catholics and Protestants felt the urge to take part in European conflicts. But that would have meant political suicide, which they wanted to avoid despite all animosities. Ultimately, the fate of the country was put above confessionalism.
This is very well illustrated by a letter from Heinrich Bullinger to Philip of Hesse, the leader of the Protestants in the Schmalkaldic War. The latter had asked the Swiss Reformed for support. The Zurich reformer rejected his request. For if the Reformed came to his aid, the Catholics would do the same for the other side. For this reason “sitting still” was the greatest service the Swiss could provide to their brothers in the faith. Logically, the Swiss Diet banned the passage of foreign troops and arms, and imposed strict neutrality, even before the beginning of the war (1546).
In the Thirty Years’ War, the understanding of neutrality was consolidated. If, originally, neutrality was decided on a case-by-case basis, it became more and more fundamental. So it was possible that the Swiss Diet could already declare Switzerland a neutral state in 1674. And in 1782, the Zurich scholar and counsellor Hans Heinrich Füssli completed the circle. At the Annual General Meeting of the Helvetian Society in Olten, he called out to the enlightened elite of the country that Switzerland should adhere to eternal neutrality in its foreign policy, as Brother Klaus had already advised. The connection between Niklaus von Flüe and Swiss neutrality thus arose decades, indeed centuries, before nationalised historiography is said to have invented it. At the Congress of Vienna (1814/15) neutrality was then recognised internationally, as had been most ardently desired.

Peaceful resolution of disputes

Neutrality is by far the most important principle in Swiss foreign policy. However, Brother Klaus’ advice still continues to have an effect in another area of foreign policy as well: that is the peaceful settlement of disputes. In his famous message of 1482 (“Fried ist allweg in Gott” – “Peace is forever in God”), he advised the Bernese to settle a dispute peacefully. He expressed himself even more clearly in the same year towards the people of Constance. He told them to settle their dispute amicably – and to bring the matter before the judges only if it were not otherwise possible. Reconciliation, he said, was more important than knowing who is right. This was the only way to achieve lasting peace.
The advice of Brother Klaus sprung from his deep religious conviction. But he also fell back upon what was custom around him. The confederates knew no centralist ruler, who would have been able to impose court decisions by force in their loose federal framework. They therefore preferred to settle a dispute by arbitration or a settlement. Those affected were, with the help of others, to help find a solution to the problem and to assert their will to implement this by an oath before God. This procedure was so common, that it was called the “Law of the Confederates” in the other parts of the empire.
After the First World War, when Switzerland was preparing to join the League of Nations, a great admirer of Brother Klaus had recourse to his ideas. Max Huber, at that time a legal adviser in the Political Department (now the EDA), later the president of the Permanent Court of International Justice and of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), at the request of federal councillor Motta wrote a Federal Council’s dispatch for the attention of parliament about the principles of Swiss Arbitration Policy. It was a bold plan. Huber wanted to lay the foundations for a new world order with the expansion of peaceful dispute settlement. He did not succeed. The experiment faltered in the early stages. However, Switzerland concluded a considerable number of arbitration and settlement agreements with other states.
In a speech at the 1951 Obwaldner “Landsgemeinde” (gathering of the electorate), Huber, this outstanding international lawyer and chief architect of the Geneva Red Cross Conventions, acknowledged how much he had been influenced the work of Brother Klaus. After the First World War, he had wanted to build on the legacy of the country’s spiritual father in the Swiss Arbitration Policy. Ambassador Paul Ruegger, Huber’s successor at the head of the ICRC, confirmed this and counted himself in with those rooted in this tradition.
But there were other after-effects. At the beginning of the 1970s, when the Federal Council decided to open up the country’s foreign policy by participating in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), the first head of the delegation, Ambassador Rudolf Bindschedler, resorted to Huber’s proposals and presented a draft for a European system of peaceful settlement of disputes. For many years he made sure that the topic did not disappear from the agenda in the great East-West negotiations. However, the interest of the large states was, to say the least, low. The hobby of the Swiss delegation was smiled at and nothing more.
But fate took an unprecedented turn. After the end of the Cold War, France began to be interested in the issue and sent her Justice Minister Robert Badinter. Now everything was different. The OSCE (OSCE) adopted an agreement on conciliation and arbitration in 1992. But Bindschedler was already dead at this time. The conference honoured the deceased by acknowledging that without the steadfast commitment of the Swiss delegation’s head, the convention would never have come about.
Of course Bindschedler was also spared a bitter disappointment by his early death. The new mechanism remained a dead letter. To date, the Secretariat at Avenue de France 23 in Geneva has not received a single application for peaceful dispute settlement. States simply do not willingly submit to the judgment of third parties in international conflicts. And if, by way of exception, they for once do it, they will certainly not entrust a powerless institution like the OSCE with the task.
Brother Klaus plays a humble role in today’s foreign policy. His name is rarely found in official announcements. The bells no longer ring across the whole country on his birthday, as they did in 1917. However, the memory of this righteous patriot is not extinct in the general population. It is well known that he has influenced the development of Switzerland in two ways: first, by what he said, and second, no less important, by the interpretations which his words have experienced over the centuries. Without him, our foreign policy would have been different indeed.     •

* Paul Widmer is a lecturer for international relations at the University of St. Gallen; he was in the diplomatic service from 1977 to 2014. He is the author of several books. Most recently, his book “Bundesrat Arthur Hoffmann. Aufstieg und Fall” (“Federal Councillor Arthur Hoffmann. Rise and fall”) appeared in the NZZ book publishing house.

Source: “Die Weltwoche”, issue 26/2017 from 22 September 2017
(Translation Current Concerns)

Remarks on the life of Niklaus von Flüe

by Erika Vögeli

Niklaus von Flüe, born in 1417, is the son of Hemma, born Ruobert, and Heinrich von Flüe in Sachseln (Obwalden). The mother comes from peasant backgrounds from the community of Wolfenschiessen (Nidwalden). His father Heinrich appears in the various documents as distinguished community citizen and member of the County Council. Niklaus grew up with his brother Peter and possibly another brother as the son of free farmers.
Little is known about Niklaus von Flüe’s younger years. Around 1446 he married Dorothea Wyss from Schwendi, born around 1430. Five sons and five daughters are born.
Niklaus von Flüe is mentioned early as respected, efficient farmer and “Rottmeister” (Captain). He takes part in military actions, but was averse to warfare. Around 1455, he is a judge and councillor in prominent public positions – he is a member of the Small Council, the highest political and judicial body of the State of Obwalden. He rejects the office of “Landammann”. Although he had achieved everything – family-style happiness, economic success and social status, the grievances of the time preoccupied him, and a long process of reflection and consulting begun, amongst others with the fellow pastor Heimo Amgrund. In 1465, he laid down all his political offices, and on the Gallus’ day, the 16th October 1467, he left his family in – probably on all sides hardly achieved – agreement with his wife Dorothee and trusts his considerable farm to his two oldest, already adult sons. First, he went forth as a pilgrim on a pilgrimage. In the vicinity of Basel, he decides to follow the advice of a farmer and to return to his homeland. So, he settled finally as a hermit in the Ranft, close to the family. There the country people helped him in 1468 in the construction of the cell and the Chapel which is inaugurated in 1469 by the suffragan Thomas of Constance.
In the aftermath Brother Klaus, as whom he is known since then is visited and asked for advice by many people of all ranks. Despite the seclusion in the Ranft, Brother Klaus is always informed about the events of his nearer and further surrounding. So, Bernardino Imperiali writes on 27 June 1483 to the Duke of Milan who had sent him as an envoy to Brother Klaus: “During the absence of Louis I was with Gabriel at the hermit, who is considered to be holy because he eats nothing. The Confederation has great confidence in him. I spent an evening and a morning with him and talked much about these matters. I found him well informed about everything ...“
This interest in the human conditions and his constant commitment for justice, for dispute resolution and peace let him become a widely esteemed and valued counsellor.
In 1482, Brother Klaus writes to the power-conscious Council of the patrician Berne meaningfully: “Obedience [in the former meaning of listening to each other] is the biggest honour that there is in Heaven and on Earth, that is why you need to seek to be obedient to each other, and wisdom is the dearest, because all things start best. Peace is always in God, because God is peace, and peace may not be destroyed, but strife would destroy. Therefore, you should build on peace.“
The most famous mediation took place in the course of the discussion of the city cantons and rural cantons after the Burgundian wars, among other things about the admission of Solothurn and Fribourg into the Confederation. Following his admonition to peace, mediated by the pastor Heimo Amgrund and the four-year domestic Federal conflict which threatened to break the Confederation was resolved and settled on 21 December 1481 in the “Stanser Verkommnis“. Fribourg and Solothurn joined the Confederation as new members.
Brother Klaus died in his Hermitage in the Ranft on 21 March 1487.
His spirit of peace love, mutual accommodation and of equity, in which he always sought equitable solutions, combined with his quest for truthfulness in own doing, made him become the patron of peace and of cohesion. Long before his canonisation by the Pope in 1947, the Confederates elected him as the patron saint of Switzerland. The recent stirred up discussion about Brother Klaus seems, however, petty and somewhat unworldly. Might be, that the literally wordings “Machet den Zun nit zu wit [don’t extend the border fence too far]“ or “Mischet euch nicht in fremde Händel! [Don’t interfere in foreign conflicts]“ are coined by the memory of the chronicler Hans Salat. But to what end this sophistry, by which it is attempted quite transparently to play down the importance of this character conveying concord. The statement being understood indeed as peacekeeping message over the centuries, one would have to ask himself: Cui bono?
Niklaus von Flüe’s concern is undisputed, and people very well understood the reminder to give the spiritual orientation of peace and balance greater importance as power politics ambitions throughout many, very belligerent and difficult centuries.

Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz;
Vokinger, Konstantin. Bruder-Klausen Buch;
Wenger-Schneiter, Mariann. Bruder Klaus. Eine erstaunliche Geschichte aus dem Mittel­alter. Comic, not only for children. Gonten 2016