I am not going to give you a history lecture even though that would certainly be exciting. For unlike today’s students you are likely to have been taught some Swiss history at school… I would like to talk about the political significance of history; about how history has shaped us and about what it teaches us. By marching up in this place in great and impressive numbers you all attest to the fact that history is alive.
Proof of the significance of history is also provided by the historians. Since there are a number of events to commemorate this year some of them have already expressed their views at the beginning of the year. In their minds all this is not that significant. According to them everything was entirely different. Now we have learned of archaeological findings that may possibly be related to the battle. But we can now already venture the prediction that this will not change the minds of the critics. From their point of view the whole of our history is simply a patriotic illusion. According to them many things have simply been fabricated or misinterpreted.
There is only one conclusion to be drawn from this: anyone who goes out of his way to deny the significance of our history shows merely one thing – namely how important our Swiss history really is.
If our history were not important, it would not be so vehemently called into question, but simply silently forgotten. However, this is not the case. Morgarten is a good example. The memory of the Swiss Confederacy’s first battle for freedom has stayed alive over the centuries.
The monk Johannes of Winterthur tells us about it in his 14th-century chronicle and he mentions an annual ecclesiastical commemoration day for the fallen soldiers. Around 1500 the Schlachtkapelle (literally “the battle chapel”, a chapel dedicated to the memory of the Battle of Morgarten) is mentioned for the first time. Since 1912 there has been the Morgarten shooting.
For the “intellectual defense of the nation” during the Second World War Morgarten became a symbol for the spirit of resistance and the desire for freedom even in the most difficult situation. Federal Councillor Minger e.g. said at that time that Morgarten was shining forth from our history like freedom from the morning sun.1 General Guisan, too, issued several declarations in this sense.
Morgarten – this first and important victory of the Swiss Confederates – therefore inspired completely different generations with self-assurance and confidence. Of course, the way of commemorating the battle has changed over time. But even today Morgarten stands for our great common goal: to make our own decisions and to stay free, and also to stand up for freedom and to fight for it.
There are two aspects of the historical commemoration I would like to enlarge upon. First on the significance of history for our common identity quite generally, and secondly on a lesson to be learned from Morgarten which is highly topical even today.
He who deprives a people of its history, deprives it of its identity. He who deprives it of its identity deprives it of its values. And a people without values becomes open to manipulation, for it lacks a compass. There are examples even from more recent history where a people has been deprived of its history in order to be able to manipulate it.
A couple of weeks ago, the writer Thomas Hürlimann said in an interview with Schweiz am Sonntag that Switzerland was on the verge to deliberately losing its memory. He said (and I quote): “This is also evident with the politicians representing us abroad. Instead of referring to our history with a certain pride they are apologising for a people being too stupid to become an EU member.”2 In other words, the critique of our history is not scientifically, but politically motivated. For the history of Switzerland is the history of a libertarian exceptionalism, and that does not suit everybody for political reasons.
But let us briefly look back without preconceptions: In this country at the end of the 13th century we have a small community in the mountains taking control of its own destiny. With the Federal Charter of 1291 the “Urschweizer” (primeval Swiss) allied themselves against foreign lords (rulers) and foreign judges. Over the centuries this has developed into our liberal political system. In a Europe characterised by monarchies until well into the 12th century this is a historical sensation.
Against all the odds the Swiss Confederacy of the time proved to be not only viable, but incredibly successful. The result was a country that is not centrally organised but on a small-scale regional basis. Thus a society emerged in which individual responsibility is paramount and in which individual achievement is rewarded. But along with this goes a commitment to the general public by non-professionals in the “Milizsystem” – whether in the army, in politics, in the church or in sports. In the process of time we have given ourselves a liberal order that provides us with more rights than the citizens of other states enjoy.
Hence freedom has become the principle of state that unites us all – whether in country or city, in German-, French- or Italian speaking Switzerland. And most importantly, the people is the sovereign and thus the supreme political authority. It is the citizens who have the final say. Popular decisions hold good – and have to be respected – even though they may not suit the government or other states.
With these public policy principles we continue to be a special case. I become aware of this time and again when I meet foreign ministers who have an entirely different conception of statehood: History has a lasting impact and I think it is marvelous that we – the Swiss – have been moulded in a freedom-loving and authority-critical vein. I think we are quite entitled to take a little pride in that.
The development to a modern, direct democratic state of law has, of course, not always been linear. History never runs linear, there are always trials and tribulations. But a very decisive principle becomes evident for the first time in the Battle of Morgarten. With this I come to my second point, the lesson drawn from Morgarten:
It’s about being different and consequently building on our strengths. In it’s wake this courage to be independent has been proven successful time and again to this day, by far not only in military respects but also economically and state politically. In 1315 the Confederates had to defend themselves with arms for the first time. If they had lined up against a superior opponent in an open field battle, they would have been defeated. They cunningly used the surrounding terrain so that their opponents could not align in formation. They made use of their special arms, the halberds (a 200 centimeter’s speer combined with an axe [translator’s note]). And they chose the strategy of surprise that was outright improper to the concept of war of the gentry. For the knights the chivalrous battle, the tournament, the riding and the handling of arms were the content of their lives. They expertly mastered that kind of warfare. If the Confederates had wanted to imitate their enemy’s warfare they would not have stood a chance facing the great power of that time, the House of Habsburg. If they had accepted the courtly rules and rituals related to the chivalrous battle there would be no Switzerland today.
Hence the catchphrase of “equally long speers”, meaning “a level playing field” that is currently in use, is nonsense. We do not need ‘equally long speers’; with “equally long speers” we would loose, simply because the others are almost always bigger and have more resources. A small country can only prevail, if it can turn it’s own idiosyncrasies into characteristic strengths. We only stand a chance if we are more creative, flexible and better.
Thus Morgarten is the most up-to-date history lesson. The powerful states today are calling the chivalrous rules of warfare harmonising laws or “level playing field”. This is used to put pressure on Switzerland, to play according to the rules of the others and thereby we can only lose and the others can only win.
It is therefore not surprising that the EU is now demanding an institutional agreement from us. As a result we would have to take over their legal order and to subordinate us to their jurisdiction. We would give up our freedom and would be eliminated as a liberal, successful location competitor. Politically this would mean the end of our independence and economically it would be a forced levelling downward.
Firstly – history is more than a collection of interesting stories or mere colourful folklore. History determines a people or a country in their specific fashion just like life experience shapes a person. If a country forgets their history it will loose it’s identity and thereby it’s natural compass for the future. It is as if a person loses the memory of all his important experiences; like someone suffering from amnesia or dementia. This will lead to behaviour disorders for this person. It is no different for states and peoples; it is independence that is at stake and the memory for history is one precondition.
Secondly – Morgarten is a synonym for being conciously different: for not denying our idiosyncrasies but building strengths from them. The was the recipe for success in the past: our country is more liberal than others. The taxes aren’t quite so high. The structures are leaner, bureaucracy less oppressing. Legal security is better, parameters more business friendly. The citizen is the sovreign and thus determining. Thanks to a liberal order he can unfold, economically and also privately. This brings about prosperity and quality of life.
Whether we will continue this extraordinary path, will finally be your decision as electors. I do hope for our country and for the coming generations, that we will muster enough of this courage for independence.
This day today is encouraging. You are setting an important example: You are not indifferent to our history and our identity. Hence this jubilee is also a demonstration for our country and for our independence.
With this we are making it clear: We won’t let our history be taken away. We won’t let our roots be taken away. And on no accounts will we let our freedom be taken!
Hence I wish for the spirit of Morgarten also in our present time because it has lost none of it’s actuality some 700 years later. •
1 Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 17 June 2015, p. 13
2 Schweiz am Sonntag, 7 June 2015, pp. 13 ff
(Translation Current Concerns)
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