A view on the commemorative year 2015

A view on the commemorative year 2015

by Dr phil. René Roca, Institute of Research on Direct Democracy

For Switzerland, 2015 was a markedly dense Year of Commemoration. The Swiss population was called upon to remember important historical dates – events nota bene – which were central for the formation of state and sovereignty of our country. Historical events of the home country, whether they were crowned with successes or defeats, should always be an occasion for reflection and contemplation. We look at past events with a view from our present, we weigh them and draw our conclusions from them. Oskar Vasella, Swiss historian with a Catholic background, an almost forgotten historian, wrote about “historical understanding”: “The picture of history arises only in the question about certain contexts and their essence is determined by the value we award them”1

In this sense, our view of history is completed, enriched, and our human existence is also emotionally linked to our ancestors. This process of understanding, a weighing and by all means also critical appropriation of our national history is central to our identity as Swiss citizens. Thus we create the necessary identity as citizens and can self-confidently handle the problems presented to us in our world today in a philanthropic sense.
Nowadays, most historians teaching and doing research at Swiss Universities have quite a different opinion. When it comes to Swiss history, the approach of de-constructivism spooks about. The guild of historians make their appearance and want to destroy “the prevailing views of history” and construct new ones. Lately de-constructivism is likely concealed with a new label, continually stressing the “transnational aspect”. However, there is no new method or theory behind this, but well-known facts are simply prepared anew. The positive context to the nation must be wiped out, our country must be considered “beyond” the national, speak “transnational” just like the European Union constantly aspires and preaches. National borders must finally eradicated; the nation state abolished. A “post national”, or even a “post democratic” thinking should lead to a “Europe of regions”.
One of these historians, the recently retired Jakob Tanner, is an example for taking this path: Shortly before he left the University of Zurich he managed to abolish Swiss history as an area of studies, which in 2005 was already downgraded to a minor subject. It is interesting how the leftist Tanner commented on the abolition: “The Bologna reform and the competition between Universities are forcing us […] to simplify the study programmes and to establishing professional profiles.”2 Smart reasoning which lastly boils down to a neo-liberal EU reform, used by Tanner straight away to dispose of research and teaching of Swiss history. But it is not only meant to be about destruction, but also to set up a “counter image”. Almost at the same time Tanner announced his latest big act, a “history of Switzerland in the 20th century”. Therefore future students should not be able to study Swiss history any longer and most certainly they should not do any research on the history of Switzerland, because Tanner’s historical work is available now and that is, according to the emeritus, not a mere “national ‘container history’ seen from a domestic perspective”.
Beyond postmodern approaches the commemorative year 2015 shall serve below to better understand today’s highly praised “model Switzerland”, by attempting to link the historical events and to show its contexts. The four historical events of 1315, 1415, 1515 and 1815 are important “elements” for today’s Switzerland and have deeply shaped the view of history of the confederates.

1315: Battle of Morgarten – “We will accept or receive no judge in the aforesaid valleys”

At this point the actual battle itself is not the focus of attention once more, it is rather a report on its implications. On 9 December 1315, only some three and a half weeks after the Battle of Morgarten, the three valleys Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden renewed their alliance of 1291 in Brunnen. The endorsement and amendment has to be seen in the light of the new situation after the Battle of Morgarten which is further proof that the battle has taken place. The new letter of alliance, also called “Morgartenbrief”, was edited for the first time ever in German, a remarkable, sovereign act. Language as an associational element remained important for our later political system but without barricading the path to the current constitutionally guaranteed four languages of Switzerland.
In a timeless sense the alliance of 1291 already formulates an ethic politics cannot do without: ”Seeing the malice of the age, in order that they may better defend themselves, and their own, and better preserve them in proper condition, have promised in good faith to assist each other with aid, with every counsel and every favour, with person and goods, within the valley and without, with might and main, against one and all, who may inflict upon any one of them any violence, molestation or injury, or may plot any evil against their persons or goods.”3
On these foundations the “Morgartenbrief” reaffirmed in 1315 the principle of cooperative in contrast to the principle of rule: “We have also vowed, decreed and ordained in common council and by unanimous consent, that we will accept or receive no judge in the aforesaid valleys who shall have obtained his office for any price …”4 They did not renounce all obligations of obedience but important was the fact that all the three valleys, namely Uri, Schwyz und Unterwalden were already in possession of letters of freedom by the German king for some time and they wanted to still maintain this imperial immediacy after the battle. The later Confederacy was not actually “founded” in 1315 but a further sovereign and autonomous act from the grass roots was established and the alliance was strengthened on the basis of Christianity. To Roger Sablonier the “Morgartenbrief” is “not really suspect of fabrication” and “clearly originated in a close context to the prevailing political circumstances (meaning among others the Battle of Morgarten)”.5 The reaffirmed alliance was, according to Sablonier, among others a “safeguard after Morgarten”6. In the “Morgartenbrief” the partners of the alliance of central Switzerland call themselves “eitgenozen”7, confederates, for the first time. Thus the people from central Switzerland make their appearance with an own identity acting as confederates of the valleys solidly united. Sabloniers‘ later theses of a “founder era without confederates”8 thus appears fairly (de) constructed. Quite to the opposite; with the “Morgartenbrief” the confederates rather presented themselves as protagonists with a will to strengthen the principle of cooperatives. Hence it did become an important foundation of Switzerland and has lost none of its validity to this day.

1415: Conquest of Aargau – “Tagsatzung” as expression of the principle of cooperative

Doubtless, not only the forming of the “Confederacy”, but the inner state integration and consolidation of the individual cantons was a lengthy process. However, fact is that this process was initiated around 1300 and continued far into the 15th century. At the end of the 14th century the individual “countries” represented themselves as collectively and territorially defined political associations linked by a common use (the commons), “each one an individual alpine community with its own institutions”9, meaning among others the “Landsgemeinde”, (an assembly dealing with internal matters, editor’s note).
Characteristically for the spirit of cooperative and the ideas of balance it was the formation of the federal “Tagsatzung”, (each associate partner delegates two representatives to deal with inter-valley matters, editor’s note) in the context of the conquest of Aargau in 1415, then ruled by a Habsburg King. Thereby the confederates accomplished a further important step on their path of inner state integration. With the conquest “Gemeine Herrschaften” (condominiums) were established – areas the Confederacy, now consisting of eight Old Cantons, had to administer. This administrative occupation accounted for the necessary “cement” for further mutual growth. The intensified cooperation found its expression and increasing importance in the “Tagsatzung”, being the only centralised body of the Confederacy until 1848 (except for a short spell of time during the Helvetic Republic). With their assemblies, where authorised delegates from the Confederate Cantons jointly debated their affairs, the “Tagsatzung” grew to be of imminent importance. Andreas Würgler resolves: “The ‘Tagsatzung’, as a body for political assemblies, was not typical compared to other European representative or state assemblies in early modern times […] because it was not based on feudal relations with a royal centre but a voluntarily sworn alliances of communities (community).”10 The expulsion of the reeves from Habsburg was directed against despotism and aimed at gaining more independence. The establishing of the “Gemeine Herrschaften” was, according to Vasella, “no sin contrary to the spirit of the alliances”11. “The establishing of areas of bailiwicks can only be understood from the federative structure of the federacy. All the more it allowed the syntheses of demands between the urban principle of rule and the spirit of the rural democracies. Actually the cantons have initially been linked to the common bailiwicks and only gradually to the towns. Especially the joint ruling of the cantons has made a freer development of the subject areas possible. (…) It becomes apparent that the frequently used term village and community freedom is enormously fruitful.”12
King Sigismund’s summary confirmation of privileges after the federal conquest of Aargau 1415 levelled the position of the Eight Old Cantons by imperial law, thus establishing their imperial immediacy. With the de facto dissociation from the Holy Roman Empire German Nation after the Swabian War 1499, the Confederacy consequently performed the next step for a unification process both internally and externally, even if the confessional segregation slowed it down over following centuries. In this process the negotiations of the “Tagsatzung” were the mirror image of a constant striving to achieve an adjustment of the many fold demands. It promoted, like no other institution, the sense of unity of the confederates: “The ‘Tagsatzung’ was and remains to be the symbol of the Confederacy”.13

1515: Battle of Marignano – federal structure and neutrality

In his essay “Über geschichtliches Verstehen und das Geschichtsbild der Schweiz” (“On Historical Understanding und the historical self-perception of Switzerland”) Vasella highlighted the fact that instead of the military conflicts still being given so much emphasis “the importance of the magnificent idea of arbitration ought to be stressed much more strongly”.14 In line with this approach Vasella strongly objected to the liberal notion of unity and progress, which not only had an enormous impact on Swiss historiography from 1848 up until the 1950s and even today still resurfaces now and then. According to Vasella, what characterised the Swiss Confederacy of the Middle Ages, was not a specifically designed policy for the Confederacy as a whole but local politics. Consequently, according to Vasella, the idea of the diversity of Swiss politics or – put differently – the idea of “cultural and political importance of federalism” ought to come into the fore.15 Rather than pursuing the idea of power politics and the ideal of extending the power of the state, the Swiss Confederacy gave priority to a liberty based on the cooperative principle and, most importantly, to territorial self-restraint: “In this manner the foundations were laid for the federal structure of the Swiss Confederacy also for later periods. This structure did not allow in any way for power politics despite major military assets, meaning considerable human resources, represented by masses of mercenaries.”16 According to Vasella the concept of a politics of expansion for the Confederacy at large was missing: “Thus the Battle of Marignano did not signify the demise of Swiss power politics because previously it had never existed anyway.”17 What mattered most for the development of the Swiss polity was its federal structure which also lies at the heart of neutrality as a rejection of a deliberate expansion policy for the Swiss Confederacy as a whole.
These historical preconditions continued to unfold their effect in the subsequent era of religious wars ultimately leading the way to Switzerland’s de jure-separation from the Holy Roman Empire in 1648 and its achievement of full sovereignty as a confederation.

1815: Vienna Congress – Confirmation of permanent neutrality

As part of the second Paris peace treaty of 20 March 1815, concluded after Napoleon’s ultimate defeat, the European powers recognised Switzerland’s steadily growing status of permanent neutrality and guaranteed its territorial integrity. As the renowned legal expert Hans-Ulrich Walder emphasised again and again this treaty of international law has never been suspended and is still in force. In tough and persistent negotiations a number of circumspect personalities, such as the Genevan Pictet de Rochement, achieved a sound solution for Switzerland. Particularly helpful in the process was also the support of Russia. The “Act of Acknowledgement and Guarantee of Perpetual Neutrality of Switzerland” stated: “The powers who signed the declaration of 20 March acknowledge, in the most formal manner, by the present act, that the neutrality and inviolability of Switzerland, and her independence of all foreign influence, enter into the true interests of the policy of the whole of Europe.”18 How times can change …
But back to history: In a “Tagsatzung” lasting from April 1814 to August 1815 the Swiss Confederacy finally became a confederation composed of 22 sovereign cantons with equal rights. In the Federal Treaty of 1815, the first self-imposed constitution for Switzerland as a whole and in line with the Federal Charter of 1291 those responsible stipulated: “The XXII sovereign cantons of Switzerland [at this point the enumeration of the cantons follows] unite themselves by the present treaty to assert their freedom, independence and security against all attacks from foreign powers, and to maintain internal order and tranquillity.”19
With the Federal Treaty Switzerland preserved significant democratic achievements (including the abolition of subordinate relationships or subject territories) which subsequently made it possible to gradually expand popular political rights on the cantonal level. Up until the founding of the Federal State in 1848 the sovereign cantons acted as “laboratories of freedom” and provided a constructive, though conflict-ridden, process of materialising and developing of popular sovereignty and direct democracy. A Confederation army, composed of contingents from the cantons, provided external security.
Those four historical events and their connections clearly show that the study of Swiss history is worthwhile – many research fields are lying idle. What is still needed are – to conclude with Georg Thürer’s words – citizens being convinced “that today it is more necessary than ever to remain Swiss in the deepest sense and to help study, represent and defend our free government based on the cooperative principle.”20     •

1    Oskar Vasella. Über geschichtliches Verstehen und das Geschichtsbild der Schweiz, in: Arbeiten zur Psychologie, Pädagogik und Heilpädagogik, Band 16, Freiburg 1959, S. 87–97, heer p. 88
2    Jakob Tanner. “Die Schweizer Geschichte floriert”, Interview, in: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 9.1.2015
3    ibid.
4    Bundesbrief der drei Orte Uri, Schwyz und Nidwalden, in: Quellenwerk zur Entstehung der Schweizerischen Eidgenossenschaft. Urkunden, Chroniken, Hofrechte, Rödel und Jahrzeitbücher bis zum Beginn des XV. Jahrhunderts, herausgegeben von der Allgemeinen Geschichtsforschenden Gesellschaft der Schweiz, Abteilung I: Urkunden, Band I: Von den Anfängen bis Ende 1291, bearbeitet von Traugott Schiess, Aarau 1933, p. 776
5     ibid.
6    Die drei Länder erneuern den Bund des Jahres 1291, in: Ebd., Band 2: Von Anfang 1292 bis Ende 1332, bearbeitet von Traugott Schiess, vollendet von Bruno Meyer, Aarau 1937, S. 412 (own translation from Middle High German)
7    Roger Sablonier, 1315: ein weiteres Gründungsjahr der Eidgenossenschaft? Der Bundesbrief von 1315, in: Der Geschichtsfreund: Mitteilungen des Historischen Vereins Zentralschweiz, Band 160, Zug 2007, S. 9–24, hier p. 15, 17
8    ibid., p. 17
9    Länder, p. 411–415
10    Roger Sablonier. Gründungszeit ohne Eidgenossen. Politik und Gesellschaft in der Innerschweiz um 1300, Baden 2008
11    Sablonier, Gründungsjahr, S. 20
12    Andreas Würgler, Art. Tagsatzung, in: Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz, Band 12, Basel 2013, S. 181–185, hier S. 182
13    Vasella, Verstehen, p. 95
14    Vasella, Verstehen, p. 96.
15    Vasella, Verstehen, p. 96.
16    Vasella, Verstehen, p. 90
17    Vasella, Verstehen, p. 97
18    Act of Acknowledgement and Guarantee of the Perpetual Neutrality of Switzerland and the Inviolability of its Territory, signed at Paris 20 November 1815, quoted from The Parliamentary Debates from the Year 1803 to the Present Times …, Vol. 32, 1 February to 6 March 1816, published under the superintendance of T.C. Hansard, London 1816, p. 308.
19    Bundesvertrag zwischen den XXII Kantonen der Schweiz vom 7. August 1815, translated from Kölz, Quellenbuch, p. 193
20    Georg Thürer. Kultur des alten Landes Glarus. Studie des Lebens einer eidgenössischen Demokratie im 16. Jahrhundert, Glarus 1936, p. III

Recognition of mutual equality – prerequisite for peace and development

“The political enlightenment was a natural law doctrine. It was based on the nature of man as a human being, not as a Catholic or Protestant, as a Christian or Heathen, as European or Asian, as freeman or slave, etc. It states the question for the conditions under which people can cooperate peacefully and friendly. The answer was: by putting themselves into a legal situation, and that means with an established wording by Kant: by people and states mutually acknowledging themselves as having equal rights and by constraining their freedom according to common laws so that the freedom of each individual can remain with the freedom of all. By doing this, they subordinate their animal nature under a nature with common sense and thus overcome the principle of the right of the stronger, faster, smarter, of the brutal and unscrupulous ones. Thus, they create the freedom where every human being and every people can act self-determined, to materialise his best capabilities, to work together like brothers and to keep peace. Question and answer are purely of intra-mundane rational character and are not bound to any theological condition. Therein a minimum of natural law is expressed, that includes all religions, cultures, traditions and is essential to establish a universal peace.”

Martin Kriele: Die demokratische Weltrevolution und andere Beiträge. Berlin 1997, pp. 15.

(Translation Current Concerns)

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