The turning point of Marignano and today’s Switzerland

The turning point of Marignano and today’s Switzerland

by Dr iur Marianne Wüthrich

2015 is a multiple commemoration year for Switzerland. It has been 700 years since the battle of Morgarten (1315) in which the Confederates for the first time successfully defended their freedom and independence with weapons; 500 years since the defeat at Marignano (1515), a real milestone for the further development of the Swiss Confederation which will be a topic today; and 200 years since the Congress of Vienna (1815), in which after the victory over Napoleon I the European powers set the future map of Europe and confirmed Switzerland’s territory existing until today and their – self-chosen! – perpetual armed neutrality.
Let us go back to the year 1515 and address the question why the ancient Swiss Confederates fought wars in Italy, what conclusions they drew after their defeat at Marignano – and what that has to do with present-day Switzerland. On the one hand, it involves a better knowledge about the history of Switzerland and on the other hand an analysis of the current situation that also may interest our readers in other countries. And it involves presenting the cornerstones of our state model which have already been set in the ancient Swiss Confederacy. This means that not Napoleon was the inventor of modern Switzerland, as is claimed here and there, but that the foundation for the Swiss model was laid long before and was revived in the 18th and 19th centuries by the Enlightenment.

I intentionally cite Swiss historians who were working at a time when Swiss history had a worthy place at our universities, and students and professors then knew why it was necessary to consider it.

mw. With regards to the Constitution of 1848 George Thürer writes: “With the departure from the old federalism in foreign policy and military the federal nature of the structure of the Confederation is, however, not at all devalued. It allows today as in the past the inner fulfillment of our civil life in a manageable cantonal political system, in that healthy midway between the small-scale community and the greater state. Within this federal scope we do not want to miss the government nor the independent cultural life of twenty-five [now twenty-six, Current Concerns’ note] cantons but we appreciate and uphold it as a source of freedom and richness of our Confederation. That would be a monotonous Switzerland, where the cantons were a mere numbers of government units and would therefore lose their characters! We rather enjoy the colorful interplay of states, whether they decide their political fate at the ancient ’Landsgemeinde‘ or at the ballot box!”

Georg Thürer. Die Wende von Marignano. (Turning point of Marignano), Zurich 1965, pp.47-48.

Let us also hear what the historian Edgar Bonjour said, who gave three lectures on “Swiss political system and Swiss cultural history” in May 1939, so to speak on the eve of World War II, at the request of the student body [!] of Basel. Considering the threatening world situation, he warned, “[...] that the strength of our country as a whole lies precisely in the power of intact members of the Confederation, that the destruction of cantonal sovereignty would amount to a self-abolition of Switzerland, for there is an ancient relationship between a centralistic-etatist and a dictatorial-totalitarian conception of the state”. Bonjour presented the federalist principle of Switzerland, which especially does also justice to minorities, for the purpose of spiritual resistance against the then impending lack of culture: “The federal law has become our experienced form of community. It provides each of our four diverse, by size so dissimilar ethnic groups an undisturbed own existence and promotes their fruitful cooperation. It alone also bans the specter of minority problems and language dispute from our territories. The legal structure of member states encompasses the most peculiar Swiss political character. We continue to believe in it not out of a tense sentimentality but by faith in the individual determination of the part of people within the nation as a whole, from insight into the deep meaning of this legal organization. We do not consider it as backward, but – despite everything – a promising future. To our Swiss ears the harmony of many voices together sounds better than the monotony of unanimous unison.”

Edgar Bonjour. Werden und Wesen der schweizerischen Demokratie (Development and Character of Swiss Democracy). Basel 1939, pp. 23-24.

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