The Freidorf – the cooperative

History of a full cooperative

by Dr. rer. publ. Werner Wüthrich

A few months ago the Settlement Cooperative Freidorf near Basel celebrated its 100th anniversary and has now published an impressive illustrated book about its history. This is to be presented here.

From the introductory chapter:

“The Settlement Cooperative Freidorf was founded on 20 May 1919 by 93 settlers (all employees of the Association of Swiss Cooperative Societies VSK and its companies). In the middle of a green meadow between Basel and Muttenz, architect Hannes Meyer built a model settlement of 150 terraced single-family houses in the form of a garden city. The housing estate was conceived as a full cooperative, a combination of consumer and housing cooperative. The utopia, which envisaged a spacious house in the countryside with its own kitchen garden for families, had become reality. The residential buildings all looked the same, regardless of their size. Each was equipped with wall closets, hot and cold running water, a bathroom and electricity. Each house had a garden of at least 200 square meters. […]
   In its beginnings, Freidorf was an almost autonomous village community with over 600 inhabitants and its own school. What the own kitchen garden or the jointly cultivated planting places did not provide, was bought in the own Freidorf store and paid with Freidorf money. The settlers spent their free time within the walls of the free village. There was a restaurant, a bowling alley, a library, a folk choir, sports clubs for men and women, a small animal breeding club and a savings bank. There was gymnastics, music, theater, dancing and celebrating together. The place of this hustle and bustle was the cooperative house and the large playground in the center of the settlement. The claim of the founding fathers around Bernhard Jaeggi was comprehensive. The goal was nothing less than to achieve a ‘better person’. (S. 6)


Attempts to establish integrated or even full cooperatives already existed in the 19th century. A full or integrated cooperative is understood to be a union of a larger group of people who not only organise individual economic sectors such as housing, consumption, joint purchases or the like collectively, but also, in an integrated way, include other areas of life such as work, production, services, school, leisure time, health care, retirement provisions, etc.
   The pioneers of Basel around Bernhard Jaeggi were able to profit from a rich wealth of experience of the international cooperative movement. Here are two examples:
   As early as the beginning of the 19th century, the Scottish factory owner and social reformer Robert Owen developed utopias for a largely communal living together, which covered both work and consumption, and he put them into practice, first in Scotland (New Lamarck) and then in the USA. It did not stop at utopia. In 1825 he bought land in the state of Indiana and founded the model company New Harmony. About 800 people followed his call to venture an experiment with him for a comprehensive cooperative living together. New Harmony lasted two years, but failed due to personal tensions.
   We find another similar example in Switzerland in the middle of the 19th century in Zurich. Karl Bürkli had founded the Zürcher Konsumverein in 1851. Bürkli was guided by the ideas of Charles Fourier (1793-1837) and Victor Considerant, who had developed ideas for a communal life at the Ecole sociétaire in Paris, which included work, consumption and communal living. Considerant and Bürkli also took action. Their internationally composed society planned a model settlement of about a thousand people on a “greenfield site” in Texas. They had big plans. An advance party traveled to the Dallas area and bought 52 km2 of land and did the first preparatory work. The others followed. Among them was Karl Bürkli with thirty people from Zurich. The project was very ambitious and the difficulties were immense. The experiment failed after three years, and the settlers returned disappointed to their European countries. Future cooperative pioneers were able to learn from the experience of such experiments.
   Karl Bürkli, however, did not let himself be discouraged and soon helped to build up the Konsumverein Zürich again as managing director. The people of Zurich elected him to the cantonal council, and he became an important member of the democratic movement in his canton. Thus it was to his credit that in 1869 the article on cooperatives, which is still valid today, was incorporated into the constitution, which stated: “The canton promotes the cooperative system based on self-help and enacts laws for the protection of workers”. (see Wüthrich 2018, pp. 71-85)

Pestalozzi and Zschokke show the way

While Karl Bürkli built up the Konsumverein in Zurich, numerous consumer associations were founded in all regions of Switzerland – 1864 also in Basel. In 1889 most of them joined together to form the Verein Schweizerischer Konsumvereine VSK, which looked after the interests of its member associations and coordinated their activities. The Konsumverein Zürich went its own way and remained independent until 1998. Before the First World War, the VSK already had 400 member associations and employed 600 staff. Bernhard Jaeggi was managing director of the VSK from 1908–1934, which had its headquarters in Basel.
   Berhard Jaeggi was to play a decisive role in the later founding and development of the Freidorf near Basel. He discussed the pressing issues of the cooperative system with his colleagues in the VSK in a similar way as Karl Bürkli had done half a century earlier. This included the open question of whether and how a conventional cooperative can be expanded to a full cooperative. One idea was to build a model cooperative settlement on the outskirts of Basel. Therein, the employees of the VSK would live in inexpensive apartments and would be partially self-sufficient in their own gardens. An own store would offer the additionally needed goods. Gradually, based on a growing total wealth and thanks to an increasing sense of community, other areas of life could be included, similar to what the pioneers had tried to do in the 19th century.
   Bernhard Jaeggi and his circle of supporters had another aspect in mind: more than a well thought-out cooperative organisation was needed. The participants had to be instructed and accompanied so that they could live the cooperative principles and anchor them in their feelings. In short: It needs education. For this purpose, they were guided by two greats of Swiss pedagogy, Heinrich Pestalozzi and Heinrich Zschokke.
   Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) pursued a decidedly holistic approach with his credo “head, heart, hand”. Education was to begin primarily in the “good room” of the family. Pestalozzi envisioned a system of “small circles”. From the intact family the improvement in the standard of living radiates to the neighbourhood, the village and further into the whole world. Or as a contemporary of Pestalozzi, the pastor and poet Jeremias Gotthelf (1757-1854), put it: “At home must begin what should shine in the fatherland.”
   Heinrich Zschokke (1771-1848) was another educational beacon for the prospective settlement pioneers of Basel for the cooperative system. Zschokke was convinced that a truly cooperative community could only develop through the combination of mature and capable individuals. In 1810 he wrote the novel “Das Goldmacherdorf” (The Goldmakers’ Village). Whoever reads this book title might think that Zschokke describes life in a village where gold was found or alchemists tried to produce gold. But whoever reads in it, soon realises that Zschokke is concerned with something completely different. In his novel, he shows that there is something else that is far more valuable than gold: Oswald, the main character of the novel, returned to his home village after serving with the soldiers. He found the population neglected and in abject poverty. He succeeded in instructing his roommates to take care of the education of their children, to establish good schools and, in general, to lead a moral and communal life in the families and in the community. In this way the “gold-makers” achieved true freedom and also material prosperity.

A new beginning after the war and the Spanish flu

At the end of the First World War, even though the country had been spared from war, social despair and shortage in the food situation in Switzerland reached crisis proportions, Bernhard Jaeggi was determined to act. Jaeggi was a long-standing member of the Social Democratic Party. For several years he had been a member of the cantonal parliament of Basel-City and of the National Council in Bern. When the party became radicalised shortly before the general strike, he resigned and began to implement his own project to alleviate suffering. Not only was he concerned with cheap housing, but he also aimed at offering guidance to the population feeling insecure after the war – much like Oswald in Das Goldmacherdorf. This included the idea of cooperatives in the area of housing, working and living together.
   Bernhard Jaeggi found a fellow companion in the architect Hannes Meyer. It was a stroke of luck. Meyer built the model settlement Freidorf as a garden city between Basel and Muttenz in a short time. With its large cooperative house, the square in front of it, the large playground, the streets, the numerous paths, the front gardens and also the three large garden areas, Meyer offered a lot of space for a rich community life. Three common areas (communally used planting areas) were available from the very beginning. Basic foodstuffs such as potatoes and apples, consumed in large quantities, were to be grown here together, while vegetables and salads were grown in the garden belonging to the house.
   The 93 settlers who founded Freidorf in 1919 contributed a share of CHF 100 (according to the monetary value at the time). The VSK had built up substantial financial reserves for the war years, which fortunately it didn’t need. These could be used for the project. In the beginning, the Freidorf was an almost autonomous village community with about 600 inhabitants with its own store and school. The teacher taught the 1st to 8th grade together. There was a restaurant, a bowling alley and a library. Soon a choir, an orchestra and various sports clubs were founded. With his attendance fees from politics (which he had been saving for years), Bernhard Jaeggi, founded the Genossenschaftliche Seminar (Cooperative Seminar), which promoted the cooperative idea and was to develop as an educational center. In 1929 the University of Basle awarded him an honorary doctorate for his services.

Life in the cooperative

The statutes of Freidorf provide: “The purpose of the cooperative is [...] to improve the standard of living of its members.”  Doubts existed from the beginning. Will the project succeed or will it fail like other similar projects because of the conflicts between the people? Since the members of the cooperative already work together during the day and do not always get along well with each other, will there be difficulties in living together? The goal was very ambitious, and the cooperative pioneers were willing to prepare and accompany the settlers. Bernhard Jaeggi, who lived in house no. 115 until his death in 1944 stated: “When we move to the Freidorf, we must [...] educate ourselves to become new people. Freidorf should become a practical demonstration in how to build the world.”
   The Gertrudgroup (a reminiscence of Pestalozzi’s novel “Lienhard and Gertrud” from 1781) dedicated itself to the writings of Pestalozzi and Zschokke in weekly work.
   Articles with tips and advices for a “moral” life in the community of Freidorf appeared regularly in the internal weekly newspaper. While the settlement was still under construction, the administration set up a number of commissions. The first was the “Education Commission”, which was responsible for the dissemination and consolidation of cooperative principles.
   An own school was established even before the first family had moved in. For education it was essential to have an own library, with soon three thousand books. In general, much was invested in education. The Genossenschaftliche Seminar (Cooperative Seminar) offered numerous and varied training courses.


All worked in the Verein Schweizerischer Konsumvereine VSK (the Association of Swiss Consumer Cooperatives). In the first few years, about 140 people volunteered in seven commissions (construction, finance, shop, entertainment, education, health and safety). For Bernhard Jaeggi, cooperation was important: “To become a member of the cooperative, you have to cooperate.”
   In 1924, the population reached its highest level with 625 people (today 413). With its numerous facilities, the settlement became a focal point for families and a comprehensive programme of festivals, information and cultural events characterised social life. Numerous clubs completed the offer. A part of the rental income went into a foundation, which was supposed to make further settlement cooperatives possible.
   In addition, with the approval of the administration, smaller business enterprises such as a tailor shop, a shoemaker or a hairdresser emerged, which operated on their own account and usually donated part of their profits to one of the numerous settlement funds. The joint savings and relief bank, which still exists today under the name Wohlfahrtskasse, was important. Until 1948, the settlers within Freidorf paid with their own cooperative money. Living and working in the VSK, the fine network of commissions and associations as well as the regular events and celebrations actually binded the comrades together into a community.
   The pioneering spirit of the Gründerzeit lasted until the Second World War. The cooperative was well prepared for the years of war, as self-sufficiency was already part of cooperative life to a high degree. Soldiers were often quartered and well looked after.

The good years

An excerpt from the book says: „Only a few years after the Second World War, Switzerland was hit by a long-lasting economic upswing. Within a few years, prosperity, social security and mass consumption changed the everyday life and lifestyle of broad segments of the population. […] The future, according to the new model, does not belong to rural (village) self-organisation, but to the broadest possible participation in the new, dazzling mass consumption. This revolutionised household management and leisure habits in equal measure. Refrigerators, washing machines and other consumer goods made cooperative facilities such as a milk service and laundry superfluous, while TV and cars moved entertainment out of the cooperative building into the living rooms or right outside the settlement walls“.
   Life and also living together changed. The pioneer generation around Bernhard Jaeggi had grown older or had already died. In 1967 the shop was handed over to the Allgemeine Konsumverein (Consumer Association) of both Basel, and the Freidorf ceased to be a full cooperative. The numerous commissions did not last long. The societies (associations) lost members and partly disbanded. The “garden city” also changed. The garden had to be low-maintenance or the vegetable beds gave way to mobile pools or trampolines.
   But today’s activities are also conducive to community: children’s festivals, outings for senior citizens, Punch-and-Judy show, theatre performances, flea market and Advent festivals. There are jass and dance evenings in the settlers’ hall of the cooperative building. The rural (village) charm and character has also remained. On the occasion of the 100th anniversary in 2019, for example, the Muttenz theatre group performed their own interpretation of the Goldmacherdorf of Zschokke at five locations in Freidorf.
   In 1968 there were differences of opinion about the further development of the cooperative. A majority of the members’ meeting decided, at the request of the board of directors, to demolish the cooperative building and build retirement homes (apartments for the elderly). The use of little-used green spaces was also under discussion. The protests promptly came from many sides. The monument protection and the heritage society raised their voices (took the floor). The Freidorf became the subject of discussion in the discussion committees of architects throughout Switzerland, and the newspapers reported on the event. Finally, the Eidgenössische Kommission für Denkmalpflege und die Eidgenössische Natur- und Heimatschutzkommission (Federal Commission for Monument Preservation and the Federal Commission for the Protection of Nature and Cultural Heritage) expressed their views. They described the Freidorf as a “pioneering achievement of our country” and emphasised that the main building “expresses the cooperative ideals in an exemplary way”. – The canton prohibited the demolition. In 1973, the newly founded Coop offered to set up its datacentre there without changing the exterior of the building.


In the Zurich region, similar to Basel before and immediately after the Second World War, numerous cooperative housing estates (settlements) were built – similarly spacious with plenty of green space (grassy area) as in Freidorf. Most of them are now being demolished and rebuilt in a denser structure, so that more affordable living space (housing) is available. The Freidorf in Basel is still standing and is being continuously renewed – the canalisation, the interior fittings, the facades... The roofs currently need to be renewed. The green spaces are still there and the little bell on the tower of the cooperative house can be heard from far away. The Freidorf – only three and a half kilometres from the centre of Basel – is an island in the region that is now heavily built up.

Renaissance of the cooperative idea

Much has changed over the last hundred years. Bernhard Jaeggi’s concern to educate people and help them to have a better lifestyle has altered. But even if the comprehensive approach had to be abandoned, important cooperative principles remained: joint and democratic administration, without being geared towards returns. Residents must commit themselves and find ways to achieve goals that go beyond habitation.
   An increasing number of people care about how they spend their lives. They are looking for ways to live more sustainably and consciously, to build and maintain communities – idealistically or simply pragmatically. Or as one woman from Freidorf put it: “In doing things together, people rediscover that they are actually social beings”.
   Finally, a word about the group of authors, who delicately describe the historical processes and illustrate them with a multitude of historical pictures. Your work is a success! You have presented a valuable document of contemporary and Swiss history that can be acquired for little money.     •


Siedlungsgenossenschaft Freidorf 2019. Das Freidorf – die Genossenschaft, (Settlement cooperative Freidorf 2019. The Freidorf – the cooperative) Christoph Merian Verlag 2019

Wüthrich, Werner 2018. “Charles Fourier, Victor Considerant und Karl Bürkli als Wegbereiter der direkten Demokratie und des Genossenschaftswesens in der Schweiz des 19. Jahrhunderts” (Charles Fourier, Victor Considerant and Karl Bürkli as pioneers of direct democracy and the cooperative system in 19th century Switzerland); in: Roca, René (ed.), Frühsozialismus und moderne Schweiz. (Utopian Socialism and Modern Switzerland) Basel 2018

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