Due to the restrictions during the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, many families spent their holidays in Switzerland. Good thing! For the children, it was a chance to get to know the diverse, sometimes hidden beauty of our country. And perhaps they were even lucky enough to have parents or grandparents passing on to them their knowledge of the history, geography and biology of the respective locations – after all, these should still be able to fall back on the corresponding, professionally sound school lessons. For example, when a family on their way to Ticino chose the St. Bernardino route, got off the motorway in Avers and made a stopover in the Roffla Gorge. This is what the children’s author Margret Rettich did more than fifty years ago and then decided to write a picture book about the history of this place, as can be seen from an exchange of letters between the publisher at the time and the Gubser-Pitschen family.
A break steeped in history
The publisher writes: “The artist and author, Ms Margret Rettich, was told the content of this fate and its events herself at your place, in your Hotel Roffla Gorge. When considering the presentation and realisation of such a book, Ms Rettich and we agreed that we should not publish this story anonymously, set somewhere in the Alps, but with the correct names and place names. This picture book should not be a fairy tale book, but a book that tells and shows a real destiny to today’s and future children, so that they cannot only admire it in a book, but also feel inspired together with their parents to visit the Hotel Roffla Gorge themselves and marvel at the waterfall.”1
A life in peace and social security
The story is indeed a wonderful opportunity to talk with the children about the worries and hardships that moved the people of our country in the 19th century to leave their homeland and take an arduous journey to try their luck in a distant, unknown country – and also to reflect on the situation in which we live in our country today – with a sense of gratitude for all that our ancestors did so that we can live together in peace and social security.
In foreign armies …
This was not the case 150 years ago. Many people set out at that time to build a new existence in a foreign country. This was not a new phenomenon, because people had already emigrated from our country in previous centuries. At first, they were recruited for foreign military service, which is attested from the 13th century onwards. Today it is hard to imagine that in the 16th century about a third of the men over 16 years of age were once in foreign military service, and in the following century it was still almost a quarter of the male population who sought to escape poverty in this way. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that military service for foreign powers was banned. Have you heard of this at school?
… or as sought-after experts
But also young people from patrician families or the wealthy bourgeoisie went abroad to universities from the 14th and 15th centuries onwards in order to educate themselves there. Descendants of noble families, clergymen, commercial, financial and building experts were among the emigrants for various reasons; they were sought-after professionals, and their paths led to Russia, Germany, Austria, France and Italy. From the middle of the 19th century, emigration to North and South America also increased, and this is where the arc closes to the story of the waterfall.2 Like the Christian Pitschen-Melchior family from the Roffla Gorge, many other families also moved away from their homeland of necessity at the end of the 19th century. In their case to New York, where a hard life awaited them. A more optimistic outlook for the future led the family back to Switzerland.
The Tambora volcano –
crop failure – unemployment
In most families it was existential need that caused people to leave Switzerland. In three great waves of emigration, they were drawn not only to Russia but also to North America. When the Tambora volcano erupted in Indonesia in 1815, the huge mass of ash is said to have absorbed part of the sunlight even in Switzerland, so that 1816 went down in history as the “year without a summer”. This led to crop failures, which were followed by inflation, hunger and hardship, and in 1816 and 1817 also to a first major accumulation of emigration by poor sections of the population.
Again, it was crop failures that triggered a second great wave of emigration at the beginning of the 1850s. Craftsmen, tradesmen and farmers, especially from rural areas, moved away. Finally, there was a last great wave of emigration towards the end of the 19th century, in which many Swiss families sought their fortune overseas, as falling world market prices ruined many farmers. In addition, although Switzerland’s industrialisation in the textile sector was already well advanced, our country was flooded with cheap textiles after the lifting of an economic blockade imposed by France against England. Many jobs, especially home and manual labour, were lost. Economic warfare at that time too?3
Strainful crossing –
difficult living conditions
Anyone who was at least 21 years old or had a family could buy a piece of land in the USA for a symbolic price, which became his property after five years of cultivation. Not everyone was lucky, since in the first half of the 19th century there were hardly any legal regulations in Switzerland to which emigration agencies had to adhere. Individual recruiters or agencies lured people with false promises. It was not uncommon for them to profit the most and plunge the emigrants into misery. The crossing in the steerage of a large ship alone was exhausting, and many did not survive. Nor were the emigrants welcomed with open arms in their land of dreams, or were they abused in the process of settlement to displace the indigenous population. Often, they had to take on the heaviest, poorly paid work, as described in the “Story of the Waterfall”, or the promised land was almost impossible to cultivate. It is true that today there is Nova Friburgo in Brazil. Or Berne in the US state of Indiana, where Mennonites from the Jura community of Moutier had cleared wilderness and swampland and fought against bears, wolves and diseases. The Swiss settled in the Zürichtal in Crimea were later deported under Stalin and the place was renamed Zolotoe Pole (Golden Field).4 Many emigrants returned to Switzerland disappointed, like the Pitschen-Melchior family to the Roffla Gorge. A better future awaited them here, for Switzerland was visibly developing into a welfare state in which people could live together in peace. Many of our ancestors contributed to this.
Children should learn all this from their parents and grandparents – and they must do so – so that they can appreciate their culture and become rooted in it.
Laying the foundations
of peaceful coexistence
As in many places in the world, numerous responsible people in this country also gave thought and applied their energies to create a common life with equal rights.5 They compiled the problems to be solved, drew on previous experience and used new research findings from different branches of science – always with the aim of creating the foundations for peaceful coexistence in our country with its four languages, areas and cultures, urban and rural areas and different religions enabling the people to assume their duties in it. Findings from social sciences, especially personalist psychology, contributed to lay a sense of responsibility and bonding with fellow human beings and their country. The family is of the utmost significance, because it is the most important place where cultural values and norms are exemplified, passed on and also developed from generation to generation.6 But educational institutions also have an important role to play in this. The school curricula have been designed accordingly. This includes giving children and young people an insight into the history and culture of the country in which they live, and this is where schools are particularly challenged.
We want to be free …
This was the title of a school history teaching book by Franz Meyer. It was used for many years to introduce children to the history of our country. The title referred to a claim by the Rütli oath: “We want to be free as our fathers were …”, an important educational goal to which we must lead and educate our next generation (however – is it listed in the internationalist Curriculum 21?). But this claim for freedom cannot be without responsibility for the community, as Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi had already pointed out. He therefore demanded that democracy must educate its citizens intellectually and morally in order to train them to be capable of freedom. He thus drew attention to the importance of education and upbringing for our living together in dignity and freedom.7
Integrity and democratic conviction
EspeciallySwitzerland, with its direct democracy, is particularly challenged here. In particular, decision-makers elected to office by their fellow citizens need human maturity in order to fulfil their duties with responsibility. They must shape their lives and work on the basis of ethical values, must not lack integrity and democratic conviction, and must not be driven by the need for power and recognition and the greed for money. This requires a rooting in their own culture and history, otherwise they should rather keep their hands-off public tasks. The availability of such personalities begins with the upbringing and education of the next generation in the family, at school and in society.
What kind of Switzerland do we want?
In recent weeks, it has been frightening to see how our government representatives have stripped Swiss neutrality of its ground and substance. With cheap arguments breathed into them by spin-doctors, they want to denigrate this basic element of our democracy to the Swiss population. The question of the “capacity to govern”, as Pestalozzi called it, may well be asked here. What are parents and grandparents supposed to say later when they tell their children the story of the Pitschen-Melchior family who came back to Switzerland and were able to build a future here in peace and social justice? Should they say: “Once upon a time there was…”? •
1The picture book was first published in 19
2 cf. Head-König, Anne-Lise. “Emigration.” In: Historical Dictionary of Switzerland (HSL). Version of 15.10.2007. https://hls-dhs-dss.ch/de/articles/007988/2007-10-15/, retrieved on 13 July 2022.
3cf. Altweg, Jonas; Tieber, Sandro. Migration. Schweizer Amerikawanderung des 19. Jahrhunderts. Vertiefung: Not und Armut in der Ostschweiz. (Migration. Swiss migration to America in the 19th century. In-depth study: Hardship and poverty in Eastern Switzerland.) www.sozialgeschichte.ch/themen/schweizer-amerikawanderung-des-19-jahrhunderts, retrieved on 16 July 2022.
4Koci, Petra. “Switzerland elsewhere”.https://blog.nationalmuseum.ch/en/2019/04/swiss-emigrants/
5cf. Wüthrich, Werner. Geschichte der freiheitlich-demokratischen Wirtschaftsverfassung der Schweiz. (History of the liberal-democratic economic constitution of Switzerland.) Publisher Zeit-Fragen 2020.
6cf. Buchholz-Kaiser, Annemarie. “The Importance of the Transmission of Values in the Family for the Dignity and Value of Human Life”. In: Current Concerns, December-January 1999/2000.
7cf. Brühlmeier, Arthur. “Pestalozzis Anschauungen über Wesen und Funktion des Staates” (Pestalozzi’s views on the nature and function of the state.)www.heinrich-pestalozzi.de/grundgedanken/staat, retrieved on 17 July 2022.
Do we tell our children at Christmas that there used to be democracies? Countries where people were free, where they could decide on their laws, where every citizen and every inhabitant had inherent dignity, where there were human rights and everyone had a right to their own thinking, to their own opinion, a free opinion, a right to their own religion and tradition, to legal procedures that were bound by proof?
Will we tell them next year that peace used to be a great concern for people, that they worked for it with all their strength and conviction? That they thought about how to help the poorer countries of the world? That there were once voices for peace and social justice? That there was once a Switzerland in which several language regions, several mentalities, several religions had, thanks to direct democracy, developed a model of peaceful coexistence, a filigree work of democratic design from the bottom up, which would also offer a way out for crisis and war regions of the world? Do we tell them all this in the imperfect tense? Or are we doing something else first?
Source: Zeit-Fragen of 21 December 2001
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