Switzerland’s neutrality – “not imposed from outside, but the result of its internal composition”

Good offices and neutrality are mutually dependent – the Swiss model as a peace model for the world

by Thomas Schaffner, historian

Switzerland’s good offices, not only through the ICRC and the Red Cross Societies, go hand in hand with Swiss neutrality. What is more, the two characteristics of modern Switzerland are mutually dependent: without neutrality, there is no basis for an impartial commitment to people around the world; without the Good Offices, neutrality policy remains stale and soulless. It was at the time of the French-German war of 1870/71 that Switzerland first demonstrated to the world how it was willing to complement its neutrality policy with humanitarian services in a war. And this commitment also had a face: Johann Konrad Kern (1808–1888) from Berlingen, Canton of Thurgovia, who not only held out at the risk of his life in shelled Paris and worked in a humanitarian way, but also recorded fundamental thoughts on how people could live together peacefully in the future: beyond nationalistic egoism, according to the model of the federally structured nation of will, Switzerland. A curriculum vitae and ideas that must not be left out of today’s debate on Swiss neutrality and the future of the Good Offices, since looking back into history always means looking ahead.

He was considered the eighth Federal Councillor and was the Swiss ambassador in Paris from 1857 to 1883. It was there that Johann Konrad Kern took over the foreign interests of other states for Switzerland for the first time in the French capital, which was surrounded by the Germans in 1870/71, and thus founded the so-called Good Offices, the “political substitute offered by a small state”, as the long-time Swiss diplomat and university lecturer Paul Widmer calls it.1
  Kern would not have been able to put his life at the service of humanity without the support of his wife, the wealthy Aline Freyenmuth, who grew up at Frauenfeld Castle as the daughter of the councillor and state treasurer Johann Konrad Freyenmuth. An obituary of the “noble woman” noted: “Based entirely on Pestalozzi’s principles and also sharing his love for fellow human beings, she wanted to give the poor more than just a few mechanical skills to get through life: education, upbringing, moral feeling, moral strength and all that in heartfelt love.”

Already a star negotiator in the Neuchâtel dispute

As a liberal, Kern was a prominent figure in cantonal and federal politics from the 1830s onward. For example, he was instrumental in drafting the text proposals for the new Federal Constitution of 1848. As a reward for his commitment, the new Federal Assembly elected him chargé d’affaires in Vienna. There he experienced the 1848 revolt and with his own eyes the lynching of the Austrian Minister of War. Kern, who had only suspended his duties in Switzerland, immediately returned to his homeland. There he turned down a candidacy for the office of Federal Councillor, which they were eager to give him.
  The zenith of his work were the years of legation in Paris (1857–1883). As an old Thurgovian acquaintance of the current French Emperor Louis Napoleon III, he had already gained his favour as a neutral mediator in two disputes, and especially in the so-called Neuchâtel dispute of 1856/57 he rose to become a real star mediator in the Swiss Confederation. The negotiations between the major European powers on the status of Neuchâtel had lasted two months, with Kern right in the middle. The great powers had never conferred longer on a federal dispute. In the end, despite the fact that the Prussians initially mobilized the military to protect their traditional possession of Neuchâtel, they relinquished their rights to the principality altogether.

Against bombing Paris population

In 1857, the Kern couple moved to Paris, where Kern always had direct access to the emperor, his old acquaintance. Thus, he succeeded in resolving a territorial dispute between France and Switzerland in Dappental in the Jura, but more important was the economic agreement of 1864, the first comprehensive economic agreement in Swiss history. “With its free-trade principles, this treaty helped the Swiss export business achieve a breakthrough in France and overseas,” Widmer says.2
  When the French-German war of 1870 was brewing, Kern mediated on his own initiative, but events came to a head after Bismarck’s forged Ems dispatch, which fatally snubbed France. As is well known, Bismarck needed the war for his work of German unification – without war, the southern German states could not have been forced under the Prussian thumb. When German troops surrounded Paris at the end of September 1870 and bombed the city centre for weeks, Kern persevered and, as doyen of the diplomatic corps, appealed to Bismarck to stop the flagrant violation of international law. This forbade waging war against the civilian population; moreover, the occupying power should have allowed foreigners to escape to safety. Bismarck rejected Kern’s request, saying, after all, that the French troops had barricaded themselves in the city and were shelling the German lines as if from a fortress. Kern’s attempt to mediate in the peace negotiations between France and Germany, which the Federal Council had asked him to do, was also harshly shot down by Bismarck: “You neutrals have no business interfering.”
  Even if Kern was unsuccessful in „big politics”, he earned great merits in the humanitarian field. “Not only did he work tirelessly on behalf of his compatriots, but he also demonstrated for the first time how Switzerland could complement its policy of neutrality with humanitarian services during a war,” Widmer says in praise of Kern’s selfless commitment which was not without danger.3 “Large-scale actions such as the distribution of love parcels for the trapped Swiss in Paris, the evacuation of the civilian population from besieged Strasbourg and especially the internment of the oppressed Bourbaki army anchored the idea of a humanitarian mission deeply in the Swiss self-image.”4

“Active participation in the suffering of their neighbouring peoples”.

This was the beginning of what has shaped Swiss foreign policy ever since: the combination of humanitarian action and neutrality. The intention was not only to stay out of foreign affairs, i.e., wars, but also to show “active participation in the suffering of neighbouring peoples”, as it was now put in a Federal Council message. After all, “the common human nature” was above all human differences. This view did not come out of nowhere. Shortly before, Henry Dunant had written his memoirs of the battle of Solferino and the Red Cross movement was founded, as was the ICRC. The fact that the latter happened under the leadership of a high-ranking military officer, General Dufour, is also a typically Swiss act: Man is first and foremost a fellow human being and a citizen, even in uniform.
  When the Paris Commune, which had taken control of Paris after the lost war, was bloodily put down by the French General Mac-Mahon – Mac-Mahon had 2,000 communards shot on the spot alone – Kern tried to ensure that at least the Swiss participants in the Commune were not deported to the galleys. He even sought out collective camps and got the Swiss prisoners out. His wife had selflessly nursed the sick in a hospital he had founded in Paris, through all the turmoil, in the best tradition of the common good orientation of wealthy Swiss women. Kern also had the mandate to care for thousands of Bavarians and Badeners in Paris. This was the beginning of the “good offices” in Swiss diplomacy. Kern “set an impeccable precedent for a secondary area of Swiss diplomacy”, Widmer emphasises.5 Kern always unconditionally stood up for neutrality, as early as 1848, when important Swiss politicians wanted to come to the military aid of the people of Sardinia-Piemont in violation of neutrality on the grounds that neutrality only applied to princely families, but never to peoples who wanted their freedom. Kern argued this. Alliances with foreign powers had only ever harmed Switzerland. True neutrality still means staying out of foreign affairs. And importantly, one should oppose nationalism, because above culture and peoples there is the human nature, which is common to all people. Switzerland, with its peaceful coexistence of four different language groups, should show Europe the way. The future belongs to the “Willensnation” (nation based on a common political will), not to ethnically homogeneous, nationalistically charged nation states.

Switzerland’s neutrality in the interest of civilisation as a whole

The Federal Council and Kern recognised early that neutrality was not only the fruit of foreign policy wisdom, but also a domestic political necessity that held the country together. It could easily have broken up if the various regions of the country had wanted to join the large nation states of Germany, France and Italy. Thus, in connection with the Franco-German War, the national government formulated: “Switzerland’s policy of neutrality is therefore basically not a law imposed on it from outside, but to a much greater degree the result of its internal composition.”6 During the First World War, Carl Spitteler had put his finger on this still festering wound with his speech “Our Swiss Standpoint”, despite admonitions from the Federal Council.
  Kern’s conviction that neutrality, especially for Switzerland, was in the interest of civilisation as a whole, as a model of peace that bridged the divides between peoples and emphasised the commonality of human nature, must not be forgotten in the current discussion about the future direction of Switzerland. Although many things have changed since his death, the human nature to which he repeatedly referred has remained the same.  •

1 Widmer, Paul. Schweizer Aussenpolitik. (Swiss Foreign Policy) Zurich 2003. p. 98
2 Widmer, p. 112
3 Widmer, p. 130
4 Widmer, p. 130
5 Widmer p. 133
6 cit. after Widmer, p 136



Kern, Johann Conrad. Political Memoirs 1833 to 1883. Frauenfeld 1887
Schoop, Albert. History of the Canton of Thurgau. Frauenfeld 1987
Widmer, Paul. Schweizer Aussenpolitik. Zurich 2003
Wüthrich, Marianne. “Neutrality as the compass, direct democracy as the basis”. In: Current Concerns No. 17 of 7 August 2019.
Wüthrich, Marianne. „Foreign policy in the young federal state: linking neutrality and humanitarian activity”. In: Current Concerns No. 17 from 7 August 2019

Neutrality necessarily goes hand in hand with human commitment

ts. In his text on Johann Konrad Kern, the Swiss diplomat Paul Widmer points out that his political legacy from the “Political Memoirs” of 1887 was printed by the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”. This was towards the end of the Second World War, when Swiss neutrality was once again strongly contested. And he says: “The content of the statements seemed dewy fresh, 60 years after they were written.” Kern’s thoughts still seem dewy today, 135 years later:
  “Switzerland’s neutrality is not a law imposed on us by foreign countries, it is rather the consequence of its composition and its internal organisation. That is why Switzerland preserved the special character of its neutrality in this war [the Franco-German War of 1870/71]. By remaining neutral, however, it was not an idle spectator in the struggle of the two peoples. By its diplomatic intervention in favour of the adoption of an additional article to the Geneva Conventions, by sending a large number of doctors to the battlefields, by the care in which it took the wounded of the two belligerents, and by the help and protection which it brought at the same time to the Germans expelled from France and to the population of Strasbourg, it showed that it knew how to fulfil the duties of a neutral state not only with loyalty but with humanity.”

Kern, Johann Conrad. Politische Erinnerungen 1833 bis 1883.
(Political Memoirs 1833 to 1883)
 Frauenfeld 1887. p. 226ff., cit. after Widmer, p. 138


ts. Konrad Kern’s summer residence in Frauenfeld, called Guggenhürli, was brought into their marriage by his wife Aline. The name comes from “Guggen” (look, see) and from the Old German term “Hora”; (small hill), which provides a view. In 1963, the cooperation founded especially for this purpose, Guggenhürli saved the dilapidated house and created a small exposition about the couple Kern. A small room which is used for civil weddings, is said to be among the 50 most beautiful places to be married in Switzerland. The Guggenhürli Cooperation cultivates a small vineyard at the foot of the hill. The Müller-Thurgau wine which is appreciated far and wide not only by bridal couples.

Johann Konrad Kern (1808–1888)

Johann Konrad Kern studied theology in Basel from 1826 to 1830 and law in Basel, Berlin and Heidelberg. He was a member of the Swiss Zofingerverein, a member of the Thurgau cantonal parliament from 1832 to 1853 and nine times president of the cantonal parliament. From 1832 to 1852 member of the Education Council. 1837 to 1850 chief justice and president of the cantonal justice commission. 1849–1853 member of the Thurgau cantonal government. 1850-1858 Founder and President of the Thurgau Mortgage Bank. 1837-1840 and 1850-1853 he was president of the Thurgau charitable society, spiritus rector of the Thurgau cantonal school founded in 1853.
  At the national level, Kern was the representative of his canton in the Federal Diet in 1833-1838, 1840-1842, 1845-1848, where he co-led the liberal majority in the Federal Diet of Switzerland (“Tagsatzung”). 1847 Member of the so-called Siebner Commission to resolve the Sonderbund conflict, which then proposed armed action against the Sonderbund. Then editor of the Federal Constitution of 1848, first President of the Federal Supreme Court, member of the National Council (1848–1854) and the Council of States (1855–1857), President of the National Council 1850/1851, President of the Swiss School Board, co-founder of the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and from 1853–1857 Director and member of the Board of Directors of the Swiss North-East Railway Company. He always declined election to the Federal Council. From 1857 to 1883 he served as Swiss envoy in Paris. Kern is considered the founder of Swiss professional diplomacy.


Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz. https://hls-dhs-dss.ch/de/articles/004072/2008-10-14/

Good offices

“Switzerland’s good offices are a long-standing tradition and play a key role in Swiss peace policy. Switzerland can build bridges where others are prevented from doing so, because it does not belong to any power bloc and does not pursue a hidden agenda.”

Source: https://www.eda.admin.ch/eda/en/fdfa/foreign-policy/human-rights/peace/switzerland-s-good-offices.html

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