Swiss spirit – indispensable especially today

A Swiss-historical reflection on a current occasion, in three parts

by Dr Peter Küpfer

My generation (the first post-war generation) grew up in the spirit of a fundamental return to the core of our state. In the parental home and in the classroom, our educators, from left to right, were united in the conviction: No more war! This also included a quiet but self-confident pride on the part of our parents and teachers (some of whom had completed active service) that Switzerland had survived the World War, albeit with privations, but without a catastrophe for our country – and this in active sympathy with the fate of less fortunate nations.

This basic national consensus, which was essentially unchallenged for 20 years, was thoroughly lost in the decades after 1960 at the latest; not just like that, as we (can) know today, but as a result of targeted, culturally politically motivated constant bombardment of everything that rightly constituted Switzerland’s pride for generations: of our history, our multi-cultural population, which has always been exposed to tensions; of our direct democracy, which is still unique in the world; of our real people’s army, which is just as unique (every Swiss is obliged to serve in the military, as it is even today written in our constitution); of our good school system, which is recognised worldwide; of our active solidarity in international emergencies; and our well-developed social services. This has resulted in a certain political character of the people: the calm self-confidence of the sovereign citizen (who elects his members of parliament and his governments himself and still has the final say, even in setting the tax rate that also applies to himself), the distrust of political rhetoric and blague, even of stirred-up emotions. In the past, this also led to a corresponding style of public debate that avoids polemics and personal attacks and is oriented towards the matter in hand.
  All this was neither a gift of providence nor the result of ingenious “leaders” who were out of touch with the people. This Swiss spirit has developed over centuries, it had to mature, often only in batches and dramatically, until it could bear fruit. Therefore, knowledge of the relevant historical contexts and respect for traditional achievements must be demanded (even if they were preceded by long errors and misguided attitudes). This respect for what has been and what has grown must also be shown to our present generations, and thus also demanded; the younger ones profit from the often bitter lessons of the older ones, which history has imposed on them. It is the task of the older generation to pass on this collective treasure (it is what in the real sense is conceptualised as culture) to the younger generation, modern anthropology calls this cultural transfer (cf. Nestor, Moritz. Man as Creator and Creature of Culture, Current Concerns No. 3/4 of 16 February 2022). To curtail, dilute, falsify and belittle this collective spiritual heritage is an act of self-destruction. Those in our times who carry it out, politicians, historians, teachers, journalists, “creative artists” (unfortunately, they are today often the opposite of their self-given title, namely destructive artists) should be so honest as to say with what aim they are carrying out this systematic cultural erosion of Switzerland and its spirit, which has grown in constant conflicts. And there should be even more people who put a brief and objective stop to these goings-on with a conciliatory (freundeidgenössisch) but firm veto.
  Especially nowadays, when serious public debate is increasingly being replaced by rhetoric, the stirring up of mere emotions and a simplistic “good/evil” scheme, qualities like those mentioned are of fundamental importance. These qualities, which historians used to call “Swiss spirit” without reserving it only for Swiss people, should also be given more attention and practised again in our schools, our associations, in the media and in political events.
  That is why in this text I would like to recall three promoters and preservers of the Swiss spirit and call on us to engage with them, to respect their spiritual heritage and to use it for our present. The essence of their kind of Swiss spirit should blow increasingly today again, not only within our borders.  •

Niklaus von Flüe prevents an imminent Civil War in the Early Confederation (Part I)

pk. The first person to be discussed here is Niklaus von Flüe (1417–1487), a hermit in Flüeli above Sarnen who was already famous and respected far and wide in his days. In his “first life”, the ascetic hermit was a far-sighted, capable farmer from Obwalden and a caring family father, a respected citizen, chief justice and soldier, who took part in all the federal campaigns of his time (including the cruel battles of the Old Zurich War, the first “fratricidal war” of the Confederation), soon reaching the rank of captain due to his merits. The later hermit in the Ranft was also an Obwalden delegate to the Federal Diet. Many would have liked to see him as Obwalden Landammann, an office he declined out of modesty. Gifted early on “with a second face”, as contemporary witnesses assured us, turned to inner piety, prayers and fasting, his desire to leave his secure existence and live “entirely to God and faith” became overriding. He came to an agreement with his much younger wife after a lengthy, mutually honest and calm discussion. So “Brother Klaus”, as he called himself from then on, said goodbye to her and his ten children in mid-life and withdrew to his nearby yet secluded hermitage, where he often received visits from those seeking advice and those in despair. Soon he was known far beyond his traditional circle of influence and his advice was sought after. Pilgrims from and to Einsiedeln often made a diversion via “Flüeli” to seek advice and spiritual support from the famous hermit, including magistrates and even potentates, as the chronicler (Diethelm von Schilling) reports.
  After the victorious battles against the House of Habsburg (Morgarten, Sempach), the fratricidal war against the powerful city of Zurich in the Confederate alliance (Old Zurich War), which was victorious for the Confederates, and the fight of the Confederates against the equally ambitious and powerful Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy (Burgundian War), parts of the war-tested rural populations had become overconfident and were eager for easy conquests. From central Switzerland, armed bands formed more or less spontaneously as bands of irregulars who attacked the neighbourhood, besieged towns and demanded justified delayed or even imaginary payments from them. The most famous example was the so-called “Saubannerzug” of 1477, in which an army of high-spirited peasants from central Switzerland marched up to the proud city of Geneva and terrified it because of allegedly missing protection payments. Although the Confederates themselves were able to stop this procession of more than a thousand irregulars and bring their agitators to their senses, such selfish acts of violence jeopardised the Confederates’ previous “guiding principle” of defending their rights, handed down from time immemorial and guaranteed by the Empire, against unjustified claims by princes.
  When, after the victory over Burgundy, the urban localities, especially Bern, wanted to admit the cities of Fribourg and Solothurn, which were allied with Bern, to the Confederation, this wish met with decisive resistance from the rural localities of Uri, Schwyz, Obwalden, Nidwalden and Zug at the Federal Diet (1481 in Stans). Whereas in the then still 8-city Confederation the relationship between city and country towns had been balanced, the country towns feared that in future they would be outvoted by the cities. Soon, threatening tones from the countryside against the towns became unmistakable. Negotiations and attempts at conciliation could not soften the stalemate at the repeatedly reconvened session in Stans. For this reason, some of the participants in the session had already attempted to consult the hermit in nearby Flüeli. Tradition has it that the hermit’s advice was finally accepted at the last minute by the parish priest in Stans, Father Heini am Grund, when many of the delegates were already preparing to leave for good under all the signs of a conflictual breakdown in the talks, which could easily have led to a new fratricidal quarrel among the Confederates. The hermit encouraged the deputies of the country towns not to insist on their maximum restrictions towards the new town candidates, but to agree to a compromise that contained concrete and finally also accepted points of agreement.1
  The result of Brother Klaus’ successful mediation has gone down in Swiss history as the “Stans Agreement” of 1481. It was not only Niklaus von Flüe’s own great deed, it was also a decisive step in the development of democratic consciousness in the consolidating Confederation. In the sense of the wise counsellor, everything revolved around the fact that genuine federal unity could never simply be the result of a mere numerical outvote of “the others”, but rather the at least partially accepted, co-realised and thus at least to some extent also taken into account “other opinion”. The conflict between the country and the city, which had appeared here in an impressive way as a threat dividing the confederation’s network of alliances, continued to be virulent in the following centuries, above all as a confessional conflict (Reformation). It was dramatically intensified in the years before and after the founding of the modern Confederation in 1848 (industrialisation) and worked off its destructive potential in the long-lasting so-called “culture war” between progressives and traditionalists (see Part II of this article). The extremely sharp tones that emerged there have not yet been overcome to this day. A decisive step towards at least a partial calming of the situation came centuries after the “Stans Agreement” from an unexpected source: the military. This is presented in the second part, which is dedicated to General Guillaume Henri Dufour, a general of the Swiss Tagsatzung troops in action against the “Sonderbund” in 1847.  •

1 Specifically, this concerned the passage that the two “new” cities were only allowed to enter into limited military alliances with outsiders (cf. Holzherr, Georg. Niklaus von Flüe, in: Jaeckle Erwin and Eduard Stäuble, Grosse Schweizer und Schweizerinnen, Stäfa (Th. Gut & Co. Verlag) 1990, p. 23f.).

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