Swiss spirit – indispensable especially today (Part II)

The general who did everything not to humiliate the other side: Henri Dufour

by Peter Küpfer

In the first part of this recollection of the essence of the Swiss spirit (“Niklaus von Flüe prevents an imminent Civil War in the Early Confederation”, Current Concerns No 26 of 6 December 2022) attention was focused on one of the early internal pull tests which have repeatedly brought Switzerland to the brink of imminent division since its origins. This was one of the first (after that of the Old Zurich War), arisen from tensions between the peoples more rural in character and urban peoples, tensions always threatening the old Swiss confederacy, now fuelled by various, partly very real factors. Naturally, the internal crises in Switzerland arising from this tension took on very different forms depending on the historical environment at a time. The recurrent and rightly mentioned urban-rural antagonism – still existent today – cannot be compared directly with a late medieval conflict even if it has similar roots. But its destructive dimension is based on the same factors that even today threaten the unity of Switzerland under different conditions: mutual mistrust, that in turn creates hatred and rejection, the roots of all wars.

Today’s contribution, similar to the first one but closer to our time, again emphasises the simultaneously active positive forces that can alleviate and remedy the fateful mistrust. Those positive forces can sooth and remedy mistrust – in times of crises easily kindled in human beings – and thus prevent a crisis and discord. The awareness of “unity in diversity” can give fresh impetus to democracy as is shown by the overall course of Swiss history – characterizing it as a success story. It is based on the respect for the other opinion,  a respect stemming in deeper layers than the stirred-up sentiments that guide day-to-day politics. This was also so in bygone days. The following example from Swiss history dedicated to the Swiss General Henri Dufour illustrates this clearly. The highest mountain, 4634 metres above sea level, in the high alpine border area of the Mont Blanc massif does not bear its name “Dufourspitze” accidentally.
  General Henri Dufour’s deed that led to this honour has, however, been forgotten by many of today’s Swiss. No wonder: the school subject of Swiss history is treated as if our youth should be ashamed of it. I know of no other European country where one’s own history is treated so unlovingly, even self-destructively, as it happened here for some time, in a heartland of Europe, in our Switzerland. Before this belittling of Swiss history, ignited by certain circles (including many who call themselves “Kulturschaffende” or cultural workers aka intellectuals), even non-Swiss people were convinced that Switzerland deserved to bear the honorary title “cradle of democracy”. Those were hardly all whitewashers who were out of touch with reality.
  Today, the traditional historiography, also illuminating the achievements of one’s own national history and not only its mistakes (which country does not know them?) is discounted as a megalomaniac, narcissistic national myth or as a “narrative” (fashionable word for arbitrarily pieced together story), based obviously on more political backgrounds than on serious historical analyses. It is all the more appropriate to assure oneself of the qualities of our country’s own development. As everywhere in the world, where solidity is created and can be sustained, it is linked to the work of outstanding people who had in mind the good of the whole, not just their personal or partisan profit.
  Also at the beginning of the early 19th century, fateful times for Switzerland, the aforementioned constant in Swiss history, the conflict between the more traditional views anchored in the countryside and the “progressive” views of a liberal urban class that saw itself as an elite can be seen.
  It is therefore a most remarkable circumstance that the constitution of modern Switzerland of 1848 came about only one year after one of the most dangerous tests for the emerging modern Switzerland, the so-called “Sonderbundskrieg” (Sonderbund equals “separate alliance”) within the Confederation. It was a genuine civil war, where Swiss stood against Swiss, even if it was fortunately limited in terms of its human casualties and destruction. This was due first and foremost to the civil courage and far-sightedness of the military leader of the federal troops, General Guillaume Henri Dufour (1787-1875).

Fatal History

We will briefly recall the starting point and the course of the Swiss Sonderbund War of 1847. In the forties of the 19th century, the religious-confessional tensions once again intensified in our country, too; due to the aggressive policy of the “Freisinnige” (liberals), there was even a radicalisation on various issues. In this process, the political was mixed with the religious. The liberals sought to transform the Swiss confederation into a modern federal state according to the model of the American Declaration of Independence. Not only did this liberal concept include federalism and parliamentary democracy, but also the strict separation of church and state, as well as compulsory, secular elementary schools. In addition, liberal-radical spirits provocatively demanded the closure of the monasteries and the banning of the Jesuits. While Zurich appointed David Ludwig Strauss, who in his controversial pamphlet “Life of Jesus” had “presented a radically worldly understanding of the Son of God” (Stadler, p. 223), as theologian in the newly founded university, on 24 October 1844, the Lucerne parliament appointed seven Jesuits as teachers in the theological faculty and in the seminary. This was a provocation to the liberal youth, including the young Gottfried Keller at the time. Like many other radical youths of Zurich, the later novelist of realism and state secretary of the canton of Zurich decided to take part in an armed campaign of volunteers against the “Lucerne reactionaries” at the end of March/early April 1845, which, however, was without result even before any fighting took place and ended ignominiously for the “liberal” volunteers (there were such skirmishes of volunteers also on the conservative side) (Stadler p. 227f.)
  Secular and liberal circles, especially economic ones, hoped for a turning point in time, in particular for the abolition of existing trade barriers in a Switzerland “modernised” in its head and limbs. At that time, a journey through Switzerland was interrupted by many toll stations where separate weights, currencies and taxes applied; a new railroad was not allowed to cross bordering cantonal territories; a letter from Romanshorn to Geneva was sent “with advantage via Germany and France” in those days, because Switzerland had its own rules and taxes for each cantonal territory (Wartenweiler, Fritz. Führende Schweizer in schweren Krisenzeiten. Zurich 1930, p. 57).
  Once again, before the military escalation, a rural-conservative Switzerland and an urban-innovative class opposed each other more and more irreconcilably. When the stand-off that had been going on for years suddenly resulted in the “liberal-radicals” gaining the upper hand in the Tagsatzung (Federal Diet) (due to a political change in the young canton of St. Gallen), the latter seized their opportunity. The pretext for the military deployment of the Confederation was provided by clumsy international military agreements and alliances of the Sonderbund with the monarchies surrounding Switzerland all of which were watching Switzerland suspiciously, and all of which were struggling with unrest and radical democratic uprisings in these revolutionary times. In many other European countries, the exponents of this radical democratic uprisings wanted precisely what had been in place in Switzerland since 1815 and what now was taking on more self-confident forms: the federal democratic republic as a new federation (a federal state instead of a confederation of states).
  When, in the summer of 1847, the Tagsatzung with its new liberal majority enforced the expulsion of the Jesuits and aimed at the revision of the Swiss constitution in the direction of a federal state, the envoys of the “Schutzvereinigung” (as the Sonderbund called itself, consisting of the mainly Catholic Central Swiss cantons of Uri, Schwyz, Obwalden and Nidwalden, Zug, Lucerne, with Fribourg and Valais) in consequence left the meeting place Bern under protest. The rupture and with it the inevitable war was decided. Both parties were arming themselves.

There was more at stake than a victory

On 21 October 1847, the majority of the Assembly elected Guillaume Henri Dufour (1787-1875), a Geneva citizen and soldier, as General of the Swiss Confederation. This humanist-minded and educated contemporary, who originally wanted to become a doctor, was at that time already a well-known and merited personality. He served as a specialist in logistics and general staff officer under Napoleon, was later cantonal architect in Geneva, pioneering cartographer, operator and publisher of the first reliable map of Switzerland named after him, lecturer and then director of the first central school for Swiss officers in Thun (it still exists today), finally quartermaster general of the Swiss army (equivalent to a present-day chief of general staff). The choice of this modest, rather conservative officer left a nasty taste in the mouths of some liberal hotheads. Behind it, however, was a far-sighted federal concept that exactly matched the character of this merited military leader. (see box biography Dufour)
  His campaign was short, decisive and purposeful. Even the strategy corresponded to the will of the general, who did everything to ensure that the campaign, which could not be avoided, took place quickly and with the greatest possible sparing of the enemy.
  “On 4 November, the military operations began. [...] Dufour [...] first deployed his troops against isolated Fribourg, which surrendered as early as 14 November. Then he turned the mass of the army against the heartland of the Sonderbund, Central Switzerland. From Freiamt, the advance was made to Lucerne. After a fierce battle near Gisikon [on 23 November 1847], the Sonderbund’s defences collapsed. Lucerne was occupied by the federal troops. The other original cantons then gave up the fight, and finally also Valais on 29 November. The war lasted twenty-five days; there were only a few fatalities.” (Cattani, in: Great Swiss and Swiss Women, p. 284)
  Dufour’s campaign against the Sonderbund had thus lasted less than a month. In accordance with his slogan, the military objectives were fully achieved with a low number of human casualties and war-motivated destruction with the unconditional surrender of the Sonderbund and its dissolution. The most important thing for Dufour: the greatest possible protection not only of the civilian population, but also of the enemy troops, who were not to be treated with hatred before the battle, nor with revenge and humiliation after the victory, but rather with an honest invitation to join in the construction of a modern Switzerland, albeit as defeated, but still respected. Especially today, when even Swiss in the highest political, economic and media positions eagerly call for hatred against a country and its leadership (but not, as Dufour and the circles that entrusted him with his difficult office did: for moderation and reason), this difference cannot be emphasised enough. Dufour was not concerned with destroying the enemy, but first and foremost with signalling to him, albeit with the ultima ratio (military intervention), that he had gone too far. For him, the very way his troops did this must be proof that modern Switzerland was serious about encouraging the militarily defeated to participate in the reconstruction and rebuilding of a Switzerland that had matured as a result of this conflict. “His goal was to reunite the divided fatherland in a swift campaign without much bloodshed and to reconcile the feuding parties. The layout and conduct of the military operations were ultimately determined by political considerations. By conducting the battle with the greatest possible sparing of the enemy, the preparation of the coming understanding already began during the war”. (Cattani, p. 284 emphasis pk)

An epochal achievement

This is the unique, the epochal achievement of this commander-in-chief.
  In the already quoted publication about outstanding Swiss, the popular educator Fritz Wartenweiler puts the Swiss general before our eyes in unusually vivid formulations. It will be possible for anyone who starts from the historical facts to agree with his concluding appreciation:
  “This war could have grown into an incalculable catastrophe. A collapse would not have just occurred if the Sonderbund had won, but also if another man had taken over the command of the Swiss troops and had not led the battalions of the majority cantons with that certain superiority that Dufour had achieved. This danger was extraordinarily near.” (Wartenweiler, p. 59)
  The following concluding excerpts from Dufour’s daily appeals to his officers and soldiers (his so-called “daily orders”, quoted in detail by Wartenweiler) make his merits particularly clear. Would not the farsightedness contained therein also befit many a present-day commander-in-chief, not only one of Swiss troops?
  At the beginning of the campaign, on November 4 in 1847, Dufour gave the following operative instructions to his officers:
  “The utmost must be done to avoid purposeless conflicts. The federal troops are to be urged in the strongest possible terms to behave with moderation and not to allow themselves to be carried away into abusive treatment [...] At all costs the violation of the Catholic Church and religious institutions is to be prevented. [...]
  If an enemy force is repulsed, its wounded are to be cared for as one’s own and treated with all consideration due to the misfortune. [...] The prisoners are to be disarmed. However, no harm may be done to them, nor may they be insulted in any way. [...] After the battle, the excitement of the soldiers is to be restrained, the defeated are to be looked after”. (Wartenweiler, p. 62)
  And in the first daily order at the beginning of the operation, on November 4, 1847, the general addressed his troops with the following grave, genuinely forward-looking words:
  “Soldiers! You must emerge from this battle not only victorious, but free of reproach; it must be possible to say of you: You have fought bravely where it was necessary, but you have shown yourselves humane and magnanimous. I therefore place under your protection the children, the women, the old men and the servants of religion. Whoever lays a hand on a defenceless person dishonours himself and desecrates his flag...” (Wartenweiler, p. 63)
  General Dufour was not able to resolve the sharp antagonisms and tensions between conservatives and radicals that continued to exist even after the victory of the federal troops over the dissidents. They were deep and lasted for decades, especially in Switzerland. But he softened them and, through his behaviour, was an example to all those who sought the proportional representation system in the election to the National Council. This procedure was only introduced into the constitution in 1919, after the serious crisis of the national strike of 1918 (see Part III of this article), and it helped to create the institutional conditions for the waves to calm down, also with regard to the particularly sharp contrasts on the social question at the beginning of the 20th century.
  It is not surprising that General Dufour, almost twenty-five years later, also supported the foundation of the Swiss and International Committee of the Red Cross on the basis of this attitude. When Henry Dunant, also a Genevan, shaken and stirred by the horrors of the Italian war, founded and built up the International and Swiss Committee of the Red Cross, the already aged former Swiss General supported this construction and took an active and representative part in it.  •


Cattani, Alfred. “Guillaume Henri Dufour”. In: Jaeckle, Erwin und Stäuble, Eduard (Hrsg.). Grosse Schweizer und Schweizerinnen. Erbe als Auftrag. Ein Beitrag zur 700 Jahr-Feier der Schweizerischen Eidgenossenschaft 1291–1991 (Great Swiss men and women. Heritage as a mission. A contribution to the 700th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation). Stäfa, Th.Gut & Co. Verlag 1990

Stadler, Peter. Epochen der Schweizer Geschichte. Zürich 2003 (Epochs of Swiss History)

Wartenweiler, Fritz. Führende Schweizer in schweren Krisenzeiten. Bruder Klaus, Escher von der Linth, General Dufour. (Leading Swiss in times of serious crisis. Brother Klaus, Escher von der Linth, General Dufour) Erlenbach b. Zürich (Rotapfel Verlag), o. J. (1930?)

Very worthwhile as a supplement to the dominant view of this period of Swiss history, which is characterised by radical liberalism: Roca, René. “Die Bedeutung des Katholizismus und der Katholisch-Konservativen für die Entwicklung einer demokratischen Kultur in der Schweiz”. (The significance of Catholicism and the Catholic conservatives for the development of a democratic culture in Switzerland). In: Katholizismus und moderne Schweiz. (Catholicism and modern Switzerland), Basel 2016

On the biography of Guillaume Henri Dufour

A scientifically and humanistically educated officer and active contributor to the Republic of Geneva (Swiss canton since 1815)

  • Born on 15 September 1787 in Constance as the son of the Geneva watchmaker Bénédicte Dufour.
      Spends his childhood from the age of two in Geneva, where the family settles down again after a politically motivated exile. College, then studies humanities and physics at the Geneva Académie.
  • 1807–1809 further studies at the Ecole Polytechnique Paris.
  • 1809–1810 military science studies with focus on genius work in Metz.
  • From 1811–1817 service as officer in the general staff of the French army, until 1815 under Napoleon Bonaparte.
  • 1817–1850 Cantonal engineer in Geneva. Opposed the demolition of Geneva’s city fortifications because he wanted to preserve the fortress of Geneva as a south-western border protection for Switzerland. In addition to building bridges, he designed the waterfront promenade in the quays.
      At the same time, Dufour taught mathematics, geometry, surveying and hydraulics at the Académie.
  • From 1817 integration as a captain in the newly created Swiss army.
  • 1819 Co-founder of the military school in Thun, which still exists today, taught the génie department there and became headmaster.
      Louis Bonaparte, the future Emperor Napoleon III, was one of his students and the two were linked by a lifelong friendship. Author of military science writings, especially on fortress construction and military tactics.
  • 1827 Promotion to Swiss Colonel, then joined the Swiss General Staff. His task there was to organise the defence of Switzerland in the event of an attack.
  • 1832 Promoted to Swiss Chief of General Staff (with the rank of “Oberstquartiermeister”).
  • In 1843, he led a mission in that capacity to calm the escalating confrontations between radicals and conservatives. Directed the triangulation work and then elaborated the first reliable national map of Switzerland at the scale of 1:100,000 (the “Dufour Map”, later named after him) until its completion in 1864.
  • In 1847, Dufour was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Confederate troops with the rank of General against the Sonderbund by the Legislative Assembly. He identified the federal troops with a brassard with the white cross in a red field (the troops still wore cantonal uniforms at that time, although they were similar), the emblem that formed the official federal flag from 1848.
  • 1856 Federal Commander-in-Chief in the deployment of troops to defend Neuchâtel against the threatened Prussian intervention.
  • In 1863, co-founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which he supported until the end of his life. The proposal to design the Red Cross flag as a quasi-inversion of the Swiss flag (red cross in the white field) came from him.
      In addition to these military duties, Dufour was also politically active, as a deputy of Geneva in the Legislative Assembly, as a member of the Geneva Constitutional Council, as a delegate in the municipal and then cantonal parliament, and finally as a member of the Council of States for the Canton of Geneva.
  • Dufour died in Geneva on 14 July 1875 at the age of 87. His most expressive portrait is by his daughter Anne Octavie L’Hardy-Dufour (oil on canvas,1840), a distinguished artist and portraitist. 

ev. Fritz Wartenweiler’s (youth) book “Unser General Dufour” (Our General Dufour) is exemplary for his writings: He always sought to promote the humanistic educational goal and to open up paths to personal development, to full humanity in harmony with the common good, especially for adolescents and growing young people, by vividly describing role models. This should also be the goal of true education today.

Our website uses cookies so that we can continually improve the page and provide you with an optimized visitor experience. If you continue reading this website, you agree to the use of cookies. Further information regarding cookies can be found in the data protection note.

If you want to prevent the setting of cookies (for example, Google Analytics), you can set this up by using this browser add-on.​​​​​​​