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Where We Come From...

The Rütli Oath of 1291

Shortly after the death of Rudolf of Habsburg (1291) the three valley communities of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden formed the »Everlasting League«. This alliance, which at first was enacted to prevent strife in the valleys, gradually developed into a defence pact against the Habsburg supremacy, from which the Swiss confederates finally liberated themselves in the 13th century in the course of numerous battles.

The union of the three valleys, which came to be known as the »Rütli Oath«50.jpg (11266 Byte), marked for 19th century Switzerland the inauguration of the nation, the fundamental legal act out of which arose the modern Swiss Confederation. This myth of a quasi-democratic foundation of the state based on reason instead of force has remained characteristic of Swiss self-identity until the present day. In his drama »William Tell« Friedrich Schiller condensed this view into the formula of the oath: »We want to be a single people of brothers.«

The numerous illustrations of the union in the 19th century usually concentrated on the three parties taking the oath, as can be seen for example in the painting by Jean Renggli or in any number of articles of daily use that were decorated with illustrations of the Rütli Oath. Characteristic for Renggli's painting is that the persons swearing the oath are representatives of the three periods of life and thus symbolise the entire Swiss people.


Faith and War

Winkelried's Death at the Battle of Sempach, 1386

In the Battle of Sempach (1386) the Swiss Confederation successfully defended itself against attempts by the Habsburgs to subjugate the Swiss. The battle became famous and was made particularly unforgettable to the Swiss because Arnold Winkelried sacrificed his life for the cause. With the words »I want to create a path for freedom«, he is supposed to have gathered as many enemy spears as possible and drawn them into his own body. This created a gap in the Habsburg phalanx which allowed the confederate forces to break through and eventually win the battle. Winkelried's example was used in the 19th century to illustrate the readiness of the individual to make sacrifices for the common cause. In 1902 the cupola of the Swiss parliament building was adorned with a motto that expresses this sentiment: Unus pro omnibus – omnes pro uno.

In 1865 a monument to Arnold Winkelried was erected in Stans; like almost all of the pictorial representations of this subject it shows the principal scene in the battle. The hero lies dead on the ground with spears stuck in his chest while the confederate forces charge past toward the enemy.



The Internment of the Bourbaki Army, 1871

Humanity as a national virtue and humane actions as a national trait are an integral part of national awareness in Switzerland.

In the turmoil of the Revolutionary wars it was Heinrich Pestalozzi who stood for the personification of the humanistic ideal. Three-quarters of a century later it was to be embodied by the whole country of Switzerland. The internment of an entire army, when Switzerland, caring for 87,000 soldiers, took in the French Army of the East which, under General Charles Denis Sauter Bourbaki, had suffered a defeat in the Franco-German War, was seen as a humanitarian act by the Swiss. The nature of the nation finds expression in all these happenings, and at the same time it lends prestige and greatness to the small neutral state.

This highlight of national history has no need of heroic figures. The anonymity of the players in Edouard Castre’s congenial panoramic picture of 1881 is therefore an essential part of the message. The narrative tradition of the pictures normally emphasises several different aspects. The unusual thing about this representation of the »compassion-worthiness« of those who seek refuge, however, is the attention drawn to the libertarian spirit of the Swiss as celebrated in their hospitality.


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