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The 1st of August: Swiss National Day

By Amédée Hirt

A brief history of the Swiss National Day

The Swiss National Day on the 1st of August is a relatively recent creation. The Swiss Confederacy formally came into existence on the 12th of September 1848. The latter date marks the entry into force of the first Swiss constitution, which was accepted at the end of the inter-cantonal war of the Sonderbund. One might have thought that this date, which is both documented and symbolic, could serve as the National Day. However, long after 1848, the 1st of August was chosen instead.[1]

Competing founding myths

The 1st of August was chosen in 1891, based on a covenant signed by representatives of the communities of the present-day cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden in early August 1291. The pact was signed following the death of the Emperor Rudolf I of Germany of the House of Habsburg in July 1291, which led to times of uncertainty. This treaty, called today the Federal Charter, was a defensive alliance, as was the case with many similar pacts at the time. The choice of this pact as the founding act of Switzerland is the product of a long historiographical and political debate.

From the 15th century onwards, the history of the origins of Switzerland crystallised around three myths. The first is the Rütlischwur, a secret oath made, according to the legend, between three representatives of Uri, Schwytz and Unterwalden on a night in december 1307 on the Rütli meadow, near Lake Lucerne. This oath is said to bear the promise to free the three valleys from the yoke of the Habsburgs. The second myth is the legend of William Tell, a Uri peasant who rebelled against the bailiff Gessler, the Emperor’s representative. And the third concerns the destruction of castles, symbols of the Empire, in the early days of the year 1308, by Confederate insurgents. These myths were reinforced in the 18th century with the works of historians of the time, who helped to strengthen the idea of a Switzerland that resisted the imperial occupation. This founding narrative was not only defended by scholars, but also well disseminated amongst the population and local legends. The myth of William Tell is particularly popularised through the arts and the works of Schiller and Rossini’s opera.[2]

However, in the 19th century, this founding narrative began to be criticised and questioned. First, in 1760, the Charter of 1291 was found in the archives, published and translated for the first time. It was not until the following century that the Pact became more widely known. In the first half of the 19th century, several scholars began to recognise it as the founding act of Switzerland. However, this narrative remained marginal. It was especially from the 1870’s onwards that a new school of liberal historians put forward this pact as a true founding act of Switzerland, deconstructing the founding myths.[3]

A version in line with the political project of the 19th century

The version of the Charter of 1291 found favor with the Swiss intellectual elites because it was in line with the idea of Switzerland that was being defended at this time. The Swiss leaders of the second half of the 19th century had among their priorities the will to increase the bond between the Swiss. Indeed, the country had been built in division, and there were still many differences of opinion in the newly created Switzerland, after the civil war.[4] In this Switzerland, there were many historical commemorations, mostly cantonal or local, often linked to historical battles, sometimes among the Swiss themselves. The only celebration common to the whole country was the Federal Day of Thanksgiving, Repentance and Prayer, in September of each year, which was still a source of tension between Catholics and Protestants. The interest of the Charter of 1291 is that it contradicts the warlike and revolutionary founding myths, such as the popular version of the oath of 1307. Moreover, it is completely in line with the idea defended by the Swiss liberal elite of a Willensnation, a nation built on the basis of a common political project. The irrefutable and authentic character of the Charter itself reinforces the modern vision of a state based on the rule of law, as opposed to a romantic version of a state founded in war and adversity. Choosing the Charter of 1291 as the founding act of Switzerland is part of a teleological vision of a history that naturally leads to the federal state of 1848, based on law, the will of the Swiss to join together, and the immemorial spirit of solidarity of the Swiss.[5]

This version of the founding of Switzerland was quickly transferred to the political institutions. In 1889, the Federal Council proposed to the Parliament to prepare a great celebration for the country’s 600th anniversary to be celebrated on 1 August 1891 in commemoration of the Charter of 1291. The idea was quickly accepted by Parliament and aroused the enthusiasm of the Canton of Schwyz, the presumed site of the signing of the Pact, which rushed to offer its help in organising the event. However, this choice was criticised by those who saw the abandonment of the Rütli version of the oath as a betrayal of the myths that truly reflected the soul of the country. Historians as a professional body are criticised for their fetish for paper. The Canton of Uri was also disappointed, seeing its local hero William Tell sidelined. However, syncretism between the 1307 and 1291 versions of the origins of Switzerland soon took place. Their temporal and geographical proximity led to a mixture of the two in the popular image. Thus, even during the celebrations of 1891, the myths were presented together in the major artistic settings.[6]

The Confederation authorities were still pushing to anchor the origin of the Confederation historically and scientifically in the Charter of 1291. In 1890, two books were commissioned from two renowned historians, Carl Hilty and Wilhelm Oechsli, to establish the origins of the Confederation in a scientific and critical manner. The choice of this version by the authorities is explained by its complete adequacy with the national political project of the time. In addition to the reasons mentioned above, this choice allowed the Federal Council to fulfill its objective of forming a Swiss political consciousness on a historical basis in line with the “unifying” tendency of the leaders of the time.[7]

A one-time celebration turned into a tradition

The 1891 celebrations were not intended to be repeated annually. However, some communities continued to celebrate 1 August in 1892. The Swiss abroad, especially in the South American Swiss colonies, argued for an annual celebration, so that they could emulate other nations in diplomatic relations. The example of France seems to have played an important role. In 1899, under the joint influence of the Swiss abroad and the Canton of Berne, the Confederation established 1 August as an annual celebration. However, the only national obligation was the ringing of bells in every village. The celebration was therefore sober and dignified, as the cantons wanted to prevent it from becoming an occasion for feasting.

Gradually, over time, each canton added certain rituals to the celebration, some of which still exist today. Among these rituals are the traditional speeches during the local celebrations, the speech of the President of the Confederation broadcast on radio and then on television, as well as the large bonfires lit during the night. The 1st of August is thus an invented tradition, as conceived by the historian Eric Hobsbawm in 1983.[8]

Popular fervour remained low, however, in favour of other local commemorations, until the Second World War. With the concept of the “spiritual defence” of the nation, the 1st of August was a highlight during the war years. In this context, the syncretism of the historical origins of the Confederation was reinforced and 1307 and 1291 merged in the popular imagination.

Since then, the celebration of the 1st of August has not enjoyed immense popular success among the Swiss population, who are often on holiday on this date, and is more prominently featured in tourist locations. The celebrations of the 700th anniversary in 1991 were the source of new historical debates on the merits of this holiday. Following this celebration, an initiative established August 1st as a public holiday in 1993, while since the 1970s, a number of historians have argued in favour of recognising 1798 (institution of the Helvetic Republic under Napoleon) or 1848 as the founding dates of Switzerland.[9]

The 1st of August today

In practice, today, each commune organises festivities of varying sizes, on the evening of 31 July or the day of 1 August. Traditionally, the festivities are enlivened by musical performances by alpine horns, brass bands, choirs or other musical groups. The official part usually includes a speech by the authorities, an address by a guest, and the playing of the national anthem. Depending on the conditions, fireworks are set off and a large bonfire is lit, giving a bucolic spectacle of a multitude of points of light in the night as one looks out over the mountains. On 1 August, many Swiss people meet on farms to eat local produce for brunch. The members of the Federal Council travel throughout Switzerland as guests of honour at local festivities, sometimes one after the other. They are invited to give speeches in which they defend their ideas about the country. The President of the Confederation prepares a speech which is broadcast to the entire population on television.

The festivities also attract many tourists to major cities and tourist attractions, such as the Rütli plain where the oath of 1307 was allegedly taken.

A speech lived from the inside

This year I had the great pleasure and honour of being invited by my municipality to give the speech at the local festivities. It was a wonderful experience that made me question my country, its identity, our political organisation, what unites us or not, and our relationship with the rest of the world.It is with great pleasure that I am sharing with you the text I wrote and delivered to the citizens of my municipality. Don’t be surprised if you don’t understand everything ! Some local, even very local, terms are used. You can listen to the speech on this video (in French) and read the text and a tentative translation in the downloadable document below.

[1] François Walter, Histoire de la Suisse: La création de la Suisse moderne (1830-1930), 3ème éd., vol. 4, 5 vol., Collection Focus (Neuchâtel: Éditions Alphil-Presses universitaires suisses, 2013).

[2] Oliver Zimmer, « Competing Memories of the Nation: Liberal Historians and the Reconstruction of the Swiss Past 1870-1900 », Past & Present, n o 168 (2000): 201‑4; Catherine Santschi, La mémoire des Suisses: histoire des fêtes nationales du XIIIe au XXe siècle (Genève: Association de l’Encyclopédie de Genève, 1991), 36‑40; Denis de Rougemont, La Suisse, ou, L’histoire d’un peuple heureux (L’AGE D’HOMME, 1989).

[3] Zimmer, « Competing Memories of the Nation », 209‑17; Santschi, La mémoire des Suisses, 46‑60; Georg Kreis, Der Mythos von 1291: zur Entstehung des schweizerischen Nationalfeiertags (Basel: Reinhardt, 1991), 34‑73.

[4] Irène Herrmann, Les cicatrices du passé : essai sur la gestion des conflits en Suisse (1798-1918) (Bern: P. Lang, 2006).

[5] Zimmer, « Competing Memories of the Nation », 209‑22; Santschi, La mémoire des Suisses, 46‑60; Kreis, Der Mythos von 1291, 34‑73.

[6] Santschi, La mémoire des Suisses, 64‑65; Zimmer, « Competing Memories of the Nation », 217‑22; Kreis, Der Mythos von 1291; Georg Kreis, « Fête nationale », in Dictionnaire historique de la Suisse (DHS), trad. par Pierre-G. Martin, 16 mars 2011, https://hls-dhs-dss.ch/articles/017438/2011-03-16/.

[7] Santschi, La mémoire des Suisses, 65‑67; Zimmer, « Competing Memories of the Nation », 217‑22; Kreis, « Fête nationale ».

[8] Eric Hobsbawm et Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, vol. 15, Canto Classics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107295636.

[9] Regina Bendix, « National Sentiment in the Enactment and Discourse of Swiss Political Ritual », American Ethnologist 19, n o 4 (1992): 768‑90; Santschi, La mémoire des Suisses, 83‑102; Kreis, « Fête nationale »

Featured Image by Werner Sidler, Pixabay.

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