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The town hall of Berne – Second stop on my guided tour through Switzerland’s history of democracy

It’s the year 1798, the evening of Sunday, the 5th of March. The town is in upheaval. For the first time in more than 500 years, Berne is occupied by foreign troops. The armed forces of revolutionary France have conquered the town.

Until Friday, factions in the divided senate had quarrelled in the town hall, which you can see right behind me. The majority was in favour of capitulation and hoped to be able to find an agreement with France. The minority, led by the mayor, wanted war. Berne had nothing to do with the revolution, was his opinion.

The Mayor fought, but the battle outside the city gates was in vain. The poorly motivated Bernese troops were vanquished by the French within a day. With the French occupation, not only the Republic of Berne was at its end. General Schulenburg occupied the whole territory of the federation within a month. On the 12th of April 1798, the new Helvetic Republic was proclaimed. Guarded by French bayonets, in French and German, in urban and rural areas, in reformed and catholic towns people swore their oaths on the new constitution, which had been enacted in Paris.

Real support for the new political order was to be found especially in the canton of Vaud and the other subjected territories which had been liberated by the French. There, people danced around the trees of liberty, while in Berne people bashfully stood around the spot where I stand now if I was the tree of liberty.

Based on the role model of France under the directorate of 1795, the French introduced new institutions. The Helvetic government consisted of five directors. It could appoint ministers for special tasks, and it chose prefects that replaced the old authorities. Like the national assembly in France, a Great Council was to represent the Swiss nation. The Tagsatzung, i.e. the former legislative and executive council and until then the only organ of the Swiss confederacy, was replaced by a Senate.

The Helvetic revolution was supported by the „patriots“, a name chosen by the supporters of the revolution themselves. Already at the time of the ancien régime, these individuals had gathered in clubs and discussed the enlightenment and the revolution. Now that the French were in power, these intellectuals mobilised the bourgeoisie, especially in towns that the old regime had kept from power.

However, support for the Helvetic Republic remained limited. Especially the patricians, but also the guilds and the provincial assemblies that had lost their influence continued to rely on the farmers, and they waited for their chance.

The impulse that the old confederacy had gained from the Helvetic Republic could not last. The French occupation was hard and costly. Economic development stalled, and the new social order did not come about. Soon, coups d’état led to a moderation of the revolutionary policies. However, that was not enough. When, bowing to British pressure, the French troops left the Helvetic Republic in 1802, the revolutionary regime collapsed. Most of the institutions that had been created in 1798 were abolished.

However, what remained were the ideas of the French Revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity! Liberty soon turned against the French, but later also against the Austrians, who called the shots after the Congress of Vienna. The will to be free was to lead to the creation of the Swiss Confederacy in 1848. This Confederacy still exists today. Particular change resulted from the new vision of equality: the privileges of the towns, the social classes, the creeds, the languages were abolished fast, and in 1971 this vision of equality was fulfilled through the introduction of political equality of the sexes – female suffrage was finally introduced. The idea of fraternity replaced the idea of superiors giving alms to their subjects, and developed into the idea of public welfare and later the welfare state.

In 1798, also the idea of human rights that had been unknown before became ingrained first in the lower classes, then also in the bourgeoisie and lastly in the farming communities. Today, it is inconceivable in Switzerland that someone rejects the notion of human rights. Indeed, the implementation of human rights on the domestic as well as on the international level has become government policy and is the most important aim of Swiss foreign policy across party lines. Hence, it is Swiss official policy to support the continuous vertical as well as horizontal development of human rights in bodies such as the EU or the Council of Europe.

A second idea that the French introduced in Switzerland was to become particularly successful here: referendums. In 1793, the French revolutionary constitution stated that the people were to be consulted on questions that concerned them directly. However, France and Switzerland differed greatly regarding how this principle was put into practice. Jacobine terror did not allow for this provision to be used, the directorate wasn’t interested in it, and Napoleon Bonaparte used it in the form of plebiscites: when he became first consul of the republic, it was him who decided when and on what issues the people had their say.

Referendums have continued to have this plebiscitary nature in France, and this also influences thinking in the EU. In Switzerland, an entirely different understanding of referendums took hold: not that of plebiscites where the government decides when the people have a say, but that of popular rights where the people make this decision themselves.

In 1802, however, history’s wheel of fortune turned into another direction: the aristocrats, the patricians and their faithful peasants were to have a comeback and regain their former power step by step.

At the next stop, I will show you where the patrician incursion took place.

Claude Longchamp, Historian/Town-Rambler of the Town of Berne
1.10.2007, Translation by Bianca Rousselot, PhD-Candidate


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