« La nature a fait votre Etat fédératif » (Napoleon)

Nydegg-bridge – Third stop on my guided tour through Switzerland’s history of democracy

“la révolution est finie”, Napoléon Bonaparte said in 1799. Having been victorious on the Western European battlefields, Great Britain became his enemy No. 1. It was in Egypt that he sought to vanquish his eternal rival – unsuccessfully. First, he lost a naval battle, then he lost a land battle, and finally he lost his nerves. He left his troops in the Middle East to intervene directly in Paris. The directorate that had allowed Napoleon to become powerful was abolished. Napoleon declared himself First Consul for 10 years. In 1804, he declared himself French emperor.

In early 1799, the War of the Second Coalition (French Revolutionary Wars) between Austria and Russia on the one side and the French republic on the other broke out. The alliance the Helvetiv government had made with France forced Switzerland to enter the war. Austrian troops invaded from the North-East, Russian troops from the South, while the French opposed them. The land was split in East and West. Central Switzerland, which had been forced to enter the Helvetic Republic by military means in 1798, was particularly opposed to the French. However, French troops regained the northern passages to the Gotthard and began a counter-offensive. The Austrian and Russian defence was unsuccessful.

In 1800, the European war on Helvetic soil was over. After four coups d’état put an end to the predominance of the patriots, the moderate republicans were in power at first, however, they were soon to be replaced by the rising federalists. The canton of Schwyz was determined to overthrow the Helvetic regime. On the 1st of August 1802, supporters of the old order organised provincial assemblies (Landsgemeinden). They were supported by the dispossessed cloisters as well as by the patricians and the guilds that had lost their privileges. Under British pressure, Napoleon withdrew his troops from Switzerland.

Civil war broke out. It was later called the “Stecklikrieg” (war with wooden sticks) by the victorious party in order to make it sound less violent than it was. The battle of Berne raged around this bridge, for it was decisive to get across it into the old town, where the Helvetic directorate convened. The peasants were positioned on the hill above, led by the officers of the dismissed patricians, and British agents supported them.

Please take a look at this house. It was the French guard. Do you think if only “sticks”, i.e. hay forks, had been used, you’d see such holes? – no, these were made by canon balls. The attackers bombarded the capital of the Helvetic Republic.

The Helvetic government was forced to capitulate to the angry peasantry. It signed the capitulation, but negotiated an agreement guaranteeing its own safe passage to Lausanne. Berne fell into the hands of the partisans of the ancien régime. The civil war only ended two weeks later between Morat and Faoug – the military front corresponded to the language border. In 1802, French-speaking Switzerland remained revolutionary, while German-speaking Switzerland was reactionary.

Now, Napoleon intervened once more by sending troops back into Switzerland to deal with the internal disturbances and calling a “consulta” to Paris. 70 representatives of the enemy camps should learn about his analysis of the situation. There, he famously stated: „La nature a fait votre Etat fédératif. Vouloir la vaincre, ne peut pas être d’un homme sage.”

What followed is called mediation. The cantons were re-established as sovereign states in the Helvetic Republic with equal rights. The privileges of the formerly predominant states, social classes, and the German language were abolished. By this, the Consul tried to appease the federalists, however, without re-establishing the pre-revolutionary relationships of dependency.

The Act of Mediation which led to the creation of six new cantons entered into force in 1803. It altered Switzerland’s character substantially. Apart from the old states with provincial assemblies and the towns that were dominated by the patricians and the guilds, there now were cantons that were highly influenced by the spirit of the French revolution: Vaud, Argovia, Ticino, Grisons, St. Gallen and Thurgau, which were to protect the borders against the surrounding monarchies.

The Act of Mediation was in force until 1813 when the French emperor was exiled on St. Helena. Thereafter, Austrian troops occupied the Helvetic Republic and prepared the Restauration of the former order in Switzerland, which the Congress of Vienna legitimised.

However, Napoleon was to have a lasting effect on Switzerland in more than one regard: With the principle of equality that was part of the Act of Mediation, Napoleon also introduced multilingualism in Switzerland. From the 15th century onwards, the French-speaking regions had always been subjected territories, which now was no longer the case. In 1803, Napoleon also appointed the first federal chancellor, an elected administrator who was supposed to support the „Landamman“, the chief magistrate of the canton hosting the Swiss Diet (Helvetic confederal parliament) who stayed in office for one year. These institutions that were introduced by Napoleon, i.e. multilingualism, the federal chancellery and the one-year term of the head of state, survived until this day. The President is still elected for one year, while the chancellor is elected for a certain period of time.

Switzerland’s „rescue“ by Napoleon marked the low-point in the development of democracy in the country. From then on, the only way was up – and also we will now walk upwards into the old town. We will ascend the traditional wooden staircase which reminds us that the town that had its center here in the Nydegg in 1191 was entirely built of wood when it was founded.

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


ich bin der berner stadtwanderer. ich lebe in hinterkappelen und arbeite in bern. ich bin der felsenfesten überzeugung, dass bern burgundische wurzeln hat, genauso wie ich. also bin ich immer wieder auf der suche nach verästelungen, in denen sich die vergangene kultur in meiner umgebung versteckt hält.

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