Radicalisation, German refugees, and the new constitution

The restaurant Zimmermania – Fifth stop on my guided tour through Switzerland’s history of democracy

The radicalisation of liberal political discourse was fostered by the intellectuals, among them two German refugees, the brothers Snell, who wanted to create a nation-state and democratise Switzerland. Between 1830 and 1845, they substantially influenced political theory here.

Ludwig und Wilhelm Snell came from the educated bourgeoisie of Nassau. Both were able to study, Ludwig, the older brother, philosophy, Wilhelm law. Both were politically active after they left university, their aim a German national state. Whoever proposed this idea at the time was considered a friend of Prussia and therefore a demagogue, and whoever was considered a demagogue could be exiled.

Wilhelm and Ludwig came to the liberal Swiss cantons as refugees. There, they became active in the liberal movement and at the liberal universities. Wilhelm became founding rector of the University of Berne. He was Professor for constitutional law, while his brother was professor for philosophy.

Contrary to the liberal movement that was against the domination by the towns, the German Snells did not see themselves as Balois, Zurichois or Bernese, they wanted to create a nation-state and see the systems of mini-states that existed in Germany as well as in Switzerland abolished.

As leaders of the national party they envisioned lawyers with a national ideology. The brothers Snell were to influence a whole generation of jurists. They all went to their lectures. They all learned from the Snells how to think politically, and they worked for the national cause after they left university, be it at the courts, in the media, or in politics.

However, not everybody was happy with this „junge Rechtsschule“ (young school of law). The locals railed against the foreign influence, and German diplomats talked of agitation and glorification of violence. In 1836, Ludwig was forced to resign from his teaching position and leave the canton of Berne for Lucerne, where he was naturalised. In his „exile“, he used his time to write. Between 1839 and 1845, the handbook of Swiss constitutional law was written in the radical spirit.

The radicals were successful in French-speaking Switzerland, and they managed to influence the liberals with their way of thinking. This, however, stoked the fears of the federalists in the conservative catholic cantons of central and southern Switzerland, who formed a separate alliance (Sonderbund). In Lucerne, the leading canton, the pope re-instituted the Jesuits. Now, the radicals tried to take Lucerne. But the attempt to make politics across cantons with the aid of weapons was unsuccessful.

The liberal canton of Berne now decided to also force Wilhelm Snell into exile, since they did not want to have anything to do anymore with the attack on the neighbour. He left Berne and went to Basle-Land.

Snell’s eviction enraged the radical politicians, who wanted to overthrow the liberals. A new constitution was written and presented to the public before the elections of 1846.

The radicals won this election. Now, they had a majority in the Great Council and the government.

It is not clear where the constitution was written. The professors say: at home. The conservatives say: at the restaurant. As rumour has it, the restaurant was the professors’ home. And until today, this restaurant Zimmermania is said to be the location where intellectual radicalism became political action.

In 1846, the year the radicals won, Berne was the seat of the Diet. Now, it was decided to dissolve the special alliance of the conservative catholic cantons by force.

In 1847, war broke out once more and ended with the victory of the nationalists. In 1848, they were to found a sovereign state. This state had five institutions: people, cantons, the federal council, the federal assembly, and the federal court of justice.

At the next stop, I will show you where these new institutions convened.

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.

Ein Gedanke zu „Radicalisation, German refugees, and the new constitution“

  1. Die politische Lage ist dann auch mein letztes Argument. Klar weiß ich, dass Südafrika der entwickelteste der afrikanischen Staaten ist, doch eben auch immer noch von Rassenhass und der weltweit brutalsten Straßenkriminalität gezeichnet. Es gibt vom Polizeichef ausgerufene no go Areas, besondere Verhaltensanweisungen für lebensmüde Touristen, unbewachte Grenzen usw. Ja, ich weiß hier kommt das Totschlag Argument mit der„ No Go Area“ in Brandenburg zur Fußball WM in Deutschland. Doch 2 Zahlen: Morde pro Jahr… 0,00

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