The Rütli is a place enveloped in history, folklore, myths and legends.
As the “Cradle of the Confederation” it is synonymous with the freedom and independence of the Forest Cantons of the 14th century, with Schiller’s drama Wilhelm Tell (William Tell) in the 19th century, with the Swiss National Redoubt of World War Two, and with its appropriation by political extremists at the beginning of the third millennium. Thanks to mobile apps, visitors to the Rütli will be able to learn more about the history of this “monument without a monument” in the future. The Rütli should increasingly become a place of national solidarity.
A number of articles provide an insight into the history and tales surrounding the Rütli:
The Rütli – Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, Lukas Nierderberger, CEO SGG
The Rütli is commonly referred to as the “Cradle of the Swiss Confederation”. For a long time, this idyllic spot by Lake Uri was considered by foreign visitors to be a high point in their trip to Switzerland. In 1865, the Bavarian King Ludwig II wanted to build a castle in the style of Neuschwanstein on the Rütli. In an address given on the Rütli in 1980, Queen Elizabeth II extolled Switzerland’s long tradition of humanitarianism and democracy. And when Vaclav Havel, the former President of the Czech Republic and nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, visited the Rütli with Swiss President Moritz Leuenberger, the one-time dissident said:
“I bow at this place before the principle of the treaty. The Swiss Confederation was founded through a treaty, and in that I see a principle which is prevailing more and more in the world order: a treaty that should be based upon equal rights among people, citizens, nations, all regions collectively. And I bow here before the will of the small nations, the small entities, the small communities, to live in peace and to defy the pressure imposed by the powerful and the strong. It was from the will to live freely and the will to resist the pressure of the world powers that Switzerland was born on this meadow all those years ago.”
To this day the Rütli has remained an unpretentious site, without monuments or memorials. The Rütli is swathed in history, legend and poetry, and the Oath of 1291 means that for many people the Rütli represents freedom, independence and resistance.
The Rütli has frequently been a meeting place for politicians in their struggle for independence and peace. In 1674 a cantonal assembly was held on the Rütli because of threats to the borders near Basel and internal tensions within the Canton of Uri. And when Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden fell out over the administration of the protectorates in Ticino, Uri decided in 1704 to convene annually on the Rütli so that any pending conflicts could be settled there in peace. After the Second War of Villmergen ended in defeat for the Catholic areas, the idea of renewing the federation was taken up once again by Schwyz, and an assembly of the three founding cantons was held on the Rütli. During the period of the French Revolution and the threat to the Old Confederation, the Rütli became a place of sanctuary for patriots and intellectuals. After the establishment of the Helvetic Republic in 1798, the members of the new political system also met on the Rütli to “bring the reverence due and the first pearls of gratitude from the reborn Helvetica to the first altar to the freedom of its forefathers”.
In the new Swiss nation state, founded in 1848, the Rütli initially lost some of its significance. The modern Switzerland of 1848 did not possess any real commemorative site or national monument of remembrance. This is probably one of the reasons that the Rütli suddenly acquired its central meaning for Switzerland once again almost 100 years later: with the fall of France in June 1940, Switzerland found itself completely surrounded by the Axis powers and under serious military, political and economic pressure. Uncertainty and demoralization spread across large parts of the population as well as within the Swiss army. In response, General Henri Guisan rallied some 500 high-ranking officers on 25 July 1940, selecting the Rütli as the location of the assembly.
The danger of ideological appropriation
Since the Second World War the Rütli has been less of a symbol of freedom, independence and resistance, instead being used and misused for conservative and patriotic propaganda. Even in 1945, the National Council member for Schwyz, a man named Schuler, campaigned against the social democrats’ call for women’s suffrage with the argument that three founding confederates on the Rütli in 1291 had all been men and therefore the women of Switzerland should be allowed neither to vote nor be voted into office. This misogynistic tradition associated with the Rütli reached a climax on 1 August 2007 when a bomb exploded on the Rütli meadow shortly after Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey had given her commemorative address there.
The Rütli has suffered over the past fifty years from being adopted by groups denigrating women and foreigners, and champions of other causes. For example, in April 1968 Jurassic separatists hoisted the flag of what was to become the canton of Jura over the Rütli meadow, and on the eve of 1 August 1996, students from the University of Fribourg took down the Swiss flag and raised the flag of the EU in its place.
The Rütli today and tomorrow
Because of the Rütli’s eventful history, its defining legends, dramatic literature and political associations, it is the intention of the SSPG to furnish this symbolic site with positive connotations, promoting the following five areas in particular.
The Rütli should be a “monument without a monument”. There is a clear disparity between the symbolic importance of this national memorial and the simplicity of the site itself. This incongruity should be preserved. The Rütli should remain as the shrine of Switzerland, a unifying place of remembrance without pomp or pageantry. It is a place of reflection and inner communion. The Rütli must consciously remain a memorial with no memorial – a monument without a monument. All attempts to erect a memorial on the Rütli have so far failed.
The Rütli should be a place of integration. In response to the increased misuse of the Rütli for far-right propaganda in the past 15 years, the Schweizerische Gemeinnützige Gesellschaft (Swiss Society for the Public Good, SSPG) is doing all it can to protect the Rütli from political appropriation. To this end, the SSPG imposed rules governing the use of the Rütli in January 2014; political organizations were banned from promoting specific political objectives. There is no doubt that the Rütli will always be a site with political connotations, but it should not be made an instrument for specific political aims which divide Switzerland and its people. Instead, it should unite them. The Rütli should become more a place of dialogue than speeches.
The Rütli should be a place of learning. These days there are fewer school trips to the Rütli than there used to be, because in our age of interactive experiences a plain meadow with a barbecue area is no longer the attractive destination for young people it once was. To address this, the SSPG plans to open an activity room on the Rütli and set up a number of learning posts on the site where children will be able to find out more about the history of Switzerland and the Rütli through a variety of real and virtual learning experiences. In this way the purpose of the Rütli should evolve from that of commemoration to education.
The Rütli should be a place of identity and solidarity. Switzerland is a country of diverse cultures, languages, religions, social strata and value systems. This means that a sense of national identity and Swiss solidarity are not things that can be taken for granted. For this reason, the SSPG will organize regular visits to the Rütli for individuals and groups from various cultural and social backgrounds so that together they can reflect on and strengthen their identity as one of unity in diversity.
The Rütli should be a place of global humanitarian tradition. Switzerland lies in the heart of Europe and is firmly integrated within the global economy. The country’s humanitarian tradition, neutrality and cultural diversity have contributed to its international success and good reputation. Therefore, in future the unpretentious Rütli meadow should be increasingly promoted as a resource for individuals and groups who want to serve the cause of peace and cultural diversity around the world. The SSPG is open to inviting international groups and participants at conferences taking place in Switzerland to visit the Rütli.
The Rütli, Prof Georg Kreis, University of Basel
This essay is published together with 26 other articles in Georg Kreis, Schweizer Erinnerungsorte. Aus dem Speicher der Swissness. (Swiss Memorial Sites – From the memory bank of Swissness) Zurich; NZZ Libro, February 2010.
The Rütli is Switzerland’s best-known memorial site, and also meets all the criteria for a place of commemoration better than any other. First, the Rütli is a geographical location with exact coordinates: 46° 58′ 8″ N / 8° 35′ 34″ E. Second, it is place that recalls a fundamental process, one which it is easy to put into a nutshell, namely the putative founding of the Confederacy in circa 1300. However, the contents of this memory have become so refined over time that the commemoration is no longer dedicated to the creation of Switzerland but simply to Switzerland itself, or everything that it stands for. This level of remembrance means that the Rütli is in fact used more widely as a result, and its significance has steadily increased in recent times because of this not entirely uncontroversial use.
The Rütli is actually a considerable size, covering an area of 62,230 square metres located in the centre of the nation, in the centre of people’s aspirations, and with a centre of its own: the spot where the three Confederates swore their oath and where, at the moment that oath was sworn, three springs are said to have emerged from the ground. These springs have been reshaped many times that they are now barely recognizable and so command little attention.1
There is another respect in which the Rütli has a dual identity: on one hand it is a place to be remembered through one’s own visits there, while on the other it lies in a media landscape dominated by a public discussion about how it should be used properly. On one level the Rütli is a place of personal experience, and on another it is a national stage that guarantees a certain amount of regard for the manifestations expressed there, some of which would receive a great deal less attention if they took place elsewhere in Switzerland. This is very evident in the appearances of right-wing extremists there. On the Rütli they attract a huge amount of attention. When they meet in other places it is hardly deemed worthy of a mention, even when the alternative meeting place is also a celebrated site, such as the battlefield at Sempach for example.2
How old is the Rütli?
The age of the Rütli is a question that may or may not be deemed significant, and if it is, then it could be for a number of reasons. If we take the view that the Rütli has always been there, or at least as long as Switzerland has, then the question is irrelevant. It is also unimportant if we believe that the clear and simple answer lies in our knowledge of the date we learned at school: 1291. According to that, these lines would be penned in the year 708, as the Rütli has entered the life of the nation as the meadow on which the confederation was founded. The date of the Rütli is also used for the Helvetic calendar. A book published in 1970 on the “Failure of the Homeland” (“Störfall Heimat”) contained a reference in its subtitle to the “Swiss national identity in the year 699 post-Rütli”3, and another book published even earlier was entitled Anno 709 post-Rütli.4
True enough, the meadow was already there before; its name is by no means out of the ordinary – there are many similar place names (e.g. “Rüti”, “Grüt”, “Greut”) that originally meant forest clearings. However, it is conceivable that many hundreds of years before 1291 this site was an ancient place of cultic worship, as astro-archaeologists claim: at certain times of year certain sunbeams can emerge behind certain mountain peaks to cast down a holy light.5
At this point it may be worth remembering that the Federal Charter dated 1291 was neither a deed of the foundation of the state of Switzerland, nor was it written on the Rütli. The Rütli in its remoteness lent itself to being seen as the ideal meeting place for conspiratorial acts of intrigue. But the parchment sealed by the three cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden was not the product of conspirators. It was more likely to have been produced in Brunnen or Schwyz, like the treaty of 1315.6
The majority of people prefer to ignore this point. For them, the Charter, the Oath and Tell are all part of the same thing, just as they are depicted together on postcards. In the longer history of the different interpretations of the foundation of the confederation, the Rütli and the Federal Charter were in stiff competition with each other between 1891 and 1907 at least.7 Before the deed of confederation was suddenly turned into a quasi-constitutional Federal Charter in 1891, fixing 1 August 1291 as the moment of the nation’s birth, the date of 1307–08 calculated by the humanist Aegidus Tschudi had been accepted for many years, as it was based not on any Charter but on the theory that after preliminary discussions took place on the Rütli (supposedly on 8 November 1307), countrywide uprisings broke out on the eve of 1 January 1308 and led to the liberation of the Confederates.
In the 15th and 16th centuries the Rütli had far more significance as a place in people’s imaginations than as a real one they had actually visited. Who, in those days, would have thought to go on an “outing” to the Rütli, a trip that would have taken several days? The Rütli of the imagination was based on its portrayal in wall paintings, on glass panes, decorative ceramic tiles and ornamental goblets. The patriotic reformism of the second half of the 18th century also made fond reference to the mythical site of the nation’s foundation. This was a symbolic, abstract place that existed somewhere, albeit without really having an identifiable geographical location. The first half of the 19th century saw the emergence of the Rütlilied – the Song of the Rütli – a romantic hymn set in a half-real, half-imaginary place, that was written outside Switzerland by J.G. Krauer and F.J. Greith.8 The portrayal of the scenic aspects of the commemorative site only became important during the course of the 19th century; then it acquired its individual, uniquely identifiable features, as epitomized in the huge wall painting by Charles Giron that dominates the chamber of the National Council and is ever-present in television broadcasts of council business – mostly without being consciously recognized, however.
If we disregard the moment when the “historic” birth of a nation is said to have occurred on the Rütli meadow, we can discern two modern moments of birth in the lifetime of the Rütli after the many centuries of the Old Confederacy: first, the moment at which Schiller’s drama William Tell acquired significance and second, the moment when the Rütli was passed into the ownership of the Swiss people. Put like this, it is evident that precise dates cannot be attached to these moments, so it is not really correct to use birth as a metaphor.
For Schiller we do have a year of birth – the play’s première in 1804 – though the place of birth was not Central Switzerland but far-away Weimar. We also know that the subject matter had been in the air before this, so to speak, as even Lessing had already expressed his opinion that it would be worth developing. And the existence of William Tell did not result in the play becoming widely popular in Switzerland straight away – it was to be some decades before its appeal took hold. One could even go so far as to argue that the moment of birth in this version did not occur till much later – stimulated by parallel celebrations in Germany and by the second moment of birth as described below – on the centenary of the German poet’s birth; the founding cantons decided in November 1859 to dedicate a memorial to the author of William Tell, and officially inaugurated the Schiller Stone in 1860.
The second important impetus also occurred in the late 1850s, but this time it came not from Germany but from Zurich. It was delivered by the protestant minister, Friedrich Haefelin, a member of the very protestant, very “Zurich” Schweizerische Gemeinnützunge Gesellschaft (Swiss Society for the Public Good; SSPG). The initiative led to the purchase of the Rütli meadow, which was allegedly under threat from a project to develop it for tourism, and funds were raised through a nationwide appeal launched in May 1859.9 The Society handed the property to the Federal Council as representatives of the nation, which returned it in trust to the Society, specifically to its Rütli Commission, as representatives of the federal state government. One very important aspect of this campaign was the fact that the appeal had gone out in the name of the children of Switzerland and so the Rütli became inscribed in their hearts as a result. In thanks for their participation in the appeal, a print run of 250,000 steel engravings was produced, showing a romantic interpretation of the Rütli, and every school pupil in the land received a copy.10 It is safe to say that this ensured that the Rütli, once only of meaning to the ruling classes, became implanted firmly in the consciousness of the Swiss people as a whole. This national reference point had already started attracting wealthy individual travellers by the late 18th century, but now it became a regular destination for school trips from all over Switzerland. In a survey conducted in 2001, about a third of Swiss people said they had been on the Rütli as part of a school trip.11
To these two additional moments of birth we can add another moment of specific importance. Following the capitulation of France in the summer of 1940, Switzerland found itself deep in crisis for a moment, and General Henri Guisan assembled the Swiss Officer Corps for his famous Rütli address. This historic occurrence demonstrates the inspiring and reinforcing effect that emanates from the site’s mythical quality to the events taking place there and is reciprocated back from the event to the site itself.
This has proved to be the case in the various events held to mark or commemorate Guisan’s address: in 1960, with Federal Council member Paul Chaudet; in 1980, with Swiss President Georges-André Chevallaz; and in 1989 (as part of the commemoration of the mobilization of the army in 1939) with Swiss President Jean-Pascal Delamuraz and two other members of the state government and 100 members of the National Council and Council of States, along with many representatives of the armed forces. It was more than a mere coincidence that all these government figures came from French-speaking Switzerland, which did not even belong to Switzerland at the “time” of the Rütli but where patriotism runs at a higher level even than in the German-speaking region – Ticino being a prime example.
The last such occasion saw a shift in the commemorative template. There was no major celebration in 1990, nor was there a big event in 2000. On the other hand, in 1999 around 1,000 protesters demonstrated in connection with the controversies surrounding Switzerland’s role in the Second World War. Skipping the commemorative event in 1990 was due in part to the fact that yet another major celebration was held on the Rütli stage in 1991, to mark the 700-year anniversary.12 Then, in the summer of 2005, the 65th anniversary of Guisan’s rallying address (though hardly a significant jubilee) was occasion enough for Federal Council member Christoph Blocher to go the Rütli and deliver a speech about freedom and neutrality to an audience numbering over 1000.13 However, two years later he considered it completely wrong of his colleague Calmy-Rey (from the French-speaking part of Switzerland) to use the Rütli for her own purposes (see below).
Who does the Rütli belong to?
Inherently, a public commemorative site belongs to everyone. In this there is a further element of the ideal: a site like this has meaning for all sorts of users. The generality of this meaningfulness corresponds to the ownership of the site: the Rütli belongs to the Swiss people. Sometimes citizenship exams contain a question asking which canton the Rütli is in.14 The site is on the territory of Uri, which has a number of consequences we will look at later. The people of Uri are naturally proud of “their” Rütli, as the people of Schwyz are proud of “their” Federal Charter, or rather their copy of a document which was surely produced in triplicate (one for each partner).
As the Schwyz document is the only one still in existence it has metamorphosed in the course of time to become the Swiss Federal Charter. Not that the population of Schwyz have had any objection to the “upgrade”, as long as they have retained ownership. 1936 saw the inauguration of the state-funded Archive of Federal Charters (now the Museum of the Swiss Charters of Confederation). On one hand it served as a very functional cantonal archive, but upstairs the first floor concealed, in the words of canton archivist Josef Wiget, an “almost sacred hall of honour” in which the Federal Charter was displayed among a number of other documents.15
In 2006, the document left Switzerland for the first time in its 700-year history. For three weeks it starred as the centrepiece of the “Sister Republics” exhibition at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The Charter was seen by more visitors during this short display period than in an entire year in Switzerland.16 The public relations event and the media hype it triggered brought the sometimes forgotten Charter back into the public eye in Switzerland too for a while.
A group of dyed-in-the-wool patriots believed that they would be able to protect the parchment from the threat of any further foreign ventures by setting up an appeal and a charitable foundation to purchase it. Schwyz let it be known that the Charter belonged to the canton and was not for sale. Within Schwyz the nationalist-conservative patrons took a remarkably contradictory stance: on one hand they wanted to deny the government the right to allow the Charter to be taken abroad again on the grounds that it was the possession of the people of Schwyz; on the other hand they thought the Charter would be better protected if it was privatized and its ownership transferred to the proposed foundation.17
Back to the Rütli: a place where all kinds of people come together – young and old, locals and tourists, civilians and service personnel, people arriving independently and those on organized excursions. Around 70,000 of them every year – but only during the day, because overnight stays on the meadow are not allowed.18 The site exhibits a peculiar duality: on one hand it is a centre, on the other it is remote, and because of its remoteness it is both difficult to get to (almost the only way is across the lake) and attracts visitors in their thousands. The Rütli also features as a staging point on state visits. In 1980 Queen Elizabeth spent 45 minutes there, and in 2001 the President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, asked to visit the meadow. Incidentally, in 1991 the hero of the Prague Spring of 1968 and symbol of freedom, Alexander Dubcek, stood quietly and modestly on the Rütli, surrounded by large numbers of anniversary guests.
There is no doubting the fact that the Rütli has been revered as a place of national symbolism largely by the political right. The Left only acquired the taste in recent years, using the mythical place of commemoration in their election campaign of 2003, for example.19 Efforts to wrest the Rütli from the grasp of male-led conservatism and nationalists culminated prior to 1 August 2007 in a National Day celebration organized by Alliance F, the federation of Swiss women’s groups. The address was delivered by Micheline Calmy-Rey (SPS; social democrats) accompanied by the President of the National Council, Christine Egerszegi (FDP; liberals), wearing the traditional costume of her Aargau home for the occasion, and introduced by SSPG President Judith Stamm (CVP; Christian democrats).20 The remarkable thing about this event, which despite or because of the considerable opposition to it attracted a record 2000 (female) supporters, was the fact that the women actively involved in it did not use the showcase moment to propagate narrowly defined “women’s” issues but, on a broad front, affirmed their commitment to enlightened, liberal and humane politics. Near the end of the event an explosive device buried in the meadow went off, but fortunately no one was hurt.21 Naturally all of this received plenty of media coverage. And, just as naturally, this in turn added even more to the charisma of the Rütli commemorative site. One major bone of contention, however, was the question of who was to pay the high security costs.22
Both the celebration and the discussion must be considered against the backdrop of developments over the previous years. On 1 August 2000 the nation was jolted out of its complacency by events that went down in the annals as the “Shame of the Rütli”, as the tabloids put it. That day witnessed the wholesale premeditated disruption by right-wing extremists of the National Day address given by Federal Council member Kaspar Villiger.23 It was premeditated in that the interruptions were not a spontaneous “democratic” expression of disagreement with the speaker: the whistles had already started as he made his way to the lectern. Villiger was a liberal (FDP) member of the Federal Council and Finance Minister, but he was actually invited to give the address because he came from Lucerne, which according to the customary rotation of the lakeside cantons happened to be in line to provide a representative. What was different this time round was the high standing of the speaker. In general, less well-known local politicians were invited, but efforts to help rescue the Rütli from obscurity and to revitalize it had led to more recognizable speakers being put forward.
In the years that followed, the Rütli meadow became a stamping ground of the far right, whose activists could always be sure of attracting media attention. The 2001 ceremony went off without interruption, though the media still chose to report in far more detail about the numbers of these sinister patriots and their outfits than about the rhetoric coming from the speaker, Franz Steinegger, former party president of the liberals (FDP Switzerland).24 In 2005 the neo-Nazis again turned up in numbers, about 700 of them making up a third of the audience, the rest of which stood by helplessly as the address by Federal President Samuel Schmid was shouted down.25
The troublemakers, particularly their indirect supporters on the far right, justified the disruption with claims that the speech had contained “provocative comments”. This was seen even more clearly in 2006, when the former president of Swisscom, Markus Rauh, used his speech to rally support for a no vote in the upcoming referendum on reforms to immigration and asylum laws. In the event, voters accepted the reforms with a majority of almost 70%. Rauh’s appeal was felt to be particularly scandalous as under the existing rules it was not permitted to use the Rütli for party political rallies.
In between these occurrences, another event was held on the site – a harmless albeit somewhat questionable one. The bicentenary of the first performance of Schilller’s William Tell was used as an excuse to present an adaptation of the drama about the founding of Switzerland. An outdoor production, substantially funded by the politician Christoph Blocher, was to be performed throughout the summer by the ensemble of the German National Theatre in Weimar, augmented by a dance troupe.27 The unconvincing basic concept was that the spirit of the Rütli site, its genius loci, would help audiences to an understanding of the play, whose author was known never to have set foot in Switzerland.28 Blocher, however, used the play as a theme in his 1 August address in the affluent municipality of Herrliberg in the canton of Zurich, declaring that he had been to the Rütli the previous week and seen the new open-air production. He had returned from the site hugely impressed, he said, and declared to himself: “The story of William Tell is eternal.”29
In the summer of 2007 controversy raged about whether to allow Federal President Calmy-Rey to give the Rütli address. The president of the right-wing SVP (Swiss People’s Party) Ueli Maurer (a member of the Federal Council since 2009!) naturally had a few words to contribute and, as was to be expected, used the opportunity to say something provocative. In the self-propelled logic of the media this put him at the heart of the debate for a moment, and now he even has a place in this account because of it. The former farmer and later Federal Council member declared: “The Rütli is just a field covered in cow pats.”30 The part about the cow parts is true: the tenant does keep cows on this meadow.31 The “just” is, however, plain (and deliberately) wrong. Yes, there is cow dung on the Rütli meadow, as on any other pastureland; however, not every pasture has the symbolic content of the Rütli.
In response to the problem of the participation of right-wing extremists, the SSPG introduced a ticketing system which required individual applications (with checks). The system came under fire in the media for two reasons: the first criticism was of the very idea that an admission ticket should be needed to gain access to the national memorial site, and the second was that the responsibility for approving the ticket applications lay with just one person, SSPG’s Managing Director, Herbert Ammann. There was also a complaint that from 2008 the organization of the programme and the selection the speaker for the National Day address would no longer be within the remit of the traditional Rütli Commission comprising members from the inner-Swiss cantons, but down to “small-company lawyers”.32
After Calmy-Rey’s successful use of the Rütli, some voices were heard in Uri attempting to promote the idea that as the site actually belonged to the people of Uri, they should therefore have the right to prohibit any further events of that type. In 2008 it was once again the turn of one of their own to deliver the Rütli address: FDP Cantonal Council member for Uri, Josef Dittli. However, powers close to the SVP submitted a petition with a symbolic 1291 signatures calling for an end to the 1 August celebrations and specifically for a ban on speeches made by people from outside the canton (600 signatures would have been sufficient).33 But in 2009 the move was declared void in the cantonal parliament by a majority of 41 to 17 votes and it was therefore not put to a referendum. An expert from the University of Bern had determined that the initiative was in breach of the constitutional guarantee of the right to property ownership and freedom of assembly, and as such was in contravention of a higher law.34
Every year people ask how the 1 August is going to be celebrated on the Rütli, what sets it apart from the other 2500 or so National Day celebrations, and – perhaps more interestingly – whether a fuss had been made about the neo-Nazis. In 2008 the media once again focused on the issue of security in the run-up to the Rütli celebration. However, on 1 August 2008 (which was a public holiday) the pouring rain on the Rütli meant that proceedings went off reasonably quietly.35 Then on Monday it was revealed that the neo-Nazis had in fact gathered on the Rütli, on Sunday 3 August, that there had been around 300 of them and that the police had monitored them but had not intervened.
 Georg Kreis, 1291 oder 1307 oder: Das Datum als Quelle. Zum Streit über das richtige Gründungsdatum. In: Die Erfindung des Tells. Der Geschichtsfreund Vol. 160, 2007, Zug, pp. 53–66.
 The neo-Nazis had been in Sempach earlier, and are still there in numbers after being moved on from the Rütli. On the appearance of right-wing extremists at the Löwendenkmal (Lion Memorial) in 1992 (200 years after the storming of the Tuileries Palace, when a mob massacred Louis XVI’s Swiss Guards) cf. Georg Kreis, Zeitzeichen für die Ewigkeit. 300 Jahre schweizerische Denkmaltopografie. Zurich 2008, p. 31.
 Claus D. Eck et al., Störfall Heimat – Störfall Schweiz. Zurich 1990.
 Concluding report of the Neue Helvetische Geslleschaft conference on future prospects, Aarau 1973.
 Jean-Pierre Vouga, Les Helvètes au Grütli. Lausanne 1988. For further development cf. Georg Kreis, Mythos Rütli. Geschichte eines Erinnerungsortes. Zurich 2004. 271 pages, 72 illustrations.
 For the contemporary significance of the document of 1291 cf. Roger Sablonier, Gründungszeit ohne Eidgenossen. Politik und Gesellschaft in der Innerschweiz um 1300. Baden 2008, p. 163ff.
 On the introduction of the National Day on 1 August, cf. Georg Kreis, Der Mythos von 1291. Zur Entstehung des schweizerischen Nationalfeiertages. Basel 1991. 95 pages.
 Kreis, 2004, p. 99ff.
 Ibid., p. 105ff.
 Ibid., p. 239.
 Survey by consumer magazine Coop in run-up to National Day 25 July 2001. Have been there: 51%; have been there on school trip: 29%.
 As had already been the case in 1891 and 1941; Kreis, 2004, S. 35ff.
 Of 16 National Council candidates who reached the second round of a competition, 8 placed the Rütli correctly in the canton of Uri while 8 gave the incorrect answers: Schwyz (7) and Obwalden (1). See Basler Zeitung, 25 September 2007.
 Cf. Guy P. Marchal, Das Bundesbriefarchiv asl Zeitmaschine. Eine Betrachtung zum historischen Wissen. Also Roger Sablonier, Das neue Bundesbriefmuseum. Both in: Die Entstehung der Schweiz. Vom Bundesbrief 1291 zur nationalen Geschichtskultur des 20. Jahrhunderts. Schwuy 1999. pp 147–160 and 161–176.
 Pirmin Schwander, spokesman: “I have to say that in my capacity as President of the Swiss People’s Party and the Campaign for an Independent Neutral Switzerland I have never received so many written and verbal responses from angry citizens as after the announcement of this loan of the Federal Charter – along with urgent calls to do something to prevent it.” (www.pirmin-schwander.ch/files/Bundesbrief%20Schwander.pdf).
 Description of an ordinary visit by Margret Müller, Ein Sonntag auf dem Rütli. In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 27/28 July (article in run-up to 1 August)
 Poster with the slogan “Unser Patriotismus kennt keine Grenzen” (“Our patriotism knows no borders”). Three confederates taking the Oath, all dressed differently: one displaying the Swiss cross, one with the EU stars and one with the emblem of the United Nations.
 www.news.ch/Ruetli+Feier+ausverkauft+zwei+Drittel+der+Tickets+fuer+Frauen/282037/detail.htm This 1 August celebration was preceded by a visit to the Rütli with the diplomatic corps, which obviously gave some impetus to the Swiss President’s intention.
 A suspect is currently being held for questioning (July 2008)
 The cost of the heightened security measures for the 1 August 2006 event ran to 1.25 million francs, but for 1 August 2007 it was only 300,000 francs, which was paid by the private sector, primarily by FDP National Council member Johann Schneider-Ammann.
 The Partei National Orientierter Schweizer (Party of Nationally-minded Swiss; Pnos) was founded following their successful presence on1 August 2000.
 www.antifa.ch/Texte/010802blick.shtml It is easier to find out the numbers of the anonymous participants from the far right than the names of the official speakers.
 Federal Council member Schmid said that remembering the end of the Second World War 60 years ago should be an obligation for everyone to take a stand against the actions of totalitarians and extremists. He said that Switzerland had never needed a “Führer” (leader) because the Swiss people could think and act for themselves. He called the integration of foreigners a major challenge. He appealed for bridges to be built and for there to be peace in the workplace and among religions. (www.news.search.ch/inland/2005-08-01/schmid-auf-dem-ruetli-gegen-extremismus).
 www.cms.deimos.ch/download/13/filecontainer/downloads/benutzungsordnung_r_tli_homepage.pdf – SVP? Even if a political party just wants to have an outing to the Rütli it will face problems (as occurred on 8 July 2006). One borderline case was surely the implementation of Swiss Refugee Day on 15 July 2002, with speakers including the author of this volume; cf. Kreis, 2004, p. 191ff.
 www.presseportal.ch/de/pm/100006093/100478669/schweizerische_gemeinnuetzige_gesellschaftt – (pressemappe_guenther_uecker.pdf) The SSPG was also using these performances to diffuse the neo-Nazi problem.
 The spectacle did, however, provide a good platform for two publications: Barbara Piatti, Tells Theater. Eine Kulturgeschichte in fünf Akten zu Friedrich Schillers Wilhelm Tell. Basel 2004. Also the publication by the author (cf. Note 2), who was able to publish the book through Orell Füssli at short notice to mark the occasion, after thirty years of collecting.
 Quoted verbatim in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 2 August 2004 in an article entitled “Blochers Ode auf Freiheitskämpfer Tell” (“Blocher’s ode to Tell the freedom fighter”).
 Sonntagsblick, 21 May 2007 (www.blick.ch/news/schweiz/artikel63038). With a comment from the author included by the editor.
 The Rütli estate, covering 2.9 hectares of agricultural land and 2.8 hectares of forest, is deliberately run as a smallholding, with two cows, two calves, two pigs and several hens.
 Articles entitled “Zürcher bestimmen Rütli-Redner”(“Zurich residents decide Rütli speakers”), “Herr Ammann sagt, wer aufs Rütli darf” (“Mr Ammann decides who’s allowed on the Rütli”) and “Das Rütli gehört allen” (“The Rütli belongs to everyone”), in: Tages-Anzeiger, 29 January, 25 June and 2 August 2008.
 When submitted the petition had 1347 signatures, Tages-Anzeiger, 16 February 2008.
 In 2008 the neo-Nazis were present in the headlines at least, e.g.: “Während auf dem Rütli das Wetter und nicht Rechtsextreme die Feier trübte” (“While on the Rütli the celebration was dampened by the weather not by Neonazis), Tages-Anzeiger, 2 August 2008.
The Rütli: From Conspiracy to Confederacy, Prof. R. Sablonier, University of Zurich
Where is the Rütli, can you see it from here? It’s a question frequently asked by visitors to the Museum of the Swiss Charters of Confederation in Schwyz, especially when they see the Clénin wall painting in the exhibition room devoted to the Oath of Rütli. Although the Rütli is in Uri, in the Swiss national consciousness it is closely associated with the canton of Schwyz. In the popular view of history, the Oath of Rütli sworn by the three founding confederates has become bound up with the swearing in of the first alliance in 1291. There is only one copy of the Federal Charter of 1291, written in Latin; it is kept in Schwyz. Since 1936 it has been looked after with all the care deserving of such an extraordinary document at the Museum of the Swiss Charters of Confederation – in Schwyz.
The idea of the Rütli as the birthplace of the confederation and the site of the oath of alliance has lost less impact over recent decades than some other images of national history. The symbolic aura of the national memorial site is something a whole range of groups have adopted for their own political ends. Since 2000 political disputes surrounding the 1 August national celebrations on the Rütli have unfortunately become the norm, but one thing remains unchanged: the Rütli is a special place, a “tranquil spot by the lake” and a scenic memorial to the Swiss nation. It is here that the country’s forefathers from Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden are said to have founded the confederation with their oath of alliance, and this version remains official state doctrine today.
Celebrations and the cult of the Rütli
What explanation is there for the enduring veneration of the Rütli? Much of the answer has to do with the large-scale national anniversary celebrations. The commemorative events marking Swiss national jubilees would not be possible without the Rütli and its related celebrations in Schwyz. As recently as 1991, the official brochure accompanying the 700th anniversary of the Oath stated in the simple language of the ad man: “Nine fingers lifted Switzerland from the baptismal font in 1291”. That year a crowd of 5000 people, including the presidents of all the European parliaments, gathered on the Rütli to hear Switzerland’s highest-ranking citizen, President of the National Council Ulrich Bremi, give an address that contained a call for solidarity in the task of creating the new Europe – an appeal which still has resonance today.
It was a very different situation when the celebrations marking the 650th anniversary took place on the Rütli at the beginning of August 1941. Switzerland’s perilous position at the time gave the Rütli almost cult-like reverence as a symbol of unity and resistance. The site was alive with fire magic, secret male societies swearing ritual oaths, solemn parareligious liturgies and covert deeds motivated by a sense of spirituality and magic, including smuggling the original Rütli Flame out of the church in Schwyz. Much of this occurred as an expression of the “blood and soil” nationalism of the time. Today we rightly distance ourselves from this particular ardour which saw the fears of the age, patriotic fervour and nationalistic approrpriation all converge; only in extremist groups can people be found who would seek to rekindle these long extinguished flames.
In retrospect, we can see that 1941 was one of the high points in the cult of the Rütli, especially viewed against the background of General Guisan’s address to the Swiss Officer Corps there in 1940. However, there had been waves of enthusiasm for the Rütli before then. Whereas a certain zealous surge in patriotism around 1760 inspired by the Enlightenment had been something of an elite affair, after 1800 a combination of alpine romanticism, discussion of freedom and popular movement became the basis for a widespread popularization, almost a democratization, of the culture of remembrance, as symbolized by the Rütlilied (Song of the Rütli) for example. An important part in this burgeoning patriotism was played by Schiller’s drama Wilhelm Tell (William Tell), which had its première in 1804 and was performed to great acclaim in an open-air production at Küssnacht in 1828. It should also be mentioned here that the opera Guillaume Tell by Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868) was first performed on 3 August 1829, in Paris. The subject matter was deemed to be revolutionary by the censors of the day in Milan, Rome, London and Petersburg; they demanded that changes be made, such as relocating the action to Scotland. Schiller and Rossini ensured that people all over Europe became familiar with the subject matter. At first there was much more enthusiasm for it among foreigners than among the Swiss themselves. In Switzerland, an 1830 illustration by Martin Disteli used in the country’s schools portrayed the Rütli scene for the first time showing the participation of the common people, thus reflecting the first forms of a liberal, “democratized” image of the Rütli.
Around 1860 the Rütli experienced what we might describe as a boom. The Schweizerische Gemeinnützige Gesellschaft (Swiss Society for the Public Good) had raised monies through donations to purchase the Rütli site in 1859 in order to prevent it being used for a building project. In 1860 it was handed over to the Swiss Confederation as the property of the nation. Most of the money came from the canton of Lucerne. It was also the Lucerne Officers’ Society that came up with the idea of the Rütli shooting tournament, a tradition which has been upheld since 1862. As a matter of interest, in 1865 Ludwig II of Bavaria was so taken by Schiller’s play that he wanted to buy the Rütli himself and move in under his dynastic name – as Herr Wittelsbach!
After the first National Day celebrations in 1891, the Rütli Oath became closely associated with the act of the nation’s foundation, giving the liberal constitutional state a degree of historical legitimization. As a symbol thereof, the entrance hall of the Federal Palace in Bern has been dominated by three 24-tonne stone statues of the founders of the confederation since 1914. Like the William Tell story before it, the whole Rütli theme now became in many respects a generator of culture within a very diverse popular view of history, for example in the form of widely sold Rütli postcards. Significantly, after 1880 the site began to attract increasing interest among tourists.
The events on the Rütli and the spirit of the Rütli
Ultimately, Rütli worship is a lesson in the way history can be used. The time-bound associations imposed on the site up to the view of its role in the creation of a nation are a fascinating study into collective attitudes to history. The political ideas and ideals associated with the Rütli are the reflection of a frequently invoked “spirit of the Rütli” which is adaptable to suit the circumstances of the age and represents love of the fatherland, the simplicity of republicanism, the craving for freedom, a united and voluntary community of free and equal citizens, and so on. Perceptions such as these about the Rütli have had more impact than any actual event in history as such. We should also note that in the political thinking prior to 1750 (at least, that of the city-dwelling elite), the “conspiracy” on the Rütli was granted a far less important role in the creation of the state than it was later to acquire – for the very understandable reason that invoking the country’s conspiratorial origins could pose a serious threat to the power of the Swiss ruling classes, as had happened in the Great Swiss Peasant War of 1653.
The search for a historically accurate basis, the quest for historicity, is a recurring theme around the Rütli. The “Rütli version” of the nation’s foundation has largely been explained. Initially, the events on the Rütli were portrayed simply as concomitant to what the Swiss call the “Befreiungstradition”: the traditional story of liberation. The elements of this tradition – the crimes of the governors, conspiracy, the heroics of William Tell, the slighting of the castles, the peasant’s revolt – all merged towards the end of the 15th century into a picture story about the origins of the nation, but have very little basis if any in the actual events of the period around 1300. After 1470, the story was used as a literary and legal justification for the confederation’s special existence as a state at this time, rather than as a historically accurate account of events in the more distant past.
It is an entry in the White Book, a chancery handbook from the canton of Obwalden, that first claims that the conspirators who planned to overthrow their evil rulers met on the “Rudli”. From the White Book, the story went on to enter the culture of popular history via Aegidius Tschudi (1505–1572) and the chronicler Johannes von Müller (1752–1809) and thence to Friedrich Schiller. While in 1713 the Rütli could still serve as a retreat for the defiant central Swiss separatists defeated in the Second War of Villmergen, now it was increasingly becoming a commemorative site for the whole of the Swiss nation.
This is how the events on the Rütli took on important details and supplementation: the names of the three confederates, taken as a historic fact, were already added by Tschudi. At the same time, the geographical location of the place called the “rüdli” (in Tschudi’s version) became fixed as the Rütli of today. William’s Tell’s involvement in the conspiracy was a later addition. The Rütli episode became defined in terms of a passage “from conspiracy to confederacy” once it became connected to the Federal Charter of 1291 – but this link can only have occurred after 1760, because until then the 1291 document was not known about; even the oath Schiller composed in 1803–4 was very different in content. After 1891 the notion that the Federal Charter of 1291 had actually been ceremoniously sworn in on the Rütli became the commonly accepted view, one that still persists in some places today. In a different way than before, this attributed to the Rütli a central role in the foundation of the state in the (imaginary) inner-Swiss heartland. Yet there is no doubt that this version is historically incorrect. For one thing, the content of the Federal Charter is not appropriate to a conspiracy, as it explicitly confirms the prevailing conditions of rule. In addition, this process is in itself wholly unlikely given the role of the written word as a medium in those days.
A conspiracy against the aristocracy by “three representatives of the people” on the Rütli in or around 1300 is no more than a legend. But the evidence against the historicity of the Rütli events should not give concern, as the historical effect of the perception of the Rütli works on a different level. It is “historic” in a different way: as a concept, as an image in its respective context. This has made it possible to use the Rütli as a peg to hang all sorts of ideas on, as the National Day addresses of our modern era have demonstrated. For or against Europe, anti-left wing, for peace and justice, against discrimination against women, for law and order, against violence, for a strong army, against self-interest, for personal responsibility, against the decline of the family, for democracy and civil liberties, for the Greeks in 1830 and still against the Turks around 1900 – you name it, almost anything is possible, even absurd fantasies like a return to “inspiration” through a place of spiritual Celtic energies. The emotional appeal of commitments to the community made in the “spirit of the Rütli” has been strong, partly because of its obvious religious connotations (in elements like “holy ground”, “pilgrimage” and “oath of alliance”). Of course, political appropriation does not only affect the Rütli and is by no means just a Swiss phenomenon as far as the politics of national commemoration are concerned. But what the Rütli serves to show us so clearly is just how much the use of national symbols is determined by the politics of the day, including by the national conservatives.
Is there a message of relevance to all the Swiss people that can be linked to the Rütli today? The question is open. However, interpretations of and changes in the Rütli image continue to be a very important part of the history of Swiss attitudes and culture. Ideas and emotions connected to the Rütli have been extremely important in the evolution and identity of Switzerland since 1848. At the very least, we can recognize important guiding principles of the 19th and 20th centuries in them, and a knowledge of the images of the Rütli still continues to be an important factor in understanding Swiss political culture.
Das Rütli: von der Verschwörung zur Beschwörung (The Rütli: From Conspiracy to Confederacy) by Prof Roger Sablonier as PDF
– Georg Kreis Mythos Rütli. Geschichte eines Erinnerungsortes (The Rütli Myth – the history of a commemorative site) With two articles by Josef Wiget, Zurich 2004 (richly illustrated).
– Guy P. Marchal Geschichte im Gebrauch. Geschichtsbilder, Mythenbildung und nationale Identität (History in Use – images of history, myth creation and national identity), Basel 2006.