The Helvetic Republic and Nidwalden
31 July 2022
In January 1798, French troops invaded the Swiss Confederation (Eidgenossenschaft). The territory of the Prince-Bishopic Basel had already been confiscated in 1792 and 1797.
The Swiss cantons and cities capitulated. On 6 April 1798, the (French) Directorium proclaimed the Helvetic Constitution of the new unitary republic:
Art. 1: The Helvetic Republic is an indivisible state. There are no more borders between the cantons. Art. 2: The citizens are sovereign. Art. 5: No hereditary power, rank, or honorary title exists.
Only canton Nidwalden opposed the Constitution. The other Orte and cantons took the oath. However, the canton was forced to accept the Constitution on 13 May.
However, at two Landsgemeinden in August 1798, resistance hardened. The citizens of the canton saw its sovereignty and independence threatened.
French troops invaded the small canton on 9 September 1798. Stans and Stansstad fell on the same day. Around 100 Nidwaldeners and 100 Frenchmen lost their lives, and more than 300 Nidwaldeners died in the subsequent massacre. Nidwalden was forced once again to accept the Constitution.
The events of 9 September are firmly anchored in Nidwalden’s collective memory, a trauma. Human rights were proclaimed but spread with brute force and war. Johann Caspar Lavater, a clergyman in Zurich, said after 9 September 1798:
“You Franks came to Switzerland as robbers and tyrants. You waged war against the country. So we never had to obey blindly, as we do now, in Swiss slavery”.
(Ihr Franken kamet als Räuber und Tyrannen in die Schweiz. Ihr führtet Krieg gegen das Land. So mussten wir nie blindlings gehorchen wie jetzt, in der schweizerischen Sklavery).
The Helvetic Republic ended in 1803—the concept needed for more sustainability in a nation with centuries-old sovereign cantons. The new confederations by the act of Mediation(Mediationssakte (1803), the Federal Treaty (Bundesvertrag (1815) and finally, the Consitution (Verfassung) of 1848) continued the centuries-long process of Swiss state-building.
(Source and further information: Der Franzoseneinfall in Nidwalden, www.franzoseneinfall.ch, Nidwalder Museum, Stans).