Local History

Gersau, Rathaus. Photo/Bild: TES.

Gersau, the smallest Republic of Europe

In its centuries-long development into a nation-state, Switzerland has 26 cantons nowadays. Each canton has its history. The canton of Grisons, for example, originated from a centuries-old alliance of three regions: the Gotteshausbund (League of God’s Hause), the Grauer or Oberer Bund (The Grey or Upper League) and the Zehngerichtebund (League of Ten Jurisdictions, actually eleven).

These Alliances united in 1524 in what was to become the canton of Grisons almost three centuries later (1798-1815). Even more unusual, however, is the history of the village of Gersau, which lies on Lake Lucerne (Vierwaldstättensee). For centuries this village had the status of the smallest Republic of Europe and was even in Switzerland a unique case.

Gersau lies on the southern slope of the Rigi-Scheidegg and between the mountains Gersauerstock in the west and Hochfluh and Zilistock in the east. For centuries the village was only accessible from the water. This location offered her protection against surrounding Orte (cantons) and the rulers of the House of Habsburg.

The story begins in 1064 when Gersau is mentioned for the first time in documents of the monastery Muri. The village was then still owned by the Counts Von Lenzburg. This family died out in 1173, after which the Counts of Habsburg became the owner. The village was pledged to the Von Freienbach dynasty in Lucerne, however.

The year 1359 was an important one for Gersau. In that year, on 31 August, Gersau allied with the four Waldstätten Uri, Schwyz, Underwalden and Lucerne, which then already formed an Eidgenossenschaft or (loose) confederation. This agreement is kept in the Bundesbriefmuseum in Schwyz.

This alliance involved Gersau, a village with only 500 inhabitants, in the war against Habsburg in 1386. The Battle of Sempach was a victory for the Eidgenossen. Gersau also participated, and its soldiers even managed to obtain the banner of the Counts of Hohenzollern. In 1390, Gersau bought off the pledge from Von Freienbach, making the village de facto and de jure independent, though in alliance with Lucerne, Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden.

Gersau had from now on its jurisdiction, taxation and administration. Gersau remained a member of the Holy Roman Empire, however, and its emperor as the highest authority. The document of Emperor Sigmund of 31 October 1433 confirmed this status. The emperor confirmed the independence of Gersau, the Reichsunmittelbarkeit within the Holy Roman Empire.

The village of about 500 inhabitants had the same privileges, freedom and rights as cities such as Bern, Zurich, Basel or Lucerne. The large town hall for a village with a few hundred inhabitants symbolises this status.

The (male) citizens older than 14 years chose their rulers. The government consisted of the Landamman (the mayor/president), his deputy (the statthalter) and seven councilors. New elections were held every two years. The councilors fulfilled various tasks of public administration and defense and were also the legislator. Besides, there was a separate judiciary, in which the Landamman functioned as the highest judicial authority.

The church was also active and built several churches and at least three chapels. Gersau remained catholic after the Reformation (like Lucerne, Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden). From an economic point of view, however, Gersau did not distinguish itself from surrounding or other villages until 1730: mainly agricultural, some industry and trade. After 1730, the silk industry developed rapidly, and the population doubled to 1,000 around 1800.

Gersau never had the status of a canton in the Eidgenossenchaft but was represented at the Tagsatzung (the states-general) by diplomats/representatives. This situation would continue until the French invasion in 1798 when Gersau also made troops available against the French invaders (60 soldiers). However, it did not help, and in May 1798 the independence of Gersau came to an end by the Helvetic Republic.

The Mediation Act (Mediationsakte) of 1803, the new Federation of 19 cantons (under French control), merged Gersau as a district into the canton of Schwyz. After the departure of the French in 1813, this situation did not change, despite Gersau’s diplomatic efforts and a small interlude in 1814.

The Federation of 22 cantons did not recognize Gersau as an independent republic or canton but as a district (Bezirk) of canton Schwyz. Two more years of legal and diplomatic wrangling followed between Gersau and Schwyz and the Federation of 22 cantons, but on 27 December the citizens of Gersau agreed to the new status of a district (Bezirk) of Schwyz and the end of four centuries of the Republic of Gersau. (Source: A. Müller, Gersau, Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte, Baden 2013).