Gersau, Rathaus. Photo/Bild: TES.

The Republic of Gersau

Switzerland consists of 26 cantons nowadays. Each canton has its history. The canton of Graubünden (Les Grisons), for example, is the creation of 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 Graubunden almost three centuries later (1798-1815).

The history of the village of Gersau on the shores of Lake Lucerne (Vierwaldstättersee), is extraordinairy as well. The village has been the smallest Republic of Europe until 1798.

The village Gersau

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. The village could only be reached by boat. This geography offered protection against the neighbours ( Orte, (local) dynasties and (Habsburg) Lords).

The story begins in 1064 when Gersau is mentioned for the first time in documents of the monastery Muri. The Counts Von Lenzburg owned the village. The Counts of Habsburg became the owners in 1171.

The year 1359 is important. In that year, on 31 August, Gersau concluded an alliance with the four Waldstätten Uri, Schwyz, Underwalden and Lucerne, members of the Eidgenossenschaft, a loose confederation of Orte.

Gersau had only 500 inhabitants but participated in the war against Habsburg in 1386. The Battle of Sempach was a victory for the Eidgenossen. The soldiers of Gersau captured the banner of the Counts of Hohenzollern.

The Republic of Gersau

Gersau bought off the pledge in 1390 (The Lord of Von Freienbach was the Lord of the village). The village became de facto and de jure independent. Lucerne, Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden were the allies.

Gersau had its own jurisdiction, taxation and administation. Gersau remained a member of the Holy Roman Empire, however.

The emperor remained the highest authority. The document of Emperor Sigmund of 31 October 1433 confirmed this status, but he also confirmed the independence of Gersau and the Reichsunmittelbarkeit.

The village of around 500 inhabitants had the same privileges, freedom and rights as the cities of Bern, Zurich, Basel, Lucerne and Zug.

The large town hall expresses this status.

The (male) citizens older than 14 years chose their rulers. The government consisted of the Landamman (the mayor), his deputy (the statthalter) and seven councillors. New elections were held every two years.

The councillors fulfilled various tasks of public administration, defence and legislation. The Landamman was also 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 differ from surrounding or other villages until 1730: mainly agricultural, some industry and trade.

After 1730, the silk industry brought prosperity and the population doubled to 1,000 around 1800.

Gersau was not a canton, but was represented in the Eidgenossenchaft at the Tagsatzung (the states-general) by diplomats.

District Gersau

This situation continued until the French invasion of 1798. Gersau also mobilised troops against the French invaders (60 soldiers), in vain.

The independence of Gersau came to an end in May 1798 by the creation of the Helvetic Republic (1798-1803).

Gersau became a district (Bezirk) of the canton of Schwyz by the Mediation Act (Mediationsakte) of 1803 and the Confederation (1803-1813) of 19 cantons (under French control)

The Federation of 22 cantons did not recognize Gersau as an independent republic or canton in 1815 but as a district (Bezirk) of canton Schwyz.

Two more years of legal and diplomatic wrangling followed between Gersau and Schwyz and the Confederation of 22 cantons.

On 27 December 1815, the citizens of Gersau accepted the new status and the end of four centuries of the Republic of Gersau.

(Source: A. Müller, Gersau, Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte, Baden 2013).