Napoleon and Switzerland
28 March 2022
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) died on 5 May 1821 on the English island of St Helena in the South Pacific.
The Swiss Confederation of twenty-two cantons existed for six years at that time, and the country had been recognised by the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815) as a sovereign and neutral republic.
Few did foresee this development in 1798, the year of the French invasion of the old Confederation of thirteen cantons.
Moreover, in 1792, France had already annexed part of the (Jura) territory of the Prince-Bishopric of Basel.
The only official language of the old Confederation was German. The French-, Italian- and Romansh-speaking or bilingual regions/cantons were not members of the old Confederation.
The Republic of Graubünden, the Republic of Geneva, the Republic of the Seven Tithings (Zenden/Dizains) in Valais and the principality of Neuchâtel (part of the Kingdom of Prussia) were independent.
The Aargau, Vaud, Thurgau, and Tessin were occupied territories with the status of subject territory ‘Untertanengebiet‘. The Jura did not exist yet (the canton of Jura was created in 1979).
After 1798, nothing remained the same. Napoleon introduced the unitary state of the Helvetic Republic (1798-1803) and divided the country into administrative units under the central authority of a five-member directorate (Directorium, the French model).
The formerly occupied territories had the same rights as their former rulers. The languages Italian and French were also given the same status as German.
The new Confederation was created by the (French) Mediation Act of 1803. French, Italian and German were recognised as official languages. The cantons of Graubünden (Les Grisons), Vaud (Wallis), Tessin (Ticino), St. Gallen (St. Gall), Thurgau (Thurgovie) and Aargau (Argovie) came into being.
The new Confederations of 1815 and 1848 confirmed this situation. Romansh was recognised as the country’s fourth language in 1938.
Napoleon played an essential role in creating the present-day Confederation but was not the founder.
The Confederation has its roots in the Eidgenossenschaft of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, without a dominant dynasty and aristocracy and with sovereign cantons and (direct) democracy (according to the standards of the time) in a number of cantons.
This loose structure of sovereign states managed to survive the turmoil of religious wars, multicultural tensions and powerful and aggressive neighbours.
History could have led to a monarchy and unitary state without these structures.
The Dutch Republic of Seven Provinces became such a nation in 1795 1815 because the structures and history differed from that of Switzerland, and (direct) democracy had never existed.
The way history would have unfolded in Switzerland without the French Revolution, Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna is irrelevant, although this period is of great importance. A fact to remember two hundred years after the death of Napoleon.
(Source: T. Kaestli (Hg.), Nach Napoleon. Die Restauration, der Wiener Kongress und die Zukunft der Schweiz 1813-1815, Baden, 2016).