Carl Friedrich Irminger (1813-1863), Guillaume Henri Dufour. Foto: Wikipedia

The Sonderbundswar that brought Peace

Switzerland has a reputation for slow political decision-making. However, the country did lead the way in introducing democracy and Europe’s first trilingual confederal democratic (for men) republic in 1848.

The cantons are the experimental gardens of new political concepts; ultimately, the citizens always have the last say because all citizens are politicians. So it was also in the cantons and their municipalities that the political discussions and polarisation preceding the Sonderbund War of 1847 began. The long-smouldering discord in the new Swiss Confederation of 1815 erupted in 1847.

The political situation after 1831. Map: Marco Zanoli/Wikipedia


The Constitution of the new Confederation of 1815 restored the ancien régime in a majority of sovereign cantons, but (predominantly) Catholic or Protestant cantons, French-, German- or Italian-speaking, worked together in varying coalitions from 1815 onwards.

The sinecure was the revision of the Constitution of 11 cantons in 1830/1831, the so-called Regeneration. Impressed by the French and German revolutions in 1830/1831, 11 cantons introduced a liberal Constitution, including universal suffrage for male citizens (with some restrictions).

This liberal Constitution in these cantons focused mainly on the trias politica, liberalisation of economy and trade, universal suffrage (for men), equality before the law (although not for women and Jews yet) and other fundamental freedoms and democratisation. Religious motives did not play a decisive role at this moment.

After 1831, however, religious conflicts increased, and from 1841 onwards, the situation escalated. The dissolution of monasteries in the Protestant and Catholic canton of Aargau and the role of the Church and Jesuits in the Catholic canton of Lucerne were the immediate cause.

The distribution of catholic and reformed religions (1850). National Museum Zurich

A new Constitution in Canton Aargau (5 January 1841) ended the equal rights of Catholics. They revolted in vain. The Catholic cantons did not accept it, and the Jesuits regained a prominent role in politics and education in canton Lucerne. It subsequently led to armed incursions from neighbouring cantons.

The deeper cause, however, was disagreement over the constitutional future of the Confederation. The Protestant and some liberal Catholic cantons wanted a stronger federal government. The Catholic-conservative cantons opposed this.

The conflict also had economic motives. The cantons in central Switzerland had a different geographical and economic orientation, to the south, across the St Gotthard. The urban Protestant cantons were more oriented towards contacts with the north and west and far beyond.

Poverty and famine also prevailed in the so-called Urkantone Schwyz, Obwalden, Nidwalden and Uri, which is always a good breeding ground for rebellion. For centuries, young men had served as mercenaries in foreign armies. This lucrative business collapsed after 1815.

The Sonderbund. Map: Marco Zanoli/Wikipedia

The Sonderbund

In 1845, the Catholic cantons of Schwyz, Obwalden, Nidwalden, Zug, Uri, Lucerne, Wallis/Valais and Freiburg/Fribourg founded the Sonderbund. The Protestant-liberal cantons, supported by three predominantly liberal Catholic cantons (Solothurn, Tessin, and St Gall), opposed the Sonderbund, invoking the Confederal Constitution.

The Protestant Cantons of Basel-Stadt and Neuchâtel and the Catholic canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden remained neutral. The Tagsaztung, the Confederal Parliament with representatives from the cantons, declared the Sonderbund and the presence of Jesuits in Lucerne illegal in July 1847, but by a small majority.

Despite the mediating role of canton Basel-Stadt, the escalation culminated with mobilising an 80 000-man army of the Sonderbund in October 1847. Subsequently, the Confederation mobilised an army of 100 000 men.

The Tagsatzung appointed Guillaume Henri Dufour ((1787-1875) as general. The general of the Sonderbund was a Protestant (!)  and a colonel from the Federal army (!), Johann-Ulrich von Salis-Soglio (1790-1874) from Graubünden, a canton that fought against the Sonderbund(!). It shows how intertwined the cantons already were.

Johann-Ulrich von Salis-Soglio, mid-19th century. Anonymous engraving. Photo: Wikipedia

Nor was the choice of Dufour self-evident. He came from the French-speaking canton of Geneva, and although Protestant, he opposed a powerful federal government.

The Sonderbund opened the attack on canton Tessin, an old Untertans territory, from canton Uri across the St Gotthard on 4 November. It was a failure. Its subsequent course is well known. On 23 November 1847, the decisive battle took place near the village of Gisikon (canton of Lucerne). After a short war of 25 days, 93 killed and 510 wounded, canton Valais capitulated as the last Sonderbund canton on 29 November.

The European context

The Great Powers Russia, Austria and Prussia (the Holy Alliance) and France thought of intervening militarily in favour of the Catholic-conservative cantons and against the liberal, in their eyes, radical-democratic cantons.

The Monarchs did not want a second Revolutionary experiment after the experiences of 1789-1815. Klemens Wenzel von Metternich (1773-1859), the long-term Austrian foreign minister and chancellor, wanted a military intervention. Moreover, the Pope financially supported the Catholic canton of Lucerne and the Jesuits.

Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, 1818. Royal Collection of the United Kingdom. Photo: Wikipedia

Because of its refuge of asylum seekers, revolutionaries and anarchists, Switzerland had been a problem for the European monarchs since 1815. The problem was that they had guaranteed the country’s neutrality in 1815 at the Congress of Vienna (1814/1815).

There was no invasion in 1847, although the Catholic cantons had requested it. Not because these monarchs respected the neutrality but because England vetoed an invasion, and these countries faced revolutions and unrest in 1848. Moreover, the conflict in Switzerland was short-lived, and order was restored in 1848.

After 1847 

What makes the Sonderbundskrieg special is the follow-up. A Civil War often disrupts societies for many generations in irreconcilable camps. Not so in Switzerland. This Civil War also left its mark, but the former enemies were soon back on ‘speaking terms, and there was no long-term hatred or feelings of revenge.

What also makes Switzerland different in this respect? The centuries-old solidarity from the 13th century onwards in the predominantly German-speaking Eidgenossenschaft and the relatively mild regimes in the occupied territories (Untertanengebiete) had created a national identity, despite all the differences.

The cantons of Aargau (1415), Thurgau (1460), Vaud (1536), and Tessin (1512) were occupied and administered by the Eidgenossenschaft until 1798. In 1803, they got the status of sovereign cantons (by Napoleon).

Neuchâtel was a sovereign county until 1395 and then a German, French and finally a sovereign Prussian principality, formally until 1857, although a member of the Confederation as a sovereign canton from 1815. Geneva and Valais had always been sovereign territories. They joined the Confederation in 1815.

The citizens of Geneva, Neuchâtel and Valais (and by decision of the Congress of Vienna in 1814/1815) chose the Swiss Confederation in 1815 after their French experience.

The citizens of Tessin idem ditto in 1803, when Napoleon gave them a choice to join the Italian Republicca Cisalpina and later the Republicca Italiana (Siamo Svizzeri italiani). They chose the Swiss Confederation.

The spirit of compromise, centuries of experience, the pursuit of the attainable, the ‘agree to disagree’ mentality, the priority of democracy and sovereignty and shared economic interests created ‘unity in disunity’.

The war ended as it had begun: in General Dufour’s words, on the eve of victory:

“Eidgenössische Wehrmänner, Ihr werdet in den Kanton Luzern einrücken. Zieht dem Feinde kühn entgegen, schlagt Euch tapfer und steht zu Eurer Fahne. Sobald aber den Sieg für uns entschieden ist, so vergesset jedes Rachegefühl, betragt Euch wie grossmütige Krieger, verschont die Überwundenen, denn dadurch beweist Ihr Euren wahren Mut”.

It brings to mind the words of Winston Churchill (1874-1965): “In War: Resolution, In Defeat: Defiance, In Victory: Magnanimity, In Peace: Good Will.” (Winston Churchill, The Second World War, Volume I, The Gathering Storm, London 1948).

The conciliatory Constitution of 1848 is still the country’s liberal, social, democratic, federal and decentralised foundation. Direct democracy has been an indispensable ingredient since 1874 and 1891.

Lithography by  C. Studer, Winterthur, 1848, printed by J.J. Ulrich, Zurich. Collection Burgerbibliothek Bern. Photo: Wikipedia


Religious issues do not play a significant political role today. Even the quadrilingual concept of the country and, in particular, the Röstigraben are politically of secondary importance. The cantons of the Sonderbund maintained their identity and largely their sovereignty and developed economically innovative and versatilely.

They benefited from the liberal spirit of the Constitution, economic modernisation, industrial revival, tourism, the development of the railway- and road networks, the establishment of Europe’s best universities (ETH Zurich and the ETH in Lausanne (EPFL), social legislation and, partly as a result, ever-increasing prosperity.

Conflicts and conflicts of interest still exist, but less between cantons, but within cantons. The ‘Stadt-Landgraben’, urban versus rural and old against young, are the new divisive lines.

The current choice of a French-speaking minister (Bundesrätin/Conseillère fédérale) from canton Jura instead of a German-speaking representative from canton Basel-Stadt in the government (Bundesrat/Conseil fédéral) or a majority (four French-Italian speaking and three German speakings) in the government is of less importance than the under-representation of the big cities.

The Sonderbund War was a civil war without the traumatic long-term consequences of this kind of conflict. It is a merit and characteristic of the country with a leading role for the cartographer, humanist, geographer, politician, engineer and soldier Guillaume Henri Dufour.

(Source and further information: J. Jung, Einigkeit, Freiheit, Menschlichkeit. Guillaume Henri Dufour als General, Ingenieur, Kartograf und Politiker, Zurich, 2022); P. du Bois, La guerre du Sonderbund, (Neuchâtel 2020); Historisches Lexicon der Schweiz, Der Sonderbund).