Culture of remembrance

See also  „Background and meaning“

"From the history of the Old Confederacy, the Battle of Morgarten shines out to us like the dawning sun of freedom." Federal Councillor Rudolf Minger (1937)

The conflict at Morgarten is one of the core elements in the founding history of the Confederation. Seen as the "first battle for freedom" (inscription on the Morgarten Memorial), the events at Morgarten were, in the 19th century, accorded a major role in the so-called liberation tradition as a consequence of the political significance they carried.

Religious anniversaries commemorating the battle were already being held in the Middle Ages, although these were purely local in character. In his chronicle, Johannes of Winterthur reports that the people of Schwyz resolved to express their gratitude to God for their victory by holding an annual day of remembrance and celebration. The Schwyz Annals contain an entry for the year 1521 indicating that the parliament reaffirmed its resolve to mark the annual anniversary of the battle. First mentioned in 1501 and rebuilt in 1603, the Morgarten Chapel at Schornen stands as a physical demonstration of this spiritual culture of remembrance.

Commemoration of the Battle of Morgarten has, since the 19th century, become increasingly secular in nature, with days of remembrance and battle celebrations. A (literally) monumental example of this secular culture of remembrance is the Morgarten Memorial, erected in 1908. Wider aspects of the culture of remembrance may be noted in the Morgartenschiessen marksmanship competition, held in Canton Zug since 1912, and the annual Pistol Shooting Competition launched in 1957 in Schornen, Canton Schwyz. Alongside the commemorative character of these two events and their celebration of "fraternal and federal solidarity", a key consideration of the organisers was the desire to remain prepared to defend their interests. The core battlefield site at Schornen became an official memorial only in 1965 on the occasion of the 650th anniversary of the battle; it was handed over to a specially created foundation of schoolchildren established that same year (the Stiftung der schweizerischen Schuljugend zur Erhaltung des Schlachtfeldes von Morgarten).

A secular event commemorating the battle has been held annually only since 1915. Centenary celebrations took place for the first time in 1815, but only after overcoming major political problems; the next commemoration was not until 1863. The 600th anniversary in 1915 was the first centenary celebration to take place within a federal context: while the First World War raged, it helped elevate Morgarten to a myth of truly federal proportions. Until the 1930s, however, festivities remained modest. Organised by the municipality of Sattel they had no more than local character. Only in 1939 did Schwyz's governing council decide to be officially represented every five years, commencing 1940. The festivities of 1940 were therefore appreciably greater in scope, due also to the threat posed by the Second World War, which meant that Federal Councillor Philipp Etter and General Henri Guisan were also present; for the first time, the Schlachtbrief (Letter of Battle) composed by the Benedictine Abbot Rudolf Henggeler was read out. Its text was devoted entirely to the "spiritual defence of the land" and a strengthening of military defence preparedness.

Excitement regarding the Morgarten festivities quietened down again, at which point the Schwyz administration, with its decisions in 1948 and 1955, agreed the scope, organisation and, most importantly, funding of future events. The larger quinquennial events attracted considerable numbers of high-calibre attendees, including the Abbot of Einsiedeln, the entire membership of Schwyz's governing council, representatives from the cantonal council and every district and municipality (some sending their entire administration). Also present were Schwyz's federal parliamentary representatives. Joining them were delegations from the administrations in Cantons Uri, Obwalden and Nidwalden, the entire Zug governing council and the president of the Citizens' Council of Oberägeri. There was an important military representation, too, including the commanders of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th army corps, the 6th, 8th and 9th divisions, and the 24th réduit brigade.

The 650th anniversary celebrations, organised by Canton Schwyz but strongly federal in scope, occurred at a time of incipient political and societal upheaval. This event was no longer the same conservative/patriotic occasion as its predecessors. Alongside a restatement of federal values and a demonstration of military preparedness (the army put on a show of weaponry), the event featured – in Letzi, Paul Kamer's intellectual exercise, and in the keynote speech delivered by Federal President Hans-Peter Tschudi – a critiquing of intellectual and political isolation and of conscious dissociation; solidarity, it was being suggested, was to be preferred in international affairs.

The story of the Old Confederacy served, in the 19/20th centuries, to bolster the aspiration of nationhood and of "Swissness"; it was thus instrumental in establishing a sense of national consciousness. The idea was created that Switzerland had emerged as far back as 1291 with the Rütli Oath, and that the events of 1315 at Morgarten and 1386 at Sempach had been in defence of Switzerland. This contributed to legitimising the nascent Swiss federal state and unifying the nation internally, while the outside world perceived a country ready to defend itself. This rootedness in historical events came to the fore particularly in situations involving an external threat. In the centenary year of 1915 – during the First World War – popular leitmotifs connected with Morgarten included determined-looking, archaic Swiss mountain dwellers ready for battle, as well as images extolling the Swiss federal principle of mutual solidarity (see postcards).

In the "spiritual defence of the land" (1930s to 1960s), Morgarten stood more than ever as symbolising the fight of David against Goliath and an assertion of independence and freedom from external (fascism, national socialism, communism) and internal (ultra nationalists, communists) extremism; Morgarten represented Switzerland's readiness to defend itself. Motifs such as these began evaporating following the end of the Cold War. Morgarten commemorations these days tend to adopt conciliatory tones in remembrance of the fallen. In relation to Switzerland's efforts to find a niche for itself in Europe and the world post-1989, key concepts such as freedom, independence and autonomy (accompanied by mutterings about "foreign judges" and "tax bailiffs"), have received renewed focus, especially in right-wing conservative circles.

Morgarten belongs to the national canon of history and is rooted in the collective consciousness of the population – particularly in Central Switzerland. The image of the Battle of Morgarten is nevertheless, even now, strongly influenced by viewpoints held in the 19th century. Arguably the most enduringly influential image of the battle is that portrayed by Ferdinand Wagner's mural (1891) on Schwyz town hall. This picture, steeped in legend, still finds its way unquestioningly – with no reference to up-to-the-minute research findings or scholarly discourse – into newspapers, text books and television, as well as political and ceremonial speeches; elsewhere, the image has consciously been turned into a commodity (see Guy Marchal's concept of Gebrauchsgeschichte – commodification in history).