Republic of Gersau

from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Banner of the Holy Roman Emperor with haloes (1400-1806).svg
Territory in the Holy Roman Empire
Republic of Gersau (1390/1433-1798, 1814-1817)
Coat of arms
Wappen Gersau.svg
Karte Bezirk Gersau 2007.png
Map of Gersau within Switzerland
Alternative names Altfrye Republic of Gersau
Originated from 1332: Alliance with Lucerne, Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden
Governance Republic
Present region/s Canton Schwyz
Imperial Circle county free
roman Catholic
Language/s German
Area 23.7 km²
Risen in 1798: Canton Waldstätten
1803: Canton Schwyz
1814-17: Republic of Gersau
from 1818: Canton Schwyz

The Republic of Gersau (in early modern times “altfrye Republik Gersau”) was an independent small state in the territory of the present-day Canton of Schwyz in Switzerland. It came into being in 1390, when the inhabitants of the village of Gersau bought themselves free from the rule of bailiffs from Lucerne and henceforth exercised their rights themselves. In 1433, Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg officially granted them the status of an “imperial free state in the Holy Roman Empire”. Thereafter, Gersau regulated its own internal affairs for over three and a half centuries. Within the “Old Confederation”, the republic was a “facing place”, which was under the protection and patronage of the four forest districts of Lucerne, Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden.

With the “French invasion” the republic perished in 1798 and was assigned to the canton of Waldstätten during the Helvetic Republic. The mediation constitution decreed by Napoleon Bonaparte annexed the village to the canton of Schwyz. After the end of Napoleon’s rule, the inhabitants again proclaimed the Republic of Gersau in 1814, which was recognised by the old patronage towns. Based on the provisions of the Congress of Vienna and the Federal Treaty of 1815, Canton Schwyz sought to annex the 23.7 square kilometre republic situated between the southern slopes of the Rigi and the northern shores of Lake Lucerne. This was achieved in 1817 with the approval of the “Tagsatzung”. The Republic was dissolved on 1 January 1818; its territory now forms the district of Gersau.



Map of the Confederation in 1536 (the Republic of Gersau approximately in the centre of the picture, outlined in purple)

Gersau belonged to the founding estate of the monastery of Muri in Aargau (first mention of Gersouwe in 1064 in the subsequently compiled Acta Murensia). Patrons of the village were the former owners, the Counts of Lenzburg, and after their extinction in 1173, the Counts of Habsburg (who in turn were the founders of the monastery). The Habsburg Urbar, drawn up around 1300, described Gersau as a pledged village.[1] After the death of the pledgee Gelwan Kaverschin, the village reverted to the Habsburgs in 1332. The Habsburgs in turn pledged the bailiwick rights to two Junkers in Lucerne, Rudolf von Freienbach and Jost von Moos, on 15 November 1333. In doing so, they secured a large loan that Rudolf’s brother Heinrich (who was working as a priest at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna at the time) had granted to the Austrian Duke Albrecht II.[2]

A year earlier, on 7 November 1332, Gersau had been included in the treaty of alliance between the city of Lucerne and Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, but without being mentioned by name. This omission was rectified on 31 August 1359 with a formal covenant letter. In it, the “respectable people, good neighbours and Kilchgenossen of Gersau and Weggis” confirmed the contents of the earlier alliance.[3] A few years after the pledge, Jost von Moos came into sole possession of the bailiwick rights. His son Heinrich was killed in the battle of Sempach in 1386. Four years later, on June 3, 1390, the village and his siblings Johann, Peter and Agnes agreed to redeem the pledge and thus buy themselves out. For 690 pounds pfennigs, Gersau took over the rights of the bailiwick as its own, enabling the villagers to exercise tax rights and jurisdiction themselves as free country people.[4]

After Lucerne came into possession of Weggis and Vitznau by purchase in 1380, the town also tried to bring neighbouring Gersau under its control. Repeatedly, the Lucerne people demanded that the renewal of the covenant oath be made in their town. Gersau refused several times and invoked old customary law. Courts of arbitration passed judgements in favour of Gersau in 1395, 1417 and 1430, which saved the village from Lucerne’s grasp.[5] The people of Gersau strove to have their independence confirmed by the highest authorities. Emperor Sigismund attended the Council of Basel from October 1433 to the beginning of 1434. Thus a delegation travelled to Basel and on 31 October 1433 received a document authenticated with the imperial seal. In it Sigismund confirmed all the privileges, freedoms and rights of the village. Gersau was thus officially an imperial free state in the Holy Roman Empire. The document is now kept in Schwyz in the Bundesbriefmuseum.[6]

State organization

After the purchase of the manor in 1390, the ecclesiastics of Gersau were largely free to shape their state. On 28 June 1436, they enacted the “Hofrecht” (Court Law), which regulated the traditional political and penal foundations of the small state. The “Marriage Law” issued on the same day was the binding civil law for Gersau.[7]

The highest political authority was the Landsgemeinde. All citizens over the age of 14 (from the 17th century onwards over the age of 16) were obliged to attend under penalty of death. The most important Landsgemeinden took place on the first Sunday in May: Amendments to the law were discussed and decided upon, elections were held, and officials and young citizens were sworn in. The Landsgemeinden in autumn dealt with the use of alpine pastures and forests as well as the maintenance of communal buildings. Less important were the Landsgemeinden on Whit Monday, at which the citizens regulated the organization of the market ships to Lucerne.[8]

The Landsgemeinde elected a nine-member council for two years at a time, consisting of the Landammann (head of the government), the governor (deputy) and seven other councilors. There was compulsory office; one of the elected had to exercise the office compulsorily.[8] The first Landammann was Heinrich Camenzind, who was elected to this office in 1394. Of the 113 office holders until 1798, 60 came from the Camenzind family. Other Landammanns were the Nigg (14), Rigert (12), Schöchlin (12), Baggenstoss (6), Küttel (4) and Müller (3).[9] The Landammann was also the Landeshauptmann and thus the highest warlord. Other important offices were Landesäckelmeister, Landesfähnrich (leader of the warband), Landschreiber and Landesweibel.[10]

Gersau held high jurisdiction and had a place of execution with a gallows. The nine-member council also acted as a court, so there was no separation of powers. If a plaintiff or defendant did not agree with a verdict, he could appeal twice to an extended court. The final instance was a court-land council before all citizens, in which the relatives of both parties were not allowed to participate. If a parishioner did not accept the last-instance verdict, he could be expelled from the country.[11]

Town hall of Gersau

A special feature is the “Genossame”, the user cooperative (corporation) of all old-established citizens, which from 1390 jointly administered the former fief and bailiwick property. Later, the entire community, church, prebend and foundation assets as well as the common land were added. The Genossame collected sales proceeds, interest on capital, ohm money and other indirect taxes. With this money it financed church and parsonage buildings, the upkeep of paths and footpaths, police and weasel services, fire-fighting equipment and other expenses.[12] For centuries there was practically no difference between the Genossame and the municipality; it was not until 1838 that responsibilities and properties were clearly divided.[13]

Relationship with the Confederates

In terms of state law, the “altfrye Republik Gersau” had the status of an attached place of the Confederation. It had a close contractual relationship with the four Waldstätten, but was not an equal member. Likewise, it did not enter into any contractual obligations towards other places of the Confederation. The four confederates assumed the role of protector and patron, while in return Gersau undertook to provide military assistance in the service of the Confederates. The small war party numbered 24 men at the beginning and 54 men from the 18th century onwards. The troops were usually sent by Schwyz or Lucerne. Soldiers from Gersau fought on the side of the umbrella villages in the battle of Sempach in 1386 (where they captured the banner of the Counts of Hohenzollern), in the Old Zurich War in 1440, in the Burgundian Wars from 1474 to 1477, in the Battle of Kappel in 1531, in the Peasants’ War in 1653 and in the Toggenburg War in 1712.[14]

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Gersau was a popular meeting place for sessions of the five Catholic towns of Lucerne, Schwyz, Uri, Unterwalden and Zug, especially during the time of the Counter-Reformation. The first Gersau session took place on 30 September 1575. Until April 1687, the five towns met a total of 87 times in Gersau, but never again thereafter. It is not known why there were no further sessions. This situation did not change when Gersau built a stately town hall in 1745, which would have provided a worthy representative setting.[15] Gersau had its own court, but this was limited to internal matters. Civil disputes between people from Gersau and people from other villages, as well as border disputes, were dealt with by the local courts. This showed that Gersau was not completely independent, but had a certain relationship of dependence.[16]

Decline of the Republic

View of Gersau on a copper engraving (ca. 1780)

Towards the end of the 18th century, the “altfrye Republik Gersau” seemed to be a haven of equality and freedom, at least outwardly, but the social life of the inhabitants was restricted by numerous religious-church obligations and strict police regulations. In addition to alpine farming, agriculture and fishing, from 1730 onwards the only source of income was home-based silk processing. The village could only be reached by water via Lake Lucerne (a road connection only existed since 1867) and was thus isolated from the neighbourhood. The ideals of the Enlightenment and the events of the French Revolution were hardly taken into account. Only the long-established residents had civil rights, but not the numerous immigrant backers.[17]

In April 1798, Schwyz and Unterwalden warned of the French invasion, whereupon Gersau mustered all men capable of bearing arms. After a request for help from the two towns, the company marched towards the Brünig Pass. When Lucerne, Schwyz and Zug capitulated and accepted the constitution of the new Helvetic Republic, they returned without fighting. In the meantime, Gersau set up guard posts and unceremoniously granted citizenship to the henchmen, provided they committed themselves to military service. The Landammann and the governor travelled in vain to Zurich to see the French general Alexis von Schauenburg in order to save independence. In May 1798 the republic was dissolved and Gersau was now an ordinary municipality belonging to the district of Schwyz in the canton of Waldstätten.[18]

The people of Gersau reluctantly took the oath of citizenship to the constitution of the Helvetic Republic on August 26, 1798.[19] On September 17, two French companies quartered in Gersau and disarmed the war party, as well as confiscating the national flag and the treasure chest. After four years the troops withdrew, whereupon the old traditions returned to the village. On 9 June 1802, the municipal assembly unanimously rejected the second Helvetic constitution and expressly invoked the old freedoms. On 27 August, a Landsgemeinde again determined a warrior team by drawing lots.[20] With the mediation constitution dictated by Napoleon, this rebellious phase ended after a few months, as Gersau was assigned as a district to Canton Schwyz on 19 February 1803.[21]

Short-term resurgence

In the face of Napoleon’s defeats, the Tagsatzung declared the Mediation Constitution repealed on 29 December 1813, and the Schwyz Cantonal Council also repealed the Schwyz Cantonal Constitution on 19 January 1814. On February 2, the Landsgemeinde of Gersau unanimously decided to put the pre-revolutionary constitution into effect and to place itself once again under the auspices of the four Waldstätte. Unterwalden recognized the “altfrye Republik” on February 3, Schwyz on March 8, Uri on April 6 and the Canton of Lucerne on April 22. The solemn constitution took place on April 24 in the parish church.[22] After Napoleon had landed in France again and the rule of the Hundred Days had begun, Schwyz asked “the dear neighbours and confederates of Gersau” on 23 March 1815 to provide a contingent of 24 soldiers. Half of them marched with a hunter company to Pontarlier, but with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo the last deployment of the Gersau war party had already ended.[23]

During the deliberations that had begun in the meantime on the Federal Treaty, which was to establish the Confederation as a loose confederation of 22 independent cantons, the existence of the Republic of Gersau was not even noticed. When the Federal Treaty came into force on 7 August 1815, there was no mention of it. In the Declaration of the Great Powers at the Congress of Vienna of 20 November 1815, which ensured the continued existence of the Confederation, the Republic also made no appearance.[24] Schwyz increasingly felt that this state of affairs was untenable and on 11 April 1816 wrote to Gersau asking it to rejoin. The Gersauers declared themselves willing to negotiate, but this proved fruitless. A letter from Schwyz dated 12 October 1816 drew attention for the first time explicitly to the declaration of the Congress of Vienna, which guaranteed the territory of the cantons of 1813. Schwyz thus invoked superior law and ignored the hasty recognition of 1814.[25]

In February 1817, Gersau again attempted to preserve its autonomy, but did not prevail with proposals for partial autonomy – in which Schwyz would have represented the republic at the sessions. When Schwyz announced that it would raise the matter before its own regional assembly, Gersau sought support from the other patron villages. These rejected Schwyz’s advance, with Uri in particular showing its indignation, and invited to a conference in Stans. But three days before this should have taken place, the Schwyzer Landsgemeinde decided at Ibach on April 27 to consider Gersau as part of the cantonal territory. In the justification it was claimed that the republic had joined the canton “of its own accord” in 1803 and that the process at that time had not been a “work of Bonapartist mediation”.[26]

While Gersau once again asked for help from the umbrella towns, Schwyz approached the canton of Bern, the suburb at the time, on May 30, 1817, to have the decision of the Landsgemeinde confirmed by the next Tagsatzung. Gersau was not informed of this move until three weeks later. Schwyz increased the pressure, made tax demands for the last two years and informed the other cantons of the Landsgemeinde’s decision. The letters of reply suggest that the revival of the Republic of Gersau was not even known in many places. Four envoys from Gersau travelled to Bern for the session. When they arrived there on the afternoon of July 22, they learned that the session had already taken place in the morning. On the basis of the Congress of Vienna and the Federal Treaty, it was decided by 13½ to 8½ votes of the Estates to unite Gersau with Schwyz.[27]

The Gersau Landsgemeinde on 16 November 1817 accepted this decision. In the negotiations that followed, Gersau’s demand for equal use of the common land in the district of Schwyz was categorically rejected. As compensation, the municipality was granted the status of a district, which was associated with more prestige. In addition, all debt claims were null and void. On December 27, the last Landsgemeinde of Gersau approved the unification treaty, which came into force on January 1, 1818. The Schwyz Landsgemeinde took its time with the ratification until 28 April.[28]

External effect

The independent position of the small, relatively isolated republic aroused not only envy but also the ridicule of its neighbours. Foolish stories similar to those about the Schildbürger were told about the Gersauers. Such stories are recorded as early as 1513 in the Lucerne Chronicle of Diebold Schilling the Younger. The most famous story dates back to 1798: before the French invaded, the people of Gersau sank their church bells in the lake to prevent them from being stolen. In order to find the bells again after they had left, they marked the spot with a clearly visible notch on the edge of the boat and returned to the shore. In central Switzerland, “gersauern” is still an expression for rash, awkward, but also fun actions.[29][30]


  • Albert Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. Verlag hier + jetzt, Baden 2013, ISBN 978-3-03919-263-2.
  • Gerhard Köbler: Historisches Lexikon der deutschen Länder. The German territories from the Middle Ages to the present. 7., completely revised edition. C.H. Beck, Munich 2007, ISBN 978-3-406-54986-1, p. 217.
  • Albert Müller Gersau at the time of the Helvetics 1798-1803. In: Mitteilungen des historischen Vereins Schwyz. Volume 88. ea Druck und Verlag, Einsiedeln 1996, ISBN 3-9520447-2-5.

Web links

Individual references

  1. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 18.
  2. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 22–23.
  3. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 25, 27.
  4. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 23.
  5. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 24.
  6. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 27, 29–30.
  7. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 30–31.
  8. a b Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 52.
  9. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 47.
  10. Müller: Gersau zur Zeit der Helvetik 1798-1803. p. 69.
  11. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 49.
  12. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 49–50.
  13. Albert Müller:Gersau. In: Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz. retrieved 3 April 2018.
  14. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 54.
  15. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 54–55.
  16. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 55.
  17. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 84.
  18. Müller: Gersau zur Zeit der Helvetik 1798-1803. p. 70.
  19. Müller: Gersau zur Zeit der Helvetik 1798-1803. pp. 71-72.
  20. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 86–88.
  21. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 90–92.
  22. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 92–94.
  23. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 96.
  24. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 94–95.
  25. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 97.
  26. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 98–101.
  27. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 103–104.
  28. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 105–107.
  29. Müller: Gersau – Unikum in der Schweizer Geschichte. S. 17–18.
  30. Adi Kälin:History of Gersau: A free republic in the midst of the Swiss Confederation.Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 19 April 2013, retrieved 18 January 2017.