Neo-Nazi Invasion In Peaceful Switzerland, Trouble at a Historic Meadow

At Switzerland’s birthplace, concerns about skinheads and a dispute over security costs are marring plans for an annual celebration.

By John Tagliabue


Swiss Neo-Nazis are elbowing in on festivities in Rütli Meadow, the legendary birthplace of Switzerland.
AP

Swiss Neo-Nazis are elbowing in on festivities in Rütli Meadow, the legendary birthplace of Switzerland.

The Swiss, it is fair to say, have no abundance of jarring events in their history. As Orson Welles said in the movie “The Third Man,” in centuries of brotherly love, democracy and peace, the Swiss produced only the cuckoo clock.

Actually, the local residents even concede that invention to their neighbors across the border in Germany.

But the Swiss do take pride in a tiny meadow, where perhaps the most memorable event in Swiss history took place. It is inaccessible, thanks to soaring cliffs and high mountains, except by a pleasant boat ride boat from this lovely lakeside town of 60,000 or other towns on the cross-shaped Lake Lucerne.

It was in the Rütli Meadow in 1291 where, according to legend, representatives of the three original Swiss cantons, Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden, took an oath to protect one another from the great threat of the era, the Austrians. So each Aug. 1, the reputed date of the Rütli oath, the Swiss celebrate their independence and courageous beginnings.

“It’s a bit of Bastille Day and the Fourth of July rolled into one,” said Urs W. Studer, Lucerne’s mayor, seated in his spacious office in a gingerbread kind of town hall just a short stroll from the lakeshore.

“Elementary school classes go there frequently, leaving from Lucerne” for a two-hour steamer ride, Mr. Studer said, “and their teachers say, see here, kids, this is where Switzerland was created.”

It was really only in the 19th century, when nationalism was in vogue, that the Swiss began marking the day. By the late 20th century it had become quite an event, with hundreds of people taking the lake steamers from Lucerne and other towns, and occasionally even the president of Switzerland giving the keynote speech.

“We didn’t invite him every year, not to make it a tradition,” said Herbert Ammann, the jovial chairman of the committee that organizes the event.

The Rütli tradition gained valuable currency during World War II, when the Swiss, though neutral, found themselves surrounded on all sides by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. In that seemingly hopeless situation, the commander of the Swiss Army, Gen. Henri Guisan, gathered his senior officers at the Rütli Meadow and made clear that Switzerland would resist any Nazi invasion, to the last man, if necessary.

The army would retreat into the Alps if attacked, he said, and continue guerrilla warfare from there. “Guisan was an expression of how strongly the Swiss understand the Rütli Meadow as a symbol,” Mr. Studer said.

Then, two years ago, the tradition seemed to shatter. The committee invited the incumbent president, Samuel Schmid, who decided to speak about the delicate topic of immigration. But the event was crashed by dozens of skinheads and neo-Nazis, who whistled and hooted and saluted Mr. Schmid with extended arm, Nazi-style, making it impossible for him to be heard. Television cameras magnified the event.

Last year, things quieted down. Only people who had registered were allowed to obtain a ticket. And instead of a volatile political figure, the committee invited a mild-mannered industrialist, a former chief executive of the Swiss phone company, to speak.

This year, however, there is the chance of new discord. For the first time in Swiss history, both the president, Micheline Calmy-Rey, and the speaker of Parliament, Christine Egerszegi-Obrist, are women, and it was said that they wanted to use this year’s ceremony to celebrate Swiss women. The Geneva newspaper Le Temps recently called Ms. Egerszegi-Obrist the “radical Pasionaria” of women’s issues.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the first voting rights for women in Switzerland, in municipal elections in Wallis canton, and Ms. Calmy-Rey hopes to speak there as well.

The problem began when one after another, towns on the shores of Lake Lucerne announced they would refuse to allow lake steamers to leave from their docks on Aug. 1 to sail to the Rütli Meadow, to avoid having their names associated in the news with right-wing vandals. In the end, only Lucerne stood willing to allow the president and invited guests to embark from its docks.

One drawback remained. The town council, estimating that it would cost at least $170,000 for police protection against a possible invasion by the skinheads and other protesters, said Lucerne did not have the money. It appealed to the federal government in Bern. But the government said no. It seemed a paltry amount to avoid a skinhead clash, but it spoke to a native Swiss frugality, and a popular mistrust of all things governmental.

Finally, two millionaire Swiss businessmen — Nicolas G. Hayek, the originator of Swatch wristwatches, and Johann Schneider-Ammann, a manufacturer of machinery — put up the money. “They said it could not be that a highly industrialized, wealthy state like Switzerland could not pay for its national celebration,” Mayor Studer said.

The federal government was not complaining. The Rütli ceremony, said Benedikt Wechsler, the diplomatic adviser to Ms. Calmy-Rey, “is not a national monument, created by the state.”

“At its origin,” he added, “it was always something that grew up from grass roots.”

In the meantime, the Swiss, with a smattering of foreign tourists, continue their pilgrimages to the meadow. On a recent afternoon, Bruno Hollenstein, 52, a high school teacher from Schaffhausen, in north Switzerland, accompanied 15 of his students on an outing that included a view of the meadow. He stood in the bow of the S.S. Uri, a paddlewheel steamer, peering through binoculars, gusts of wind whipping his hair. The prospect of skinheads did not overly trouble him. “That’s not a majority of the Swiss,” he said.

Stretching his arm toward the dark arm of Lake Lucerne, cradled by steep forests and craggy cliffs, known as the Urnersee, he said, “This is the exciting part of the lake,” explaining that legend also placed here the story of Wilhelm Tell, the fabled crossbowman who shot an apple from his son’s head and fought for Swiss independence from Austrian rule.

“The lake here is particularly stormy, and it was here that Tell escaped the Austrians in a storm, only to kill the evil Austrian governor, Hermann Gessler, with his bow,” Mr. Hollenstein said.

He nodded, then added, a twinkle in his blue eyes, “An early terrorist.”

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