National Myths: Why the Swiss need their William Tell

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The Independent Online
ANY country needs the past to help define itself. In Britain's case, it includes the Magna Carta, the Spanish Armada, the execution of Charles I, Waterloo and Churchill's blood and toil. Switzerland is a smaller country, with a less certain sense of identity, derived from its four languages and diverse cultures. It is often patronised by the outside world. Who, an English newspaper leader-writer once asked, could name the Swiss president? Perhaps he didn't know that most Swiss couldn't name him either: the position rotates annually among an executive council of seven.

But this nation of nonentities has one world-famous hero: William Tell. The story is that the 13th-century yeoman refused to bow to the symbol of the ruling Habsburg tyranny: a hat on a staff. Gessler, the local overlord, ordered Tell to shoot an arrow at an apple placed on his son's head. The yeoman hit the apple, testimony to Swiss accuracy and nerve. Then, in a raging storm, he escaped from the boat that was taking him to prison and killed Gessler. And the Swiss lived happily ever after in liberty. Statues of William Tell are as common in some Swiss cantons as busts of Lenin used to be in the USSR.

Yet there is not the slightest historical evidence that William Tell existed. He was a creature of oral legend of whom there was no written record until 1470. And that is how a new exhibition in Lausanne, mounted by Werner Meyer, of Basel University, depicts him.

None of this is new. Professor Meyer mounted a similar exhibition two years ago; and Edward Gibbon dismissed Tell as a fiction more than 200 years ago. But this is a sensitive moment in Swiss history. The country has voted against closer links with the European Union and against road freight traffic through the Alps. Such votes have been bitterly contested; they divide along regional and linguistic lines. Switzerland's Euro-sceptics are outraged by Professor Meyer's iconoclasm. He has received menacing letters and phone calls.

Perhaps the Swiss can live without William Tell. But Professor Meyer also questions the Ruetli meadow convention of 1291. Ruetli is Switzerland's Runnymede; its 700th anniversary was lavishly celebrated by the government. The story is that representatives of three cantons (as they would be called now) met above Lake Lucerne to sign a pact against the Habsburg oppressor. Thus was Switzerland born.

Professor Meyer argues that Ruetli was of little significance; it was just one of many local treaties signed at the time. The saga of staunch Swiss defending their homeland, defying tyrants and burning down Habsburg castles was a political invention of the 15th century, when the confederation entered an expansionist phase. There was never a resistance movement because there was nothing much to resist: the Habsburgs largely ignored their Swiss territories. Switzerland owed its survival in the Middle Ages - as it owed its neutrality through two world wars - not to fierce patriotic resistance but to its geo-political marginality. It is rather as if the British had been told that Phillip II or Napoleon never intended to win in the first place.

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