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Why Switzerland celebrates its national day on August 1st

People across Switzerland get busy brunching, lunching and setting off fireworks when the country celebrates its national day. But why is it held on August 1st and what does it commemorate? Here’s what you need to know.

Why Switzerland celebrates its national day on August 1st
The Rütli meadow above Lake Lucerne is considered the birth place of the Swiss nation. Photo: AFP

The August 1st date marks what is nowadays viewed as the very beginning of the Swiss confederation way back in 1291.

In early August of that year – the exact date is not known, and even the year is disputed by some – the people of what are now the Swiss cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden banded together to ensure their autonomy in the face of threats from foreign powers after the death of Emperor Rudolf I of Habsburg.

These three cantons signed up to the Federal Charter (or ‘Letter of Alliance’) which saw them promise to “assist each other by every means possible against one and all who may inflict on them violence or injustice within their valleys and without”.

Swiss National Day fireworks in Cully, on Lake Geneva, in 2018. Photo: AFP

Rejection of foreign influence

In the charter (here in English), the three communities joined to reject “foreign judges” and spelled out the rules for civil and criminal disputes.

Over the following centuries, these three original cantons were joined by others to eventually become the modern Swiss confederation of 26 cantons we know today.

But while the Federal Charter is now associated in the Swiss imagination with the birth of the nation, it is actually just one of a number of key alliance documents that helped forge the fluid world of the Old Swiss Confederacy – the forerunner of the modern Swiss state.

READ ALSO: Swiss National Day: 20 key dates in Swiss history

In fact, the 1291 charter, which was written in Latin, only took its place as the founding document of Switzerland at the end of the 1800s as part of a national building exercise.

A nation-building exercise

According to the Swiss government, the Federal Council at the time wanted to link the modern Swiss confederation, which was formed by the constitution of 1848, with the Old Swiss Confederacy.

This confederacy was seen to have its origins in the deep valleys of central Switzerland.

The charter has also become also closely linked to the legend of the so-called Rütli Oath in which the independent and “freedom-loving” communities of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden are said to have sworn allegiance to each other on the Rütli meadow above Lake Lucerne in 1307.

A detail of a painting of the Rütli Oath in the Stauffacherkapelle in Steinen, Schwyz. Photo: Andreas Faessler 

Official (but low-key) Swiss National Day celebrations are now held on the Rütli meadow every August 1st.

This use of history to help create the modern Swiss nation mirrored development across Europe as new nation states drew on deep national myths in a bid to gain legitimacy.

In 1891, celebrations were held in Switzerland to mark 600 years since the Federal Charter and in 1899, August 1st became the Swiss National Day – although it didn’t become an official national public holiday until 1994.

‘Far from revolutionary’

The Swiss government notes that the Federal Charter grew in importance in the 1930s as the country was faced with the Nazi threat in Germany.

But the government recognizes that the document was far from being a “revolutionary act of self-determination by the peasantry”. Instead, it was about protecting the status quo and the position of the local elites in the face of external pressure.

Regardless of its historical importance or its revolutionary nature, the charter and the Rütli Oath now have huge symbolic value in a country that is still fiercely independent.

READ ALSO: Swiss National Day – five traditions expats should try

So why was August 1 chosen?

It seems that declaring August 1st as the national day was not a natural choice and, according to some sources, not even historically accurate.

For instance, according to a document from the Middle Ages called “Chronicon Helveticum”, the Rütli oath was actually dated November 8th, 1307.

A report in Blick, which was based on historical research, mentions that Bern celebrated the 700th anniversary of its own municipality in 1889, so the Federal Council decided to “invent” a national holiday that would apply to all cities and all cantons.

Based on its understanding that “the Swiss Confederation was born with the perpetual pact established by the peoples of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden on August 1, 1291”, the government chose that date.

However, in doing so, “he Federal Council “ignored the fact that it was a simple treaty between three partners, and not a case of an eternal alliance”, Blick noted.

“Even the Rütli Oath was teleported from 1307 to 1291, without anyone batting an eyelid”.

So now you know.

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France to compensate relatives of Algerian Harki fighters

France has paved the way towards paying reparations to more relatives of Algerians who sided with France in their country's independence war but were then interned in French camps.

France to compensate relatives of Algerian Harki fighters

More than 200,000 Algerians fought with the French army in the war that pitted Algerian independence fighters against their French colonial masters from 1954 to 1962.

At the end of the war, the French government left the loyalist fighters known as Harkis to fend for themselves, despite earlier promises it would look after them.

Trapped in Algeria, many were massacred as the new authorities took revenge.

Thousands of others who fled to France were held in camps, often with their families, in deplorable conditions that an AFP investigation recently found led to the deaths of dozens of children, most of them babies.

READ ALSO Who are the Harkis and why are they still a sore subject in France?

French President Emmanuel Macron in 2021 asked for “forgiveness” on behalf of his country for abandoning the Harkis and their families after independence.

The following year, a law was passed to recognise the state’s responsibility for the “indignity of the hosting and living conditions on its territory”, which caused “exclusion, suffering and lasting trauma”, and recognised the right to reparations for those who had lived in 89 of the internment camps.

But following a new report, 45 new sites – including military camps, slums and shacks – were added on Monday to that list of places the Harkis and their relatives were forced to live, the government said.

Now “up to 14,000 (more) people could receive compensation after transiting through one of these structures,” it said, signalling possible reparations for both the Harkis and their descendants.

Secretary of state Patricia Miralles said the decision hoped to “make amends for a new injustice, including in regions where until now the prejudices suffered by the Harkis living there were not recognised”.

Macron has spoken out on a number of France’s unresolved colonial legacies, including nuclear testing in Polynesia, its role in the Rwandan genocide and war crimes in Algeria.