Capodistrias and the independence of Switzerland,

Author(s) : ZAKHARIS Thomas
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In the years immediately preceding the French Revolution, Switzerland though proud of its ancient democratic traditions was nevertheless made up of a rather mixed bag of cantons, each with a specific polity, some oligarchic, others democratic and still others where inhabitants had no political rights whatsoever. Traditionally, Swiss relations with France were close, and had been so since the 16th century; indeed for three hundred years Swiss mercenaries had served the kings of France, and Louis XVI was no exception. This special relationship was enshrined in the alliance with France of 1777 with what were known as the “XII Orte” (the 12 places or cantons which traditionally made up the Helvetic Confederation). And perhaps as a result of this closeness the French Revolution was to have a significant effect on Switzerland in general and to reveal the weakness of the Swiss system, both internationally and at home.

The Revolution in France and Switzerland

The Revolution itself brought about a great deal of debate and a certain amount of civil upheaval. In 1790, debating societies were founded and petitions for political renewal were composed and sent. And Swiss soldiers were even to play an – albeit ambiguous – role in the French Revolution. On 31 August 1790 the Chateauvieux regiment in Nancy, composed in the main of recruits from the Vaud area, mutinied over pay delays, holding its officers hostage. The harsh suppression of the ranks and file, including hangings and dispatching to the hulks in Brest, brought about a lively vocal reaction both in France and in Switzerland. Montagnards seized upon the event to derive political capital, highlighting this case of rank and file soldiers being abused by privileged officers. Another external cause célèbre for Franco-Swiss relations was the infamous massacre of Louis XVI swiss guard by Revolutionaries 10th August 1792. Here many of the 2,000 Swiss mercenaries in the Tuileries palace trying to prevent the mob from seizing Louis XVI and his family were massacred and dismembered, provoking horror and dismay in Switzerland. Unlike the problems in Nancy, here Swiss troops were seen as synonymous with reactionary, old regime politics. In the meantime, in Switzerland, the Revolution continued its rocky path. Facing resistance to their modernisation plans, Swiss revolutionaries looked to France for military support and assistance. Indeed, with the decree to assist other nations in their quest for revolutionary freedom, the famous Edict of Fraternity of 19 November 1792, revolutionary France was only too happy to oblige. And all the more so since with Switzerland as a French sphere of influence France's south eastern border was to an extent protected.
But Franco-Swiss sympathy did not preserve the country from external conflict; nor did the fact that in 1792 Switzerland had proclaimed her neutrality. She nevertheless remained an ideological hunting ground of both British and French influence. So after five years of relatively peaceful relations with France (mercenary service had however been abandoned), and as a direct result of the coup d'état of Fructidor in September 1797, the Directory decided to invade Switzerland, invited by patriots such as Frédéric César de Laharpe (1754-1838). Laharpe had been Alexander I's tutor and although he proclaimed himself protector of Swiss independence, he nevertheless was against Bern's domination of Switzerland and so called upon the French army to intervene. Certain have claimed that the Directory was merely interested in sequestering gold in held in Bern. Be that as it may, whether for financial or for ideological reasons (perhaps indeed both), France took control of Switzerland when they entered Bern on 5 March 1798.
During the occupation, the French gave this Helvetic Rebublic a constitution which, like its French parent, had five elected directors and two chambers (a Grand Council and a Senate). It was not however to be fixed in stone but was changed six times in the following five years. Nor was Swiss resistance merely political. In certain cantons there was also armed resistance and many uprisings were put down. And during the re-occurrence of hostilities in the spring of 1799 Switzerland found herself on the front line of a Franco-Russo-Austro conflict, which anti-French interest in Switzerland welcomed and tried to use in attempts to dislodge French influence. Despite initial allied success (the Archduke Charles beat Masséna at Zurich on 4-5 June 1799), Masséna restored French hegemony when he defeated Korsakov at Zurich on 25-26 September of the same year. In 1800, with the whole of eastern and southern Switzerland ravaged by the previous year's campaign, the constitution changed again – on 7 January the two chambers were supplanted by a single Legislative body and the directory was suppressed and replaced by a provisional executive committee of seven (and later nine) members, presided over by a Landammann. This new system did not however bring national unity, and supporters of a united Switzerland remained at loggerheads with those of a more federalist persuasion. As a way out of the impasse, Swiss politicians decided to approach the First Consul for arbitrage. The Constitution of Malmaison of May 1801 was the result. Although the country's neutrality was subsequently enshrined in the Treaty of Lunéville, nevertheless the Malmaison Constitution's attempts to chart a middle way pleased none of the parties and successive coups d'état took place. Frustrated by this instability, Bonaparte removed his troops from Switzerland in August 1802. The result was civil war, with conservatives fighting in Eastern Switzerland and federalists bobarding Zurich. With the Swiss government ready to flee to Savoy, France issued an ultimatum and order was restored by Rapp and Ney.
Bonaparte then summoned all the parties to Paris to a ‘consulte', and on 19 February 1803 the Act of Mediation was passed, with Bonaparte chosen as mediator. The party of national unity was the loser since the act definitively enshrined the federal nature of the state. According to the new legislation there were to be 19 cantons, although only six of the ‘old' cantons could provide the rotating president, the Landammann, and host the federal diet. The act also brought influence to Swiss patrician reactionaries. Napoleon had hoped to win them over by the act, but he was to remain fixed in their imagination as the heir of the Revolution, particularly in his imperial guise. The ‘betrayal' of 1814 was therefore inevitable.

1813 and after

After the preternaturally calm decade, Switzerland was naturally caught up in the disintegration of the Empire. As the allies met in Frankfurt in late 1813 to discuss the aftermath of the French retreat after Leipzig, the Austrians (supported by the British) suggested invasion of France through Switzerland since this would be the best way of avoiding French fortresses. Russia on the other hand preferred the Prussian scheme of invading through Flanders. The Czar in fact suspected that Austria secretly wished to occupy Switzerland and to establish as an offensive/defensive base against France. So the Russian ruler turned to the Corfu notable, Ioannis Kapodistrias (1776-1831), at this time head of the Russian diplomatic service in Switzerland, to wage his part of the diplomatic skirmish. His Austrian counterpart was Baron Lebzeltern.
Austria had given Lebzeltern three instructions:
1) To detach Switzerland from France
2) To obtain the Swiss governments consent to allow Austrian troops to pass through the country
3) To give them a new constitution.
On hearing the Austrian's instructions, Alexander remarked: “I totally approve of your election as envoy, because I am certain that you will treat the Swiss, who are an unsophisticated and upright nation and whose virtues I have learned to appreciate since I was a child, with docility and grace. You have to break the natural affiliation that binds the Swiss people with Napoleon, but we have to respect Swiss neutrality. We must not neglect the fact that Napoleon respected the country's independence. That is the reason why we cannot go farther and fare worse than him. You are of course aware that flies are more easily captured with honey than vinegar.” The Czar ended his short speech telling Lebzeltern to pay attention to Kapodistrias. “He is tough”, he said, “and he has abilities. He is not a diplomat, but you will guide him.”
Despite this apparent leaving of the Swiss question in Austrian hands, Alexander in fact was sure that Kapodistrias would impose his policy.
The two envoys left Frankfurt with passports which presented them as merchants named Leipold and Conti. On 15th November,they arrived at Schaffhausen on the west bank of the Rhine. They were here informed that on 18th November there would be an extraordinary meeting or council to approve the decision that would declare Switzerland neutral (earlier in the year, they had allied themselves with Napoleon.) The envoys finally reached Zurich on 21st November, the day on which the council published the proclamation for the nation of Switzerland which stated:
“Strict neutrality has guaranteed for centuries, under the protection of the Almighty, the country's liberty and peace; today as in the past, this is the only proper attitude, granted the circumstances and our needs. We will respect this and defend it with all the means we have are our disposal.”
The Swiss then mobilised 20,000 men under commander in chief, Nicola de Wattenwyl, in an attempt to protect the frontiers with Austria and Germany. They also sent representatives to Paris and Frankfurt to notify the belligerent parties of Swiss decisions. In this context, the true identities of Lebzelten and Kapodistrias were revealed, and this plunged them into a quandary. They had neither guidelines for such a situation nor any official capacity. Worse still, the two countries they represented had conflicting interests. In this difficult situation, Lebzelten began negotiating with the Swiss unbeknownst to Kapodistrias, but giving the impression that he was speaking on his account too.
Kapodistrias however was not to be left standing. He too began confidential talks. His talks were with the Landammann Hand de Rheinhardt and a majority of the council members. He convinced them to allow the allied armies to pass through Basel if Napoleon did not give back to the confederation the Valais and other Swiss regions annexed to the Kingdom of Italy.
Whilst things appeared to be progressing smoothly, two unexpected incidents occurred. First, the reinstatement in Bern of the regime of the XII Orte, which meant that the Vaud and the Aargau ceased to recognised as independent cantons; and second; Austrian troops under Prince Karl Philip von Schwarzenberg marched into Swiss territory. Lebzelten received a note/ultimatum from Vienna with instructions to hand it to the Landammann telling him that the Czar had consented to the territorial violation. It also bid the Swiss to accept the Austrian army as a friend, and to understand that their neutrality was incompatible with the war but that when the war was over naturally their neutrality would once again be recognised.
Lebzeltern received the text at dawn on 20th December 1813 with an order to sign it after Kapodistrias had done the same. When the Austrian woke his Russian colleague, the latter read the documents and was furious, first and foremost because he had received no briefing from the Czar in this matter.
“Sign this?” he roared, “Never. How can I disregard that the Emperor, my master, is against the passage and it consequences. Is there a single Russian soldier in your army? My duty and my honour forbid me to sign. And I do not understand how Count Metternich in his orders decides on what I will do, without my government's approval.”
Lebzeltern tried to appease his counterpart with the following words: “You are right. But if we let our dissent be overt, then everything that we have achieved so far will be destroyed. Swiss unity will case to exist, the factions will start fighting and constitutional reform of the country will never take place. At the same time, you will damage the case we both serve. It's up to you to balance these general points of view as well as your personal ones.”
The Greek asked to be left alone.

After an hour's reflection he signed, and then immediately left for Alexander's headquarters in Freiburg im Breigau, the capital of Baden. On his arrival, the Czar greeted with the words “I hope you didn't sign the Austrian note.”
“On the contrary,” replied Kapodistrias, “I signed it, and I am coming to announce to you its advantages, that Switzerland and the European case can obtain from this unexpected embroilment.”
“I signed this note, because the events in Bern, which were caused by the Austrian secret agent Count Senft von Pilsach, would lead to Swiss disunity. Those who would oppose themselves to the reinstatement of the old regime, which the oligarchy of Bern sought, would cooperate overtly with Napoleon, particularly if they spotted dissent amongst the Allies. By signing and leaving, in order to come here and take your orders, I left the factions too weak to act. Now you can demand that the Austrians renounce Senft, and if they refuse, do not ratify my signature on the note. But the Austrians cannot their agent's mission as official and they will accept. Besides, the Austrian army has already entered Switzerland.”

The establishment of the Russian headquarters in Freiburg was a sign to Kapodistrias that Alexander did not view with displeasure the allied armies' invasion of Switzerland, despite the fact that it had occurred against his will, because it enabled him to demand in return that Austria abandon the plan for the establishment of regime favourable to Austria.

This is why he approved of Kapodistrias' actions. He subsequently asked for and received Senft's removal. In this way Russian policy succeeded in presenting the Austrians as having attempted to support a reactionary coup in Bern and as responsible for the invasion. This was one of Kapodistrias first great diplomatic victories, all the more remarkable given the relative inexperience of the Greek diplomat. And Alexander, as he decorated the Greek with the Grand Cross of St Ann, recognised that Kapodistrias would have a career which would take him far beyond the cantons of Switzerland.


A World restored. Metternich, Castlereagh and the problems of peace, 1812-22, Henry Alfred Kissinger, Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London, 1957.
[Aperçu de ma carrière publique depuis 1798 jusqu'à 1822. English ] letter to the Tsar Nicholas I, Ioannes Kapodistrias, London: Doric publications, 1977
Histoire de la diplomatie, ed. V. Potiemkine. Tome 3. 1919-1939. Traduit du russe par I. Levin, J. Tarr et Boris Metzel, Paris: Librairie de Médicis, 1947
I?ann?s A. Kapodistrias: h? genes? tou Hell?nikou kratous (The Founder of the Greek State – Ioannis Kapodistrias), Gr?gorios Daphn?s, [Athens] : Ikaros, 1976
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