A Very Civil War: The Swiss Sonderbund War of 1847

A Very Civil War: The Swiss Sonderbund War of 1847

A Very Civil War: The Swiss Sonderbund War of 1847

A Very Civil War: The Swiss Sonderbund War of 1847


A Very Civil War is the dramatic but little-known story of Switzerland's civil war of 1847, the Sonderbundskrieg. This conflict, as much as any other single event, inspired the revolutionaries of 1848 to action. As the German poet Ferdinand Freiligrath wrote at the time: "In the highlands was the first shot fired./What now, we still are waiting./But I know that there will be/A new burst of liberty." Remak's is the first complete account of an important but much neglected turning point in Swiss and in European history. What will be most striking to American readers of Remak's lucid account are the similarities to and the contrasts with our own Civil War. Each war was crucial to its nation's subsequent history, and both in essence were fought over the same issues- federal power versus states' rights, the preservation of the Union, and the defense of certain ways of life. Yet Switzerland's was a war that, unlike its American counterpart, was fought with a minimum of violence. The war that might have destroyed Swiss union instead contributed to a sense of cohesion and established a firm foundation for modern Swiss society. The Swiss Civil War settled the great issues of nationhood at a cost of fewer than a hundred dead and lasted less than three weeks. There was no implacable Swiss Sherman, bent on the utter destruction of the enemy. Instead, General Guillaume Henri Dufour, commander in chief of the Federal Forces, chose to outmaneuver his opponents rather than outfight them. The Sonderbund War was also notable for the constant regard shown by the armies on both sides for the rights of noncombatants (General Dufour went on to help found the International Red Cross), and the conflict was followed by quick, genuine, and lasting reconciliation. This lavishly illustrated book, the first account in English of this "very civil war," is based on Professor Remak's extensive, original research in Swiss archives.


James M. McPherson

Thousands of Americans know a great deal about their own civil war. Few of them, though, have heard of the Swiss Civil War, which occurred a decade and a half earlier, and even fewer know anything about that war. This is a pity, for the Swiss conflict has some interesting parallels with the American war, and a comparative perspective can throw a bright light on crucial aspects of the American experience from 1861 to 1865. Fortunately, Joachim Remak has made such a perspective possible. He has written the first comprehensive history of the Swiss Civil War in the English language. And, happily, English is a language that Professor Remak writes very well. His lucid, fast-paced narrative; spiced with understated wit and humor, is a delight to read.

At first glance, Switzerland and the United States could scarcely seem more dissimilar on the eve of their respective civil wars. Two hundred times larger than Switzerland, with fourteen times its population, the states that made up the United States were united by a single language but divided by the institution of slavery, which provoked the sectional polarization that erupted into war. the twenty-two cantons of Switzerland were linked by centuries of federated historical tradition but divided by language and religion.

Yet underlying these contrasts were some instructive similarities. in both countries the ideological heritage of revolution -- the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789 -- plus the transforming experience of the industrial revolution had created increasingly palpable divisions between a modernizing, progressive, democratic majority and a rural, conservative, traditional minority. in Switzerland the most visible manifestation of this polarization was Protestant-Catholic; in the United States it was free states versus slave states. Both countries had a federal polity, with tensions between the central government and the cantons or states; in both the progressive majority became increasingly identified with the central government, provoking resistance by the fearful minority in the form of secession by eleven slave states and the creation of the Sonderbund by seven Catholic cantons. Even John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry had its Swiss parallel -- the raid by Protestant partisans on Catholic Lucerne in 1845. Both raids occurred two years before the outbreak of war, and by heightening the fears and defensive militancy of the minority they proved to be crucial steps toward armed conflict. in one respect the outcome of the two wars was different: Slavery was abolished but Catholicism was not. But in other respects the result was similar:

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