Züriputsch

On 6 September 1839, thousands of farmers from the Zurich Oberland, armed with morning stars, halberds, pitchforks and cudgels, advanced on the cantonal capital city to topple the government. It was one of the bloody climaxes of the conflict between liberals and conservatives in the wild Switzerland of the 1840s.

In 1831, buoyed by the July Revolution in France, liberals overthrew the old elite and introduced a liberal constitution in the canton of Zurich, as in several other cantons. Popular sovereignty, education, personal achievement and competition were the maxims of the liberal movement. In the canton of Zurich, the liberals together with the radicals held a majority in the cantonal council from 1832. True to the liberal spirit, customs barriers were abolished, roads were built and in an education offensive the Church was banished from the classrooms and school books. All this was done with scant regard for the sensitivities of the rural conservative farming population. While entrepreneurs, lawyers and teachers benefited from the new regime, small farmers, homeworkers and representatives of the old elite saw themselves as losers. This heated atmosphere provided the backdrop to the clash in the city of Zurich in 1839.

The Strauss Affair

The controversial theologian David Friedrich Strauss (1808–1878). Image: Wikimedia Commons

The decision by the Zurich Education Council to elect the Enlightenment theologian David Friedrich Strauss (1808–1874) as Professor of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Zurich was the final straw. Strauss was to lead Zurich into a new Reformation, in the sense of a Christianity that was free, rational and guided by reason. A few years earlier, the theologian had published his sensational work “The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined”, which deconstructed the Gospels as mythical stories. An opposition to Strauss’ appointment formed immediately. Strauss represented a unifying image of the enemy for the conservatives. The Strauss Affair began. In light of the impending uprising, the liberals hurriedly withdrew the appointment and permanently retired Strauss even before he took up the position.

The two caricatures of 1839 in the Swiss National Museum’s collection address the Strauss Affair from opposing positions. Both depict Strauss as an ostrich as “Strauss” is also the German word for “ostrich”.

While the Devil rides with the ostrich straight to Hell, on the right the conservatives wage war against the liberal government. The blazing pile of liberal writings in the foreground foreshadows the fate of the ostrich. The conservatives, armed with lance, shield and helmet, are shown the way by a goddess of victory. She flies the flag with the justification for the attack written on it: for the “religion of our fathers”. The flag belonging to the liberals, which is adorned with a golden ostrich, features a pair of scissors (the German word for “scissors” is “Schere”) – an allusion to the Education Councillor Ignaz Thomas Scherr (1801–1870). This conservative caricature sees the theologian Strauss as the Antichrist and the fight against the liberal government as an obligation to the forefathers.
Image: Swiss National Museum

The ostrich holds in its beak an oil lamp whose enlightening light threatens to illuminate the common people in the background. The Church opposes this with every possible means. The Pope, identifiable by his three-tier mitre, sits on the fire engine and cries out for water. Liquid replenishment is supplied by three farmers’ wives (one pious, one sturdy and one ugly). The priest, blinded by the light of the Enlightenment, tries to extinguish the lamp. In the background, a pastor preaches from the pulpit to farmers, aristocrats and donkeys. He shields them from the light with his coat. The caricature accuses the Church of keeping people ignorant and immature. It depicts the theologian David Friedrich Strauss as a bringer of the Enlightenment so feared by the Church.
Image: Swiss National Museum

Country people advance on the city

Eyewitness Otto Werdmüller, then a 21-year-old medical student, was in Zurich on that day and watched the events unfold: “‘They’re coming, they’re coming’ was the shout heard from every corner, and I rushed to the quay at the double […]. And it was true: They were coming in their droves, organised into ranks of 6 men each, marching down Marktgasse. Only around 200 were armed with shotguns and wearing respectable attire; the rest, around 8000[sic!], shabby, sloppy people of all ages, carried morning stars and halberds, but also pitchforks, scythes, flails, huge cudgels and other tools suitable for murderous deeds. They sang at the top of their voices: This is the day that God has made. And then they proceeded at a gentle jog under the leadership of Father Hirzel across the lower bridge onto Münsterhof square to unite with the first division for the assault on the post office building where the government was seated.”

The leader of the pack was Bernhard Hirzel (1807–1847), a pastor in Pfäffikon (Zurich). The country people advanced on the city singing hymns and came face to face with the military on Münsterplatz. The government had barricaded itself inside the post office. Suddenly shots were fired and the situation escalated. Fourteen rebels lay dead. The 15th victim was Cantonal Councillor Johannes Hegetschweiler (1789–1839), who had tried to pass on the command to cease fire. Once again, eyewitness Otto Werdmüller: “I’d like to add that during the fighting the government dissolved itself and its members leapt out through the windows in a cowardly fashion and, alongside many other radicals, fled to Baden.” With the de facto dissolution of the government, chaos reigned in Zurich. In this situation, city president Karl Eduard Ziegler (1800–1882) took charge. He managed to calm the protesters and to set up a provisional state council. Politics in the canton of Zurich was again organised along more peaceful – and temporarily more traditional – lines. The conservative turnaround was not sustainable. At federal level, the conflict between conservatives and liberals led to the Sonderbund War and finally to the creation of the Confederation.

The Züriputsch still has an impact on our everyday life. With this event, the word “putsch”, which was originally a Swiss German word for “knock” or “thrust”, entered the wider German vernacular, and these days is generally used by both German speakers and English speakers to mean an attempt by a small group of people to overthrow a state authority.

Fighting on Paradeplatz between government troops on horseback and insurgent country people, with the “Baur en Ville” hotel and the Fraumünster Church in the background.
Image: Swiss National Museum

Document commemorating those who died on 6 September 1839. The cause of death is also listed alongside the names of the dead.
Image: Swiss National Museum

As the story goes, Colonel Sulzberger, commander of the Zurich troops, fled to Baden dressed as a woman after the successful Züriputsch. This lithograph shows the colonel, with a moustache and prominent nose, sitting in a carriage.
Image: Swiss National Museum

As gratitude for his role in the Züriputsch, Karl Eduard Ziegler was given a valuable sword of honour by representatives of the conservative urban population, which is now in the Swiss National Museum’s collection. The sword with a hilt made of gold is unique, with an elaborate lion’s head on the pommel, the Zurich coat of arms adorning the grip and the coat of arms of the Ziegler family decorating the knuckle guard. On one side of the sword the dedication “Eduard Ziegler” is engraved, while the other side reads “from his fellow citizens”. The guard plate depicts Hercules with tamed lions and below this it features the date of the Züriputsch, 6 September 1839.
Photos: Swiss National Museum

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Alexander Rechsteiner
Works at the PR department of the Swiss national museum and holds an M A in modern English literature and political science.

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