In December 1880 the Nebelspalter printed defamatory illustrations of Fridolin Anderwert.
In December 1880 the Nebelspalter printed defamatory illustrations of Fridolin Anderwert. Zentralbibliothek Zürich

Suicide in the Bundesrat

Fridolin Anderwert took his own life on 25 December 1880. The Federal Councillor’s suicide came after a smear campaign by the media.

Marina Amstad

Marina Amstad

Marina Amstad is a historian and exhibition curator at the Swiss National Museum.

On 25 December 1880, Federal Councillor Fridolin Anderwert committed suicide in the ‘Kleine Schanze’ park in Bern. To this day Anderwert, originally from eastern Switzerland, is the only Federal Councillor to have died by suicide. What led to his tragic death? Fridolin Anderwert came from a long-established family from Emmishofen, near Kreuzlingen in Thurgau. He studied history and philosophy, and then went on to do law, and in 1851 he opened a legal office in Frauenfeld. In 1875, Anderwert was elected to the Federal Council. Prior to that he had been active in politics since 1861, as a Canton councillor, president of the Grand Council, national councillor and member of the Executive Council. He was also a member of the revision commission in 1872 and 1874, and put forward numerous proposals that helped shape the new federal constitution. Federal Councillor Fridolin Anderwert’s time in office was characterised chiefly by his work on Switzerland’s legislation on commercial law and Obligationenrecht (from the Latin obligatio – ‘obligation’ – it is the law governing contractual obligations). But he also had to grapple with party political conflicts. Anderwert was deeply opposed to blindly complying with the party diktats of the radical faction (now the FDP), and so he often put aside the interests of the party. The party interpreted this as an act of treachery. On occasion, he was fiercely attacked for it. For example, when he turned down an appeal by an expelled asylum seeker, he was lambasted as a ‘Sozialistenfresser’ (‘socialist-eater’).
Portrait of Fridolin Anderwert, around 1870.
Portrait of Fridolin Anderwert, around 1870. Swiss National Museum

Spiteful media campaign

On 10 December 1879, Vice President Emil Welti was elected Federal President and Fridolin Anderwert was elected Vice President. In accordance with the accepted parliamentary custom that the Vice President succeeds the President, Anderwert was elected Federal President in December 1880. This unleashed a malicious press campaign against the bachelor. The Nebelspalter printed a number of defamatory illustrations. Not only were there comments about the portly Federal Councillor’s eating habits, but unproven rumours about brothel visits were also circulated. The Andelfinger Volksblatt and the Berner Tagwacht newspapers even wrote, on 25 December 1880: ‘Not only must we say it, but we owe it to the truth to say that the position of Federal President has never before been held by a man who was morally more unworthy of that office than Anderwert. His selection is a disgrace for the entire Swiss Confederation.’
The Nebelspalter published venomous cartoons of Fridolin Anderwert on 18 December 1880.
The Nebelspalter published venomous cartoons of Fridolin Anderwert on 18 December 1880. Zentralbibliothek Zürich
The Berner Tagwacht took up the issue again on 25 December 1880, and continued to stir up animosity towards the Thurgau Federal Councillor.
The Berner Tagwacht took up the issue again on 25 December 1880, and continued to stir up animosity towards the Thurgau Federal Councillor. Zentralbibliothek Zürich, II F 66 | F
Anderwert was physically stricken by this savaging. He felt ill and exhausted, but ignored the urgent advice of his doctor to abstain from all work – first, he wanted to finish the draft version of his Obligationen- und Handelsrecht legislation. On 25 December 1880, he spent several hours working on the draft with Federal Councillor Welti. In the evening, Fridolin Anderwert planned to travel to his mother and sister in Zurich for the holidays, and then go to Italy for an extended stay at a health resort. But things turned out differently. Anderwert seated himself on a bench in the ‘Kleine Schanze’ park and ended his life with a pistol shot. We still don’t know what touched off this apparently spur-of-the-moment suicide. The news of Fridolin Anderwert’s death elicited horror throughout Switzerland. Two camps quickly formed over the question of who was guilty for his death: one camp blamed the tragic event on the excessive mudslinging in the press, while the other saw the Federal Councillor’s poor health as the main reason. It is likely the real reasons why the Thurgau politician decided to take this tragic step will never be completely clear. Of the farewell letter (now lost) to his mother and sister, only the final sentence was made public: ‘They want a victim; they shall have it.’

Federal Councillors since 1848

23.01.2021 07.11.2021 / Swiss National Museum
Since 1848, Switzerland has been governed by the Federal Council. But who are the people who direct the fate of the Swiss Confederation? Photographs, film clips, documents and clothing take visitors on a fascinating journey back in time to meet the 119 members of the nation’s government. At the centre of the exhibition, visitors can look around a replica of a Federal Council chamber. Another section of the exhibition showcases gifts received by the Swiss government from all over the world.

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