On 31 August 1909, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria shook hands with the Vice President of the Federal Council, Robert Comtesse, on board the saloon steamer Kaiserin Elisabeth.
On 31 August 1909, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria shook hands with the Vice President of the Federal Council, Robert Comtesse, on board the saloon steamer Kaiserin Elisabeth. The courtesy visit lasted only about a quarter of an hour. St Gallen state archives

The strangest state visit of all time

In 1909 the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph visited Switzerland. It could have been an official state visit with the mighty Emperor, but it turned out just a “courtesy call”. The Emperor didn’t set foot on Swiss soil, and was gone again after just a quarter of an hour. A strange episode in Swiss foreign affairs.

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw

Michael van Orsouw has a PhD in history and is a performance poet and author. He regularly publishes historical books.

1909: Emperor Franz Joseph was 79 years old and had ruled his Habsburg monarchy for an incredible 61 years; he had become a living institution. In the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper Franz Joseph was referred to disparagingly as a “doddery old monarch”. But the public, including the people of Switzerland, thought differently. This emperor had earned great respect. Under the full public gaze, the man had suffered numerous crushing blows of fate. His daughter Sophie died at the age of two; his brother Maximilian was executed in Mexico; his son and heir to the throne Rudolf committed suicide; his wife Elisabeth (known as Sisi) was assassinated, in fact, in Switzerland. It could therefore have been expected that the Federal Council would make every effort to give the long-established and powerful ruler of the neighbouring Habsburg monarchy a reception worthy of his status. The initiative for the visit came from Austria. The Emperor was visiting Vorarlberg at the end of August 1909, and had planned a side trip to Switzerland. But the Swiss Federal Council vacillated on how to respond. In order for the Emperor’s visit to have the status of an official state visit, all Federal Councillors would have had to be present; otherwise it was considered only a “courtesy call”. But Federal President Adolf Deucher (1831-1912) chose to go on a spa holiday rather than receive the Emperor, even though he had himself grown up on Lake Constance. The Vice President of the Federal Council, Robert Comtesse (1847-1922), had to step into the breach and lead the three-man Federal Council delegation, accompanied by high-ranking military officers Ulrich Wille (later General) and Theophil Sprecher von Bernegg (later Chief of the General Staff).
The port of Rorschach around 1902, with paddle steamer and barge.
The port of Rorschach around 1902, with paddle steamer and barge. Swiss National Museum
On Tuesday, 31 August 1909, the hour arrived. On board the saloon steamer Kaiserin Elisabeth, named in honour of his late wife Sisi, the Emperor pulled alongside the dock at Rorschach at 10:00 on the dot. Rorschach had been chosen in preference to Romanshorn because of its less cluttered port. Another key consideration was that the canton of St Gallen, where Rorschach is located, borders directly on Austria, in contrast to Romanshorn which is in Thurgau. The entire port of Rorschach was festively decorated with garlands and flowers; the local organisers wanted to splash out and impress their exalted guest. The dominant colours were black and yellow, and red and white – matching the Habsburg flags. The lighthouse was also decorated with flags and flowers, and the organisers had even built a second wooden “lighthouse”. At the landing stage stood a triumphal arch with emblems of the Austrian imperial family and the Swiss Confederation, and the pediment of the Kornhaus was embellished with a large shield featuring the Austrian double-headed eagle. The Rorschacher Bürgermusik band gave a rousing rendition of the Austrian national anthem.
The Swiss Federal Councillors, armed forces and flower girls await their distinguished guest at the port of Rorschach.
The Swiss Federal Councillors, armed forces and flower girls await their distinguished guest at the port of Rorschach. Swiss Federal Archives
But the Emperor only viewed all of this from a distance, because he remained on the saloon deck of his paddle steamer and didn’t leave the vessel. The St Gallen Fusilier Battalion 82 provided the then customary military framework, firing a 22-gun salute as the vessel arrived in port. The general public, positioned at a safe distance and literally playing the role of onlookers on this occasion, cheered. The Emperor presented himself at a distance, but perfectly arrayed as befitted his status, in his Field Marshal’s uniform with a white coat, red trousers with broad gold stripes, a helmet with a plume and the ribbon of the Order of the Golden Fleece. But Franz Joseph remained on the ship, so that although he did visit Switzerland that day, he did not officially set foot on Swiss soil!
Clearly recognisable on the saloon deck: Emperor Franz Joseph on board his steamship outside Rorschach.
Clearly recognisable on the saloon deck: Emperor Franz Joseph on board his steamship outside Rorschach. Swiss Federal Archives
Instead, four minutes after the vessel moored, selected individuals were permitted to board the saloon steamer. First, the three federal councillors Robert Comtesse, Ernst Brener and Anton Schobinger were allowed to shake hands with the Emperor. They wore black tailcoats. Comtesse conveyed the warmest greetings of the Swiss Confederation and pointed out what good relations their countries had; in the 61 years of the Emperor’s reign, no major crisis had sullied relations between the two nations. That was not entirely true, but there was simply no time for in-depth discussions. So there was no talk of the refugee issue or the disputes over the Rhine Correction, and no mention either of the murder of the Emperor’s wife in Switzerland or Switzerland’s lenient attitude towards anarchists. The Federal Councillors were followed by the military brass, two St Gallen state councillors and the Mayor of Rorschach, and finally six little girls from Rorschach all dressed in white, who presented the Emperor with a bouquet of red and white roses and recited a poem.
The Emperor and the children: Franz Joseph receives the six little girls from Rorschach with their flowers and a poem.
The Emperor and the children: Franz Joseph receives the six little girls from Rorschach with their flowers and a poem. Swiss Federal Archives
But after less than 20 minutes, the imperial master of ceremonies declared the visit over. The Emperor’s Swiss guests were required to disembark the vessel, the military fired off another 22-gun salute, and the Emperor steamed off along Lake Constance towards Friedrichshafen to the strains of the Swiss national anthem – again performed by the Bürgermusik band.
The Emperor standing alone on the vessel: his visit to Switzerland was conducted at a distance.
The Emperor standing alone on the vessel: his visit to Switzerland was conducted at a distance. Swiss Federal Archives
Was the almost discourteous brevity of this visit caused by the reluctant attitude of the Federal Council? One could assume so. Then the brief visit would have been an act of revenge by the Austrians. Or was there something else behind it? Were there fears for the monarch’s life – after all, his wife had been assassinated in Geneva in 1898? We don’t know. But the Emperor’s flying visit, with a record-breaking duration of less than 20 minutes, is certainly one of the oddities of Swiss foreign affairs. The costs for hotel accommodation, travel expenses, floral decorations, wooden structures, carpets, painting work, printed materials, photographer etc. totalled 10,805 francs and 23 centimes, as the collected records in the Federal Archives show. Still, despite the state visit being rather awkward and unproductive, even the Times of London reported on the meeting.
The army and policing deployment plan: they cordoned off a large area of the port for the visit.
The army and policing deployment plan: they cordoned off a large area of the port for the visit. Swiss Federal Archives

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