The French Revolution

Historical background II

The French Revolution and its achievements, such as equal rights and democracy, fundamentally changed the face of Europe. With the occupation by Napoleon it prompted the Old Swiss Confederacy to change to modern Switzerland as a federal state and adopt direct popular legislation.

Liberté égalité fraternité

The French Revolution from 1789 until 1799, with its abbreviated motto Liberté, égalité, fraternité (Liberty, equality, fraternity), informs life in Europe even today. In consequence of the Napoleonic Wars after 1800 the motto spread increasingly throughout the whole of Europe, put an end to the existing absolutist feudal forms of government and became the basis for the democratic states. In this way, it sparked profound changes in systems of power and society and established fundamental human values.

  • Eugène Delacroix, La Liberté guidant le peuple (The people guiding liberty), 1830, Musée du Louvre
  • Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen (Declaration of Human Rights), 1789

Symbols of the ‘old’ power were stormed by the Revolution: in 1789 the Bastille (fortress with a prison) and the Palace of the Tuileries in 1792 – both defended by Swiss troops.

The Revolution was prompted amongst other things by the massive financial crisis in France: wars, plummeting revenue from the now independent Overseas Colonies and the extravagant lifestyle at the court were putting a strain on the French state economy. Poor harvests drove up bread prices. To avoid state bankruptcy, in 1789, for the first time since 1614, King Louis XVI called a meeting of the Estates General, a committee of representatives of the three estates of the aristocracy, the church and the citizens, which only assembled in times of crisis. This had a devastating effect on the absolutist rule of the aristocracy and the clergy, who had not even paid taxes for some time. The ‘Third Estate’, the normal citizens, hitherto excluded from power, formed themselves into the Enlightenment-inspired National Assembly. This marked the beginning of the French Revolution: the citizens showed with marches and demonstrations that they no longer wanted to be kept away from power. This was followed by the abolition of the society based on estates and serfdom, and the introduction of a liberal constitution which enshrined human and civil rights.

The French Revolution and Switzerland

In Switzerland, the subjects in areas politically dependent on patrician cities (such as Vaud, Aargau), greeted the ideas of the Revolution with enthusiasm. The Revolution won support even in cities with an ambitious bourgeoisie (Zurich, Basel, Schaffhausen), or with rising domestic industries. The broadly agrarian patrician cities (Bern, Fribourg, Solothurn, Lucerne) and central Switzerland, on the other hand, soon began to lead the counter-revolution. An actual Revolutionary movement was nipped in the bud: to suppress unrest and any efforts to achieve change, the ruling authorities passed severe measures such as strict surveillance by police or censors.

The ideals of the Revolution, such as equality and human rights, and the democratisation that went hand in hand with that, brought French troops marching into Switzerland in 1798. The Old Swiss Confederacy of the Thirteen Cantons with its subject territories came to an end, and the Helvetic Republic as a centralised unitary state with representative democracy and equal rights was founded at Napoleon’s command.