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John Waelti: Altdorf, the statue and the Tell Legend
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We had been in Switzerland only three days. Already we had visited the Abbey at Einsiedeln, viewed the scenery from Mt. Pilatus, ridden the world's steepest rail line, visited the Victorinox (Swiss Army Knife) museum and the Hergiswil glass factory, cruised Lake Lucerne, toured the city of Lucerne, and viewed the famous Dying Lion of Lucerne monument honoring Swiss soldiers.

Today, our fourth, it was off to the south, eventually over the Gotthard Pass to Canton Ticino. On the way it would be through Altdorf and a review of some Swiss history.

Switzerland has long been known as a peaceful, neutral nation. But it hasn't always been that way. History of the 23 cantons, 26 if we include the three half cantons, is varied and complex. Indeed, Switzerland today, with its four official languages (plus English unofficially as a fifth), its varied geography, diverse cultures, unique form of democracy, and multiple apparent contradictions, remains a complex nation, understood by very few, including, some would insist, by the Swiss themselves.

Switzerland is devoid of natural resources as we generally think of them -little arable farmland, no petroleum or mineral resources. The spine of Europe, the Swiss Alps, stretches across Switzerland, creating natural barriers between regions. Yet it has among the world's highest per capita income. Its citizens rank among the world's most content and satisfied with its governmental leadership and quality of life.

Back in the 13th century, there was not much interest in the lands immediately to the north of the Alps, that rocky spine that divided northern Europe from the south. That changed with the opening of the Gotthard pass that had physically divided Europe. With the possibility of lucrative trade with the Mediterranean countries, there arose vested interests in the northern valleys leading up to the Pass.

It was at this point that the independent communities of Uri and Schwyz gained some status. Enter the Austrian Hapsburgs.

The day is uncertain, now officially commemorated as August 1, 1291. Three men, representing three regions, Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden, met at the Ruetli Meadow, swore an oath of allegiance, laying the foundation of the Swiss Confederation.

British author Diccon Bewes, who has lived in Switzerland and written about Swiss life and culture with an outsider's view, observes that very few Swiss know the names of these three founding fathers. Had this been Britain or the U.S., Bewes observes, the grounds would have been made into a visitor center complete with souvenir shop and café. In contrast, the Ruetli meadow is inaccessible by car and has not changed except for a towering flagpole sporting a giant Swiss flag.

As Bewes further observes, the Swiss are not given to hero worship, and expect their politicians to be low key and to avoid the limelight. How quaint.

Better known than the three founding fathers of Switzerland is the Legend of Wilhelm Tell. But even this legend was originated not by a Swiss playwright, but by the German, Friedrich Schiller. And the famous William Tell Overture, originally titled in French (Guillume Tell), was written by the Italian, Gioachino Rossini. Author Bewes observes that as this legend and music are products of a German and Italian, with a French twist, rather than of the Swiss themselves, "How very Swiss."

According to the legend, Austrian tyrant, Hermann Gessler, places his hat atop a pole in the village square of Altdorf. Passersby are required to bow down before it. Wilhelm Tell and his son pass by without even a nod.

Tell is immediately arrested. Gessler makes a bargain with Tell, who is a reputed expert with the crossbow. If, with his crossbow, Tell can split an apple placed on his son's head, he will be allowed to go free.

The stage is set. Tell withdraws two arrows from his quiver. He places one on his bow, and manages to split the apple with his shot. Gessler then asks what Tell planned to do with his second arrow. Tell replies that had he missed, and killed his son, his second arrow was meant for Gessler's heart. With that Tell is arrested.

Gessler's guards take Tell across Lake Lucerne, known locally as Lake Uri, to be placed in prison in Kuesnacht. During the crossing a vicious storm comes up. The guards untie Tell with the intention of using his strength and skill with boats to save them. As they near the shore, Tell jumps from the boat and swims to safety.

Sometime later, Tell tracks down Gessler and manages to assassinate him with his crossbow. The legend dovetails neatly into the process of Swiss nation building.

And who were those three men, the founding fathers of Switzerland who very few Swiss can name? They are Walter Fuerst, representing Canton Uri; Arnold von Melchtal, representing Canton Unterwalden; and Werner Stauffacher, representing Canton Schwyz, after which the new nation would be named. The document stating the pact on which the three men swore allegiance rests in a museum in Schwyz.

Wilhelm Tell is commemorated by a statue of Tell and his son, located in Altdorf, capital of Canton Uri. A prominent Swiss immigrant to our own Green County, Carl Marty, from Canton Thurgau, created a painting based on the Tell statue in Altdorf. That painting is prominently displayed in the Ratskellar of Monroe's Turner Hall.

Schiller's play, the story of Tell, is recreated every summer in Interlaken, a town that had nothing to do with the Tell legend. The story of Tell is also retold annually here in Green County, recreated every Labor Day weekend in New Glarus as the "Wilhelm Tell Pageant."

The statue at Altdorf, the painting by Carl Marty, its prominence at Turner Hall, the annual New Glarus Wilhelm Tell Pageant - all are dramatic reminders of our local connections with Switzerland and its storied history.

Next week: The Gotthard Pass and preparation for Nazi invasion.

- John Waelti of Monroe can be reached at His column appears Fridays in The Monroe Times.