Helvetia’s unofficial royals – a lexicon

For 171 years, the Swiss government has been in office without a single day’s interruption. The whole government is never replaced at once, it is without exception the individual members who change. “Only monarchies enjoy the same continuity,” writes Urs Altermatt in his Federal Council lexicon (“Das Bundesratslexikon”), a work that was first published under his name in 1991 and has now been revised and updated. Altermatt suggests that Switzerland’s Federal Councillors are the country’s “unofficial royals”. His book is regarded as the definitive history of the Federal Council and a reference work for administrators, politicians, the media and academics.

Altermatt is Professor Emeritus in Contemporary History at the University of Fribourg and one of the best authorities on the Federal Council. He put together a team of 93 top-class writers who provide an impressive and vivid lexicon-based account of the 119 people who have served on the Federal Council since the modern Swiss Confederation was founded in 1848, covering their elections to and resignations from the Federal Council as well as their earlier life and work as a whole. This carefully illustrated lexicon, enriched with a range of informative tables, is not only of scholarly interest, it is also a fascinating historical study based on an institution that Altermatt believes is “without doubt the most original product of the Swiss political system”.

Apart from its biographical slant, Altermatt’s work provides an overview of 170 years of Swiss history as well as a variety of surprising insights – and personal tragedies in some cases. The Bernese Federal Councillor Carl Schenk, who used to walk to the Federal Palace every day, is a good example. While donating some spare coins to a pauper on his way past Berne’s famous Bear Pit early in the morning on 8 July 1895 – a route he often took – Schenk was run over by a horse-drawn carriage and died shortly after, having served for 31 years. Fridolin Anderwert, a Federal Councillor from Thurgau, also died in office. Immediately after his election as President of the Confederation, Anderwert was the victim of a malicious press campaign about his private life. He also had health problems. On 25 December 1880, Christmas Day, he shot himself on the Kleine Schanze within sight of the Federal Palace.

Jürg Müller


Urs Altermatt (publisher): “Das Bundesratslexikon” (The Federal Council Lexicon), NZZ Libro, Zurich 2019, 759 pages, CHF 98

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