The Rütli meadow
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On the western shore of the Urnersee, and visible from Brunnen, is a flapping Swiss flag planted in the Rütli meadow, a sloping patch of grass above the shoreline that holds unique, almost mystical, significance for the Swiss. Legend and national pride says that it was here on August 1, 1291, that representatives from the three forest cantons around the lake – Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden – met amidst continuing Habsburg repression to sign a pact of eternal mutual defence, thereby laying the foundation of the Swiss Confederation as it stands today. Nowadays, 1291 is taken as the birthdate of the nation, and August 1 is the official Swiss national holiday. Rütli gained contemporary significance when on July 25, 1940, under threat of a Nazi invasion, the Swiss commander in chief, General Guisan, conducted a ceremony at this most resonant spot at which the entire Swiss officer corps – several hundred men – reaffirmed their allegiance to the Confederation and to Swiss neutrality.

And yet, despite the proud flag which stands on the meadow today, and the crowds of parents who bring their children here to tell them the story of William Tell and the birth of Switzerland, many historians doubt that anything very much happened at Rütli at all. Some pour scorn on the idea that such an obviously important document in formal Latin – now on display in a Schwyz museum – would have been written and signed in a meadow (although this is countered by the signing of England’s Magna Carta at Runnymede meadow in 1215), and claim that the three representatives met at Rütli on November 7, 1307, simply in order to renew their formal written pledge of 16 years before. Other historians, yet more controversially, suggest that the Swiss Confederation developed organically, and that there was either no movement of resistance against the Habsburgs in 1291 at all, or that the Rütli oath was merely one in an array of other equally “eternal” or “perpetual” alliances between valley communities that came and went over the centuries. Nothing is certain, but most ordinary people have little truck with such trifling details anyway: over the years the story has come to represent much more than its bare facts might suggest. The Charter of Confederation, as the document came to be known, has become as potently symbolic for the Swiss as the Declaration of Independence is for Americans, and the Rütli itself has become a place of nationalistic pilgrimage, focus of the country’s national celebrations every August.

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