A Very Civil War: The Swiss Sonderbund War of 1847.

A Very Civil War: The Swiss Sonderbund War of 1847. – book reviews

Dale Clifford

Joachim Remak’s title, A Very Civil War, may explain why his is the first work in English on the Sonderbund War; small wars with few casualties attract less attention. Yet, it might be argued that these are exactly the wars we should study, where violence is restrained so successfully that, as Remak puts it, “once the fighting was over, so was the war” (168). The Sonderbund War is often treated as a prelude to the revolutions of 1848. Remak focuses our attention on the war as a war. However, since the civility of this war emerged from peculiarly Swiss characteristics, the book ends up as a beautifully written and equally beautifully illustrated history of an anomaly.

In words and well-chosen illustrations, Remak traces the origins of the war. Beginning in the 1830s, liberal attempts to create a stronger federal state failed In the Diet. Frustration fed the growth of less-patient radicals and the fears of conservatives. In 1845 seven Catholic-Conservative cantons formed the Sonderbund to defend themselves against the radicals, but their opponents argued that the alliance violated the Federal Treaty. In July 1847, when liberals had won enough cantonal elections to command a majority In the Diet, they voted to dissolve the Sonderbund and “to take any further measures” necessary (62).

The war lasted only from 4 November to 29 November. Remak characterizes it primarily through federal general Guillaume Henri Dufour. A French-speaking Genevan, Dufour was a political moderate who had served in Napoleon’s army. He had written earlier that only a citizen army could restrain the violence of war. The test came in 1847.

Both Dufour’s leadership and his strategy made the “very civil war” possible. He made it clear that looting and political retribution were forbidden, and the ban was largely successful. Because the Sonderbund forces did not act together, Dufour could march In overwhelming force against the separate cantons. He surrounded Fribourg and accepted its surrender after one minor skirmish. Only two battles occurred during the campaign to surround Lucerne, which surrendered unconditionally on 24 November. The other cantons surrendered without a fight. Total casualties for the war amounted to 93 killed and 510 wounded. Dufour had come close to his goal of avoiding “everything that might give this war the character of an act of force” (121).

What, then, was the significance of the Sonderbund War? The federal victory inspired liberals all over Europe, but the Swiss experience did not provide a practical model for others. As for the contrast with the U.S. Civil War, despite the common issue of states’ rights versus federal power, too much else was vastly different. Dufour and the Swiss, unlike their American counterparts, had experienced Napoleonic war and were determined to avoid the sort of massive battles of annihilation that the U.S. Civil War produced. The Swiss restricted the war to the political goal of a new constitution; preservation of the American Union of necessity entailed social revolution as well. Finally, the Americans lacked the longtime Swiss “will to remain together” (6). In short, the comparison to the U.S. Civil War seems more a frame to catch the book buyer’s attention than a useful historical analysis. It is unnecessary, because this is a delightful book about a little-known subject, which is worthwhile in itself.

Dale Clifford University of North Florida

COPYRIGHT 1994 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group