A brief history of the Swiss national anthem 

A brief history of the Swiss national anthem 

by Leona Quigley

Updated April 28, 2023

A national anthem should express the common values, traditions, history and worldview of the nation it belongs to. National anthems are often hymns or marches, performed before a sporting event or national gathering to arouse a sense of togetherness. No national anthem is a perfect representation of its country, and there is rarely a broad consensus about which values really define a nation’s character. But most countries can at least agree on the language their anthem will be sung in. The German national anthem is sung in German. The French national anthem is sung in French. The Swiss national anthem? It’s a bit more complicated.

As with Canada (two national languages), South Africa (eleven national languages), and a slew of other countries, the linguistic diversity within Switzerland can lead to tension concerning the issue of a common national anthem. Let’s explore the complicated history behind Switzerland’s current national anthem and its lyrics — including recent initiatives to find a new one.

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History of the Swiss national anthem

The first Swiss anthem

Official national anthems are quite a modern phenomenon, having evolved out of an older European monarchic tradition of royal anthems. As a result, most countries did not have an established national anthem before the 20th century. Some countries had no official anthem until very recently and had to adopt a temporary national anthem for international events like football matches and the Olympic Games. Norway, for instance, only adopted an official anthem in 2019.

The patriotic song “Rufst du, mein Vaterland” (“Call’st thou, my Fatherland”), composed by Johann Rudolf Wyss, was adopted as a de facto national anthem by Switzerland in the mid-19th century. Originally sung in Swiss German, it was later translated into French, Italian and Romansh (the other national languages of Switzerland).

You are probably familiar with the tune of “Rufst du, mein Vaterland,” because it has the same melody as the British anthem “God Save the King” as well as the national anthem of Liechtenstein and the royal anthem of Norway. Other countries have also used this tune, including Imperial Germany and Imperial Russia.

Given that an anthem is meant to represent the individual and unique characteristics of a country, it would be a bit of an issue for both the Swiss and British to rise patriotically to their feet for the same melody before a tense sporting event. As if football fans don’t have enough reason to be at loggerheads already!

The Swiss Psalm

The “Schweizerpsalm,” or the Swiss Psalm, was provisionally adopted as the Swiss national anthem in 1961. Composed in 1841 by the Cistercian monk Alberich Zwyssig, who hailed from the Swiss canton of Uri, the lyrics are drawn largely from a religious poem written by Leonhard Widmer.

From 1961 until 1981, the provisional status of the Swiss Psalm as the anthem was renewed every three years. Finally, it was declared the nation’s official anthem by the Swiss Federal Council.

A new Swiss anthem?

Unpopularity of the Swiss Psalm

Polling has shown that the Swiss Psalm is not at all popular throughout Switzerland. Apart from a few references to the hills and mountains that characterize the Swiss landscape, it says a lot about God but very little about Switzerland. This is considered somewhat inappropriate in a secular state like Switzerland.

While Christianity (Catholic and Reformed Evangelical) might be the predominant faith in Switzerland, about one-third of the population practices other religions or no religion at all. A religious hymn can hardly claim to define the national character. Furthermore, it in no way distinguishes Switzerland from its neighboring countries.

Will Switzerland get a new anthem soon?  Well, maybe! In 2014, a civil society group called the Swiss Society for the Common Good launched a national competition to find a new anthem to be sung to the original tune. 

There were 206 valid submissions in the competition for a new anthem: 120 in German, 69 in French, 10 in Romansch and 7 in Italian. A representative jury of 30 people selected six semifinalists and had the texts translated into the three other national languages. 

The winner was Werner Widmer from Zurich, with his song “Weisses Kreuz auf rotem Grund” “(White cross on a red background”). Widmer didn’t change the melody of the Swiss Psalm but instead updated the 170-year-old text to represent 21st-century Swiss values. Nevertheless, the public reaction has been apathetic, to say the least.

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Outdated anthems

A national anthem carries little interest for less patriotically-driven people, such as the Swiss. It’s often considered somewhat crass to take great pride in a national anthem, even on the national holiday. Indeed, many anthems do feel a little behind the times, often celebrating xenophobic, sexist and bombastic militaristic ideals. Some of them are full of blood, swords and muskets. Others are dirges for fallen heroes in long-forgotten battles.

What might a modern national anthem that aligns with today’s multicultural, multiethnic society sound like? With a beautiful natural landscape, an exceptionally high standard of living and a very successful economy, Switzerland has plenty of virtues to sing about. An anthem needs to celebrate diversity as much as commonality.

Widmer’s winning lyrics are certainly an improvement over the old, proclaiming virtues of diversity, solidarity and protecting the weak. Still, the Swiss seem in no hurry to officially replace their old anthem. Many didn’t even know the old Swiss national anthem’s lyrics and are not likely to learn new ones.

The new “Schweizerpsalm” will have to be ratified by the parliament or in a referendum, but there is no official procedure to replace the national anthem and no definite plan for the next steps.

Sing a song for Switzerland

The Swiss national anthem has a long history. But when the values of a nation are expressed through the words of a 19th-century monk, you can see why it might need a facelift. While there is no sign of an official change coming, the new version may come to replace the old “Schweizerpsalm if it is widely adopted in a bottom-up manner, as a de facto anthem for schools, choirs and sporting events. This is, after all, how so many anthems come to be.

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Leona Quigley

Leona has her roots in the South of Ireland, where she grew up on her family farm. She went on to study World Politics at Leiden University College, The Hague and then completed her MPhil in International History at Trinity College Dublin. Leona has now settled in Berlin, having fallen in love with the city. In her spare time she is working on perfecting her German in anticipation of her doctoral studies, during which she plans to study modern German social history. Her hobbies include bouldering, dancing and reading a healthy mix of history books and corny fantasy fiction. You can find more info about her on LinkedIn.

Leona Quigley

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