Philhellenism in Switzerland

Swiss Philhellenism (1821 – 1832)

Switzerland was particularly touched by the philhellenic movement – the international moral, material and military support of the Greek people in their struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire. A comparatively large contingent of Swiss voluntaries fought with their counterparts from Germany, France, Italy and other European countries at the side of Greek forces. Many of them lost their lives in the key events of the Greek Revolution, such as the battle of Peta (1822), the fall of Missolonghi (1826), or the Siege of the Acropolis (1826-1827). Even if the collective memory and the historic literature retain only the names of a few relatively famous personalities, such as Jean-Gabriel Eynard, the banker from Geneva, or romantic heroes, such as Johann Jakob Meyer, there have been many members of the Swiss society that have equally participated in the Greek effort.

Swiss and European Philhellenism

The Greek struggle for independence, starting in 1821 and reaching a first success in 1832, when the Ottoman Empire official recognized the loss of its former province, was able to mobilise a growing wave of sympathy throughout Europe. Key events, such as the massacre on Chios (1822) and the siege of Missolonghi (1826), stirred up the international public opinion and contributed greatly to the formation of a philhellenic movement in Europe.

The idealism and passion of many young philhellenes, leaving their country ready to give their lives to the Greek cause, came often in conflict with the hard realities they encountered at their destination. Already the journey by sea from Marseille or Livorno was long and hazardous, and on arrival, they met an arid country, with precarious or absent infrastructure and an unfamiliar type of warfare. Added to that, and parallel to the fragmented Greek forces, comes the fact that the philhellenic committees were fractured along ideological rifts: bonapartists were rubbing shoulders with monarchists, and more religiously motivated voluntaries, wishing to fight against the “muslim oppressor” fought side by side with republican fraction. These disparate intentions and ideals and the ensuing internal struggles were a constant of the Greek Revolution and the early years of the budding Greek State 

Regenerating Greece through Education

One of the main convictions of Swiss banker and philhellene Jean-Gabriel Eynard (1775-1863), was, that the education of the Greek youth must be one of the main pillars in the construction of a future Greece. It is for this reason, that from the very beginning of the fight for independence, he made considerable efforts in order to put an infrastructure into place that provides protection as well as education to the many dispersed and/or orphaned children. This very pragmatic pedagogical vision, also shared with the famous Bernese pedagogue Emmanuel de Fellenberg (1771-1844), incidentally greatly admired by Lady Noël-Byron, pursues furthermore another goal, i.e. the revitalization of agriculture, craftsmanship and commerce in a country ravaged by years of war, and, moreover, the formation of an intellectual, political and economic elite originating from within the people.

Thanks to Ioannis Kapodistrias (1776-1831), a good friend of Eynard and Fellenberg, education is prioritized amongst the projects of the reconstruction of the state. As the first Governor of Greece, Kapodistrias established very quickly a network of schools based on the Swiss model of agricultural schools founded in Baden and Hofwyl, where the disadvantaged youth of rural areas is educated together with the sons of rich landowners and taught new agricultural techniques. The first such school built in Egina, the countries initial capital, received its name as “Eynard’s School”, respectively the “Eynardion”.

The Legacy of Swiss Philhellenism

The crucial influence of Ioannis Kapodistrias in the formation of an independent and neutral Switzerland, as well as the strong participation of Swiss Philhellenes in the Greek fight for independence lead to strong ties between the two developing nation states and sustained good relations in the centuries to come.

Jean Gabriel Eynard continued to assist the incipient Greek state by attempting to constitute a Swiss Guard at its service, in order to serve the new government, or by cofounding the Greek National Bank in 1841.

A young Swiss theologian and philologist, Élie-Ami Bétant, became secretary to Kapodistrias in 1827, would later on support the insurrection against the Ottomans on Crete in 1866, by organizing the “Crete Committee” and become General Consul of Greece in Switzerland by order of King Georges I.

Emanuel Amenäus Hahn, originally from Ostermundigen, dedicated a big part of his life to military service in the Greek Army, ending up as lieutenant general and right hand man of Greece’s first King Otto.

Following in the footsteps of their father and father-in-law,Emmanuel von Fellenberg, his descendants bought the estate Achmetaga on Northern Evia, the second largest Greek island with some similarities to Swiss topography, in order to export the pedagogical concepts developed at his agricultural school in Fellenberg, Hofwyl, to Greece.

In the world of culture and research, a more grounded exploration of the reality of Greek life, beyond the romantic notions conceived by reading the sources of antiquity, lead to a more realistic appreciation of the country and its history. Several reputable Swiss scientists and archeologist have been inspired by their philhellenic experience during the 19th century, such as anthropologist Johann-Jakob Bachofen, (1815-1887), art historian Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897) or famous symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin (1827-1901).

Famous Personalities and Civil Societies

Jean-Gabriel Eynard (1775-1863)

Jean-Gabriel Eynard
Jean-Gabriel Eynard © Charles Eynard

When Ioannis Kapodistrias as an envoy of the Tsar was staying in Geneva during the years of the Congress of Vienna, he met with the banker Jean-Gabriel Eynard, who, enthused for the cause of Greek independence, would become one of its single greatest benefactors. Blessed with an extraordinary organisational talent and considerable financial means, Eynard was quick in gathering money from Geneva’s notables and bankers, turning the city into a philhellenic hub, and himself into one of Europe’s main coordinators.

In 1826, during the siege of Missolonghi, Eynard organised a transport with basic supplies. In order to internationalise the Greek cause, he is in constant contact with Europe’s sovereigns in order to mobilise their assistance, to the degree that Prince Metternich is mentioning in his letter, that “[Eynard] is the man who has annoyed me more than anyone in the world.” 

Kapodistrias assassination in 1831 put the brakes on the realisation of the reforms and pedagogic reforms envisioned by Eynard for Greece. His ideas however lived on.

Johann Jakob Meyer (1798-1826)

Johann Jakob Meyer
Johann Jakob Meyer © Wikimedia

One of the most well-known, but also controversial Swiss Philhellenes is undoubtedly Johann Jakob Meyer. Born in Zurich as the son of a pharmacist and studying medicine in Southern Germany, he develops a passion for the Greek cause. Maybe in order to flee from the debts amassed through his rambunctious life style, and without having finished his studies, Meyer enlists as Dr. Johann Jakob Meyer, surgeon from Zurich, and travels to Greece, sponsored by the “Berner Hilfsverein für Griechenland”. His deceit is only discovered after his arrival in Greece and maybe for the better: Meyer throws himself into a variety of endeavours and eventually ends as a martyr of Greece’s struggle for independence.

In 1822, he participates as a surgeon at the naval battle of Patras, and during the siege of Missolonghi, he is active in the role of a medical doctor, a pharmacist, a journalist and a soldier. Meyer organises the local hospital, the only pharmacy and provides medical services. And finds the time to publish as editor-in-chief the first free newspaper of that period, the “Greek Chronicles” or “Ellinika Chronika”, financed by Lord Byron.

He lives his philhellenism to the end, converts to the Greek-orthodox creed, and marries. During the famous exodus of Missolonghi, he dies with his family in the explosion of the garrison. Victor Hugo rendres homage to Meyer in his poem “Les Orientales”, dedicated to the fall of Missolonghi as “this child of the mountains”.

Emanuel Amenäus Hahn (1800-1867)

Emanuel Amenäus Hahn
Emanuel Amenäus Hahn © Karl Reber

Originally from Ostermundigen in the Canton of Berne, Emanuel Amenäus Hahn spent decades of his life in the Greek Armed Forces. He joined in 1824 and belongs to the band of soldats under siege in the Acropolis in Athens from 1826-1827.

In contrast to Meyer, Hahn is a convinced royalist and ends up as the right hand man of King Otto, the first king of Greece.

Elie-Ami Bétant (1803-1871)

Elie-Ami Bétant
Elie-Ami Bétant © Bibliothèque de Genève

When Ioannis Kapodistrias was elected as the head of the young Greek state by the national assembly in Trizina in 1827, Élie-Ami Bétant, a young Swiss theologian and philologist, became the secretary of its first Governor. He reaches Egina, the first capital of the provisionary government, where he finishes to learn the language. Due to a health problem however, he is forced to return to Geneva in 1829, where he continues to teach Greek and Latin, and will later be nominated by King Georges I as General Consul of Greece in Switzerland.

Louis-André Gosse (1791-1873)

Louis-André Gosse
Louis-André Gosse © Jacques-Laurent Agasse

Jean-Gabriel Eynard was sending Louis-André Gosse, a medical doctor from Geneva, to Greece between 1826 and 1829. He occupies the post as General Commissioner to the Navy. In 1829, he distinguished himself as a doctor in limiting a plague outbreak and was declared honorary citizen of Athens, Poros and Kalavryta in recognition to his services.

Conrad Melchior Hirzel (1793-1843)

Conrad Melchior Hirzel
Conrad Melchior Hirzel © Zentralbibliothek Zürich

Lawyer, member of the Council of the canton of Zurich as well as Mayor of the town, Conrad Melchior Hirzel was also the founder of the Philhellenic Society of Zurich. His written work on the need for a liberated Greece found wide approval and mobilised the Swiss public opinion for the Greek cause. But Hirzel was not only a writer, but also collected funds et recruited volunteers to travel to Greece.

Swiss Philhellenic Organisations

In order to gather financial support, goods and to send volunteers to Greece, numerous philhellenic societies are founded throughout Switzerland. These organisations are not only created in the big cities, such as Zurich, Basel, Berne or Geneva, but also in rural area, such as the “Societad d’ajüt per ils Grecs in Engadina”. The fact, that many societies start to appear as early as 1821 or 1822 – way before the philhellenic movement sweeps through Europe and the idea of an independent Greece seems fare from being realistic – shows the idealistic spirit that animated the Swiss philhellenes.

Within the founding documents, different motivations are formulated. So it is argued within the documents of the “Zürcherische Hülfsverein”, that there is a duty to assist Greece, due to the classical heritage, which provided a fundament for the development of European civilisation, and that the people of Greece as Europeans and Christians need to be helped to once again reach the “higher level of moral, religious and culture” that they had prior to the ottoman domination. This second, part educational, part missionary objective is even more pronounced in the statutes of the “Verein zur sittlich-religiösen Einwirkung auf die Griechen” founded in Basel in 1822 by a professor of theology, which eventually decides to send two young missionaries to the Peloponese in 1826.