Half of Swiss students don't know why August 1 is national day, teacher claims

Half of Swiss students don't know why August 1 is national day, teacher claims

With the national holiday looming ever closer, a teacher and Green Liberal Cantonal Councillor for Zurich has claimed that a majority of young people don’t know why Swiss National Day takes place on August 1. Christoph Ziegler took aim at what he described as an “embarrassing” trend of students in Swiss schools having to look up what the Rütli oath is. 

Half of students have no clue why August 1 is a holiday in Switzerland

“People look at me with big eyes: Rütli oath? Huh, never heard [of it]”, Ziegler told the Tages-Anzeiger. “Anyone who believes that knowledge of important events in our history is common among elementary school graduates is greatly mistaken. The gaps in knowledge are sometimes huge," he said.

Ziegler claimed that around half of his top-seed class in secondary school could not explain why August 1 is Swiss National Day. “You could say: It's not all that bad, you can Google that too. Why do you need to know that at all? But the story is about general knowledge. If you have to Google what happened in the Rütli oath, it becomes embarrassing," Ziegler lamented.

Why is Swiss National Day on August 1?

For newcomers and expats, the Rütli oath was a possibly legendary swearing of unity made by representatives from the three founding Swiss cantons - Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden (now Obwalden and Nidwalden) - at the Rütli meadow on the banks of Lake Uri. While the date of the oath is still debated, most assume that, if it did happen, it would have taken place around the creation of the first Federal Charter, which was signed by the three cantons on August 1, 1291. 

The event is seen as the first time Switzerland emerged as its own independent nation, which is why it is considered and celebrated as Swiss national day.

Cantonal councillor blames a watering down of history

When it comes to why many students don’t know this, the newspaper argued that history classes have been watered down in recent years. Ziegler explained that instead of being taught specific eras and events, students are now taught “completely abstruse [topics] like I am History, Hope and Dreams and Europe - Unity and Diversity.” He made the point that in switching from historical study to discussions of individualism, many students don’t pick up on basic historical facts.

Another issue is a lack of workers, with many history classes taught by people who are yet to complete teacher training - according to the Tages-Anzeiger, officials in Zurich recently admitted that they have no idea how many teachers are practising in the canton without technical training or a diploma.

Teachers too worried to make history lessons fun

Ziegler also highlighted the fact that thanks to the way history is taught at universities, many qualified teachers “ask themselves to what extent they are still allowed to make historical material exciting… without being immediately accused of historical falsification.”

"Instead of telling stories, the students are placed behind historical source texts, which they are asked to analyse in self-study and then answer questions about. If you want to bore the youngsters, this is the best way to do it," he added. The councillor also made the point that other parts of history like the life of Napoleon and the Second World War are often more popular to teach than classes about Swiss history.

“Second... [teachers] shy away from statements that could be interpreted as political," Ziegler added, noting a time when he was called a “Nazi” by a German parent after he encouraged his students in a lesson about mercantilism to discuss whether it would be a good idea to shop in Germany if local Swiss supermarkets go out of business as a result.

Councillor argues Swiss voters must learn local history

In all, he argued that if Swiss citizens are to make informed decisions at elections and referendums, they need to understand the context and consequences of the things they are voting on and have knowledge of the historical events and values that the country holds. “The school should be there for this and [should] impart the necessary knowledge. So that you don't fill out your voting slip later with the help of Google - or don't vote at all," he concluded.

Thumb image credit: Stefan Braeutigam /

Jan de Boer


Jan de Boer

Jan studied in York and Sheffield in the UK, obtaining a master's in broadcast journalism and a bachelor's in history. He has worked as a radio DJ, TV presenter, and...

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