An exhibition of diaries at the Swiss national archives in Bern gives a unique insight into the life and times of Markus Feldmann, an influential politician who died in 1958.
Feldmann, who was born in 1897, gained prominence as an outspoken journalist and politician. He was a member of the federal parliament in the 1930s for the Bauern- und Gewerbepartei (BGB), a conservative party in canton Bern that represented farm and small business interests - it later became the People's Party.
Deemed too critical of Nazi Germany, Feldmann failed to be elected to the cabinet during the war. But he became a member of the cabinet in 1952 and died in office in 1958.
His main contribution as a politician was in the context of Switzerland's system of consensual politics. "Feldmann almost single-handedly included the Socialists into the government of canton Bern before World War II," says historian Peter Moser, who supervises the publication of the six-volume diaries and created the exhibition in Bern, "Diary of a Career - Career of a Diary".
The move was a prelude to the inclusion of the social-democratic party into the federal cabinet in 1943.
In the 44 years that Feldmann made his daily entries, he filled over 10,000 pages in different formats (hand-written notes, typed sheets, observations dictated to his secretary). "No other politician in the 20th century has kept a diary for such a long time", says Moser, "this makes it a unique source."
But what makes the diaries special - and gave Moser and his team the idea of an exhibition - is not only their sheer volume and historically relevant contents, but Feldmann's method of writing it, too. "It was a working instrument to structure his day", Moser says of the diaries, adding that Feldmann's diaries could be seen to exemplify the diary in its generic form - as a unique genre of writing.
"The main quality [of the diaries] is what [Feldmann] reflected about himself, what he was thinking about what he was doing and how he did it (...) This didn't necessarily lead to a revision of his opinions. Often he would know much clearer why he did something, while in other instances the diaries trace a revision process in his own life, one that made him come to different conclusions."
An analysis of Feldmann's reflections is particularly rewarding when it comes to his relationship with Germany. He came from a Germanophile background and supported Germany during World War I, but became one of Nazi Germany's strongest critics in Switzerland 20 years later, especially when defending the right of the Swiss press to criticise Hitler in the face of German and Swiss pressure to restrain itself during the war.
Illuminating war role
The diaries can also help to understand some of the issues in the debate about Switzerland's role during the Second World War. Moser says he was astonished by how much Feldmann knew in some areas, but how little in others - for instance in the (now controversial) area of Switzerland's economic ties with Germany.
"I learned how fragmented the knowledge of leading figures can be at certain times. I think we can learn from it that the behaviour of certain people can become more plausible than we thought - which however doesn't mean that they become more correct too", Moser says.
The history of Feldmann's diary itself is also interesting. His family deposited it with the national archives after his death, and wanted it to be accessible to journalists and historians. But Feldmann's former colleagues in the cabinet managed to have it put under official seal.
It took several decades and a decision by the federal court in 1987 before the diaries finally became accessible. Four of the six volumes have been published to date. (Peter Moser [Ed.]: "Markus Feldmann, Tagebuch 1923 bis 1958", volume III/XIII of the Sources on Swiss History Series, published by the Allgemeine Geschichtsforschende Gesellschaft der Schweiz. To be ordered through Druckerei Krebs AG, St. Alban-Vorstadt 56, 4006 Basel.)
The exhibition "Diary of a Career - Career of a Diary" at the Käfigturm in Bern is open until October 26.
by Markus Haefliger