The Swiss government has begun preliminary talks aimed at ending a 300-year row between cantons St Gallen and Zurich.
The long-running dispute involves religious conflict, war booty - and angry librarians.
Contrary to Orson Welles' famous quote that the Swiss have enjoyed "brotherly love [and] 500 years of democracy and peace", religious and social conflicts were in fact common between regional powers prior to the establishment of modern-day Switzerland in 1848.
The current row between St Gallen and Zurich dates back to one such conflict in 1712, when Zurich Protestants clashed with St Gallen Catholics for supremacy over the valley of Toggenburg.
Very little blood was shed during the conflict which ended in a convincing defeat for St Gallen, but the subsequent ransacking of the city’s world-renowned abbey library caused a resentment in St Gallen that continues to the present day.
“About a hundred of the manuscripts taken from St Gallen are still being held in Zurich,” says assistant abbey librarian Karl Schmuki. “On top of that there are seven or eight hundred printed books and a number of objects removed from the library’s curiosity cabinet, including the ‘Heaven and Earth’ globe currently being held by the national museum in Zurich.”
With more than 150,000 rare or unique volumes in the St Gallen collection, Schmuki admits that the items held in Zurich are comparatively small in number but he insists that quantity isn’t the important factor.
“It’s not the amount of manuscripts or books that matter. It’s about maintaining the abbey library’s reputation as one of the world’s finest cultural centres. We have a truly unique collection here and it should be protected. We know these manuscripts came from St Gallen and they have to be returned.”
Although the row is older than Switzerland itself, the process by which it could now be resolved is bang up-to-date.
As part of the new constitution adopted in 1999, bickering cantons are now encouraged to take their argument to the federal government rather than turn automatically to the federal court in Lausanne.
Setting a precedent
The dispute between Zurich and St Gallen is therefore expected to set a precedent for any future rows between cantons, particularly if the federal government can suggest a solution acceptable to both parties.
The exact format of the talks has still to be decided, since the constitution does not lay down precise guidelines as to how the government should mediate.
Speaking to swissinfo on Wednesday, the Swiss interior ministry's general secretary, Pascal Strupler, said he had already begun separate talks with both sides about producing a timetable for face-to-face negotiations.
Strupler added that the interior minister, Pascal Couchepin, was expected to take part in the later stages of the talks.
Officials at Zurich’s central library, which holds most of the manuscripts under discussion, said they didn’t want to comment on the row ahead of the formal negotiations. However Christiane Lentjes of the cantonal justice ministry told swissinfo that Zurich was confident of its case.
“We are absolutely convinced that these manuscripts belong to Zurich, not least because the various cantons all agreed to wipe the slate clean of old disputes when they entered the modern confederation. We are just as keen as the people in St Gallen to see this matter resolved once and for all, but the solution has to be a fair one.”
Lentjes also expressed some scepticism as to the worth of the government talks.
“The government cannot make any actual rulings on the issue of ownership, because that is something that can only be decided by the federal court,” Lentjes points out. “They can try to find a cultural-political solution of course, but that’s something that we’ve already attempted.
“We even proposed a joint foundation for the manuscripts which would then decide who would house which items. But the St Gallen librarians said they would only agree to a joint foundation if all the items were kept in St Gallen. That didn’t suit the Zurich librarians so we ended up in the current stalemate.”
If the federal government fail to break that stalemate, the abbey librarians are already warning that the case could yet go before the federal court.
Thankfully, neither side seems set to take up arms in the style of their 18th century ancestors. But it appears that the government will have to work hard if it’s to rekindle Switzerland’s famed “brotherly love.”
swissinfo, Mark Ledsom in Zurich
St Gallen's abbey library was raided by troops from Bern and Zurich in 1712.
Many of the treasures were later returned but several hundred books and artefacts are still held in Zurich.
The federal interior and justice ministries have been asked to mediate in the 300-year-old row.