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Lausanne seminar remembers Swiss historian

Von Salis was one of the most influential Swiss figures of the 20th century Keystone Archive

Lausanne University has marked the centenary of the birth of one of Switzerland's most influential 20th century figures, Jean Rudolf von Salis.

This content was published on December 9, 2001 - 10:29

Born in Bern, von Salis was an intellectual from an aristocratic and cosmopolitan family background who, as a writer and historian, earned international respect for the integrity of his views.

Often they were provocative. "Non-European observers such as Americans, Russians and Chinese," he wrote, "can sometimes understand the situation of Europe better than the Europeans themselves, who are too busy concentrating on their own special characteristics."

And one of his books was entitled "Problematic Switzerland" (1968).

Von Salis sometimes seemed to revel in complexity. "History," he once said, "consists of multilayered and interwoven streams of energy, and can in no case be defined by objective social and political assertions."

Views such as these provided ample topics for discussion during the two-day University of Lausanne seminar, which was chaired by historians Pierre Ducrey and Hans-Ulrich Jost.

Wartime broadcasts

The ground covered was as wide as it was deep. During World War II, von Salis made weekly broadcasts at the request of the federal government which had an impact beyond the Swiss borders because the reports were factual and devoid of propaganda, in accordance with Swiss neutrality.

Much later, the government-appointed Task Force which examined the country's role during the war said: "Switzerland contributed to factual information on the situation via radio, and especially through Jean Rudolf von Salis's weekly German-language programme...the psychological benefit of this programme for occupied Europe cannot be valued highly enough."

Until his retirement in 1968, von Salis taught history for some 30 years at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. During that time he was also president of the arts council of Switzerland, Pro Helvetia, and was given a number of UNESCO assignments.

In his capacity as a talented speaker and writer he received many literary and cultural prizes, and counted Thomas Mann, Rainer Maria Rilke, Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt amongst his friends.

Von Salis died at his home, Brunegg Castle in Canton Aargau, in 1996.

by Richard Dawson

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