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The re-appropriation and transformation of a national symbol: Wilhelm Tell 1789-1895 Tschan, Reto

Abstract

Wilhelm Tell, the rugged mountain peasant armed with his crossbow, is the quintessential symbol of Switzerland. He personifies both Switzerland's ancient liberty and the concept of an armed Swiss citizenry. His likeness is everywhere in modern Switzerland and his symbolic value is clearly understood: patriotism, independence, self-defense. Tell's status as the preeminent national symbol of Switzerland is, however, relatively new. While enlightened reformers of the eighteenth century cultivated the image of Tell for patriotic purposes, it was, in fact, during the French occupation of Switzerland that Wilhelm Tell emerged as a national symbol. French revolutionary propaganda idolized Tell's act of tyrannicide, justified the 1798 invasion of Switzerland in Tell's name, and made Tell the official symbol of the Helvetic Republic. Tell's intimate association with the French alienated many Swiss from their traditional hero. During the course of the nineteenth century, however, Tell was re-appropriated and rehabilitated as a suitable national symbol. This paper seeks to understand how this process occurred and how the figurative and symbolic value of Tell was transformed between ancien regime and late nineteenth-century Switzerland. While Tell's character is generally treated as one-dimensional, his figurative and symbolic form was modified by various pressures and influences, including primarily his French appropriation, Friedrich Schiller's play, and Swiss historiography. By examining Tell's various symbolic incarnations, this paper seeks to understand the origins of his character and form as they were ultimately monumentalized in Richard Kissling's Telldenkmal of 1895. Though Tell's choice is often treated as a foregone conclusion, this paper is interested in how Tell came to achieve his final symbolic form and how he came to establish himself as the predominant national symbol for Switzerland.

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