Nine famous Swiss people you've (probably) never heard of

George Mills
George Mills - [email protected]
Nine famous Swiss people you've (probably) never heard of
Former Swiss attorney general Carla del Ponte. Photo: AFP

Newly crowned world tennis number one six years after last being at the top of the rankings, Roger Federer is arguably the most famous Swiss person in the world. But there are plenty of other Swiss people we here at The Local believe should be better known internationally. Here are just nine of them.


1. Marthe Gosteli 

Hard as it may be to believe given Switzerland's pivotal role in many international rights organizations, Swiss women did not win the right to vote until 1971 – nearly 80 years after New Zealand became the first country to introduce legislation allowing women to vote in 1893. And one of the key figures in the Swiss women’s suffrage movement was Marthe Gosteli. Gosteli headed up the Swiss Women’s Associations for the Political Rights of Women before the 1971 vote and later went on to set up key archives documenting the struggle of women in Switzerland to win the vote.

2. Johann Ludwig Burckhardt

Lausanne-born Swiss traveller and scholar Johann Ludwig Burckhardt lived an astonishing life during a golden age of European exploration. After studying Arabic, science and medicine at Cambridge University in preparation for a trip designed to discover the source of the Niger river, he went to Syria to learn more about Muslim culture and customs.

The Khazneh (Treasury) in Jordan's ancient city of Petra. Photo: THOMAS COEX / AFP

Once in Syria, Burckhardt disguised himself as a Muslim under the identity Sheikh Ibrahim Ibn ‘Abd Allah. He studied in Aleppo for two years then travelled extensively in the Near East, pretending to be a poor Muslim. During those travels, he became, in 1812, at the age of just 27, the first European in centuries to see the magnificent ruins of the ancient city of Petra in Jordan.

3. Carl Lutz

Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz and his colleagues at the Swiss embassy in Budapest saved an estimated 62,000 Jews from the Nazis during the Second World War. Lutz has been described as the ‘Swiss Oskar Schindler' – a reference to the German industrialist whose role in saving over a 1,000 Jews was made famous by the Steven Spielberg film Schinder's List.

4. Johanna Louise Spyri

The name Johanna Spyri is almost unknown outside of Switzerland despite the fact that she is the author of what is one of the most famous children’s books of all time: Heidi. The story of an orphan girl living in the Swiss Alps with her grandfather continues to shape people’s perceptions of Switzerland today.


5. Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi

Almost any large Swiss town will have a street named after Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi but few people outside the country know his name. This is unjust given Pestalozzi is one of the key figures in modern education. A firm believer in social justice, this educator born in Zurich in 1746 believed learning could improve social conditions. He took a holistic approach to pedagogy, believing children should be encouraged to discover the world for themselves using their head, heart and hands.

6. Maurice Bavaud

Maurice Bavaud was a 25-year-old theology student when he planned to kill Adolf Hitler in southern Germany in 1938, but he was thwarted by circumstance on several occasions. When he ran out of money, the student eventually decided to return to France where he was studying but was arrested for travelling without a ticket and handed over to the Gestapo because of his status as a foreigner. He confessed to having planned to murder Hitler and was executed. In the late 1990s, the Swiss government recognised it had not done enough to save his life.

7. Carla del Ponte

A one-time state prosecutor who took on plenty of tough targets including the Sicilian mafia during her time in Lugano in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, Carla del Ponte went on to become Swiss attorney general before taking on the role as chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. In 2012 she became a member of the UN commission of inquiry into the Syrian Civil War but resigned over what she saw as inaction at the UN in the face of commission reports.

8. Henry Dunant

Swiss businessman Henry Dunant was instrumental in the founding of the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863. He pushed for its foundation after witnessing first-hand the suffering of soldiers in the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino in what is now northern Italy. Over 200,000 soldiers are thought to have taken part in the 1859 battle in which combined French and Sardinian forces of Napoleon III defeated the Austria army of Emperor Franz Joseph I. But what struck Dunant was the lack of attention given to the injured troops afterwards.

Lieutenant John Applebee (R), an American Red Cross Home Service worker, in in September 1918 during the First World War. Photo: HO / THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES / AFP

His book describing his impressions of the battle was also instrumental in the establishment of the Geneva conventions on humanitarian treatment during wartime.

In 1901, Dunant received the Nobel Peace Prize, making him the first Swiss person to be be honoured with a Nobel prize.

9. Paul Grüninger

In 1938, on the eve of the Second World War, Switzerland rolled out tough new immigration laws prohibiting the entry of Jewish refugees. But Paul Grüninger, a police commander in the canton of St Gallen defied orders by granting refugee status to an estimated 2,000 and 3,000 Jews. He did this by backdating documents to the period when Jews could still enter Switzerland. He was dismissed from his post and denied his pension, only to have his name cleared by cantonal courts in the late 1980s.



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