Ioannis Kapodistrias

Painting of Ioannis Kapodístrias by Dionysios Tsokos. © National Historical Museum, Athens

Ioannis Antonios Kapodístrias, also known as Conte Giovanni Antonio Capo d’Istria, was a great statesman who played a prominent role in Switzerland's institutional reorganisation and in asserting Switzerland's permanent status as a neutral country. 

Born in Corfu in 1776, Kapodístrias supported the struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire and was subsequently elected governor of newly independent Greece. The minister plenipotentiary of Tsar Alexander I at the congresses of Vienna and Paris, he gave Switzerland its federal state structure and the policy of neutrality. Switzerland would not be what it is today without his exceptional negotiating skills and his deep attachment to the land.

First mission to Switzerland: contribute to the creation of a viable and relatively independent state

Kapodístrias's genius as a diplomat and friend of Switzerland came to the fore at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. In imposing the Act of Mediation of 1803 on the Swiss Confederation, Napoleon had abolished the centralised government and given each canton a constitution that did not allow for their differences. In 1813, the Confederation was invaded by soldiers of the victorious powers (United Kingdom, Russia, Prussia, Austria), who set about reorganising Europe to restore the old order. In 1813, as a diplomat in the service of the Russian Empire, Kapodístrias received instructions from Tsar Alexander I – a defender and advocate of Swiss independence – to "save Switzerland" and make it a neutral country. Kapodístrias was dispatched to Switzerland, where he stayed from November 1813 and September 1814. His objective was to get the cantons to sign a federal contract, which was essential for Switzerland to take part in the Congress of Vienna. 

Kapodístrias arrived in Switzerland at a moment when the country was deeply divided and on the brink of civil war. Driven by extraordinary determination and strength of conviction, Kapodístrias managed, after ten months of dialogue and negotiation, to persuade the cantons to come together to lay the foundations for the creation of today's Swiss Confederation. Kapodístrias wrote constitutional drafts, resolutions, decisions and letters. Thanks to his unremitting efforts and persistence, Kapodístrias was also said to be "undeniably the most [...] decisive influence" among the envoys of the allied powers. After his first mission to Switzerland, each canton drafted a new constitution, the Diet (assembly of cantonal delegates) ratified the Federal Constitution, civil order was restored and Switzerland was recognised by the Allies. 

An advocate of Swiss interests at the Congress of Vienna and the 1815 Treaty of Paris

During the Congress of Vienna (September 1814 – June 1815) attended by the diplomatic representatives of the victors of the Napoleonic Wars – the European great powers – Kapodístrias made the acquaintance of the Geneva statesman Charles Pictet Rochemont, who had a mandate to represent the Republic of Geneva. The two men became friends. With the Geneva representative François d’Ivernois, they worked together to rally Geneva to join the Swiss Confederation as a canton, consolidate its territory and thus establish a secure military border for the canton and the Confederation. Following the 1815 congress, Geneva joined the Confederation, giving the country its final borders which have remained unchanged to this day. The Vaud region is also indebted to Kapodístrias, who successfully argued for it to become a sovereign canton. 

During the Second Paris Peace Conference (1815), which followed Napoleon's second abdication,  Kapodístrias and Pictet distinguished themselves once again by securing by decree the powers' famous recognition of Switzerland's permanent neutrality, one of Switzerland's long-held aspirations and a major aim of the great powers, Russia in particular. The declaration was written by Pictet on Kapodístrias's request, who then transmitted it to the Allies' high representatives. During the two congresses, Kapodístrias was the most faithful, tireless and effective advocate of Swiss interests and a trusted guide and compass to Pictet de Rochemont, the most respected man in the Republic of Geneva.

Bust of Kapodístrias inaugurated in Ouchy with Federal Councillor Micheline Calmy-Rey and her Russian counterpart Sergueï Lavrov in attendance, 29.09.2009. ©FDFA

In recognition of his accomplishments, Geneva and Vaud would award Kapodístrias honorary citizenship, one of the most beautiful stretches of the Geneva waterfront now carries his name, there is a commemorative plaque in his honour on his Geneva home, and a statue of him was unveiled in Ouchy on the shore of Lake Geneva in 2009. 

Quotes (translated from French)

Biography written by Kapodístrias's Geneva secretary Elie-Ami Bétant:

"Born in a weakened divided republic, familiar with the language of popular passions, Capodistrias was perfectly at ease in the clash of sides that beset the Helvetic Republic at that time. He earned their respect because he approached them with neither duplicity nor stiffness, and made a sincere effort to learn about their domestic concerns […]". (BETANT Elie-Ami, Correspondant du comte J- Capodistrias, Président de la Grèce, Genève-Paris, 1839, vol.I, p.25). 

"Capodistrias's conduct in Switzerland has always done him proud. At first, the mission with which he was entrusted earned him the hostility of various parties whose interests he was jeopardising. Little by little his noble qualities were recognised, and today the Swiss unanimously mourn his loss; his name is also venerated by men of all persuasions" (idem, p.28).

Charles Pictet de Rochemont's report to the Geneva parliament at the end of his mission (April 1815):

"[…] of all those with an interest in our success, nobody acquitted himself with more consequence, goodwill and intelligence, and to greater effect, than Count Capo d’Istria. I met him 92 times and always found him true to himself, a most excellent guide, a most excellent adviser, and tirelessly patient, though what was happening in Switzerland frequently gave him just cause to give up in disgust.  And the far more consequential negotiations over Poland and Saxony, which had been largely entrusted to him, could have given him an excuse to be indifferent to the interests of little Geneva" (CRAMER Lucien, Correspondance diplomatique de Pictet de Rochemont et de François d’Ivernois, Paris, Vienne, Turine 1814-1816, 2 vol. Genève-Paris 1914, I, XXIII).