A Story from Appenzel

The story of Heiden’s Room 12…

You’d have also felt sometimes that some people believe that they are always very correct and well, I’ve come across some Germans who belong to that category. Like the other day (well actually it was many years ago) I was flying Lufthansa from Zurich. I had settled down in the cattle class (as Shashi Tharoor tweeted to the delight of his detractors a month or so ago and created a furor) and occupied the arm rest before my neighbor did, for it was going to be a long flight. A few minutes later, the blond and axe face stewardess approached, walking ramrod stiff (not looking at all like the petite German Claudia Schiffer, unfortunately) and asked me what I would like to drink.

Remember that this was at a time in the 90’s when Europe had in general a dim view of the Asian population. It was well before the IT boom, well before the acceptance of Indian expertise and before they started serving Desi food in airlines like Lufthansa (as they ‘proudly’ do these days - I saw in an advertisement on Zee TV the other day, exhorting Indians to fly and hog Indian food and perhaps watch Desi movies on the in-flight entertainment!!). Now I had been travelling around quite a bit and knew much of the ways of the firangi, well enough to appreciate some things like a small aperitif before lunch. So I said, to answer the question, with a gleam in my eyes, looking at axe face squarely in her eyes, ‘I will have a shot of Appenzeller’.

What happened next was a little surprising and somewhat humiliating. The pert nose on the axe face tiled upwards, a sneer was apparent and a shadow of disgust flitted across the glum face and she said loudly for everyone to hear “Appenzeller? One does not drink Appenzeller, you eat it, and so can I get you something else?” I was flummoxed, for I knew I was right in asking what I asked, but feeling quite angry and foolish (for my neighbors – many of them Germans of superior intellect (so they thought), were looking at this brown little fella with grins & scowls on their faces, probably thinking I was a stupid moron or something returning to Turkey after a year of had labor working the toilets and gutters of Germany). Sheepishly I changed my order to Heineken beer (at least I did not order German beer!) which she plonked on my seat tray primly before strutting off, swinging her trim behind in rhythmic pendulous oscillations. I was seething internally as I sipped the pale yellow liquid, at 30,000 ft, somewhere over Europe by then. Somewhat like Gandhiji felt after he was evicted off his 1st class train compartment.

The person next to me was a pleasant man as it turned out and he struck up a quick conversation, first asking me if I was Turkish and I said no, Indian. Then we introduced ourselves and once he knew that we were pretty much equals in the business place, he asked me why I ordered Appenzeller to drink, explaining that maybe I did not know Appenzeller for Germans meant a kind of Swiss cheese. ‘Of course I knew’, I said, but I also knew it was a popular Swiss bitter served a few miles across the German border and a drink proudly touted by the Swiss. As I explained this to the German engineer, I could see confusion spreading on his face as he could not quite figure out how a cheese and bitter could have the same name and how he had missed it. Well, it is simple really, as I know, in hindsight; all it meant was ‘from appenzel’. The cheese was more famous compared to the drink, that’s all and the German stewardess and my neighbors were not know-all’s.

Now you see, it was only a few weeks before this flight that I was in Switzerland and my friend DeCouto had introduced me to Appenzeller, the fine stiff Swiss bitter for a cold and biting Swiss evening. I had quite a few swigs over the next few days and it was with fond memories of the trip that I left Switzerland, boarding the Lufthansa flight from Zurich, an airport where Appenzeller was sold in the duty free shops.

Anyway the flight ended without further event and I was left without the Appenzeller bitters in me, but only a bitter taste from that Lufthansa flight.

Now some of you, if not most must still be wondering what on earth I am talking about, meandering on about cheese and bitters and Switzerland, and Germany and Turkey and all that. So some education is in order. You never know, Amitabh Bachchanji may ask this question for 5 Crores in KBC -10. (Reminds me – any of you know where the surname Bachchan came from? Story for another day – perhaps over an Appenzeller)

Apenzell is both a canton (actually two half-cantons) and a town of 5,000 living mortals plus a lot of cows, in Eastern Switzerland, less than two hours from Zürich by train. For centuries the farmers here lived off their famed Appenzeller cheese and a bitter liqueur that most, except fervent admirers (like me), say tastes like cough medicine gone bad. For me, it’s like a bracing gust of mountain air. Appenzeller cheese is a cow’s milk cheese from the Appenzel area of Switzerland. As a cheese company describes it, Appenzeller is a classic Swiss "alpage" cheese that receives its unique flavors from the herbs, liquors and wines that comprise the solution in which the cheese wheels are bathed. The wheels are washed frequently and aged for a minimum of four months until they develop an herbaceous, nutty flavor and a smooth, milky finish. But then, Appenzeller is also the brand name given to an herbal tasting alcoholic drink (Alpen bitter) belonging to the bitters family from the Appenzel area of Switzerland. As a German translator put it (I have to guffaw now for the fine German English) Extract and distillates of 42 herbs and spices (among others noble distillates like junipers and gentian), Sugar types, refine with French brandy and sweet wines, Caramel. He is drunk as apéritif or digestif, either pure, on the rocks or splashed with mineral water. This Appenzeller has a flavor similar to Jagermeister but much more smooth and gentle. It has been valued as a digestive for over 100 years and is often enjoyed on-the-rocks after a heavy Swiss meal.

So as you saw, I would enjoy a bitter, especially on a cold day. Thus the other day as you may have read, we were driving around the Blue Ridge parkway and found a tiny place called Little Switzerland. We thought there would be more to the place than the hotel, which was indeed very nice, but the entire town consisted of some 4 buildings plus the hotel and their own post office and some breathtaking scenery (see pics from previous blog)!!

In vain, I hoped for a quick intake of Appenzeller, but they did not of course have the faintest clue about that strange sounding drink. So I made do with a swig of Jaegermeister, its close cousin from across Germany. It served the purpose anyway with all the 56 herbs it contained.

But this is not about the Alpenbitter or Lufthansa or Jaegermeister, the story becomes bigger, understandably, after this nostalgic lead. The story I will narrate takes you again to the cantons of Appenzeller in Switzerland, locales where Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol pranced around with Karan Johar and Yash Chopra leading them on…This was much before Bollywood invaded Switzerland. I would not tell you this story, if it were not curious and if it did not strike a chord in my heart. Sometimes I wonder why things happen as they do, but well they do and become nice stories for a wintery evening…

And so, I will now introduce you to a famous but reclusive personality, though much too late, for he expired many years ago. He lived his last days in a place called Heiden in Appenzel, and was a Nobel Prize winner. His name was Jean Henry Dunant. This thus, is the story of Jean Henri Dunant, a rich banker, whose interest centered on his business but perchance blundered into the chaos of a battlefield. From then on, he became obsessed with the idea of doing everything humanely possible to prevent the inhuman horrors of war.

This is the story of Henri Dunant, who created the Red Cross, continued on with his business, lost it all, became bankrupt, got hounded by his enemies, vanished from public life to lead the life of a beggar for 15 years, turned up in public hospital in Heiden, was rediscovered, won the first Nobel prize, but would not use any of the winnings and died a pauper. Why so?

Henri Dunant
As it turns out, the young banker turned businessman Dunant was trying establishing some farm land and flour mills in Algeria. His Genovese friends had provided ample finance, for his was a dependable family. Some100 million Swiss francs were raised from family and friends to make his farm a reality but Dunant had forgotten one key ingredient, water that must be piped from government-owned land, into his calculations. Too late, his appeal to Algerian officials went unanswered, and Dunant decided to obtain a direct answer from Emperor Napoleon III of France, and as you probably recall, Algeria was under French rule since 1830.

There was a war on at that point of time - Victor Emmanuel II and his 50,000 Piedmontians were aligned against the Franz Joseph of Austria and his 160,000 troops, in a move to evict the Austrians from Italy. Emperor Napoleon was on Victor’s side, against Austria, with his 100,000 troops. Dunant was there trying to get an audience from Napoleon to secure the water rights, as the story goes.

He was at Castiglione, behind the French lines where the massacre occurred, which he witnessed with his own eyes. Many thousand were killed many injured, with the total running at 45,000 in 15 hours. The medical services of both sides had collapsed. Seeing nobody do anything, the 31 year old Dunant assumed command, working day & night to help the survivors and the sick, shepherding assistance from the local populace and some 300 army men. With the assistance of Don Lorenzo Barzizza, priest of Castiglione, Dunant gathered several hundred women who were willing to act as nurses, cooks, and laundresses to help the wounded - regardless of their background or nationality. Tutti fratelli (all brothers) became the slogan that helped save hundreds of lives.

As relief supplies and doctors finally came, Dunant quietly slipped away and got back to Geneva. Disappointed, he settled down to write his memories of the tragedy in Solferino, which caught the eyes of many a person in Europe. The book soon became a hit. I will no paraphrase the important part of the next years from the introduction provided in Dunant’s ‘A memory from Solferino’.

The publication of A Memory of Solferino marked the beginning of a brief period in which Dunant reached the pinnacle of his career. His proposal that societies of trained volunteers be organized in all countries for the purpose of helping to care for wounded combatants in time of war was enthusiastically endorsed by many persons. Furthermore, his concept of an international treaty among nations to assure more humane care of the wounded aroused considerable interest. Dunant traveled to many of the capitals of Europe. All doors were open to him, and he was able to talk directly to many influential persons. Royalty and commoners alike listened respectfully to Dunant as he explained his proposals. If some of his audience doubted the feasibility of what he urged, nevertheless they listened. It was an exhilarating experience for this young man who had come without warning from obscurity to touch the heart and stir the conscience of Europe.

Dunant joined a group of four others to start the Red Cross. It was thus that he crossed the roads of fate with another person who was to later decide the course of Dunant’s life named Gustave Moynier. The period was the 1860’s. The idea of a Geneva Convention was later floated. But as you can imagine, when egos clash, terrible things can happen.

Quoting Wikipedia - Differences between Moynier and Dunant developed early over the reach of the organization's authority and its legal and organizational formation. The key point of dispute was Dunant's idea to grant neutrality to wounded soldiers and medical staff in order to protect them. Moynier was a determined opponent of this plan, which he did not consider realistic and thought its insistence risked the collapse of the project. Dunant, however, was able to persuade powerful political and military figures in Europe of his ideas, and with the first Geneva Convention in 1864 had some success toward their implementation. In that same year however, Moynier took over the position of President of the International Committee.

The relationship between the two declined to a level where Moynier worked hard to oust Dunant from the Red Cross and for that matter even get all references to Dunant and the Red Cross removed.

As all this was going on, Dunant’s business plans in Algeria were heading towards disaster. Napoleon refused to get involved in the enterprise and that sealed the fate of Dunant’s private enterprise. His monetary situation was grim as all his travels and Red Cross efforts were financed out of his own funds. Nothing was left in his coffers. Soon he was declared bankrupt and the business class of Switzerland all but blacklisted him.

In April 1867, the bankruptcy of the financial firm Crédit Genevois led to a scandal involving Dunant. He was forced to declare bankruptcy and was condemned by the Geneva Trade Court on August 17, 1868 for deceptive practices in the bankruptcies. Due to their investments in the firm, his family and many of his friends were also heavily affected by the downfall of the company. The social outcry in Geneva, a city deeply rooted in Calvinist traditions, also led to calls for him to separate himself from the International Committee. On August 25, 1868, he resigned as Secretary and, on September 8, he was fully removed from the Committee. Moynier, who had become President of the Committee in 1864, played a major role in his expulsion.

Dunant and Moynier
The increasing tensions between the pragmatist Moynier and the idealist Dunant led to Dunant's expulsion, led by Moynier, after Dunant's bankruptcy in 1867. While not proven, it is probable that Moynier used his influence to prevent Dunant, who from then on lived in rather poor conditions, from receiving financial assistance from his various supporters in Europe. The prize money was also not awarded to Dunant but given to the International Committee itself. An offer from Napoleon III to settle half of Dunant's debt if the other half would be taken over by Dunant's friends was thwarted by Moynier's efforts.

As he was chased by his creditors and harassed and since he saw no recognition for his Red Cross efforts which had in his mind been hijacked by Moynier, Dunant fled to the slums of Paris to lead a life of obscurity, living the life of a beggar, with no means of support. He surfaced briefly now & then to lead some humanitarian effort or other, but went back finding the Moynier front still thwarting his steps. By now his mind was a mess and he feared rejection, was a recluse with no confidence and lost from the living world. Dunant was a beaten man, he had delusions of persecution, he simply did not want to live ‘normally’, always worrying that there were enemies & creditors after him and even trying to poison him. He traveled in Europe, taking odd jobs offered to him by old friends, living on their generosity and a small annual pension of 1,200 Swiss francs provided by his family in Geneva.

He wandered around in Switzerland & Europe after Paris, for 15 or more years, surviving as a beggar, straying from village to village. Finally, sick with eczema and depression and with no means of support, he reached the village of Heiden in Switzerland. Although he was only 59 years of age, two decades of disappointment and want had aged him prematurely. While Dunant continued his horrible existence, Moynier in Switzerland was erasing all connections that Dunant had with the Red Cross, step by step.

As all this was going on, Alfred Nobel read his own premature obituary (when his brother died, the French press mistakenly thinking it was Alfred wrote that the Merchant of death was finally dead). No wanting such a horrible legacy, and disillusioned with his inventions and wealth, Alfred Nobel bequeathed his 32Million SEK legacy to institute the Nobel Prize. Nobel died in 1886.

Heiden - Appenzel
And so it was in 1889 or 1890 that William Sondregger, a school teacher in Heiden heard from his young students about the man with a beard until his knees, dressed in black wearing a black silk cap on his head. Sondregger hastened to check on this stranger (living in hotel Paradise with the Stahelin family at 3 francs per day) was and found to his amazement that it was none other than the person lost to the world or Henry Dunant. Interestingly the Geneva papers had declared him dead earlier.

Room 12

By this time, Dunant’s illness necessitated a move to Room 12 of the hospice for poor in Heiden. Unknown to Dunant Sondregger appealed on his behalf for help. Offers poured into Heiden, Dunant coins were struck around Europe. Pope Leo XIII sent him his signed portrait, on which was inscribed with his own hand the words "Fiat pax in virtute tua Deus." ["By Thy power, let there be peace, O God."]. Dunant made it clear, however, that he did not need help; his few simple needs were more than adequately met by the hospital and his neighbors in Heiden. Moyneir continued to try & block the efforts of support. Reclusive and prone to bouts of depression and paranoia, Dunant still felt that somebody was poisoning his food and opening his mail

Award after award was bestowed on him, finally the Nobel peace Prize, ironically from the legacy of the person the French called the Merchant of death, was his. The first of the Nobel Prizes went to Dunant. Thus in 1901 the Nobel committee awarded him its first Peace Prize, shared jointly with the Frenchman Frederic Passy. Since Dunant was too feeble to make the long journey to Christiana, the prize and, later, the medal were sent to him with the message “Without you, the Red Cross, the supreme humanitarian achievement of the nineteenth century, would probably have never been undertaken”. Dunant had his prize money administered from Norway so his creditors couldn't get it. Finally he had been formally credited with the establishment of the Red Cross which was until then accorded to Moynier.

As the Nobel Prize site introduces him, Dunant was a study of contradictions. We know also that while Dunant spent his last years in Heiden, he couldn't stand Heiden people and they in turn thought he was arrogant. He refused to speak German, while most Haedler - as Heiden people are called couldn't speak a word of French. During all his years in Heiden he made only a handful of friends. He spent the rest of his life there, the hospital and nursing home led by Dr. Hermann Altherr which is now the Dunant museum. Not everybody in Heiden though, cherish Dunant's memory. Perhaps they know that Dunant ended up here reluctantly, after a shocking reversal of fortune.

Heiden Museum - Room 12 is on 2nd floor
Dunant's second-floor room looked out on Heiden's clock tower, a landmark he grew to hate as its bell tolled away his final hours. "How tiresome it is to die so slowly," he told Altherr. The old man in Heiden continued his life in Room 12, looking often at the church clock opposite his window. The clock ticked on, second after second, day after day, days after days, like all Swiss machines do, faithfully and tirelessly, till Dunant died in 1910, aged 82.

His last words were ‘how dark it is’. But he did not forgive the world which was bitter to him and made him a bitter man; he willed that he shall be carried like a dog to his grave, without celebrations.

The clock continues to tick on, as the Red Cross does. Dunant’s birthday on 8th May is world Red Cross day. Little was he to know that the warfare he dreaded would become deadlier and the Geneva Convention would be disused and misused and corrupted by politicians and lawyers, with scant regard to the underlying purpose.

All his money from these various awards were to provide free beds to those in need.

However, unlike Dunant who was awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901 together with Frédéric Passy, Moynier never received the prize. He died in 1910 two months before Dunant, without any sort of reconciliation between the two. Having been President of the Committee until his death, Moynier was the Committee's longest-serving President in its history. In closing it must however be admitted that it was Moynier who translated Dunant's ideas into real large scale action, though wanting all the credit.

The current president of the ICRC, Jakob Kellenberger, was also born in Heiden.

As for me, I am still here, reading about all these great people, meeting them in the libraries and amongst the musty books lined up or residing serenely in the bits and bytes of many an article or book stored in the digital world.

As for you, my friendly reader, I thank you for reading this and hope it struck a chord.

A memory of Solferino – Henry Dunant
The Rotarian - Sep 1944 – Evangelist of Mercy
Dunant By Martin Gumpert