Flashback 125 NL – Esperanto in Switzerland


The Swiss National Library was founded at the end of the 19th century. That same period also saw the birth of Esperanto, a humanist, artificial language some of whose pioneers were in Switzerland.

In the front row, 4th, 5th and 6th from right: Edmond Privat, René de Saussure and Hector Hodler.
Group photograph of the members of the Swiss Esperanto Society at their Congress in Solothurn in 1909.
© Svisa Esperanto-Societo, Allsprachendienst Esperanto GmbH

In 1887 a Polish doctor named Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof, writing under the pseudonym of Dr. Esperanto, publishes a work entitled The International Language in which he sets out the basic principles of Esperanto. This easy-to-learn artificial language is not the property of a single country, brings peoples together, and aims to become the lingua franca of international communication. Other constructed languages exist, but Esperanto is the most widely used: today it has around two million speakers in 120 countries, including Switzerland.

The pioneers in Switzerland 

The first publication on Esperanto in Switzerland appears in 1899: a report on the question of an international language by the Genevan philosopher Ernest Naville. It is thanks to him that, in 1903, Edmond Privat and Hector Hodler, son of the famous painter Ferdinand Hodler, discover and start to learn Esperanto. The two future pioneers, who are schoolmates in Geneva, are only 14 and 16 years old. They visit Naville regularly and publish the journal Juna Esperantisto. The Swiss Esperanto Society is also founded in 1903, along with its magazine Svisa espero

Three years later, in 1906, the 2nd International Esperanto Congress, organised by Hodler and Privat, is held in Geneva with Zamenhof in attendance. Another participant is René de Saussure, an Esperanto speaker, mathematician and brother of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. His study on the formation of words, a collaboration with his brother, is fundamental to the language. 

In 1908, Hector Hodler sets up the Universal Esperanto Association UEA, now based in Rotterdam. During the First World War, the UEA organises numerous mutual aid initiatives at his instigation. Hodler dies of tuberculosis in 1920, aged 32. In 1922, Pierre Bovet, a psychologist and educator from Neuchâtel, organises the 1st International Conference on the Teaching of Esperanto in Geneva. He wants Esperanto to be recognised as an educational subject and taught in schools. The Esperantists’ aspirations are hampered by the rise of nationalism in the 1930s and then by the Second World War.

Radio Switzerland International

In 1946, Arthur Baur, a journalist and linguist from Zurich, teams up with Edmond Privat to launch an Esperanto programme on Radio Switzerland International in Bern. When Edmond Privat dies in 1962, Claude Gacond takes over from him and presents the programmes in Esperanto until they are cancelled in 1992 for budgetary reasons. The Swiss press, meanwhile, has little or nothing positive to say about Esperanto until UNESCO adopts a resolution in its favour in 1954.

La Chaux-de-Fonds: centre of Esperanto 

The Centre de documentation et d’étude sur la langue internationale (CDELI) is founded in 1967 by Claude Gacond and Fernand Donzé, the then director of the La Chaux-de-Fonds city library, with the support of the Swiss Esperanto Society. The CDELI came into being thanks to an Esperanto archive rescue initiative started in 1954 by Claude Gacond. Today, it is one of the largest research centres, along with the international Esperanto Museum in Vienna and the Hodler Library in Rotterdam. It organises courses in Esperanto and has staged a major exhibition on Esperanto and interlinguistics in Switzerland, which was presented at the Swiss National Library in 1979. La Chaux-de-Fonds is also home to the Esperanto Cultural Centre and the archive of Edmond Privat, which is held at the city library.

The 21st century has seen a resurgence of interest in Esperanto thanks to the internet and online courses. To mark the centenary of the death of Hector Hodler in 2020, the Archives Jura Brüschweiler in Delémont, which hold his archives, will be publishing a book and organising a touring exhibition in his honour, giving audiences a new opportunity to discover Esperanto through a man of peace who identified with and devoted himself to the universal language throughout his life.

Programme in Esperanto on Radio Switzerland International

In the NL’s collection of corporate and association publications

Svisa Esperanto Societo: NL Call number: V Schweiz 923

Bibliography and sources

Last modification 09.11.2020

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