Picture: Fighting in Nidwalden​

In the year 1789 a big revolution, the ‘French Revolution’, broke out in Paris, the capital of France.  This was because, throughout Europe there were laws which gave the nobility and the higher clergy special rights compared to the farmers, business people and craftsmen.  This led to the simple people getting poorer and poorer.  Therefore the people took up arms and demanded that all people should have equal rights.  All should be safe from oppression.  Yes, they should all live together peacefully, as brothers.  The former masters resisted with all their might, and this resulted in terrible bloodshed.  The King and the Queen were imprisoned, and later they were even beheaded.  For a long time the situation in France was absolutely chaotic.  Again and again different people rose to the top to govern the country.  In the end, a man from Corsica, Napoleon, succeeded in seizing power.  His goal was to create a new world order and to bring this revolution to the whole world.


Switzerland was not spared Napoleon’s power politics either.  In the year 1798, he marched into Switzerland with his soldiers and conquered the country.  At first this was quite easy, as there was much injustice in Switzerland at that time.  Therefore, there were many people who did not wish to put up any resistance against the French.  In Switzerland, the rural population was not dominated by the nobility, but it was dominated by the cities.  The farmers had fewer rights and were the only ones who had to pay taxes.  Besides, the children of the farmers were not allowed to become clergymen, judges, civil servants, manufacturers or businessmen.  Those occupations were only open to the citizens of the city.  All this was indeed unfair.  We have heard that Pestalozzi as a student had already protested against these conditions.  A great many other people also protested against them.


After the French had conquered Switzerland, they demanded equal rights for everybody.  Up until this time, the individual towns and cantons were self-dependent, but Napoleon wanted to change this; the whole of Switzerland should have a uniform government and the same laws should apply all over the country.  The most important laws were set down in a small book, which became the constitution.  Switzerland was now called ‘The Helvetian Republic’.  All the people in their villages and towns had to assemble and take the oath that they would comply with the laws in the new constitution.


To begin with, there were many who were pleased with the new situation.  Pestalozzi was one of them, although some of the things the new masters demanded were not to his liking.  However, most of the people were soon unhappy again.  Certainly, the French said, “We bring you freedom” but in reality their main aim was to plunder the country.  They stole all the gold from the treasury and transferred it to Paris on ox-carts.  The farmers had to feed the French soldiers.  Often the French just led their cattle away from their stables.


Lots of people did not want to take the oath of the new constitution, but the French forced them to do so at gunpoint.  Therefore everybody complied in the end – except the small canton of Nidwalden, which is situated in the Alps.  Its inhabitants did not want to accept the new regulations.  They said, “We don’t want this new government.  We’ve seen how the French criticise our religion.  For us the Christian belief is important and this is why we won’t take the oath!”


Pestalozzi sided with the new system.  He thought, “The new constitution has brought us a number of good things.  We cannot go back to the old system, otherwise there will be civil war.”  Therefore he warned the people of Nidwalden, “It’s better for you to take the oath.  The French are not really against religion, they just don’t want the clergy to have more rights than the ordinary people.  In fact, if you don’t take the oath, you will put your own country in danger.”  In the end he said, “If you don’t take the oath, the French can do nothing but wage war against you.”


However, the people of Nidwalden did not listen to Pestalozzi.  They believed their own leaders and refused to take the oath.  Then ten thousand French soldiers marched to Nidwalden.  The people – men, women and children – fought with all available means, but the French were stronger.  They set fire to the villages and many men, women and children lost their lives.  A great number of children lost their parents.  Pestalozzi was in great despair when he heard of this disaster.  He immediately travelled to Stans, the capital town of Nidwalden.  He wanted to help.  He put a proposition to the government; that they should establish an orphanage in Stans.  Three months later, the orphanage was completed and Pestalozzi was assigned to manage it.  He was happy.  “Finally I can do something for the people,” he thought.  It was already December when he moved to Stans.


There was a large convent in Stans at that time with enough room for the orphanage.  Pestalozzi immediately began to gather orphans.  In January 1799, the orphanage was officially opened.  Originally there were fifty beds, but by spring the orphanage already had eighty children.  Pestalozzi wrote of the children who came with festering wounds on their heads, dressed in rags, and full of lice.  Many were skeletal, yellow, their eyes full of fear.  Some of them were rude.  A few were used to begging and conning.  There were also delicate, pampered children.  They were quite demanding and looked down on the children of the poor.  Most of the children had never attended school.  Only one in ten children knew the alphabet.


With great patience, Pestalozzi took care of every single child.  He washed them with his own hands and cleaned their dirt, sores and abscesses.  He gave them food and fresh clothes.  His only help was a housekeeper.  He lived with the children day and night.  He showed them how to keep their rooms tidy.  He told them to show consideration for others.  He comforted and admonished them.  He loved each child as his own.  He could see that the children, who at first were stubborn and suspicious, gradually became friendly and confident.  As they felt his love and kindness, their fear melted like snow in the sun.  Eventually the orphanage became a large family home.  Pestalozzi was father to them all.  He also taught the children to work by setting up spinning wheels.  In addition, he taught the children to read, to write and to do arithmetic.  Under his guidance, the children loved to learn.  In bed in the evenings, some even begged, “Couldn’t we study for a bit longer?”


At first the people of Nidwalden did not trust Pestalozzi.  People thought he was a missionary sent by the new government and some of them criticised him.  Once a woman came to the orphanage and raged at him, “What a pigsty this is!  The children are not even decently fed!  She fumbled and fumed and angrily clenched her fists.  It was wintertime.  The ground was frozen.  Suddenly the woman slipped and fell to the ground.  Pestalozzi rushed up to her and helped her to her feet.  Full of sympathy he asked her, “Have you hurt yourself?”  The woman looked at him and did not say a word.  The children had been watching.  When the woman had gone, they asked their foster-father, “Why did you help that vicious woman?  She insulted you, didn’t she?”  Pestalozzi replied, “It’s only with love that you can have victory over hatred.”


Eventually, more and more people realised that what Pestalozzi was doing was a good thing.  The nuns living in the convent came and offered to assist him.  They brought food and clothes and helped in the orphanage.  Pestalozzi was happy.  He wrote to his wife who was staying with her friend in the Castle of Hallwil, “At long last, I can achieve the dream of my life.”


The dream did not last long, because six months later Pestalozzi had to close the orphanage.  The war of the French against the Russians and the Austrians was waged in the midst of Switzerland.  The French said, “We need the orphanage for use as a military hospital.  The orphans must move out”.  Once again, Pestalozzi had to give up a good project.  All he could do was to give the children sufficient clothing and a bit of money.  Then he was alone again.  Maybe this saved him from getting ill, as he was completely overworked.  This was the only time in his life that he granted himself a rest.  He went to a spa in the mountains.  Whilst there he contemplated how he could best help the people.


The following pages are based on documents by Adolf Haller and Arthur Brühlmeier, rewritten in German by Heinrich Rubi and transalated in English by Anne-Marie Widmer. The content was arranged and edited by Dr Joanna Nair with examples of Pestalozzi's Fables from 'Pestalozzi, His Life and Work' by Roger de Guimps.

These pages have been produced by Pestalozzi World Children's Trust to further the understanding of the Pestalozzi Legacy and are for non-commercial, educational purposes.

All photographs have been provided by Arthur Brühlmeier and the details and other excellent resources are available from his web site at

The Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi Society is an initiative of:

PestalozziWorld is a family of not-for-profit organizations serving and supporting children from some of the poorest regions in the world. This family is coordinated by PestalozziWorld UK and includes PestalozziWorld USA, PestalozziWorld Switzerland, PestalozziWorld Zambia, PestalozziWorld India and PestalozziWorld Nepal

PestalozziWorld Children's Trust, UK registered charity number 1172364 - Pestalozzi US Children's Charity Inc., US registered E.I. Number 04-3407363POCT Ireland Ltd, Irish registered charity number CHY17386 - Pestalozzi Overseas Children's Foundation, Swiss registered charity number CH-

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