Freethinker dismissed – Hans Bernoulli on his 140th birthday

A nasty Christmas surprise lurked in the letter box of Hans Bernoulli, an adjunct professor of urban design at ETH Zurich, on 24 December 1938. The President of the Swiss School Board had written to inform him that his lectureship was to end with the conclusion of the winter semester and not be renewed. Bernoulli had not expected this snub. However, it did not exactly come out of the blue; the clouds had been gathering for some time and the thunder was rolling in the distance.


Bernoulli, Hans (1876-1959)

The provocateur: Hans Bernoulli, 1928 (ETH Library, Image Archive, Portr_00029)

Professor without exams

Hans Bernoulli (17. 2. 1876 – 12. 9. 1959) bore the name of a renowned Basel family, was a descendent of a famous scholar, and the son of a luckless notary office clerk and a fun-loving mother, who taught her five children to draw. On his 75th birthday, Bernoulli wrote about his school, apprenticeship and travel years:

“I’ve shirked exams all my life (the recruitment test was the only one I was unable to escape).” (Freies Volk, 17 February 1946)



In 1912 Bernoulli was made chief architect at Baugesellschaft Basel and, at the same time, applied to ETH Zurich for a teaching licence. He was unable to provide the usual postdoctoral documents. Instead, he managed to convince the professors in the architecture department about his skills in person. Based on their recommendation and his publishing activities, he was appointed as a private lecturer of urban design at ETH Zurich for the summer semester of 1913 by the Swiss Federal Council at the behest of the Swiss School Board.




As of 1918 Bernoulli ran his own architecture practice again, as he had done in the past. In 1919 he was offered a professorship at the University of Hanover. An enticing proposition. However, it seemed ill-timed to abandon his new business. On the other hand, he would be adding the string to his bow of being addressed as “Professor Bernoulli”, a member of the age-old tradition of scholars, without any academic qualifications to his name, and gained in social stature.

One discussion helped. On 11 July 1919 the Swiss Federal Council awarded him the title of professor for his services at ETH Zurich on behalf of the Swiss School Board. Bernoulli thanked the President of the School Board on 13 August 1919 wholeheartedly and promised:

“I will always strive to serve the Technical University to the best of my knowledge and ability.” (ETH Library, University Archives, SR3, No.1042

From then on, the architect signed as Prof. Hans Bernoulli until his printing company supplied him with new stationery with his professor title in the letter head.



No fear, but much rebuke: the apostle of Freiwirtschaft

In the early 1920s, Switzerland plunged into an economic crisis. Bernoulli read Silvio Gesell’s seminal work on Freiwirtschaft (free economy): Die natürliche Wirtschaftsordnung durch Freiland und Freigeld (“The Natural Economic Order”) first published in 1916. According to the theory, land should be transferred to the state in order to eliminate it from speculation. State monetary policy should be geared towards stable wages and stable purchasing power in order to avoid crises.

Bernoulli was immediately hooked, founded the Schweizer Freiland-Freigeld-Bund (“Swiss Free Land-Free Money Association”), championed free land law on lecture tours throughout Switzerland, railed against the monetary policy of the government and the National Bank, and published critical articles and weekly satirical poems in Freiwirtschaftliche Zeitung under the pseudonym Emanuel Kupferblech.




In May 1933 – Switzerland was in the midst of another economic crisis, this time the global Great Depression of the 1930s – the President of the School Board received two complaints.

The one dated 20 May stemmed from the Gesellschaft ehemaliger Polytechniker G.E.P. (now Alumni). Adjunct professor Bernoulli would travel around the country giving talks against pay cuts in connection with his free money theory:

“It was deemed scandalous and detrimental to ETH Zurich’s image that Arch. Bernoulli was billed as a ‘professor at ETH Zurich’ in the introductions to his talks, which naturally gave him a fitting reputation and plenty of clout in the eyes of the public. After all, the assumption from afar is that one is being enlightened by a professor of economics, which is simply misleading.” (ETH Library, University Archives, SR3, No. 1414/011)

The President of the School Board subsequently urged Bernoulli to dispense with the professor title and any reference to ETH Zurich in his private talks to avoid misunderstandings.

The second complaint on 31 May came from the Senior Vice President of the Supervisory Board of the shoe factory C.F. Bally AG, who was also a member of the Aargau Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber of Commerce had dealt with an appeal from the Aarau chapter of the Schweizer Freiwirtschaftsbund to a “public protest gathering against the wage and pay cut policy, where “Prof. H. Bernoulli from ETH Zurich” had appeared as a speaker. As an ETH Zurich alumnus, the Bally Senior Vice President was “astounded and ashamed”, found it “absolutely inexcusable for a professor from the Polytechnical School to be associated with such propaganda” and was surprised “that this is not forbidden by his superiors”. (ETH Library, ETH Zurich University Archives, SR3, No. 1526/223.0).

The Senior Vice President received a prompt answer informing him that Bernoulli had already been reprimanded accordingly.

The School Board Meeting of 22 July 1933 then contemplated threatening to revoke Bernoulli’s teaching licence or “simply no longer grant Mr Bernoulli this lectureship later on without any particular advance notice” instead. For the time being, however, Bernoulli was merely sent another letter instructing him not to mention the professor title or ETH Zurich in connection with his private appearances.

Bernoulli defended himself on 23 July 1933:

“In my talks, I have never tried to give the impression that I were a professor of economics. Deliberately deceiving people could not be further from my mind: with the free economy notion, I am actually opposed to specialist professors of economics.

The theory that the development of the monetary constitution needs to keep pace with the development of technology seems so obvious that it never occurred to me that a professor of ETH Zurich supporting it might harm the institute’s reputation.” (ETH Library, ETH Zurich University Archives, SR3 1933, No. 1541/223.0).

In November 1933, Bernoulli sent the President of the School Board an issue of Freiwirtschaftliche Zeitung, in which he picked to pieces a publication against Freiwirtschaft written by Eugen Böhler, a professor of economics at ETH Zurich. For his part, Böhler had informed the President of the School Board that he had been asked to chair a Swiss committee against Freiwirtschaft. Nothing else on the feud between the two of them was officially discussed by the School Board.

C’est le ton qui fait la musique – It’s not what you say, but how you say it

For Bernoulli, the following year went by without any incidents recorded by the School Board, apart from his ongoing lectureship in urban design.

Suddenly, however, an indignant Geneva architect sent the President of the School Board the programme for a series of lectures by Bernoulli organised by the Université Ouvrière de Genève, entitled La téchnique de la lutte finale contre le capitalisme. In the words of the sender:

“Je crois que tout commentaîre l’affaiblirait, …. Il est possible que dans les idées de Mr.B. il y ait quelque chose d’intéressant mais la forme donnée à son résumé est vraiment par trop démagogique & indigne d’un professeur à l’E.P.F., que je croyais au surplus enseigner l’architecture et non économie politique! ”



Excerpt from invitation and programme for the lecture series: La technique de la lutte finale contre le capitalisme, 7.1.1935 (ETH Library, ETH Zurich University Archives, SR3 1935, 223.0/257 Ad. 1)

Whether the recipient recognised the echoes of the workers’ anthem Internationale, “People, hear the signals, on to the final battle,” or not is anyone’s guess. Either way, Bernoulli’s rhetorical final battle must have displeased the President of the School Board. Although the agitator only signed off as architect, not professor, as instructed, evidently this was to no avail. He continued to be perceived as a member of ETH Zurich who also ventured into a new specialist area.

At the School Board Meeting on 16 February 1935, once again the adjunct professor’s devotion to Freiwirtschaft was discussed. The President would have liked to issue Bernoulli with an ultimatum to decide between the teaching post at ETH Zurich or Freiwirtschaft. However, other members of the School Board disagreed:

“In the discussion, the general consensus is that he needs to choose between his teaching post at ETH Zurich and his private activities. As long as Bernoulli cannot be criticised for his teaching, however, it is not really possible to withdraw the lectureship. Otherwise, he would be made a martyr, enabling him to devote himself to agitation all the more unbridled and use the professor title all the more unashamedly. It would be a different story if he became aggressive towards members of our uppermost federal authority or if he also voiced his free money theory in his lessons. Then measures would have to be taken against him.” (ETH Library, ETH Zurich University Archives, SR3 1935, 16.2.1935, Agenda Point 7)

The President of the School Board was asked to give Bernoulli “a stern talking-to” and remind him to “refrain from making any reference to free money theory in his classes”.



Publication from 1935. Donation to ETH Library from the author in 1955.

Bernoulli, who still knew nothing of this meeting, informed the President of the School Board on 21 February 1935 that friends had encouraged him to stand in the Grand Council elections in Basel. He requested permission to use the professor title for the election campaign as it was a political activity as opposed to an economic one. The President of the School Board was not going to be taken for a fool and refused the request on the grounds that Bernoulli would probably be nominated by the Freiwirtschaft camp, “Such that your candidacy can primarily be regarded as a rally in economic matters.” As indeed it was. Despite the lack of a professor title, Bernoulli was ultimately elected and became a representative of the Freiwirtschaftsbund in the Basel Parliament from 1935 to 1938.

Under observation

Then it came to light that Bernoulli had been convicted of election fraud. At long last, the President of the School Board sensed an opportunity to rid himself of the pest for a good reason. This time, the protectors of the irksome troublemaker on the School Board would not be able to thwart him with tactical excuses or even the argument that they did not want to lose the outstanding architecture lecturer.

He sent for the files from the Basel public prosecution department. Unfortunately for him, however, the matter turned out to be a minor offence that did not warrant dismissal. Bernoulli had voted for himself in the election to the Basler Kantonalbank Board, which the electoral procedure evidently did not allow. As he was a rookie on the political stage, the court let him off with a fine.

The President reported the disappointing outcome at the School Board Meeting of 27 September 1935. However, that was not reason enough for him to slacken the reins:

“Besides this offence, Prof. Bernoulli’s ongoing rabble-rousing of the lowest kind against our authorities, especially the Swiss Federal Council and the Head of the National Bank, has grave consequences.

Although I would not like to request an annulment of Prof. Bernoulli’s lectureship for the winter semester of 1935/36, we should endeavour to determine whether he makes any references in his lectures and exercises that are irreconcilable with academic tuition. In light of the findings we have made, we could then revisit the matter in the spring of 1936.”

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This was approved. As the President later disclosed, he tasked the Architecture Board with monitoring or having assistants monitor Bernoulli during his lectures. However, the Board did not have much time left for the awkward task. Assistants were earmarked for productive work, not to spy on and denounce teaching staff. In any case, economic and land law issues were now part and parcel of practical training for architects; they would not only be able to build castles in the clouds after their degrees.


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from: Rolf Meyer-von Gonzenbach, Vorlesungsnachschrift aus der Studienzeit: Hans Bernoulli, Städtebau, Sommersemester 1932.

During its spot checks, the Department Board had not noticed anything untoward, which it deemed appropriate to report to the President.


Ruffled collars, patience wearing thin: the counter-attack

Three years later, a five-page letter from the Swiss National Bank dated 24 November 1938 landed on the President of the School Board’s desk; a copy also went to the Swiss Federal Council – in fact, to the Head of the Federal Department of Home Affairs. As it stated:

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The provoked: Gottlieb Bachmann, around 1939, CEO of the Swiss National Bank (ETH Library, Image Archive, Portr_8444)

“For a number of years, the Management of the Swiss National Bank and especially the CEO has felt fierce criticism from the Schweizerische Freiwirtschaftsbund because, until now, the bank has opposed dealing with the theories of the free economists, which, in its opinion, are based on fundamental errors, and taking its cue from the Freiwirtschaft school of thought for the central bank. […]

The National Bank is well aware that its activities in the services of the public cannot always find the unanimous fairness of every last citizen or all interest groups, and it does not occur to it to want to deny anyone their right to criticise its activities. Thus, as long as the free economists and their press levy constructive criticism, there can be absolutely no objections against it, and our bank organs are by no means overly sensitive to such criticism.”



Freiwirtschaftliche Zeitung, 27 August 1938


“However, a clear distinction needs to be drawn between this kind of constructive criticism and the more or less open, spiteful, demagogic, not to mention perfidious attacks made against the President of our Board for quite some time now. These affronts encompass a whole list of suspicions and defamatory acts […] and on more than one occasion have even incited more or less covertly the forceful removal of the President of the Board, who was elected by the Federal Council.

The bank institute had repeatedly considered legal action. In each instance, however, the chances of success seemed slim,

“As a certain threshold where the culpability is indisputable has not been exceeded. People therefore exercise a certain caution in this respect to keep on rooting around within the boundaries drawn all the more freely, i.e. in such a way that the victim is unable to defend himself and that makes the attackers’ methods seem particularly perfidious. […]”



Freiwirtschaftliche Zeitung, 13 August 1938

“The front line of these attackers now includes Professor Bernoulli, who works as a professor at the Federal Polytechnical School and, in this capacity, was elected by the Swiss School Board; thus, we also face the, for many circles, unfathomable fact that a teacher at our Federal Polytechnical School, who, in a broader sense, effectively enjoys the status of civil servant, continuously attacks another functionary who serves the public and was elected by the Federal Council, and the bank institute behind him, which relies on general trust, in such a perfidious manner, endeavouring to defame him in such a way that it is not possible to bring this man to justice before the judge.”

Enclosed were a few issues of the Freiwirtschaftliche Zeitung containing poems by Emanuel Kupferblech and an issue of the Freiwirtschaft monthly Jugend am Pflug with the poem Auf dieser Bank von Stein, “in which work one might even see a veiled call for murder.”


Jugend am Pflug. Jg.5, No. 9, November 1938, p. 69

In the poem, Emanuel Kupferblech advises the Swiss national hero William Tell, who ambushed the tyrannical reeve Gessler and shot him with an arrow from his crossbow, to take aim at a contemporary target:


He was, if this is the right word,

Primitive but consistent:

‘Anyone who bullies our little country!’

So he thought, ‘will be driven out.’


As I mentioned early: his manner

Was somewhat direct –

He lay in wait behind a construction site

Fence near Bürkliplatz.”

This poem had already been published in the Freiwirtschaftliche Zeitung in 1930 and then for a second time in 1932 in Hans Bernoulli’s book of verse Der Schandfleck und andere Verse über die Währungsverbrechen unserer Zeit. Presumably, the earlier editions did not escape the attention of the National Bank. Alongside all the other poems, articles and events, however, the third copy was now one too many.

The National Bank expected the President of the School Board to urge Bernoulli,

“To refrain from this kind of slander, which does not befit a functionary of the Federal Polytechnical School or have anything to do with constructive criticism, if he intends to continue his lectureship at the Polytechnical School.”

The President of the School Board answered the letter on 29 November 1938 with a reference to earlier discussions on complaints against Bernoulli and explained the prospect of a decision on measures at the School Board Meeting on 19 December 1938.

In a letter to the President of the School Board dated 2 December 1938, Federal Councillor Phillip Etter, who had received a copy of the National Bank’s letter, deemed firm action appropriate in the interests of ETH Zurich’s image.

At the School Board Meeting on 19 December 1938, the President summarised all the incidents involving Bernoulli since his appointment as a private lecturer in 1912, before concluding;

“I get the impression that we have given Prof. Bernoulli enough leeway. His current lectureship concludes at the end of the semester. […] Do you agree that I should inform Prof. Bernoulli that he will not be granted any more lectureships as of the summer semester 1939?”

As was common knowledge, however, the actual problem was not his impeccable teaching record, but rather the professor title. As long as Bernoulli was legally an adjunct professor, he could not be banned from continuing to use it. In response to the proposal of leaving it up to Bernoulli’s sense of tact, just in case, the President wanted to set down in writing the conditions under which a professor’s title could still be used after leaving the position.

For the time being, the decision was made not to grant Bernoulli any more lectureships as of the summer semester of 1939.



The man behind his dismissal: Arthur Rohn, around 1935, CEO of the Swiss National Bank (ETH Library, Image Archive, Portr_16016)

The President had wanted defer informing Bernoulli until the end of the winter semester 1938/39 so that Bernoulli could not indoctrinate the students in Freiwirtschaft in his final hours of teaching.

However, the Rector informed the Architecture Department Conference about the School Board’s decision prematurely. As he set great store by using the correct channels and precisely their infringement was the reason for parting company with the adjunct professor, the President could not avoid informing Bernoulli of his dismissal forthwith in case someone let it slip. Therefore, he wrote to “Adjunct Professor Bernoulli” – the title was still valid – in 23 December 1938:

“[…] After the Swiss School Board discussed your external activities once again and repeatedly endeavoured to draw a clear line between the outstanding expert in the art of urban design and the free economist, regrettably it is unable to sustain this stance; otherwise, the image and good reputation of the Federal Polytechnical School would have to suffer. At its last meeting, the Swiss School Board therefore decided not to renew your lectureship in urban design at the end of this winter semester.

We regret that, due to your activities in economic fields, our university finds itself in a predicament where it is impossible to enlist the services of an outstanding expert.”

The storm

Bernoulli lodged an appeal against his dismissal with the Federal Department of Home Affairs, ETH Zurich’s superior authority, on 18 January 1939 and additionally submitted a request for reconsideration on 26 January 1939. Both petitions were forwarded to the Swiss School Board.

At its meeting on 17 February 1939, it discussed whether they should revisit the decision not to renew the lectureship for Bernoulli, “As he was still a respected expert, after all.” As Bernoulli was deemed “incapable of improvement”, the School Board stuck to its guns.

Moreover, a draft featuring an amendment to the ETH Zurich Regulations was submitted to the Federal Council:

“An adjunct professor’s right to use the title of Professor of ETH Zurich expires upon his definitive departure from the teaching staff.”

The Federal Council approved the amendment on 27 March 1939.

The President of the School Board informed Bernoulli to that effect on 29 March 1939:

“Once you leave ETH Zurich’s teaching staff definitively at the end of the 1938/39 winter semester, i.e. at the end of this March, your previous entitlement to use the title of Professor from ETH Zurich (Adjunct Professor) simultaneously expires.”


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Leaflet of the public announcement on the “Bernoulli case” (ETH Library, University Archives 1939, SR3/220.0)

Bernoulli, who had been unusually quiet in public ever since the unwelcome Christmas present, could hold back no longer. He mobilised the media; a tempest swept through the left and right-wing press. Even the Journal Suisse d’Egypte et du Proche Orient in Alexandria reported on the events.

Dozens of concerned citizens wrote to the President of the School Board. Swiss teachers submitted a petition with 760 signatures in favour of freedom of speech. Zurich’s socialist student group distributed flyers on academic freedom. The Tatgemeinschaft der Zürcher Jugend put questions to the President of the School Board. The Swiss Architects Association held a General Assembly for the benefit of “the leading Swiss expert in urban design” and passed a resolution against “damage to the building culture of our country”. The Freiwirtschaftsbund organised a public information event with Bernoulli and demanded a face-to-face session with the President of the School Board. The Federal Parliament debated interpellations of social democracy and the guideline society.

The School Board answered all the letters in detail, issued verbal information, received delegations, explained that Bernoulli had not been dismissed on account of his Freiwirtschaft leanings, but rather because he had overstepped the bounds of decency and directly or indirectly incited the murder of the CEO of the National Bank. It discussed the matter in several meetings but stuck by its decisions.

Emanuel Kupferblech responded with poems:

To the Swiss readership

Here at home and not in Africa

Something dreadful has happened:

A professor from ETH Zurich

Roused the entire population.

(Otherwise, they pedal away blindly):

‘Comment on pille un peuple.’


It was all in the best intentions,

But it disturbed us at our game.

The populace lamented quietly.

In our institutes of education

One should hold one’s tongue.

Freiwirtschaftliche Zeitung, 15 July 1939


Title sorrow


They turfed me out shamefully,

That costs me a fair sum,

And what hurts me perhaps the most,

Now they deny me the title, too.


(Freiwirtschaftliche Zeitung, special supplement on the Bernoulli case, 27 May 1939)

Bernoulli still had the “funds” from his post as a drawing teacher at Allgemeine Gewerbeschule Basel, which he had held since 1930. From 1941 he ran a new free economy journal. At the end of the war, he was a popular consultant for the reconstruction of European cities that had been destroyed. From 1947 to 1951 he held a seat on the National Council for the Alliance of Independents.

In 1947 the University of Basel awarded him an honorary doctorate. A consolation prize for the honoured guest, if the laudatory speech was anything to go by:

“Who […] researches the artistic, technical and economic requirements of urban design […] and taught them highly successfully to our budding architects at the top technical institution in our country […].” (Schmid 1974, pp. 47-48)

The driving force behind this was Joseph Gantner, a professor of art history. He was friends with Bernoulli and had followed the events at close quarters as a private lecturer at the University of Zurich from 1933 to 1938.

In 1955 ETH Zurich was gearing up for the 100th anniversary of its foundation. Portraits of all former lecturers were to adorn the corridors of the main building. The stock of portraits available was incomplete, however. The Director of ETH Library went to great lengths to ask the lecturers who were still alive for photographs in personal letters as opposed to a circular. He had been Director of Basel University Library until 1947 and thus was well informed about the awarding of the honorary doctorate to Bernoulli. It must have been a great pleasure to him to write to someone from his old stomping ground. Unfortunately, no copy of the letter to the architect has survived.

On 30 June 1955 Bernoulli thanked him for the kind request, donated five photographs (including the one published here from 1928) and, for ETH Library’s holdings, his Irrgarten des Geldes from 1935, “One of my non-specialist works […] in the belief that my specialist publications are already on your shelves.” In the middle of the letter – after all, as an architect, he had an eye for the right place for an eye-catcher – stood the following statement:

“I must point out to you that my professor title was revoked by the President of the School Board, Dr Rohn, back then – which is why I set even greater store by being referred to as Dr. h.c. (from the University of Basel).”

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Letter from Hans Bernoulli to the Director of ETH Library, 30 June 1955 (ETH Library, ETH Zurich University Archives, Hs 671:1)


The School Board’s discussions on Bernoulli from 1912 to 1939 can be read on Schulratsprotokolle online. Further documents can be ordered and viewed in the ETH Zurich University Archives .

-Dr.h.c. Hans Bernoulli zum fünfundsiebzigsten Geburtstag am 17. Februar 1951 gewidmet von seinen Freunden, Bern 1951.

-Werner Schmid: Hans Bernoulli: Städebauer, Politiker, Weltbürger, Schaffhausen 1974.

-Karl and Maya Nägelin-Gschwind: Hans Bernoulli, Architekt und Städtebauer, Basel/Boston/Berlin 1995.

-Sylvia Klaus and Lukas Zurfluh: Städtebau als politische Kultur. Der Architekt und Theoretiker Hans Bernoulli, Zürich 2018.

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