The Swiss village that’s home to an imaginary state
It has its own currency, its citizenship, a palatial headquarters and rejects the democratic state of Switzerland: an imaginary republic in Müllheim, canton Thurgau, run by local entrepreneur Daniel Model.
It might be a cathedral. Or a temple. The big grey stone building is a massive presence in Müllheim, a rural village in northeastern Switzerland.
The Model House, as the rectangular building with the golden figure over the entrance is called, happens not to be a church, though people of the same faith, or rather the same convictions, gather here. It is the embodiment of “Avalon”, an imaginary state with its own coinage and its own citizenship (for which a secret test has to be passed). It has an unambiguous attitude to the democratic political culture of surrounding Switzerland: rejection.
Avalon was founded in 2006 not by some eccentric loner, but by Daniel Model, a successful businessman who is one of the major employers in the region. He owns the packaging company Model AG, headquartered in Weinfelden, and he is the fourth generation of the family to run it.
His wealth is estimated at between CHF200 million and CHF300 million ($207 million-$311 million). Model himself no longer lives in Switzerland, but across the border in Liechtenstein. It is rumoured that his rejection of the Swiss state is somewhat coloured by tax considerations.
For 12 years, the people of Müllheim have lived with this strange building under their noses. What do they think?
‘Never heard of Avalon’
Dani Ammann, who is going shopping, looks surprised. “The palatial-looking house? I’ve never inquired what goes on there.”
A man who drops his cigarette in the ashtray in front of the local store shakes his head. “I’ve been living here for a long time, but I’ve never heard of Avalon,” he says.
In a shop, an assistant is putting together a grill. “Yeah, I know that house. But I don’t know what goes on there.”
Even if the state of Avalon is a looming presence in the village with this temple-like building, in the minds of the people of Müllheim it hardly exists.
Yet the fantasy of the wealthy entrepreneur is not discounted by all. “In a democratic state there is no room for parallel structures of government,” says Benjamin Schindler, professor of public law at the University of St. Gallen.
In an interview with the Bernese newspaper Der Bund, Model spoke of his reasons for declaring his own republic two years previously.
“The welfare state doesn’t just fool people, it robs them.” Daniel Model
“In the West, the tutelary state rules and it makes people into paupers under the guise of helping them,” he said. “The welfare state doesn’t just fool people, it robs them.” His conclusion? “We need to reduce it to an absolute minimum.”
As the whole idea was utopian, he decided to start his own state and call it “Avalon”. He got the idea for the name from his daughter. At the time she had been reading the fantasy novel “The Mists of Avalon”, a reworking of the Arthurian legends.
Model’s ideas are derived from the political philosophy of libertarianism. This system of thought advances the principle of individual ownership and sees a need to abolish the state in whole or in part.
This point of view has been brought to Swiss media attention most recently by the vote on the No Billag initiative. Under this proposal, licence fees to support Switzerland’s national broadcaster were to be abolished. But Swiss voters rejected the initiative with a 72% majority.
The initiative was mainly a challenge to the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, swissinfo.ch’s parent company. So it is not surprising that Christian Zullinger, one of the ideological godfathers of the initiative, met journalists in the Model House in Müllheim.
It turns out that the house at Hofstrasse 1 is more than just a fantasy castle for a handful of Swiss rightwing libertarians. It casts quite a radical shadow that extends outside Switzerland’s borders.
In the Swiss register of companies we find four organisations with names in English listed at the Müllheim address: “International Right Commission”, “International Intelligence Agency”, “International Right Organisation” and “International Sheriff Association”. The individuals listed as running these organisations are mostly Austrian.
The organisations may be fictitious, but their members engage in real activities. In March a court case began in Austria against members of the Sheriff organisation based in Müllheim, which allows its representatives to carry and use guns. They are now on trial charged with offences ranging from threatening behaviour and stalking to abuse of office.
In Müllheim itself there have been no such incidents, as the Thurgau cantonal police confirmed. “We have had no reports about such sheriffs, and we have encountered no such people.”
Furthermore, they said: “Thurgau law enforcement keeps an eye on events around the fantasy state Avalon in Müllheim. So far we have seen nothing of a criminal nature.”
Urs Forster, the mayor of Müllheim, also downplays the situation. “We take no notice of this fantasy state. We have never had any cause to develop a policy about this organisation, as there has never been any occasion to do so.” The palatial premises, according to the building permit, were intended as a cultural events and conference centre.
In this video,Forster explains how he was only informed of Avalon’s existence through the media:
‘Libertarian art installation’
Basically, the legitimate democratic state can take action against such parallel structures if need be. Benjamin Schindler considers this not required in the case of Model’s fantasy state: “Looking at it from the outside, Avalon seems to me just a sort of libertarian art installation and not really subversive of the government,” he says.
As long as it remains no more than a fantasy organisation, it presents no legal problem. Schindler also invokes the principle of freedom of opinion. “Anyone whose sense of imagination induces them to create a fantasy entity and call it a state is within their constitutional rights,” he says. “Just like someone who criticises the existing state.”
In Switzerland, then, activities like the imaginary republic of Avalon have their place within the appropriate legal limits. The fact that it is regarded by the official agencies with good-natured tolerance but still with an watchful eye speaks for a well-functioning democracy – one where numerous opinions and philosophies of life are permitted to coexist.
(Translated from German by Terence MacNamee),