Home Moving to Switzerland Society & History Famous Swiss people: who is the greatest Swiss of all time?
Last update on May 12, 2020

Who is the greatest Swiss ever? When the Swiss cast their votes, their nominations for Switzerland’s greatest legend revealed an interesting fact: many famous Swiss people have a history of immigration.

Some years ago, a program on Swiss TV revealed who the Swiss public had voted as the grösste Schweizer Legende, or greatest Swiss legend. That doesn’t mean it had to be a legendary figure but someone who was a legend in their own lifetime, or afterwards.

And who was the winner?

The greatest Swiss person in history

Albert Einstein. The greatest Swiss person in history, and he was born in Germany and died in America. Crucially, in between those two countries he lived in Switzerland and became Swiss.

In 1905 he developed his theory of relativity (E=MC2 and all that) in Bern and was still Swiss when he won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921, even though he was no longer living here. In fact he moved to Switzerland in 1895 and gained citizenship only six years later. Today it takes foreigners (who aren’t married to Swiss nationals) twice as long.

Second in the poll was Roger Federer, the greatest Swiss sports star ever. Or at least half of him is, presumably the half that holds the racquet. The other half is South African, thanks to his mother. In a parallel universe, he would be Roger Du Rand, the best tennis player ever from South Africa.

Third was William Tell, who probably never existed and is really only a Swiss national hero because of a play written by a German and an opera written by an Italian.

It’s quite revealing that none of the top three is 100% Swiss, or, in one case, not even a real person. What does that say about Swiss society? Or about Swiss celebrity? To me is says two very important things.

Firstly, immigrants play a crucial role in Switzerland and always have done. Without immigration and integration, Switzerland would not be as successful as it has been, either economically or culturally. Not just Einstein or Federer, but also Nicolas Hayek (the watch savior) who was sixth on this Swiss list and Henry Nestlé who surprisingly didn’t make the cut. Both also born abroad, both creators of Swiss industrial giants.

Secondly, Switzerland produces few celebrities. It’s a society that mirrors its political system, one in which personality is usually played down: tall poppies don’t last long here. Don’t stand out from the crowd, don’t boast about your success, don’t be different. Modesty at all times in all things. Looking at the top 10, as voted by the Swiss public, we can see how many of them are only well-known within Switzerland.

Top 10 Swiss legends

  1. Albert Einstein
  2. Roger Federer
  3. William Tell
  4. Henri Dunant
  5. Gottlieb Duttweiler
  6. Mani Matter
  7. Nicolas Hayek
  8. Friedrich Dürrenmatt
  9. Emil Steinberger
  10. Henri Guisan

The top three aside, which of those names would be recognized outside Switzerland? Dürrenmatt maybe, among arty-booky types, or Hayek in business circles. There’s no sign of Carl Jung or Jean-Jacques Rousseau (neither of whom made the list at all), in fact.

Instead we have the founder of Migros, a singer who sang in dialect, a TV comic and a wartime general. Distinctly domestic celebrities, which is perhaps how it should be. There’s no reason why anyone Swiss should be famous in other countries. But maybe more Swiss people could be famous in this country, so that the top three would all be truly the greatest Swiss of all time.

Why no Swiss women in the list?

Perhaps the most other telling fact is that there are no women in the top 10. The first female is at Number 13: Heidi, jointly with her creator Johanna Spyri. No big surprise given that for centuries Swiss women were excluded from politics and business. You don’t win prizes for being the best farmer’s wife or best mother, unfortunately. Maybe another poll in 100 years will have a woman in the top 10. Here’s hoping. This is the land of Helvetia, after all.

And the big final question: who would get your vote as the greatest Swiss person ever?