Ulrich Bräker, The poor man in Tockenburg


Published by Diogenes, 1995


“Caesar defeated the Gauls. Was there not even a cook in his army?” is the bold question of Bertold Brecht in his poem “Questions from a Worker who Reads”. A good question, because history often seems to be something that happens right at the top. Rulers give the orders. And that is the end of it. As if no soldiers were needed to fight the battles ordered.


Ulrich Bräker’s “The Poor Man of Toggenburg” is famous because he is one of the few authors who offer an answer to Brecht’s question. Certainly not for the time of Caesar but for the period of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763).


Some consider this conflict history’s first world war. It made Frederick the Great become a legend. It was an important event, then. For Ulrich Bräker, though, it was merely a precarious employment. Serving as a Prussian soldier, Bräker did not earn enough money to make a living, let alone provide for his family or for old age. This is how Bräker himself describes it: “Thereupon I went into an eating-house and ordered dinner and a jug of beer. For this I had to pay two groschen. Now, from the six that I had, four remained; on these I had to live for four days and they would last for two at the most. This reckoning made me lament sorely to my comrades. One of them, Cran by name, said to me laughing: ‘That'll teach you. But never mind, you have plenty of things you can sell. … And as for your board, just watch carefully what the others do. You'll see three, four or five of them clubbing together to buy corn or peas or potatoes, to cook for themselves. Each morning they have a dreier's worth of spirits and a piece of bread from the ration, at midday, send to the inn for another dreier's worth of soup, and another piece of the bread-ration goes with it. In the evening kovent or small beer, two pence worth, and bread once again’. … A soldier has to learn to get by, because there are all manner of other articles that he needs: pipeclay, powder, shoe-polish, oil, emery, soap and God knows what besides.’ I: ‘And all this has to come out of six groschen?’ He: ‘Yes, and much more besides, for example the bill for your washing, for cleaning your weapons and so forth, if you can't do these things for yourself’.”


All these remarks are true down to the last detail, because Ulrich Bräker (1735-1798) speaks from experience. He tells his own life story, unusual for the son of a simple peasant. But Bräker had gotten about quite a lot. At the age of 21, a Prussian recruiting officer talked him into entering military service. For the recruiting officer, this was a lucrative deal, as he got a bounty for every man he recruited. For Bräker, this was a bad decision, which he revised as soon as possible. He deserted and returned home.


But life at home is hard, too, when you have to provide for a family of nine. Bräker is a small farmer. That’s nothing like enough. And so, just as everyone else, he earned a little bit extra. He worked in the St. Gall cloth industry. The fabrics were a piece of homework, for wages were much lower in the country. Bräker served as a liaison for the St. Gall cloth masters. He delivered the raw material to the home-workers, controlled their work, payed them, and transported the finished product to the city.


Bräker’s autobiography is a treasure trove for anyone dealing with the history of everyday life. For this author recounts history from below, from the perspective of all those who were pinched by it. He gave the voiceless a voice and reminded them that once upon a time Swiss people had to go abroad because at home there was not enough work and income.


Ursula Kampmann

Translated by Annika Backe

Signet Sunflower Foundation