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The great fire of Glarus: Helvetia is born

In May 1861 a fire destroyed most of the municipality of Glarus in Switzerland. The destruction of this industrial base is considered an important event in the history of Swiss insurance – and so it is for Helvetia.

14 August 2015, Text: Fabian Weidmann

During the night of 10 to 11 May 1861 Glarus was in flames. Two thirds of the cantonal capital was destroyed in a matter of hours and several hundred buildings were consumed by the fire, leaving many residents homeless. The cause of the fire remains unclear to this day. Initially there were suspicions it was due to the carelessness of the owner of the barn where it started – but the strong foehn wind also contributed to the rapid and extensive spread of the fire. What’s more, the houses were generally made of wood and were therefore easily engulfed by the flames.

Built to new plans

There are now theories that the fire was started intentionally (see “Stadt in Flammen” by Walter Hauser). The police investigations were abandoned just three weeks after the fire. Nevertheless, news of the great fire of Glarus spread around the world. The newspapers, railways, telegraph offices and photographs that were emerging at the time made the disaster quite a media event well beyond the region. Moreover, the fire triggered a wave of solidarity throughout Switzerland and beyond, which was unusual for the time: food, clothing and furniture was procured from far and wide and donated to Glarus’s residents.

Over the course of time the fire came to be seen as an opportunity: after the destruction, the town centre was rebuilt according to entirely new plans. The narrow alleys gave way to a town built along grid lines with broad streets, large blocks of homes and stately buildings. For a flourishing industrial base as Glarus was at the time, these represented the perfect conditions for it to continue to flourish.

The roots of Helvetia

Most of the building owners at the time were not insured and therefore lost all their worldly possessions. Even those who had insurance were often left empty-handed, because the buildings insurance providers did not have enough financial means to cover all the damage. This devastating fact led to the development of various fire and property insurance companies across Switzerland, one of which was “Helvetia Feuer”.

Helvetia had actually been founded as an insurance company, the “Allgemeine Versicherungs-Gesellschaft Helvetia”, in St. Gallen three years before – but it was the great fire of Glarus that prompted the foundation of a private fire insurance company. Previously the cantonal buildings insurance had generally had the monopoly, which made it impossible to balance out risk.

It was only in 1974, more than 100 years after the fire, that “Helvetia Feuer” and “Helvetia Allgemeine” merged and from then on called themselves simply Helvetia Feuer. At an extraordinary general meeting in October 1988 the shareholders decided to completely separate the two partner companies “Helvetia Feuer” and “Helvetia Unfall”. Whilst Helvetia Unfall was renamed Elvia (now Allianz Global Assistance), Helvetia Feuer was given the name “Helvetia Versicherungen”, meaning “Helvetia Insurance” and gained a new mission and a new image: the three-dimensional triangle symbol, which is still in use today.

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