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Theodor Tobler

A collectable card from a Tobler chocolate bar (in new window)

A card in the artificial Ido language, included with Tobler "Suisiana Lakto-Chokolado": Swiss milk chocolate. Tobler was a committed internationalist - hence his interest in Ido (an offshoot of Esperanto) and in friendship across the races.© Fonds Suchard-Tobler (dépôt AEN)

Theodor Tobler (1876-1941), who gave his name to one of the most famous chocolates in the world, came from a humble background. His parents arrived in Bern in 1867 from the rural eastern canton of Appenzell, and his father, Jean Tobler (1830-1905) opened a chocolate shop.

Theodor was sent to the best school in the city, in the hope that he would make useful friendships among the rich and influential local families; instead he found himself shunned as a country bumpkin, an experience which apparently left him with the determination to achieve success as a self-made man.

Jean founded his own factory in 1899, and Theodor took it over in 1900. Eight yers later Theodor, with his cousin Emil Baumann, first produced the chocolate for which the company is most famous: the triangular milk chocolate bar with honey and nougat. The name Toblerone is a play  on Tobler and the Italian word "torrone", meaning honey and almond nougat.)

Tobler also claimed credit for making the first filled bars of chocolate, the Tobler-O-rum, in 1932.

Tobler's impact

Tobler was a convinced internationalist. Not surprisingly, he believed passionately in free trade, which would have freed him from customs duties on his imports of raw material and exports of chocolate. But he was also keen to improve the world; he wanted to build bridges between peoples, he dreamt of a single world currency, and one of his pet passions was the encouragement of the international language Ido, a reformed version of Esperanto. He even used the language on some of the collectable cards he included with his chocolate.

Given these views, Tobler was naturally also a committed anti-Nazi. As a freemason, he was a member of a group attacked by the Nazis, and he was more than willing to fight back. He appeared as a witness in a ground-breaking trial in Bern in 1934-5 which proved that the infamous anti-Semitic "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," widely touted by the Nazis, was a forgery. Although the fraudulent nature of the tract was already well documented, this was the first time the case had been made in a court of law.

The Tobler factory left a strong mark on the city of Bern. It was a major employer throughout much of its history. Although hours were long and pay low, Tobler was among the more socially advanced employers. His enterprise had its own health care system and old age and invalidity pensions. Employees had access to food and firewood at reduced prices; they had the use of a library, and women workers were offered courses in housewifery. Long-term employees had the use of a holiday home and holiday camps were arranged for their children.

But Tobler couldn't win: on the one hand he was attacked by some other entrepreneurs for his progressive policies, while on the other hand the workers, rejecting his paternalism, wanted to have a say in decision-making and fought successfully to set up a trade union. Whatever the reaction of his workers, Tobler saw himself as responsible for their well-being, and the risks he took to try to prevent redundancies in the face of the economic crisis of the early 1930s led to his ousting, under pressure from the banks. This was a blow from which he never recovered.

The Toblerone factory left the famous premises in Bern in the 1980s, long after Tobler's death, and moved to Brünnen, just outside the city. Bern university took over the original building and converted it into a library and lecture theatres, which opened in 1993 under the name Unitobler.

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