Das Bundeshaus, Bern. Foto: TES.

Why Switzerland ?

Why Switzerland is the title of Jonathan Steinberg’s book (Cambridge, third edition, 2015). The book is a detailed study of seven centuries of history, politics, religion, culture, economy and values that have shaped the country and its cantons and made them what they are: not an island but an oasis in the middle of Europe, or with Steinberg’s words:

“Why Switzerland? consists of two parts: why is there Switzerland? And why should anybody else care? The answer to the first is clear and has been the main effort in this book: a detailed study of creating a unique and successful small state over seven centuries and how and why it has worked. The answer to the second is the other face of the answer to the first. This small country represents the most intensive and continuous experiment in the strengths and limits of democracy. Switzerland matters to everybody who prefers democracy”.

Vevey, 29 July 2019. Photo: TES

Stereotypes and facts

There are plenty of stereotypes and facts about Switzerland (and its inhabitants). Whenever the country makes it into the foreign press, it is invariably about the Jewish assets from the Second World War, the banking secrecy, black- or criminal money, the late introduction of suffrage for women (1971), the Minaret ban (2009) or the setting of quotas for emigrants (2014). Recently, the application of neutrality in the case of an indirect supply of weapons to Ukraine can be added.

This article does not deal with these facts. Still, it intends to put them into the perspective of the centuries-old historical, social and political developments, direct democracy, the almost proverbial politeness in daily life, and respect for privacy.

Country of refuge

Switzerland was a country of emigration until 1848. At the same time, it has always been a place of refuge for (French) protestants or Huguenots, humanists and intellectuals from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, revolutionaries and anarchists, on the one hand, monarchs and aristocrats on the other hand in the nineteenth century, pacifists, anti-war activists (the artistic movement Dada in Zurich, for example) and refugees from 1914 onwards.

In the 19th century, the Austrian chancellor Klemens Von Metternich (1773-1859) called the country a shelter for republicans and anarchists. Switzerland was the black sheep of the surrounding European monarchies. There was even a possibility of an invasion to end its liberal policy. It never came to that because the country and its cantons (which ultimately decided on the right of residence) sometimes gave in to prevent further provocations.

Women’s suffrage 

The late introduction of women’s suffrage is also more complicated than the year 1971 suggests. Women could already study at Swiss universities as early as 1867, and they (and some men) already demanded suffrage. In 1869, Marie Vögtlin (1845-1916) became the first woman in Europe to study medicine. Emilie Kempin-Spyri (1853-1901), the niece of the writer Johanna Spyri (1827-1901), the author of Heidi (1881), obtained her doctorate in 1887, making her the first Frau Doktor by her thesis in Europe. Women were also involved in all kinds of societal organisations. Until 1918, their voting and legal status did not differ from other European countries except the Nordic countries.

Marie Vögtlin (1845–1916). Foto: Wikipedia

Then came the First World War and the deployment of women as replacements for men in the warfaring nations. In 1918, this social position could not be reversed, and the governments introduced suffrage without a referendum.

Women had not replaced men in neutral Switzerland. There were, however, federal initiatives and referendums at the cantonal level on women’s suffrage. They did not succeed in the (political) world and mind setting of exclusively male voters and politicians at the cantonal and federal levels. Would this outcome have been different in other countries? In addition, most (small and rural) cantons opposed this right at the national level until 1971 and, on one occasion, even until a ruling of the Supreme Court (Bundesgericht) in 1991.

After its introduction, however, the women took their position. The first female ‘president’ or prima inter pares in the national government was already there in 1999. The number and quality of female politicians are also high. The legal status of (married) Swiss women was just as incapacitated as in other European countries until the 1950s and 1960s.

Jean-Baptiste Isabey (1767-1855), Congress of Vienna. Photo: Wikipedia


And then neutral Switzerland’s relationship with Germany after France’s fall in June 1940. Switzerland was too restrictive in admitting Jewish refugees before and after 1940. The country is still ashamed today, although there were also ‘disobedient’ officials, citizens and rescuers, and public opinion rejected the policy. Switzerland was no exception to this restrictive policy either. The “J” in the passport of Jewish people from 1939 onwards at the border was rejectable from a moral point of view and a (voluntary) sign of cowardness to please the neighbour.

The country and its factories (indirectly) supplied weapons to Germany, and Germany put its (looted and stolen) gold and money in Swiss bank accounts. But what was the alternative? Aggressive dictatorships surrounded the country. 

Although the country was heavily armed and would probably have put up fierce resistance in its Alpine fortress (Reduite), it was impossible to resist for long. The motto was to survive by compromising and pleasing. In this respect, Switzerland is no exception to other neutral countries (Sweden, for example) or the industries and bureaucracies in occupied countries.

It is always easy to judge retrospectively. In any case, there has never been a relevant political movement with sympathy for the Italian dictator and his Irredentismo, nor in Ticino, or for the German dictator and his Heim ins Reich in German-speaking Switzerland. The French- and German-speaking Swiss were united in their rejection of the German and Italian ambitions. Moreover, on 20 April 1939, Switzerland was the only country that did not send a formal delegation to the Führer’s birthday parade in Berlin. It was a protest against the invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. From a moral point of view, the country was not neutral.  

The neutrality is heavily debated because of the invasion of Ukraine. The public and parliamentary debates are in full swing. Neutrality is not a goal, and different circumstances require different applications. The neutrality of 1815 was and is not the neutrality of 1933-1945, 1948-1989 and 2022. The politicians will hopefully not make the same “J” mistake in 2022 in the expectation of pleasing another dictator, although a Swiss Lord Haw Haw (1906-1946) is on stage.

The Toblerones near Einsiedeln, canton of Schwyz, 1940. Photo: TES.

Banking secrecy

Handling the (unclaimed) Jewish assets after 1945 is related to the centuries-old banking secrecy. Many account holders and their families had not survived. Distant relatives were often unaware, and the banking secrecy, bureaucracy and legal issues prevented access to the accounts. Could it have been handled differently? Yes, but banking secrecy was sacrosanct and not written for this situation. It also applies to today’s black money or assets of dictators and (other) criminals.

Pecunia non olet also applies to Switzerland. Many adjustments and reforms have already been made or are pending. Can it be done faster? Undoubtedly, but here too, Switzerland is no exception.

Referendum and People’s Initiative

It also applies to the outcomes of referendums or People’s Initiatives. Citizens are worried about certain developments and can express it directly in Switzerland. Is it always right? No, but neither are decisions by professional politicians, let alone ignoring problems or avoiding public and political debate.

The political organisation 

Direct democracy, the federal model, the decentralised organisation of the country, the unique Constitution of 1848 and its mandatory seven ministers, the Konkordanzsystem and the Zauberformul in forming the government, the special relationship between parliament and government and the equality of the first and the second chamber of the national parliament, the combination of the Majorzsystem or the election by an absolute majority of individuals in elections for the second chamber (senate) and the executive bodies of the cantons and municipalities, and the Proporzsystem or the proportional representation in elections for the municipal, cantonal and national (first chamber) parliaments, the annually rotating ‘president’ of the country or the primus/prima inter pares of the federal government are the basis of the political and social stability.

The citizen is sovereign.

However, the most important asset of the Swiss model is the citizen. The citizen is the absolute sovereign (except in a state of emergency) and, together with the cantons, is the founder of the Federation, the guardian of the Constitution and the supreme legislator unless powers have been transferred to the Federation by the citizens and the cantons, in which case there is still always the possibility of a binding referendum.

Their societal engagement reflects the political involvement of the citizen. It is expressed, among other things, in the functioning of the national, cantonal and municipal political and democratic institutions and the ‘Milizsystem‘, the respect for nature, farmers, artisans and (traffic) rules, politeness in daily life and the astonishing and impressive scientific, industrial and intellectual creativity and innovative power across the country.  


Steinberg writes:

“The Swiss have always found a way to deal with the threats to their way of life every century. They have done so because the determination to survive and preserve ‘Swissness’ has not depended on will but on a way of being, a set of values and habits so deeply ingrained that most Swiss are almost unaware of how powerful these values are.

To live together was more important than to be right. Switzerland can not be a model for other countries because its history can not be repeated, but it can encourage other societies. For more than seven centuries, it has managed to face its problems, and in doing so, it has expanded, not contracted, the sphere of activity of the sovereign people”.

That is Why Switzerland. The genuine democratic European Union of twenty-six (centuries-old) sovereign republics.