Switzerland: Die Schweiz/La Suisse/La Svizzera/La Svizra
For those of you who have no idea: I’m Swiss. Not from Sweden or New Zealand, but Switzerland. That’s in the middle of Europe. And Europe is not a country, it’s a subcontinent (it shares the Eurasian continent with – yes, the Asian subcontinent! *dingding* ;)). Now that you know the crucial basics and won’t embarrass yourself beyond repair anymore in front of educated people, I’m going to tell you a little bit about Switzerland and give you some fun facts to brag about among your ignorant non-traveler friends. (I just can’t get over the fact that, what, like 80% of Americans don’t own a passport? Come on, what planet do you live on? Seriously! We are here together, move your ass and explore, discover, see.) Alright then…here’s some distance learning for you:
- Today, on August 1st, is the national holiday of Switzerland. It stands for the foundation of the first Swiss Confederation in 1291.
- Switzerland has 4 national and 3 official languages, meaning people are talking in 4 and the law is talking in 3 languages. 1. German, 2. French, 3. Italian, (4. Rhaeto-Romanic)
- The German-speaking people don’t actually speak German in everyday life, but several different Swiss German dialects which are pretty difficult to understand by German or even other Swiss people. So if you wish to study German, DO NOT attempt to do it in Switzerland, because you won’t :).
- As an act of neutrality, the Swiss country code is composed in Latin: Confoederatio Helvetica (CH).
- The Swiss flag (see picture above) is, next to the Vatican’s flag, the only square one.
- As a result of the ongoing economic crisis and the reassessment of financial collaboration, American citizens can hardly get a Swiss bank account anymore. There seem to be insurmountable difficulties working out agreements concerning the implementation of the Swiss Banking Secrecy.
- To hear the first verse of the Swiss national anthem, click here:
The alpine village of Zermatt with the iconic “Matterhorn” in the background.
If you’re a complete nerd and dig history, read on and get some background information about our Switzerland. Otherwise, save yourself the boredom and get lost, now! 😀
A Short History of Switzerland
The picture of Switzerland as the nice little rich country somewhere in the middle of Europe has charmed many visitors from all around the world. Domiciling a tiny population of approximately 7 million inhabitants, and at the same time consistently ranking amongst the top 5 richest countries in the world, Switzerland would indeed seem like the perfect place to be. I keep hearing tourists calling out in delight: “Oh look! Everything’s so cute and proper! It’s like miniature world!” – But how did this small piece of earth actually become what it is now? What are the origins of our highly praised welfare, independence, security, and neutrality? And what are the difficulties maintaining our unique state in interaction with international policies?
From the Holy Roman Empire to the European Union, Switzerland has gone a long way writing its own history. As a result of its geographical location between the countries known today as Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Liechtenstein, the Swiss territory had always been the target of mutual conquests between the surrounding noble dynasties of the Roman-German Emperors throughout the Middle Ages. Also, the Swiss alpine passes had always been a strategically important spot to possess; whoever owned the Alps obtained full control of North-South trade. So the Swiss populace seized its chance and united itself in the fight against the reigning powerful Germanic House of Habsburg when one of Habsburgs kings died in 1291. The three original states of Switzerland, Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, founded the first Swiss Confederation. During the following late-medieval centuries, more and more Swiss states attached themselves to the Swiss Confederation, in order to sustain their autonomy opposite the House of Habsburg. Nevertheless, there were many battles fought to achieve this goal, eventually ending in the Swiss separation from the Holy Roman Empire in 1648 and the acknowledgment of the Swiss sovereignty according to international law. But once again, the Swiss Confederation was occupied during the 17th century by Napoleon Bonaparte and proclaimed “Helvetic Republic”, until the Swiss borders finally were defined by the Congress of Vienna, and Switzerland was decreeded an “everlasting armed neutrality” in 1815. Left in peace, the Swiss Confederation was now able to turn its attention to inner policies, and the alliance war between the catholic and protestant states aroused. However, the turning point came in 1848: The victorious “Reformed” ended all conflicts by converting the Swiss Confederation into the Swiss Federal State and creating a Federal Constitution, and Switzerland as we know it was born. It has never participated in a war since and remains until today a one-of-a-kind half-direct democracy.
Through all those fights and troubles in the early history of Switzerland, the Swiss appear to have learned some lessons on how to provide their homeland with comparatively high standards of independence, security and economic consistency. We try to outline our activities in international affairs and global politics quite neatly, and we generally refuse to get involved in any matters that are not directly related to our own concerns or for the sake of charity. For example, Switzerland is a member of the United Nations, in order to support worldwide understanding and agreement, but has never joined the NATO, which would undermine our neutrality by forcing us to take a political and military stand in case of war. Another major political focus has recently lain upon the creation and expansion of the European Union. Swiss politicians have considered, but never agreed to become a member of the European Union, since people have repeatedly voted against it. It seems we’ve taken the stance that allying ourselves with Big Brother would cost us too much valued independence and would be worse than the current and sometimes stressful policy of bilateral relations. Critics may of course describe this national spirit as isolationism and our hesitant market opening as an economically hindering slackness, and this may very well be true; but it’s also likely to be the way we simply have best experienced to ensure this countrys survival throughout history. Call it an outdated attitude – the point is, since nobody can know better and history tends to repeat itself, it might as well be a lucky move? I guess the future will tell.
Switzerlands political tightrope walk peaks in the conflict of Swiss neutrality versus the Swiss humanitarian engagement willing to campaign for global justice. The most memorable occasion by far happened during World War II, when Jewish fugitives crossed the German border and sought protection in Switzerland. So what would a declared-to-be-neutral country do in this case? Turn in the Jews to the Germans and probable death? Well, in this delicate situation, Switzerland (warily and somewhat unofficially) made a temporary factual exception and took in almost 300’000 fugitives, Jews and not, even at times against the law – when the surrounding Allies had become overwhelming and resource supplies short. The Swiss needed to keep up a fine balance and be friendly enough to Germany (like managing their money) in order to survive themselves at all. This subject later turned into a major debate amongst historians, whether Switzerland could have taken in even more Jews without being invaded by Germany; but Switzerland had already made its decision to guarantee the national security after all – what help would it have been to Jews as well, if Switzerland had been conquered by Hitler?
The illustrious example of the Second World War beautifully shows Switzerlands many political contradictions in the pursuit of its world-known neutrality. Of course, there are also burning contemporary issues related to Swiss foreign policies, such as our questionable Banking Secrecy, which is accused to act as an easy shelter for money laundry and hereby could be supporting worldwide business corruption; or the difficulties on the way to supporting instead of exploiting developing countries, facing various economic and diplomatic interests; and finally, the fight against climate change, which represents a huge challenge not only for Switzerland, but for all residents of this planet.
Well – as for me, I can only say that I believe in Switzerlands cooperation contributing to a better world, and that I am truly happy and even an irrational smidge proud to be a member of such a tiny but nevertheless strong and upright nation. Relatively speaking ;). Switzerland, I love you!