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Switzerland: Die Schweiz/La Suisse/La Svizzera/La Svizra

August 1, 2009

flagge_schweizFor 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:

Zermatt

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!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Brian permalink
    August 6, 2009 3:02 am

    Hi! I am a Swiss American and I still have family in Graubunden. Someday, I’ll visit the country. By the way, do you know how to speak Swiss German? Because I would love to learn it.

    Like

    • August 6, 2009 4:41 am

      Hi Brian! Yes I speak Swiss German, all German-speaking Swiss natives do (ok that sounds wrong :)). But the regional accents vary quite heavily, so you might still have trouble understanding others. I like Graubünden, it has some beautiful nature scenery. Come and visit some time!

      Like

  2. August 7, 2009 12:26 am

    Great post, even though I like your satirical wit a little more I dig the informative stuff.

    As an American, I can tell you that there are very good reasons as to why most of us do not own passports: we don’t need them. Unlike Europe where another nation is just a few hours down the road, America only borders Canada and Mexico.

    For the longest time, all you needed to get to and from these countries was a Birth Certificate. It was only a couple months ago when the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative took effect and we now need either a passport or enhanced drivers license to get out and get back in.

    Now with that in mind, the only two cities in Canada that people really go to are Vancouver and Toronto (or Windsor if you’re in the Detroit area and want to drink before you’re 21, being from Detroit I know that turning 19 and going to Canada is a bit of a right of passage), but aside from a few specialty locations there isn’t a whole lot of incentive to travel to Canada. Mexico was a popular vacation destination for a while, but all the kidnappings, murders, and drug smuggling, it’s no longer the fun in the sun allure that it used to be.

    The big issue is that people directly compare America to whatever European country. However, people in New York are going to be very different than the people in Mississippi. The ones in California different than those in Michigan, etc. A better comparison is to compare the United States to Europe as a whole and the individual states to European Countries. All the different variation you get with Spain, Switzerland, Holland, England, etc, we get from every different part of the United States.

    I don’t know what the impression of “Americans” as a whole is over there, but I really do believe that putting all of us into the same category would be the same as if we were to do it with all Europeans, which I do believe you would agree is unfair.

    So no, we don’t have passports and don’t get them until we need them. Don’t get me wrong, if I could visit Europe or Asia on a whim, I would. It’s just that trans-continental travel is expensive enough as it is, let a lone trans-Atlantic travel.

    Like

    • August 9, 2009 12:33 am

      Hi John! Thanks a lot for your information!

      I absolutely agree, America can’t be compared to any single peanut-sized European country, let alone little Switzerland. Americans obviously don’t feel the same need to leave the US since you already have such an enormous variety within your own boundaries. I admit there is a tendency to categorize Americans as “Americans”, whatever good or bad thing that may be (mostly: immoderate :)). It’s about as wrong as describing something as “European” – I think we’re in the same universal boat of prejudice here.
      Personally, I know it’s not true, I just like to provoke a bit. Throw something juicy in there for people to reflect on. No offense – it’s all good fun!
      I really hope you get to visit good old Europe some day. I’m sure you’d be somewhat surprised, too!😉
      Greetings from Switzerland

      Like

      • August 10, 2009 7:27 pm

        A little back and fourth is always good for everybody😉

        But yes, as much as I dislike labels the term “American” gets thrown around way too much. Being an American means something different to everybody, and while there isn’t that allure of state pride like there was a few hundred years ago, I feel that the attitudes and the culture speak for themselves.

        I fear that with the intermixing through open borders and the EU blanket, that over there that over time, people will lose their statehood and adopt themselves under the European banner. Hopefully your cultures and history are so deeply rooted that you can prevent that, and I sincerely hope they are.

        Nonetheless, I keep an open mind about such matters, and would love to take a trip across the pond to see the glorious pictures I’ve known come to life. I would make a list of places to visit, but realistically I would never finish it :p And I’m sure many different surprises await me. That being said, I’m sure this side of the Atlantic would be an eye opener for you as well.

        Greetings back to you from Detroit, the only place in America where Canada is South of the United States🙂

        Like

        • August 12, 2009 2:32 pm

          There is a lot of tension going on about immigrants in Switzerland, especially concerning those from Eastern Europe, like Turkey or the Balkans. One wants to be liberal, open-minded and humanitarian, yet there definitely are some practical difficulties culture-wise. Integrating = mixing and losing individual identities? And is integration even a realistic option, meaning people might not really want to adapt and commit in the first place? Get the riches for free, so to speak, and maybe (ideally) return to their home countries with it later? Many Swiss people feel our extensive welfare system is exploited by foreigners without much contribution in return. Major drama. I sometimes don’t know what I should vote for; I think it’s very delicate to tell what Switzerland should be like. (And in a way, this is very similar to the US, isn’t it?)
          Check it out:
          Proposed Swiss immigration laws show ‘rise of new racism and xenophobia’
          Immigration Dominates Swiss Vote
          As for me, I’d rather travel🙂. Regardless all the controversy, I’m a huge fan of the US and visit whenever I can. I’ve even lived in NYC for half a year during my studies there. It’s amazing. I’ve traveled the East and West Coast, did road trips into the countryside (and even Canada), but admittedly not much of the Central US, except for Texas🙂 ouch. So next en route must be an original cross-American drive, no jetting around, and Alaska😉. Maybe see you in Detroit some day!

          Like

          • August 12, 2009 2:36 pm

            Whoops, this was supposed to be a reply to John Cruz…something went wrong here:/.

            Like

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