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Home Uncategorized The Swiss Laid Bare

The Swiss Laid Bare

Fergal Lenehan

The Naked Swiss: A Nation behind 10 Myths, by Clare O’Dea, Bergli Books, 194 pp, CHF 23.80, ISBN: 978-3905252903

Like many parents, my day’s end usually comprises slinking away from the sleeping children, followed by the pouring of a glass of red wine, the location of a comfortable place on the sofa, and, simply and wonderfully, watching some television. The televisual aspect of this humble evening pleasure is now laden with dread, however, as the Trump presidency dominates news cycles. I read Clare O’Dea’s concisely written and highly readable overview of the Swiss people and culture in the week of Trump’s inauguration. It now appears almost old-fashioned in this time of “alternative facts” and selective accusations of “fake news”. O’Dea’s approach is guided by the idea of objective truth, her writing “driven by a desire to get the facts straight, and for those facts to be fair and accurate”. A dedication to truth remains a reassuringly stable methodology in the present global context, even if many may have a problem with the author’s contention that she has got to know “the real Swiss” (is it possible to get to know the “real” anything?)

O’Dea is a Dublin-born writer, journalist and translator, who has lived in Switzerland for the past thirteen years. With this book she also becomes the Irish counterpart of Basel-born Gabrielle Alioth, a writer, journalist and long-term resident of Ireland who has depicted her adopted country in a number of German-language works. O’Dea’s factual approach consists of three distinct but intertwined layers. The first is based upon extensive research in the historical, sociological and political literature on Switzerland (in English, German and French) from which she provides detailed but concise overviews of the various subjects tackled. The author also reads Russian and interesting Swiss-Russian vignettes are sprinkled throughout the text. The second layer is based upon interviews with disparate people, from a former president, to a Dutch-born athlete who represented Switzerland at the Olympics, to a literary-minded Fribourg street-sweeper. The author is unafraid of taking a position and personal pronouncements are aired, while impressions and images drawn from her daily working and personal life provide the occasionally poetic third layer of the text.

O’Dea places ten stereotypes about Switzerland and the Swiss – she calls them at various times “assumptions”, “myths” and “clichés” – at the centre of her text, with the aim of testing “those clichés by examining the facts and the individuals behind them”. German scholars of intercultural communication, such as Jürgen Bolten at the University of Jena, argue that intercultural didactic contexts should never centre on such stereotypes, even if approached critically, as the already existent cultural prejudices of participants are simply reinforced. Yet O’Dea’s concentration upon stereotypes appears here quite plausible. She places her faith in the reader’s ability to deal with complexity, and utilises the ten chosen stereotypes as a springboard for a multifaceted and thoughtful discussion. Thus she seeks to engage the reader in a self-conscious act of reflection and self-examination, enabling him or her to consciously deconstruct preconceptions rather than simply reinforcing them.

Diverse authors have historically looked to the Swiss system of democracy as a role model. O’Dea explains the extraordinary nature of Swiss direct democracy (at least for those of us socialised within representative democracies), discussing both its advantages and its problematic side. Switzerland is a state in which citizens actually have more decision-making power than elected representatives. The Swiss system contains two chambers: the National Council, with two hundred members chosen by proportional representation, and the Council of States made up of representatives of the cantons. Every canton has its own legislature, constitution and courts. The Swiss government is the seven-member Federal Council, the four main political parties share the seven cabinet positions, and the role of president is swapped between ministers, who take the position for a year.

The public keeps elected representatives on a short leash: Swiss voters can block any new laws, provided that 50,000 signatures are collected within a hundred days of the publication of new legislation. A referendum is then held. Citizens and campaigners in Switzerland have another powerful tool at their disposal: popular initiative. This means that citizens, once they collect 100,000 signatures within eighteen months, can write their own dream law and force the nation to vote on it in a referendum. This means also that, as O’Dea writes, “clipboard-wielding signature hunters are a common sight on Swiss streets”. Double majority provision means, however, that all popular initiatives need to be accepted by a majority of cantons as well as a simple majority of votes. Direct democracy is not just practised at federal level, but also at cantonal and communal level. Four out of five communes, as small as a village or as big as a city, still make direct democratic decisions at the communal assembly and all inhabitants entitled to vote may participate. Federal and cantonal votes are held on four Sundays a year and, as the majority now vote by post, the author tells us that the Swiss system is often called “kitchen table democracy”.

Yet, as attractive as this interlocking mix of direct and parliamentary democracy may seem, the system also has its downsides. The relative lack of drama in federal elections, predestined as they are to end in relatively stable coalition governments, and constant referenda on a very wide variety of topics, mean that voter apathy remains a problem, with as little as forty per cent of the electorate usually voting in referenda. The proportion of sovereign individuals in relation to the actual population is also relatively low, with a large number of Swiss-born people with a migratory background, and a foreign passport, excluded from voting. Many also view the direct democratic system negatively, as the “dictatorship of the majority”. O’Dea emphasises that popular initiative, originally a tool that was used sparingly, has now become an instrument for political parties, who mobilise their support base to acquire the necessary signatures and instigate a referendum on a topic the party feels strongly about. Political scientists, she tells us, have recently suggested raising the signature hurdle to 210,000, or four per cent of the Swiss population. Parliament has the role of wording conclusively new laws stemming from popular initiatives, a process that also becomes subject to political wrangling. Yet, despite such difficulties, the Swiss system rightly retains numerous admirers.

O’Dea tackles the notion that “the Swiss are sexist”; the resulting chapter is a superb and fascinating distillation of Swiss women’s history. In some aspects, one could at least argue, women’s history in Switzerland has been quite liberal; it was one of the first European countries to legislate for abortion in 1937, while it has what the author describes as a “no-big-deal” attitude to prostitution, which has been legal since 1942 (the country now also has problems with illegal and forced prostitution). The idea of Swiss sexism arises of course from the fact that Switzerland was the last (non-Arab) state to grant women full voting rights; astonishingly this occurred only in 1971. O’Dea, quite feasibly, sees the principal reason for this in the direct democracy system: Swiss women quite literally had to convince the majority of voting men that they also should have suffrage. O’Dea interviews suffragette activists and charts the discussion surrounding various referenda from the 1920s to 1971. Included here also are reproductions of some fascinating, and bizarre, referendum posters. This was not the only indignity that Swiss women had to endure: until 1992 women lost their citizenship upon marrying a foreigner, until 1988 they lost control of their assets upon marriage, while rape within marriage only became a crime in 2004. The worst fate was saved, however, for unmarried mothers, who, until the 1970s, faced internment for “licentiousness” and the forced adoption of their children. There exists, thus, a wider European context for Ireland’s own dark history of ruthlessly incarcerating vulnerable women.

Neutrality represents another commonality between Switzerland and Ireland. In the Swiss case it is, however, not a passive neutrality but an internationally involved neutrality. The Swiss state regularly denounces aggression, imposes sanctions and becomes heavily involved in peace initiatives. O’Dea points out the important role that Swiss diplomats have played as a communicative valve between the USA and Cuba from 1961 to 2015, and at the present time between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Switzerland has enjoyed centuries of neutrality; it is however “an advanced form of armed neutrality” that rests on strong military capacities. As O’Dea writes: “Far from being an oasis of peace and pacifism, Switzerland is one of the most militarised societies in Europe.” It spends five billion francs a year on its army, lags only behind the US, Serbia and Yemen in terms of gun ownership and remains a large player in the global arms industry. Swiss men still have to complete military service and, under the militia system, 155,000 recently trained men are ready to turn up for duty, armed and in uniform, at a moment’s notice. O’Dea makes it clear that neutrality is a cornerstone of Swiss identity and the state plays an important international role as a peacemaker; but shrinking violets the Swiss most definitely are not.

An ambivalent position in World War Two, arising from a somewhat contradictory stance of official neutrality combined with the reality of intense cultural intertwinement with one or more players in the war, is also something that both Ireland and Switzerland share. Recent research suggests that Ireland was indeed neutral; but at state level it practised a neutrality that favoured the allies. (See here: Pádraig Murphy, “Neutrality by Ordeal”, http://www.drb.ie/essays/neutrality-by-ordeal.) Historians of Switzerland have studied this period extensively, analysing it chiefly via the lens of morality. The Bergier Report on Switzerland’s position during the war, quoted by O’Dea, decided that the neutrality argument was often “improperly invoked to justify not only decisions made in all kinds of spheres, but also inaction on the part of the state”. The economic ties between Switzerland and Germany ran deep and were, and indeed still are, reflected in professional, financial and personal relationships. For this reason the Swiss historian Linus von Castelmur believes that Switzerland fell inescapably into “Germany’s gravitational field” from 1940 to 1944.

Ireland’s poor record in relation to the great refugee crisis of the late 1930s and early 1940s, marked by the Irish state’s anti-Semitism, represents a source of shame; recent research by Gisela Holfter and Horst Dickel suggests that up to four hundred Austro-German refugees, Jewish and non-Jewish, stayed at some point in Ireland during this period. This is a ridiculously insignificant number of people viewed in comparison with the millions murdered by the Nazis, even if Ireland remained a largely impoverished society at some geographic distance from the centres of conflict. Switzerland’s anti-Semitic approach to the refugee question at this time has also been a source of shame; the Swiss president Kaspar Villiger issued a public apology in 1995 for the state’s treatment of Jewish refugees. Switzerland wanted to avoid the importation of a new Jewish population and requested that German and Austrian officials mark Jewish passports with a red “J”, although it was clear that Jews had very valid reasons for fleeing Germany. According to then Swiss asylum law, asylum was only given to political refugees, not those fleeing on religious or racial grounds. Yet Switzerland, at the heart of Europe and close to the conflict, took in 295,000 refugees over the six years of the war, including 21,000 Jews. In 1942, with the Nazi murder machine in full motion, the Swiss government tightened its asylum conditions further. At least 20,000 Jews were turned away at the Swiss border, many to be murdered by the Nazis. Yet, as O’Dea also makes clear, there were other voices. Some politicians did indeed plead for Switzerland to take in larger numbers of desperate people fleeing mass murder. Individual Swiss people also helped refugees they came into contact with, and an unknown number of people were smuggled into the country. While Switzerland itself did not pay a bloody price for its actions, it did, as O’Dea notes, “pay another price, a price of moral compromise that penetrated deep into the nation’s soul, and it has taken generations to acknowledge and atone for those failings”.

A comparative approach to history may represent a methodology that illuminates certain aspects of the past in an innovative manner, opening up original avenues of argumentation. German practitioners of transnational and global history have criticised comparative historians as producers of Defizit Geschichte: a deficit history that normalises and prioritises one context over another. This does not, however, have to be the case; a Swiss-Irish comparative history has the potential to be an innovative and interesting methodology. Reading Clare O’Dea’s marvellous introduction to Swiss history and culture would be a good place for budding Swiss-Irish comparative historians to start.


Fergal Lenehan teaches Intercultural Studies at the Friedrich-Schiller-University of Jena. He has published two books: Intellectuals and Europe  published in 2014 and Stereotypes, Ideology and Foreign Correspondents: German Media Representations of Ireland,1946-2010 published in 2016.



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