Why Switzerland?

Jonathan Steinberg

Cambridge University Press 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 2010 https://dannyreviews.com/
The first (1976) edition of Why Switzerland? posed two questions: Why would anyone be interested enough in Switzerland to read a book about it? And why does Switzerland exist — how did it come to be? This second (1996) edition adds a third: Why should Switzerland continue to exist?

There are chapters on history, politics, language, wealth, religion, and identity, but these are all approached from a historical perspective. Steinberg begins a historical overview in media res, with Napoleon's decisions in his 1803 Act of Mediation, looking at why Switzerland didn't go the way of Germany or Italy under the influence of the French Revolution, impelled to form a unitary centralised state.

He then goes back to tell the story from the twelfth century on, covering the key events of Swiss history, but not always from a traditional perspective. The union of 1291 was only notable in retrospect. 1481 settled conflicts between mountain and lowland cantons, and the 1712 Peace of Aarau brought peace between Catholics and Protestants. The civil war of 1847 pitched Liberals against conservative Catholic cantons. The Prussianised military sided secretly with Germany in World War I, but 1918 brought a General Strike and 1937 the first major union-employer accord. In World War II the Swiss prepared to retreat into the mountains and defy the Germans, but they also traded with them and refused to let Jews in.

"The General Strike of 1918 was no joke. A little more heat there, a little more intransigence there, and a bloody civil war would have occurred. Again the Swiss managed to escape the worst. The wounds healed, not so quickly as in the case of 1848, but in good time. The citizenry showed its remarkable political canniness by voting for the referendum on proportional representation by 19.5 to 2.5 cantons and by 298,550 to 149,035, even though they were, in effect, rewarding the Socialists for having brought the country to the edge of civil war."

Turning to politics, Steinberg presents an overview of the complex, sometimes labyrinthine, Swiss political system. This involves a hierarchy of state, cantons and communes, a semi-established party system with "magic formulae" allocating positions, and an unusual balance between the Federal Council "executive", Parliament, and referenda and other elements of direct democracy. An illustration of how this works in practice is provided by the case of the Jura separatists, which involved the progressive renegotiation of boundaries at different levels.

"The European Union has become a 'threat' across the range of Swiss political life. Its councils, commissions, directories and boards, its regular meetings, the mountains of paper it produces and its centralised dirigiste bureaucracy place the homely, semi-professional, Swiss structures under great strain. The Federal Council has to act and be seen to be acting but it lacks, by its very collegial nature, leadership and direction. Parliament operates by 'magic formulae', conciliation and 'concordance'. The system shuns conflict and hence very unwillingly takes hard decisions, and never quickly. Then the voters or, more accurately, the cantons say 'No'. Switzerland seems to go nowhere, its system turns on heavy slow wheels which somehow never engage."

Swiss German is a cluster of different languages existing in a dialogue with High German. Ticino dialects coexist with Lombard patois and standard Italian. Swiss French is a regional variant of French. And Romansch is endangered. As well as surveying the Swiss languages, Steinberg conveys something of the complex relations, both political and everyday, between language communities and speakers.

"The great complexity of Swiss dialect usage, the variety of its forms, the geographical spread of its influence, in short, the whole tangle of issues abbreviated by the word Schwyzerdütsch, make a nonsense of Herder's romantic verities. The same applies to Volk. This great shimmering abstraction dissolves when you approach it. It can be applied to no specific cases and is supported by no concrete evidence."

The wealth of the city states lay mostly in trade. The modern era saw specialisation: Zurich in cotton, St Gallen in embroidery, the Jura in watchmaking, Basel in chemicals, and of course banking. The remaking of these industries has been traumatic: the watch industry, for example, survived by centralisation at the expense of hundreds of small firms. And Switzerland continues to face risks from specialisation, hosting several multinationals which are as big or bigger than the state.

Switzerland stayed out of the big European religious wars but fought its own in the 17th and 18th centuries, with conflicts continuing into the 19th. Catholic Swiss cantons and communes have been as worried about maintaining autonomy from the Catholic hierarchy, and control over the appointment of bishops and priests, as illustrated by the cases of Bishop Wolfgang Haas and Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, while a ban on Jesuits wasn't lifted until 1973. Protestant churches have been wary of their synods, too, and their intertwining with canton governments.

"In all substantial Protestant cantons, action committees emerge from time to time to propose the separation of church and state. Since Swiss democracy offers such committees the weapon of the initiative, these moves can be very effective. There have been several such attempts in Bern and Zürich."

A final chapter on identity looks at the role of military service and its changing status. It also considers the challenges being surrounded by the European Union brings, and the way Switzerland has been becoming more like its neighbours and losing much that made it distinct. And a conclusion considers the lessons Switzerland offers to the United States, the United Kingdom, and above all the European Union, which Steinberg suggests will need to become "more Swiss" even as Switzerland becomes more like the rest of Europe.

Parts of Why Switzerland? are dated. Since 1996, the euro has come into existence, the Swiss constitution has been revised, and Switzerland has joined the United Nations and the Schengen agreement. Arguably, however, the basic trends and trajectories of Swiss society remain similar and, perhaps more significantly, there is a dearth of more recent general histories, at least in English. Why Switzerland? remains the best introduction to Switzerland for anyone who wants a primarily historical perspective.

July 2010

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Related reviews:
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- David Birmingham - Switzerland: A Village History
- more history
- books published by Cambridge University Press
%T Why Switzerland?
%A Steinberg, Jonathan
%I Cambridge University Press
%D 1996
%O paperback, 2nd edition, notes, index
%G ISBN-13 9780521484534
%P 300pp