Keeping the peace

Johannes Ruckstuhl

Arena History

Swiss neutrality has helped the country avoid warfare and foreign invasion since the end of the 13th century. It also makes it an attractive location for the headquarters of international organisations like the World Health Organization and events such as the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting

UN Geneva

© Martin Good /

Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt once described his fellow countrymen as being “free as prisoners in the prison of their neutrality”. Cynical though his satirical essay is, it is nevertheless an accurate encapsulation of the outlook that characterises the small and curious nation at the centre of Europe. The ‘experiment’ of Switzerland’s neutrality and self-determination has been running quite stably for more than 700 years, ever since some rowdy peasants in the Prealps decided to rid themselves of their Habsburg occupants in 1291. Dürrenmatt argues that this scheme of separation is, in a sense, the creation of a utopian ideal – carving out a small and prosperous nation among the turmoil of Europe. Its citizens are very proud of their achievements, and rightly so, despite the system’s constraints – as Dürrenmatt adds: “There is only one problem for this prison, namely that of proving that it is not a prison but a bulwark of freedom, since seen from the outside, a prison is a prison, and its inmates are prisoners, and prisoners are not free.”

On the whole, neutrality has been very beneficial for Switzerland. The fact that it emerged essentially unscathed from two conflicts that devastated the European continent in the 20th century, and thus avoided the arduous task of reconstruction, is proof enough. Not that maintaining its neutrality in both world wars was entirely ‘Swiss made’ (it is still unclear why Hitler never executed Operation Tannenbaum, the planned invasion of Switzerland), but it contributed greatly to national pride in the post-war era, as well as ensuring opposition to foreign allegiance and membership of bodies such as the UN, NATO, the EC and later the EU. Switzerland did join the UN in 2002, and a referendum in 2005 allowed it to join the Schengen area, guaranteeing free travel and work for citizens of member states, but on the whole there is no eagerness to commit to any other such endeavours.

The true benefit of neutrality lies in the paradoxical nature of Switzerland itself. The country can play host to international organisations and events – the UN, CERN, the World Economic Forum in Davos – without being a true participant or arbitrator of any. The country can act as refuge and provide opportunity for people as varied as Lenin, Albert Einstein and James Joyce, but naturalisation is notoriously difficult. The country’s financial institutions hold and move immense portions of the world’s wealth, yet bank secrecy, for the most part, prevents the state taking any liability in their affairs. Hollywood has ensured that every character with nefarious intent around the globe has a numbered account in a Swiss Bank – it’s a trope as common as chocolate, cheese and punctuality.

In theory, neutrality is an isolationist position. Yet, pragmatically, and as is the case with many conservatively orientated regimes, the policy is only practised in part. It’s a form of cognitive dissonance that allows immigration discussions to be informed by overt xenophobia, while international banking and trade flourishes easily. Three general elections (including most recently a 29 per cent landslide in 2011) have returned the far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP) to power, despite the party’s often blatantly racist campaigns, the most infamous of which portrayed three white sheep kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag underneath the caption ‘Sicherheit Schaffen’ – ‘to create security’.

Yet the election results speak for themselves – this sort of rhetoric is receiving grass-roots support, despite both domestic and international condemnation, where the bad pun – Schaf is German for sheep – is the least of the objections. On the other hand, in July 2014 Switzerland signed a free trade agreement with the People’s Republic of China, essentially abolishing tariffs between the two countries. The deal is itself a product of euroscepticism as it greatly reduces Switzerland’s dependency on the EU – primarily Germany – for exports. In this regard, the fact that the Swiss National Bank has artificially reduced the value of the Swiss Franc in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis is a recognition, even an admission, that economic independence or neutrality is not possible if one wishes to participate in globalised society.

There is very little doubt that Switzerland will be able to maintain its neutral status, while remaining one of the most developed countries in the world, for many years to come. Equally, the duality of inclusion and isolation will continue, the question being whether the embracing of one aspect of globalism, namely the economic side, comes at too great a cost of the other aspect, that of free movement of people. Perhaps the primary quarrel is with the Swiss form of conservatism, one that refuses to see that prosperity and an enriched society can result from the latter as well as the former. Thus, the status of the free prison is one that requires constant reassessment.

Davos Church

© World Economic Forum/ Urs Jaudas

The highs and lows of a mountain city

There is a colloquial phrase by which the Swiss refer to the remote mountain city in the country’s east – ‘Auf und Davos’ (‘auf und davon’ translates roughly as ‘up and away’). This refers not just to its tradition of winter sports, or the fresh Alpine air that made it the ideal health resort for the TB-suffering Robert Louis Stevenson, but to the location of the city itself.

Even in its busiest season, when the world’s richest skiing enthusiasts and WEF delegates descend on Davos in their hundreds, the word inaccessible inevitably springs to mind. It is the highest European city by altitude and, nestled in a valley between two imposing chains of the Alps, allows access only by two narrow passes in the north-east and south-west. The Swiss enthusiasm for tunnelling through mountains has greatly simplified travel to and from more populous areas of the world, but cars and trains still wind their way along cliff faces and traverse viaducts spanning sheer chasms – such as the famous Wiesen Viaduct, which took three years to construct – in order to get there.

Before the spa and winter sport industries blossomed in the mid-19th century, Davos had little claim to eminence, its winter too long to support anything other than small agricultural and mining communities. Today, in order to accommodate the city’s many visitors, a multitude of hotels and resorts cling to the hillsides, and have crowded out the few spires and farmhouses that attest to the city’s more modest beginnings. The majority of these characterless concrete behemoths briefly spring to life each year but stand idle for most of it. In 2013, the local council reported that, on average, holiday and second homes in Davos – totalling almost 9,000 houses and flats – stood empty for 270 days a year. Of these, about 3,400 remained completely unoccupied.

About the author:

Johannes Ruckstuhl is a staff writer at Global - the International Briefing


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