Sonderfall Schweiz (1945-2000)
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Patrick Kury, an historian at the University of Basel, has written in Images of Switzerland : “After World War II, the lack of experience of war made Swiss people believe that they were a kind of chosen people living outside history. This strange belief goes together with the misconception that between 1933 and 1945 Switzerland had followed a humanitarian tradition, and had never practised an anti-Jewish [policy]. In the postwar period, neutrality – the number one state maxim – also helped to neutralize analysis and discussion.” The glow of national pride in having reached war’s end unscathed – despite the fact that Switzerland’s citizen army had merely sat tight and kept its head down – was intoxicating, and the Swiss felt themselves to be special: the term Sonderfall Schweiz, or “Switzerland as a Special Case”, is often used to describe the period. The extent of official collaboration with both warring parties was widely known by foreign governments – who shunned Switzerland immediately postwar – but was generally not even suspected by ordinary Swiss.

However, whereas war swept away old social and political habits across Europe, in Switzerland things continued after the war much as they had done before: while the new world order expressed itself in the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, Switzerland stuck tight to its neutrality and stayed out. By 1946 international diplomatic relations had been repaired, and the country – with its intact industry, low taxes, and socio-political stability – took on the role of catalyst to European reconstruction. At a time of austerity, Swiss banks were able to draw on large capital reserves (although the provenance of part of this was later to be called into question in connection with the Nazi gold affair). With the Cold War, fear of the spread of communism took over from fear of the spread of fascism. Political parties that were already rooted in concordance moved together into a rock-solid national consensus. Dubbed after 1959 the “magic formula”, this ensured two seats on the Federal Council went to the moderate-left Liberals, two to the moderate-right Christian Democrats, two to the leftwing Social Democrats and one to the rightwing People’s Party.

Along with most of the rest of Western Europe, Switzerland experienced a cycle of economic fortunes – consolidation in the 1950s, boom in the 1960s, recession in the 1970s, entrenchment and readjustment in the 1980s, streamlined growth in the 1990s. However, despite massive advances in personal and national wealth, and success in adapting traditional industries to the new era – exemplified by the launch of Swatch, a slick, new company that dragged the Swiss watch industry out of its fustiness – it took until the 1990s for Switzerland to bring itself fully into line with European conceptions of social modernity. Women only got the vote in national elections in 1971, decades behind most other European countries, and even as late as 1991, one canton (Appenzell Inner-Rhodes) had to be legally forced to accept women onto the cantonal electoral roll by the Federal Supreme Court. Switzerland is now also the only European country with universal male conscription; in November 1989 a petition-led initiative resulted in a 36-percent national vote in favour of immediate abolition of the Swiss army. The number was sizeable enough to leave the generals shaken and to prompt a major rethink of Switzerland’s citizen-soldiery, which introduced in 1992 – for the first time – conscientious objection, by which conscripts could opt for civilian service. Before this, otherwise law-abiding Swiss 20-year-olds could be jailed by military courts for refusing army duty. The magic formula also had its detractors: student-led agitation in the late 1960s led to the formation shortly afterwards both of an active Green Party and an active rightwing conservative bloc. In the 1970s the Greens halted Switzerland’s nuclear industry in its tracks and violent separatist agitation led to the formation of a new Canton Jura, while the conservatives set alarm bells ringing in the minds of honest hardworking folk about the quantity of foreigners in the country.

As the Western European powers drew together in the 1950s in a common market, the insular Swiss looked on, the national mood still one of “Fortress Switzerland”. Consistently throughout the postwar period, the Swiss people have voted against joining international bodies of political co-operation. In 1986, a proposal for United Nations membership received a resounding “no” from 76 percent of Swiss voters, and today Switzerland – along with a couple of Pacific islands – remains virtually the only country in the world without a voting presence in the UN.

Switzerland had been a member of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), a purely commercial body without political ambitions, since 1960; when its EFTA partners Sweden, Finland and Austria applied to join the European Union in 1992, Switzerland was forced to follow suit. Put to the vote, the national margin of defeat was narrow, but analysis of the figures showed that 70 percent had voted yes in francophone Romandie, but just 44 percent had voted yes in German-speaking areas; roughly similar figures taken as a national whole split pro-EU urban voters away from anti-EU rural voters. The figures reignited national soul-searching over the age-old social and linguistic divide, and Switzerland shelved its application.

The reverberations of the 1992 vote still resound around the country today, exploited by a new bloc of strident, rightwing opinion shaped and led by the notorious Christoph Blocher, leader of the Zürich section of the SVP (Swiss People’s Party). Campaigning throughout the 1990s on a platform of anti-EU, anti-immigration rhetoric – wrapped up in a cloak of pro-Swiss, pro-neutrality platitudes – Blocher’s SVP won the largest share of the vote in the October 1999 general elections, putting the “magic formula” under intense pressure. To drive home his advantage, in January 2000 Blocher began calling for an extra seat to be reserved for the People’s Party on the Federal Council, to be occupied by himself.

It is debatable whether Blocher would have made such gains had it not been for a series of scandals throughout the 1990s that sent the country reeling. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, the squeaky-clean image that postwar generations had of themselves and their country was shown to have been an illusion. In 1989, Elizabeth Kopp, the first woman to serve as a Federal Councillor – and something of an icon of the new Switzerland – had to resign when it was revealed that she had tipped off her husband about ongoing investigations into his financial dealings. The same year it emerged that the Swiss secret police had been keeping hundreds of thousands of files on individuals under the guise of monitoring anti-patriotic activity. In 1999, an accountant in the defence department under investigation in a multimillion-franc fraud case – the largest in Swiss history – turned out to be an intelligence agent, and claimed he had withdrawn the money on the orders of his boss to fund the secret training of a shady battalion of highly armed agents for purposes unknown.

But the story that hit the international headlines, and brought Switzerland into the uncomfortable glare of global attention, concerned its wartime record (documented at www.
giussani.com and elsewhere).

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