Direct Democracy In Switzerland Ch. 16-20

By Gregory Fossedal
16. Family

Swiss families are not radically different from their counterparts in 
the United States or Europe, affirming the truism that "all happy 
families are alike." They are, however, slightly more stable and 
close. The laws of the state, likewise, are somewhat more pro-family, 
or family based, than in most other highly developed countries. There 
is, moreover, a somewhat greater modesty in manners and dress, and in 
statutes governing such matters as decency in the mass media. Policies 
like those of social welfare treat the family, rather than the 
individual, as the fundamental unit of society, and thus, reinforce 
family structure. Switzerland has divorce, child abuse and neglect, 
deadbeat dads, and many of the other ills seen in the West. It has 
them, though, with marginally less frequency. And it responds 
differently, legally and socially, when these maladies appear.

The net result, for an American, is a feeling that one is somehow 
visiting with a group of American families from the 1950s who have 
been transplanted into modern Western society. It is not an 
artificial, time-warp sort of feeling, and the culture does not in any 
way feel restrictive. On the contrary, the time appears to be the 
present, but the family structure somewhat transplanted. The modesty 
of the Swiss, if you will, is modest - a quiet preference for stable, 
family-based life and a disciplined and responsible commitment to it. 
One probably hears appeals to "family values" and the like far less in 
Switzerland than in the United States, or even much of Europe.

One of the first social impressions likely to strike someone visiting 
Switzerland, second only perhaps to their facility with languages, is 
that of the large number of couples still married to their original 
spouse. My own sample in visiting was admittedly biased, at first, 
toward meetings with affluent professionals. It felt unusual, 
nevertheless, to meet one high-income man after another who was with 
his wife of twenty, thirty, and even forty years. Of course, this 
impression built up only cumulatively, until after many weeks it 
struck me that very few divorces seemed to take place. A little 
resolution formed, made both to test my own powers of observation and 
to keep such observations fresh from any sociological preconceptions, 
to make sure not to look at any statistics about Swiss family life. 
Similar, but even more subtle, was the impression formed by meeting 
young people in large numbers whose parents were still together. Time 
after time, these youngsters did not describe, for example, plans to 
spend the week before Christmas with their fathers and the week after 
with their mothers, and the like. Mothers and fathers most commonly 
lived in the same place, or so it seemed. After a time, a social 
relaxation takes place in Switzerland. There are not quite as many 
dual locations to keep track of; there are fewer Doreen Smiths no 
longer married to Jasper Smith, and vice-versa; in Switzerland, one 
worries just a little bit less that the Hendersons will disagree about 
what restaurant to go to, or whether their daughter should study 

Swiss couples exhibit a natural ease, a fitting-togetherness one 
encounters in America and Europe as well, but perhaps not as often. 
When Mr. and Mrs. Fred Isler entertained me and a friend, for example, 
it became clear just how seamlessly their two lives intertwined. Mr. 
Isler was going over a kind of bar chart of his various charitable and 
community service activities over the years, telling little vignettes 
about each bar or answering my questions - "yes, being a civilian in 
the appeals court, I would be involved in several cases a month. We 
shared the workload depending on the types of cases and who was 
particularly busy at a certain time." Now and then, however, Isler 
would be uncertain about who had attended a particular event, or what 
had been the resolution of a particular event or activity. At such 
times, Mrs. Isler would sometimes interject with words such as, "I 
think this was even three years," rather than two. Mr. Isler, on the 
other hand, frequently used the word "we" to describe a particular 
activity or commitment - even if nominally it had been "his" position. 
In an unobtrusive, unpretentious way, they seemed to agree that such 
tasks had been joint. In fact, of course, they had. "I went to the 
meetings," Isler said of the town council (or some similar task), for 
instance. "But when we got into a real disagreement, I would bring 
everyone here, and she always knew how to smooth it over."

Similarly, when Dr. Paul Jolies, the former Swiss State Secretary and 
Chairman of Nestlé, would review his decisions and involvements in 
government, he would rely on Mrs. Jolies to fill in blanks - and at 
times, correct him - regarding important events or details. It is 
natural for many couples to settle into a routine of mutual 
skepticism. Such raillery between the Jolleses, however, seemed 
largely to consist of her insisting that his actions had been much 
more wise or incisive than he would admit - and his countering that it 
was Mrs. Jolies who had encouraged him to do this or that. When some 
of Switzerland's differences with the United States and Europe in 
recent years came up for discussion, for example, Dr. Jolies was 
inclined to sympathize with Swiss officials. He said they had made 
mistakes, but that some of these were a heritage from years of neglect 
by other governments. Mrs. Jolies agreed but added a simpler 
explanation, which was, "They don't listen to you or people like you. 
In fact," she added, looking at me, "they don't even really ask for 
his advice or opinion at all." Dr. Jolies smiled, "which means they 
also don't get hers - a real mistake."

It is difficult, of course, to paint a portrait of this ordinary 
family life that works without seeming wide-eyed and, indeed, a bit 
sappy. The fact is, though, that the Swiss have retained a degree of 
family solidarity that many would envy, whether or not it has an 
element of Ozzie and Harriet. Indeed, an honest search of my memory of 
interviews with more than 500 Swiss brings to mind only a few divorced 
men or women. Of course, many of these conversations were too short to 
be likely to have obtained such information. And undoubtedly, some of 
these people were divorced, some even remarried. It is perhaps 
revealing, though, that even in cases where there have been divorces, 
the subject is less apt to come up among the Swiss. There is just a 
little more of the melancholy that used to attend the matter, 
socially, still present among the Swiss.

In addition, the relative reserve of the Swiss generally explains 
much. In the United States and Europe, one sometimes encounters the 
corporate giant who rides a bicycle to work, or flies coach even on 
long trips.(1) In Switzerland, such behavior, if not the mathematical 
norm, is certainly frequent. The chairman of ABB for many years rode a 
bicycle to work through the streets of Baden. François Loeb, head of 
one of the largest retail chains in Switzerland, drives a two-seat 
car, apparently spun off from the Yugo and achieving something like 70 
miles per gallon of gasoline in the city. It is difficult enough to 
imagine a Swiss living in the imperial manner of some American or 
British corporate chieftans. To picture a Swiss executive bouncing 
between several wives, or dating young women twenty to forty years his 
junior, is difficult. It must happen in Switzerland, but it happens 
infrequently, and when it does, it is less the object of snickering 
admiration or newspaper headlines than of quiet embarrassment.

The Swiss man is close to family without being a house husband or 
highly sensitive child coddler. Swiss men with young children seemed 
less familiar with their day-to-day affairs than their mothers. But 
when the children reach age ten or older, the fathers become more 
highly engaged in their schooling and later, their professional life 
or family life. In conversations about women, Swiss men are less 
coarse than is the Western norm, and far less coarse than the American 
norm. There is less of an obsession with sex in normal conversation - 
whether there is less interest in sex, is impossible to say, but 
certainly it is less obvious.

The statistics, it turns out, do more or less bear out the 
impressionistic picture of the Swiss as enjoying a closeness of family 
life rare in developed societies, as Table 16.1 suggests.

Table 16-1
The Families of Nations (selected comparative statistics)

Divorces per 100 marriages
Percent of families with one parent
Divorces per 1000 population
Married (%of population over 16 years)


United States


Source: U.S. Census Bureau; René Levy, The Social Structure of 
Switzerland, Helvetica; Swiss Statistical Abstract, and author's 
calculations based on data.

In addition to all the factors mentioned above, Swiss family law 
probably plays a role in the relatively high rate of family stability. 
Divorce laws, of course, vary by the canton, but as a general matter 
the advance of no-fault divorce has not been as great as in many 
Western countries. Even in such cantons as Geneva and Vaud, 
requirements are higher than the P.O.-box divorce systems of some U.S. 
states. And in the Waldsättte, or the central Forest Cantons with 
large numbers of orthodox Catholics, rules are more demanding 
substantively and procedures more rigorous.

As well, the social implications of divorce are more serious than in 
America. Swiss attitudes and laws, and the familiar character of most 
communities, make it very difficult for fathers to default on 
supporting their children both financially and emotionally, and for 
mothers to neglect a child who needs attention, support, or 
discipline. There are thus somewhat firmer supports for marriage and 
less of a "ticket to freedom" from marital breakup than in many 
developed countries.

Children in Switzerland are neither as revered as in Germany, treated 
as informally as in America, nor shunted aside as in England, Spain, 
or France. The Swiss take their children seriously and systematically. 
There is less emphasis than in the United States on early formal 
instruction, but perhaps more parent-to-child discipline and self-
responsibility taught. An American four or five years of age is more 
likely to read than a Swiss child of that age, or to make a precocious 
comment, but is also more likely to wander off into the house and 
scribble all over one of the walls with a pen or waddle out into a 
busy parking lot where drivers are maneuvering aggressively for a 
choice spot or a fast exit.

>From figures on women in the workplace, and my own anecdotal 
observations, a larger share of Swiss children aged zero through five 
are taken care of by their own mothers the bulk of the day, and a 
smaller proportion sent to day care or pre-school so their mothers can 
work part or full time, or manage the rest of the children. Although 
this could not be verified directly from international statistics, it 
seems supported by estimates of the number of Swiss mothers in the 
labor force - about one-third of mothers with children at home, and 
perhaps a fifth or less of mothers with children younger than age six, 
work outside the home. The same conclusion would also seem to be 
supported by the complaint of many Swiss that young children do not 
receive enough formal schooling. From the performance of its economy, 
the Swiss do not appear to have suffered significantly from this. And 
there may be benefits in the greater socialization and feelings of 
greater security of Swiss youngsters.

Sheer geography may even lend a hand to Swiss marriages. Americans 
with a large number of children often bemoan the great distances that 
extended families find between parents and grandparents, brothers, and 
other relatives. Of course, there is little to stop individual Swiss 
families from living 2,000 miles apart, but if they do so, they will 
find their relatives in Israel, Turkey, Bulgaria, or even Western 
Russia. Since emigration is a large step, the vast majority of persons 
in any country, barring dire circumstances, are bound to remain in the 
country of their birth. For the Swiss, remaining in the country means 
living no more than a few hours from any other relatives still in 
Switzerland. Even relatives who move to Germany or France, two of the 
most common destinations, are relatively close compared to the 
distances that often separate members of an extended family in the 
United States.

As in other countries, the Swiss encounter some problems with their 
children in the adolescent years. Swiss suicide rates, in fact, are 
among the highest in the world. Surely one factor in these is the 
absence of some Swiss fathers in the more sexually divided work roles 
of dad at the office, mom at home. Others attribute these rates to 
mere density of population (a la Japan), particularly when one factors 
in the consideration that two-thirds of the Swiss nation is nearly 
uninhabitable mountains. Still another factor, according to some 
Swiss, is the high pressure placed on Swiss youth in the teenage years 
and early twenties to perform in school and other areas of life.

Among all Swiss, the fact of a seeming permanent affluence has led to 
a search for meaning. As the suicide rates indicated, not all are 
successful in finding it. Religion has withered, particularly among 
Protestants and among Catholics outside the highly Orthodox churches 
of Schwyz and the surrounding cantons. Even much religious life is 
quasi-secular. Church services in the major cities, and even to some 
extent the more fervent countryside, are not highly sacramental or 
theological. The religion of many Swiss has become almost the civic, 
Godless religion of Rousseau, though this trend is not as advanced as 
in France, Italy, or the United States.

A more happy picture, for the Swiss, emerges when one considers other 
social indices of adolescent adjustment. Perhaps the turmoil that 
seems evident in teen suicides, for example, is driven largely by 
accidental factors. Rates of violent crimes, which are normally 
committed by persons under thirty, are low. Teen pregnancy, abortion 
both by juveniles and as an overall rate, and similar unhappy 
statistics are relatively low, as Table 16.2 shows.

Public laws on abortion are characteristically Swiss - federalist and 
nuanced. A national law prohibits certain kinds of abortion 
restrictions and guards a right to abortion - but the latter does not 
cover all cases, and the former allows for exceptions for cases 
involving the mental or physical health of the mother. In some 
cantons, these rules are interpreted quite liberally so that there is 
little practical restriction on abortion at all. In others, especially 
the Central and Eastern Waldstätte, women must visit a doctor, confer 
with a cantonal or community health official, and so on - a series of 
three, four, or more steps. According to a 1996 article in the Swiss 
Medical Bulletin,(2) rates

Table 16.2
Teen Pregnancy, Birth, and Abortion Rates

Adolescent abortion rate
Adolescent pregnancy rate
Adolescent birth rate









United States


Notes: "Abortion rate" is legal abortions per 1,000 residents aged 15-
19. "Pregnancy rate" equals pregnancies per 1,000 women aged 15-19. 
"Birth rate" equals births per 1,000 women aged 15-19.

Source: Alan Guttmacher Institute, from country data. Swiss data on 
adolescent pregnancy calculated by author from Swiss data.

of abortion varied by a factor of three and more from canton to 
canton. Some of this disparity, of course, may reflect women seeking 
out abortion services in the cantons where laws are more relaxed, but 
of course this is frowned on, and often entails a lack of health 
insurance coverage.

Few people in Switzerland are entirely happy with this cluttered 
situation, especially those who crave a clear-cut decision either to 
allow or to abolish abortion. The degree of unhappiness, however, is 
much less than in many Western countries where one side or the other 
has achieved a winner-take-all victory. Abortion rights advocates have 
achieved no national decision - but can take solace that there is some 
liberty to obtain an abortion for most Swiss women, especially in the 
major cities. Opponents enjoy less than total ban, but neither have 
they had to endure, in the manner of the U.S., a sweeping decision by 
judicial elites to wipe out the action of democratic legislatures. 
Federalism allows Swiss families to seek out a community where the 
existing laws on abortion and other social matters comport with their 
sense of propriety and morality, while letting other cantons and cells 
establish the order that seems best to them. Where there is lobbying, 
it is by its nature decentralized, focused in two dozen cantonal 
parliaments and in thousands of communities overseeing the 
implementation of local standards by doctors and other professionals.

Periodic initiatives and referenda, at the national and cantonal 
levels, have the effect of giving voters a feeling of fine motor 
control, and the voters have generally opted to make compromises in 
the middle of the abortion debate, preferring not to enact the program 
of either the committed restrictionists nor the advocates of abortion 
rights. Whereas in other countries vast campaigns must be launched 
merely to achieve a vote on public financing, or third-trimester 
restrictions, before the appropriate congressional committee, in the 
Swiss system there is always access. This access - the fact of its 
availability, even if it is not always used - has a soothing impact on 
the nerves of both the passionate advocates of both sides of the 
spectrum and of voters in between. The net result is, perhaps, a messy 
compromise, but one that works for the Swiss. Ironically, given their 
reticence toward controversy, the Swiss feel that the abortion 
question is a sensitive one and the controversy hot. This may so be in 
Swiss terms, but one has the impression that the abortion question and 
like issues are in fact less agitated in Switzerland than in most 
Western countries, and far less so than in countries with significant 
ethnic and religious differences underlying the disputes.

Women at Work

Some Swiss women felt, until recently, stranded "not in the 1950s but 
in the nineteenth century," as a Swiss feminist leader proclaimed in 
1981. Pay for the same work by similarly qualified women runs about a 
quarter to a third less than for the same work done by a man, 
according to sociologist René Levy, although like most such 
statistics, these measurements appear not to account for the greater 
likelihood that a woman's career will be interrupted by children. 
Women occupy almost no CEO or COO positions among the top one-hundred 
Swiss corporations. The highest-ranking woman among major Swiss 
companies appears to be one of eighty division vice presidents at 
Nestlé, who oversees the company's operations in Poland.

Swiss executives are so sensitive about the topic that when a high-
ranking Nestlé official was told his company has been praised by some 
as encouraging a more rapid rise by female executives, he preferred 
not to discuss the matter.(3) "This is an area where all Swiss 
companies, including ours, would like to do more, and need to do more,
" he said.

What is true at the top is less true, but somewhat, throughout the 
work force. Swiss women make up about 44 percent of the work force; in 
the United States, 47 percent. On this macroeconomic level, the 
picture for working women in Switzerland is not radically better or 
worse than in most Western countries. Salaries in the banking, 
service, and professional sectors are 30 percent higher for men than 
women, with a lower gap among Swiss age thirty-nine or younger. This 
is similar to U.S. and European levels. In government service, average 
salaries are within 20 percent for men and women as a whole, and for 
men and women under forty the gap is less than 10 percent. All these 
figures suggest a work equation in which there are differences of 
opportunity, some of which can be explained by home care and other 
social choices made by women and men, some of which cannot.

If we start from 1940 as a base year, women's wages have been 
outpacing men's in Switzerland ever since. In absolute terms, this 
only means they have been catching up. The years of the most dramatic 
improvement were from 1960 to 1980, when general economic growth and 
the decline of large families encouraged women to seek work outside 
the home in greater numbers. In the 1990s, the rate of closure slowed, 
partly due to an influx of foreign women (more likely to raise 
children at home), partly due to the economic slowdown.

Swiss women do not appear to feel marginalized, and the vast majority 
do not consider themselves the object of any systematic or conscious 
antifeminine bias by employers. "Many women prefer to work part time, 
or be away from work for some period to be with their families," 
comments Beatrice Gyssler, who works with a Swiss investment firm in 
Zürich. To that extent, some women are choosing to forego some 
earnings and professional opportunities in order to care for their 
children and be in the home more. Surveys indicate that for most Swiss 
married women who continue to work, the decisive reason is the belief 
that the husband's earnings alone are insufficient. The flip side is 
that many women, given the choice, would prefer to remain part of one-
earner families. Even after the bumpy recession of 1990-96

Figure 16.1
Swiss Women's Wages, 1940-2000

Women (approx.), Men (approx.)

1940 - 100, 100
1950 - 135, 115
1960 - 160, 140
1970 - 220, 190
1980 - 275, 240
1990 - 305, 260
2000 - 315, 270

Switzerland's economy still generates sufficient high-paying jobs for 
men to permit many families to prosper with only one worker outside 
the home.

In Swiss families with one or more children under the age of fifteen, 
there are 700,000 fathers working outside the home, and 450,000 
mothers. (This figure includes foreign-born residents.) In Swiss 
families with no children under the age of fifteen, there are 1.4 
million fathers working outside the home, and 1.2 million mothers - a 
much closer ratio.

"The more the husband earns, the less likely the wife is to go out to 
work," as René Levy, a sociologist at the University of Lausanne, 
writes. "Many Swiss women prefer a role in the home over work, and if 
they must work, they prefer the maximum role in the home," observes 
Esther Girsberger, former editor of the Zürich daily Tages Anzeiger. 
"The statistics on women's pay and employment overstate the problem if 
you look at them expecting a statistical equality. Women's 
expectations and their preferences differ from that of Swiss men." 
Girsberger is an example of a field that has proven a natural entry 
point for women, journalism. Women are also making rapid strides in 
such professions as the law, computer software and service functions, 
and politics, to name just a few.

Small business has proven to be a natural venue for women in 
Switzerland as it has in a number of other developed countries. Home-
based and small businesses often offer flexibility in hours that is 
highly valuable to women with children. In 1970, less than 20 percent 
of self-employed Swiss were women. In 1996,34 percent were. (This 
excludes farm wives and family workers.) This figure compares 
favorably to the absolute levels of small-business ownership by women 
in other Western countries - 39 percent in the United States, 30 
percent in Britain, and less than 30 percent in Germany, Sweden, 
Italy, and Finland - and is growing at a faster rate. To be sure, some 
of these businesses are of marginal profitability, and have difficulty 
obtaining capital for expansion if they desire it. But they offer 
another alternative for women who want some income, and some 
activities outside the home, but may not have the time for 
uninterrupted employment in a traditional 9-to-5 pattern.

For many, of course, the role of Swiss women was symbolized by the 
country's decision, in 1971, to allow women to vote - a right 
previously not recognized. The long delay was not quite as backward as 
it might have sounded. Women were neither that militant about the 
right to vote, nor had men (the only voters allowed to act on previous 
proposals, of course) been firmly opposed. The proposal, needing a 
supermajority of voters and cantons, however, had always fared poorly 
in a few of the central cantons - some for substantive reasons, some 
because they feared that cantonal and community Landsgemeinde, 
literally overfilled by too many people, would become unworkable if 
the voting population suddenly doubled. Women mostly wanted the vote, 
understandably, not merely because they might occasionally make the 
difference in a specific decision on policy, but because they wanted 
to be heard and to have the institutional respect granted them in all 
the other democracies.

Ironically, although gaining the vote at a much later date, Swiss 
women have made great advances in elective politics in Switzerland. 
Well-educated and articulate, and experienced in thinking about issues 
as are all Swiss, the Swiss woman brings much to the profession of 
politics. Given the nature of Swiss government, however, politics is 
still something of a part-time profession. The cantonal legislatures 
and even federal parliament are paid little, have no dedicated staff, 
and are in session less than ten weeks a year. "There is a good fit 
between the Swiss militia system," meaning citizen government, "and 
the immense talent offered by Swiss women," as the late investor and 
publisher David dePury observed.

Indeed, the Swiss have a higher percentage of women in their 
parliament, more than 20 percent of the combined chambers, than the 
United States or most European countries. (In the lower house of the 
federal parliament, more than 23 percent are women, and of the 
combined membership of the cantonal parliaments, more then 25 percent.
) Switzerland has now had one woman president, and following the 
election of another woman to the federal council in 1998, will have 
two more terms by women presidents by 2010, under the country's 
rotating presidency.

Swiss families feel the same strains as families throughout the West, 
tugged between economic forces outside and the job of raising children 
inside. It cannot be said that the Swiss have invented any unique 
answers to these modern tensions, but their institutions have coped 
with them in interesting and different ways. The Swiss family has 
proven flexible and, in some ways - such as the rapid movement of 
women into positions in the country's citizen-government - innovative.


There is a German joke about Swiss frugality that the Swiss enjoy 
telling, which goes: "Why did the Swiss executive fly third class? 
Because there was no fourth class."

M. Dondénaz, et al., "Interruptions de grossese en Suisse 1991-1994," 
Bulletin demedicins suisses, 1996, vol. 77, pp. 308-14.

Asked for the names of prominent women chief executive officers of 
Swiss corporations, editor Markus Gisler of CASH, the Zürich-based 
financial weekly, said, "There really aren't any. I think Nestlé has a 
woman running its Poland division, and possibly one or two others. 
They are known as one of the companies where women have been 
encouraged." Gisler's staff helped me track down several other female 
executives, mostly at much smaller companies

 17. Army

Switzerland's army cannot be fully understood except in combination 
with Swiss neutrality, and Swiss neutrality likewise cannot be 
understood in isolation from the Swiss army. Even as the country 
prepares to enact significant changes in the size and structure of the 
army in the early twenty-first century, it remains a uniquely 
universalist institution, and a force for social integration. Whatever 
adjustments are made to it in the coming years, the Swiss army is 
likely to remain such a force for the foreseeable future.

Unlike most other neutrals throughout history Swiss forces, while 
small, have been tenacious fighters and even, for several centuries, 
one of the most powerful armies in the world. Twice in two thousand 
years have the ferocious peasant Helvetii of the Alpine redoubt been 
defeated and occupied. The first time was by Julius Caesar, who, in 58 
B.C., stopped the Helvetii when they tried to migrate en masse to what 
is now Western France. Caesar carefully co-opted the beaten adversary 
into the Roman security system, the Helvetii guarding the Rhine 
against Germanic invasions and enjoying a measure of self-rule in 
their internal affairs in exchange. Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1796-97, 
consciously imitating Caesar, conquered upper Italy for France and 
wanted to assure himself of the Swiss alpine passes. The Swiss 
resisted in 1798, but not as strenuously as could be expected. Part of 
this was due to initial sympathy to the values of the French 
Revolution. Part was due to the fear of confiscation on the part of 
Swiss elites - dividing a society whose poorer members mainly wanted 
to resist. The French left and returned twice, but continued to enjoy 
predominant influence in Switzerland until 1813. Napoleon, like many 
French emperors before him, found the soldiers of Switzerland to be a 
formidable addition to his armies. "The best troops - those in whom 
you can have the most confidence," Napoleon advised one of his 
generals, "are the Swiss." In this he mirrored the assessment of 
Machiavelli, who considered them, "the new Romans."

Unlike the other nations of great bravery, meanwhile - such small but 
tenacious powers such as Israel, Britain, Mongolia, Vietnam, or 
Afghanistan - the Swiss have been able to maintain a policy of honest 
neutrality, and a state of peace and freedom from external invasion, 
for centuries. The Swiss felt tempted to engage themselves in the 
conflicts swirling around them more than once. In 1914, there was 
significant popular sentiment for Germany. More than one Swiss 
official had to be removed for actions contrary to neutrality. 
Nevertheless, the country has maintained a strict neutrality for 
nearly five centuries, all the while remaining sufficiently armed to 
scare away all but a handful of attempts at invasion.

Its toughness gives Swiss neutrality teeth. Meanwhile Swiss neutrality 
and equality temper and discipline the toughness to be ready to die, 
but only for defense of the country. "The Swiss have not fought a war 
for nearly five hundred years," John McPhee writes, "and are 
determined to know how so as not to."(1)

Today, Switzerland is no longer one of the most feared military 
establishments in the world. Yet it is not inconsiderable. Some 2,000 
or 3,000 airstrips dot the country like Band-Aids, ready to help repel 
enemy air power and conduct Swiss defensive operations. Mountains, 
caves, hills, and forest cellars the size of a Home Depot Store are 
loaded with ammunition, explosives, food, trucks, and other military 
equipment. People's barns, garages, and even tool sheds are available 
for use for storage, hiding troop movements, housing troops overnight 
- and are all mapped out and accounted for in elaborate mobilization 
plans. Bridges and other transportation chokepoints are mined to be 
blown up at a moment's notice. While the Northern strip of Switzerland 
- a lowland of gently rolling hills and dense population - is highly 
vulnerable to assault, the Southern "redoubt" would be an attacker's 
nightmare. "You could defend the Gotthard highway with ten men," a 
Swiss officer estimates.

At the battle of Morgarten, the fourteenth-century Swiss triumphed 
shortly after the signing of the Bundesbrief. Austrian knights trapped 
in a narrow pass were attacked by peasants rolling logs, boulders, and 
other falling objects. There was a sensation, according to one later 
perhaps mythologized report, that "the rocks themselves" were rising 
up to take arms against the attacker. "Thorn and rose, there is 
scarcely a scene in Switzerland that would not sell a calendar, and - 
valley after valley, mountain after mountain - there is scarcely a 
scene in Switzerland that is not ready to erupt in fire to repel an 
invasive war," McPhee writes.

The real story of Switzerland's military bite, however, lies not in 
hardware, but people. With a population of only six million, the Swiss 
can place 400,000 trained, armed, highly skilled troops in the field 
within forty-eight hours. On any given day, considering this, the 
Swiss might have the third or fourth-largest fighting force in the 

There is only one way, of course, for such a small country to man a 
force of this size. Every male Swiss from the age of twenty until 
approximately age forty-two is a soldier. The enlisted men serve a 
total of 300 days over that twenty-year period; officers, sometimes 
more than 1,000, continuing on to age fifty-two. Women are allowed to 
join, and do, though not in combat roles, but they are not obligated 
to do so. Men and women are paid by their regular employer while they 
are on training, and the employer is reimbursed by the government - 
though only for 70 percent, not 100 percent, of the lost time. Given 
the number of hours put in informally by the Swiss on army matters, 
especially by officers, this amounts to a significant subsidy of the 
military by the private sector. Some companies are happy about this, 
some acquiesce, some grumble.

After an initial "basic training" course of some 120 days, the Swiss 
soldier will drill approximately fifteen days a year, and probably 
commit some hours every month to filling out paperwork, keeping his 
equipment in repair, practicing his shooting. The Swiss must pass a 
shooting test every year, and take remedial practice if they fail the 
test. Gun clubs and shops dot the city of Bern the way used bookstores 
dot a college campus in the United States. More than 500,000 assault 
rifles are kept at home by Swiss men, in part so that their sons can 
get used to having a gun around.

One cannot but notice, even in peacetime, the signs of a nation the 
whole population of which is involved in active defense. On a Friday 
afternoon you see the young men in their early twenties boarding 
trains in Bern, Zürich, or Luzern in military uniform. Businessmen in 
a coffee shop in Geneva pull out their small military service book to 
make notations or do paperwork on their lunch break. Walking down a 
country road you hear regular gun bursts in the distance - too many 
for a hunter - and know that someone is practicing. On a porch is an 
old man, probably by now limited to one of the auxiliary services, 
cleaning a pair of army boots.

The Swiss not only enjoy widespread volunteer involvement in the army; 
they rely to an unusual degree on individual citizens to take personal 
responsibility for their own perfection in military technique. 
Simulator rooms, which help infantry and artillery forces practice in 
battle, are open for training during off-duty hours and are used 
heavily, according to an officer with the army's skeletal full-time 
staff. Rifle training, of course, is everywhere.

On a Saturday, touring a 600-year-old castle ruin on the heights above 
Baden, my solitude was broken by the sound of a gentle but high-
pitched hiss coming down the road. All of a sudden, three young men in 
camouflage fatigues and white helmets - hiss, zip, hissss - whizzed by 
me, guns on their shoulder. It appeared to me at the time as if they 
were on their way to a training session somewhere, perhaps a bit late. 
But a few hours later the same three young men were at the Banhof, 
enjoying a bratwurst and bottles of beer at stand-up tables. One of 
them struck up a conversation with me, during which he explained that 
the men were not on their way to on-duty training, nor even taking 
part in a formal training session itself. They were practicing 
reconnaissance runs and moving about while keeping in electronic 
contact over the hills, crags, and electronic interference of Baden - 
on their own time.

The Swiss, it turns out, use not only mountains and barns in their 
defense, but until recently common passenger bicycles. "The bicycle is 
fast, quiet, cheap, and flexible," a staff officer later told me with 
a ninja-master-like tone. "We use anything that contributes to the 
defense of the country." The man or woman at work is always a citizen 
- and the citizen does not leave his private skills and ideals at the 
door, but brings them with him to the collective enterprise of 
managing and defending the state. There is, in short, a great trust in 
people. This trust tells much about Swiss assumptions regarding people 
and the society. It is a sign, surely, of one of the most developed 
and capable societies in the world.

Universal service thus works on many levels. It generates numbers. If 
a comparable number of U.S. citizens were members of our army or naval 
reserve, America would have some twenty-five million men at arms. It 
also establishes a presence in society. The fact of citizens doing 
their duty, universally, is too ubiquitous to be unseen. Military 
activity is legitimized, and linked into practically every home and 
family in the country. The people's consciousness is raised of the 
sacrifices that are being made for the national safety. There are even 
certain practical benefits to promoting an informed citizenry, and one 
with a strong immediate interest in sound management of the military. 
Nearly every male voter is also a military man - and, with a full-time 
military establishment of only about 1,000 officials or less, nearly 
every military man earns his living in the civilian economy. No doubt 
this is one reason there have been relatively few of the military 
scandals in Switzerland, either as to over-priced procurement items, 
what weapons to purchase, or other matters.

The militia system is egalitarian in imposing its burden. There are a 
few ways to get an exemption from military service, but only a few, 
and none is advanced by social standing. Absolute mental or physical 
inability will get you out. Policemen can sometimes earn a waiver 
since they might be needed in two places at once. A 1977 ballot 
initiative sought to allow men to fill their service obligation 
outside the armed forces - cleaning parks, teaching reading, and so 
on. It was rejected by more than 60 percent of the voters. A decade 
later, a smaller proposed exception passed, but is still socially 
frowned upon.

Importantly, all Swiss men start off as privates. The son or daughter 
of a Swiss president, member of parliament, or captain of industry is 
a grunt. The earliest promotion to officer generally takes place after 
several years of service. Thus there is no separate officer class as 
in most countries, even the democracies. Most of these officers 
(roughly 98 percent or more) are part-time or "reservist" soldiers 
with regular employment. A small, full-time force of less than 1,000 
staff constitutes Switzerland's entire professional military.

There is, to be sure, a tendency for military and professional 
advancement to correlate - but both are based on merit. Generally, 
many of those who are advancing in their career often thrive in their 
military service, and vice-versa. "The colonel and the barrister, the 
banker and the captain, the major and the businessman are one," McPhee 
writes. And while there are many cases of parallel advancement, there 
are others of social criss-crossing - of nonprofessionals in daily 
life advancing in the military, or of high-ranking business executives 
continuing to serve as privates or sergeants. "There are at least two 
bank presidents who march with the rank and file. An army captain has 
told me that he once leaped to his feet because the soldier serving 
him food was an executive vice-president of the company he worked for 
in Basel. To be high in business and low in the army is less unusual 
than the reverse."

Perhaps the most important impact of the militia is the way it 
integrates the military and the society as a whole. In most developed 
societies there is alienation between the people and the military 
class, one of the reasons the American Founding Fathers, rightly, 
feared such a class. The citizen-based force of the Swiss, by 
contrast, is practical and efficient in military terms, and wholesome 
for the society.

Can there be any higher function of the state than the preservation 
and protection of the state and the people from external violence? As 
in other walks of Swiss political life - making laws, altering the 
constitution, defending the nation - we see supreme acts of 
sovereignty being carried out, for the most part, by ordinary 

In perhaps every fourth or fifth meeting with a Swiss of any length, 
army contacts and experiences are likely to come up. Christian Kuoni, 
the president of one of the largest privately owned manufacturing 
companies in Switzerland, Jakob Muller, asks about my meetings later 
in the day. One is with Carlo Schmid, an attorney, Landamann of Canton 
Appenzell, and a member of the federal senate. "Carlo Schmid?" he 
asks. "We drilled in the army together for years." And Kuoni whips out 
his little service book, proceeding to tick through some of his 
assignments with various other corporate officers, workers from his 
own factory and others, journalists, a union leader from Geneva, the 
fellow who runs the local post office. As he ticks along, it strikes 
me that the Swiss have their confessional and other differences, but 
there is one church they all attend: the army. There is, of course, no 
even remotely comparable experience in the United States and most of 
Europe. The Swiss Army slashes across all walks of life, institutions, 
interest groups, and people and brings every citizen of the state - or 
rather, every male citizen, but through them, involves a majority of 
the women as well - together for an act of regular communion.

It is important to note that early in the twenty-first century the 
Swiss began a reduction in the size and universality of their military 
service. This reduction, of about one-third, was hard to argue against 
in terms of the relative military peace in Europe, but the change will 
have social impacts. The reduction especially of the principle of 
broad, almost universal service, will change the psychology and role 
of army service. Switzerland's rate of military service will still far 
exceed that of nearly any other country in the world with the 
exception of Israel. For this reason, the Swiss Army, albeit smaller, 
will continue to play a significant social and economic role in the 

As the Swiss army makes Swiss neutrality muscular, so Swiss neutrality 
gives the army - and the society - both a strong moral raison d'etre 
in foreign affairs and, to a degree, an ethos not only for the nation 
as a whole but for the individual.

Swiss neutrality's roots are as deep as the oath on the Rütli, but the 
decisive event in its development came with the Swiss defeat of 1515 
at the hands of the French army at Marignano. "I have conquered those 
whom only Caesar managed to conquer before me," boasted King Francois 
I. Actually, he had not conquered the Swiss; he had defeated them in 
battle. The impact, however, was still great. Switzerland was a poor 
country, and, indeed, still only a country in the most generous sense 
of the term - a loose confederation of thirteen cantons, linked by a 
small, impermanent court that floated from one capital city to another 
every year like Gulliver's island of Laputa. They decided, quite 
prudently, that this was no core from which to build a vast empire 
through military conquest. Nicholaus von der Flue, the respected friar 
and political-religious activist, added powerful moral arguments to 
these practical ones, and the policy took root.

For centuries, of course, neutrality as a policy of the confederation 
was really something of a statement of impotence by that rather thin 
body of government. The cantons aligned themselves with competing 
princes all over Europe - usually renting the services of their highly 
sought armies or units of them as mercenaries. For hundreds of years, 
as one military historian has written, arms of this sort were 
"Switzerland's leading export."

This practice indeed helped enrich the region, while at the same time 
maintaining what De Gaulle called "the edge of the sword" - and thus, 
while Switzerland was neutral, the Swiss were fighting all the time: 
hard, sharp. This practice, however, led to its own absurdities. It 
helped keep Switzerland divided and even encouraged foreign meddling, 
since it was well known that for the right price most cantons could be 
swayed to shift alliances. It also led to the repeated comedy - a sad 
comedy at that - of Swiss troops from different cantons facing one 
another in battle. With grim logic, the Swiss fought bravely in such 
struggles, killing many of themselves.

On the more glorious side of the ledger, Swiss soldiers participated 
in (and played a key role) in some of the most important battles of 
the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. The French kings saw 
the Swiss in action and hired them to guard the royal person. While 
many French guards deserted during the seizure of Louis and Antoinette 
during the Revolution, the Swiss fought to the death, and were thereby 
honored and respected even by the revolutionaries for performing an 
honest duty so bravely. Centuries before, the Popes, having seen the 
Swiss bodyguards in action, decided to retain their own units for 
protection of the Vatican. The brave Swiss guards of canton Fribourg 
remained in this service at the dawn of the twenty-first century.

As a practical benefit most foreign powers, even the great empires, 
while they certainly looked to the cantons for troops, generally 
thought of any occupation or absorption of Switzerland as a high-cost 
enterprise with few likely benefits. Thus the policy of neutrality, 
while viewed with an understandable skepticism by some modern-day 
critics, grew and evolved over time into something solid.

Franz Muheim, a typically Swiss Swiss - former industry leader, 
military officer, senator, author, intellectual - explains some of the 
deep roots and wide branches of that broad concept, Swiss neutrality.

"There is a basic point of view that you could call Swiss," he tells 
me in English - his third or fourth language - at the Hotel Metropol 
in Luzern, over a pleasant luncheon. "It is not predetermined by the 
mountains and the geography, but certainly, these make it very 

"The Swiss, you see, are not so much a mountain people, as a valley 
people - separated by mountains. Farmers, small manufacturers, gate 
keepers. The land makes it not inevitable, but certainly very easy, 
for small, independent communities to form.

"If one of these communities even wanted to conquer and enslave one of 
their neighbors, it would not be an easy task," he continued. A 
picture of Jean-Jacques Rousseau flashed into my mind, with his 
classic commentary on the impossibility of slavery in the state of 
nature, from the essay on the origins of inequality to the Academy at 
Dijon. "Of course, you could not do it, nor did the Swiss ever want to 
do it.

"The Swiss wants primarily to be left alone by the next village, and 
to cooperate with his friends and neighbors while retaining a certain 
autonomy and independence even within this intimate cell. He does not 
want to be involved in fights against or between his neighbors, both 
because he knows how hard it is to intervene usefully, and because he 
recognizes the limited ability his small village would have to 
influence matters anyway."

"This way of thinking applies from the individual Swiss of those 
villages, hundreds of years ago, up to the state - and today, as well, 
from the state down to and through the individual."

Neutrality, thus, is a state of mind and personal philosophy, a 
broadened version of that very wise beginning of the doctor's 
Hippocratic Oath: "First do no harm." It is policy, but it is more 
than that.

Likewise the Swiss military-industrial complex is an arm of the 
government - but not just an arm of the government. It is, like many 
Swiss institutions, inextricably linked with the society - achieving 
something akin to the Maoist dictum that the guerrilla must be as a 
fish is to the sea.

"You must understand," as Swiss Divisionnaire Adrien Tschumy, told the 
journalist McPhee, "there is no difference between the Swiss people 
and the Swiss Army."


1. La Place de la Concorde Suisse, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984. 
McPhee's book is a quiet classic for Americans, but among the Swiss, 
it is almost at the level of a cult. McPhee, a New Yorker editor, 
drilled with several Swiss units and described his conversations and 
experience in some detail. It is a bragging point among the Swiss not 
merely to have been mentioned in the book, or to have had some contact 
with McPhee, but to know someone who has. "I once drilled with someone 
who had previously drilled in that unit, though he was not there at 
the time McPhee was," a Swiss businessman, who heads a Fortune 500 
company, told me proudly.

 18. Switzerland Accused

Hans Bär was not ready for my question. It was not on the list of 
topics faxed before our talk and, in fact, wasn't even in my mind 
until we were about half-way through. He wasn't angry about it - to my 
relief. But he was surprised. It surprised me, too; my voice seemed to 
come from someone else.

"How do you feel about Switzerland and the Holocaust?"

Simple words, but that last one evokes strong emotions. Hans Bär, the 
head of an old and respected investment bank in Zürich, didn't know me 
except as a writer interested in Switzerland. It would have been 
understandable if he were taken aback, even offended.

At the same time, even before Bär answered, it felt right. The 
question of the Nazi reign of terror and the country's response to it 
is one that troubles the Swiss deeply. And the international grilling 
of Switzerland in the late 1990s was a blow to the national pride and 
a cause of deep hurt. Here was a man who felt all these emotions 
strongly and personally - an informed man of some sensitivity. The 
question had to be asked.

"I feel..." Bär said, and paused. He seemed to be thinking about his 
feelings on this, improbable as it sounds, for the first time. "I feel 
very proud and very ashamed of my country. I am a Swiss, and a Jew. I 
am both."

"Switzerland made mistakes - was guilty of horrible political 
stupidity after the war. There should have been an active effort to 
recompense the owners and the descendants of the dormant accounts." 
(Bär is speaking of accounts opened by foreign Jews in Swiss banks 
before the war, but which lapsed afterward. In some cases, the account 
holders died. In others, they simply forgot the accounts, or allowed 
them to sit fallow. In some cases, money was paid out.) "At the same 
time, Switzerland resisted the Nazis for years when she was completely 
surrounded." Indeed, even before the war, Switzerland was the first 
country to launch a significant armament program to defend against the 
Nazi threat.

"It is even more complicated than this, because, for example, there 
were elements of anti-Semitism here, too. They were not nearly as 
strong as in Germany or elsewhere. But there was some. We would see 
banners in Zürich occasionally, read newspaper articles, hear threats.

Bär's natural conflictedness was well captured when his preparatory 
school in the United States, the Horace Mann School, asked him to 
accept an award in 1998.(1) Bär was flattered. He would have liked to 
receive the honor. "But I could not accept an award in the United 
States, while my country was being treated as it was by the U.S. 
government and in the U.S. press - and in the very circles of people 
whom I would be receiving this award from. I told them, as a Swiss, I 
could not accept."

A year passed. The U.S. government, while not explicitly apologizing 
for its allegation that Swiss actions had "helped prolong" World War 
II, issued a second report qualifying some of the more extreme claims 
of the first one. Vice President Gore appeared in Davos, Switzerland, 
to tell the Swiss President, Mrs. Dreifuss, that his government hoped 
the controversy would wind down and planned no further actions 
designed to bring pressure or opprobrium on the Swiss. The school 
offered the award again. Bär accepted, using his speech as an 
opportunity to put the Swiss record in context - and encourage his 
American audience to consider our own sins of omission in the Nazi 
Holocaust and other such events, before lecturing others. The crisis 
seemed to be defusing itself, the wounds starting to heal. "There is 
little doubt in my mind," Bär told the Horace Mann School, "that the 
declared end of the very serious bickering between the United States 
and Switzerland over its role during and after the Second World War, 
as it was solemnly declared in Davos only a couple of weeks ago, 
really marks the end of that episode."

Even if so, however, some painful historical questions remain - not 
only for the Swiss but for other countries that, unlike Switzerland, 
have not begun to come to terms with their wartime and postwar banking 
transactions. Furthermore, it was far from clear, as Bär commented a 
year later, that the Davos "ceasefire" represented anything more than 
a temporary lull by some U.S. officials in a long and inexplicable 
vendetta against the Swiss.

For the Swiss democracy, regardless of U.S. attitudes, there are 
institutional questions raised by the Holocaust issue. These events 
raise questions that the Swiss will have to address. The future is 
bound to bring moral-political issues of this type, issues over the 
Swiss banking system and issues that arise out of Swiss neutrality - a 
policy that is always vulnerable to misinterpretation and, at times, 
abuses. How will Switzerland handle them?

"The controversy," as the Swiss refer to it, was latent in the 
practices of Swiss banks going back to the early postwar years, and, 
indeed, to before the war itself. During the war and in the years 
afterward, some 50,000 to 100,000 accounts fell dormant, or were 
closed. It is doubtful that a majority of these belonged to Holocaust 
victims or other Jews. In fact, according to studies of the Swiss 
accounts, it is all but certain that a third or less were. It is 
equally certain, however, that some finite percentage of these 
accounts did belong to Jews. According to the Swiss Bankers 
Association, nearly 20,000 persons have registered claims for dormant 
accounts. (Many of these, of course, are duplicate claims from 
relatives of the same prospective account holder.) The Volcker 
Committee, headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul 
Volcker, studied the matter of dormant accounts and other unclaimed 
assets in Swiss banks deposited by victims of the Nazis. It concluded, 
in an interim report, that when interest and inflation over the years 
are added to the initial principal, perhaps $1 billion to $2 billion 
in such assets exist. This committee was established by the Swiss 
Bankers Association in cooperation with the World Jewish Relief 
Organization and the World Jewish Congress.

These matters remained closed and generally uncontroversial for 
several decades due to two factors. One was the renowned sacredness of 
Swiss banking privacy. This policy has always been somewhat 
misunderstood. For instance, the provisions provide no shield against 
domestic or international criminal prosecutions. Nevertheless, the 
policy did make it hard for relatives, journalists, and others both 
from obtaining specific account information and from compiling a broad 
profile of the scope and magnitude of the accounts. Often such 
accounts were opened under fictitious names, or using passwords or 
numeric codes. If the person who opened the account died, relatives 
might have no idea where the money was. Relatives coming back after 
the war, or even decades later, lacking the needed account information 
might ask the Swiss banks for help, but the banks declined to give out 
the needed information. The reputation of Swiss secrecy discouraged 
many from even trying.

The second factor was a certain smugness, or at the least 
indifference, on the part of Swiss bankers and politicians when 
inquiries and appeals were made. In the case of some business and 
political elites, in fact, more than indifference was involved. The 
Swiss people, in plain terms, were sometimes lied to about the 
activities of the government and the banks. Individual requests for 
access to dormant accounts by Holocaust victims were treated no worse 
than if they involved an account in no way linked to a Holocaust 
victim, but they were treated no better. Group appeals (from Jewish 
organizations, corporations, or governments) were politely referred to 
the banks. This policy might be defensible from a narrow legal 
standpoint, but it took little account of the special circumstances of 
this group of people. To keep these matters in perspective, of course, 
Americans and Europeans outside Switzerland must remember the 
indifference of some of their own financial and political institutions 
before, during, and after the war. Researchers have argued that 
Deutsche Bank, Ford Motor Company, Allianz, and General Motors all 
benefited from unsavory relations with the Nazi regime before or after 
the war. "New York State," as Bär points out, "was the beneficiary of 
most of the Holocaust funds transferred to the U.S. under your 
escheatment laws - and never returned a penny."

What was underneath the surface became a heated debate when a group 
representing the families of Holocaust victims filed a class action 
suit against a number of Swiss banks in 1996. The suit called for the 
return of what the plaintiffs said was some $20 billion owed in 
principal and interest to the survivors and their families. The case 
was ultimately settled for about $1.5 billion, more than the amount 
estimated by the Volcker Commission as due on dormant accounts to 
Holocaust victims, and much less than the original suit. As the press, 
foreign governments, and others began to comment on the specific 
situation with the accounts, however, they catalyzed a discussion of 
several broader issues, including:

- gold and other transactions by the Swiss National Bank with the 

- the broader Swiss economic relationship with Germany and the other 
Axis powers;

- Swiss military efforts to resist potential Nazi aggression; and

- the meaning, benefits, and (if any) harms of Swiss neutrality 

That the Swiss carried out large gold transactions with Nazi Germany 
can not be denied, and never was. As a neutral nation, Switzerland 
naturally kept up some economic and political relations with her 
largest trading power. A secret British report late in the war 
concluded that Swiss neutrality had been highly beneficial to the 
allies, as did such American officials as William Clayton, Dean 
Acheson, and John Foster Dulles. As well, as a practical matter, 
Switzerland was physically surrounded for much of the war by Axis 
troops. Dependent on other countries for energy and food imports, 
Switzerland built machinery and other exports for trade, and carried 
out that trade in the international medium of exchange at the time: 

Given the volume of gold being transacted by the German central bank, 
it is impossible to believe that the Swiss did not purchase some 
amount of gold from Holocaust victims including but not limited to the 
particular purchases identified in recent investigations that the 
Swiss either conducted themselves, or cooperated with. In all, the 
Swiss purchased some 1.5 billion Swiss francs worth of gold from the 
German central bank from 1938 until 1945, most of it concentrated in 
the peak war years of 1941 through 1943.

The supposition that the Swiss traded significantly in the gold stolen 
and in some cases physically removed from Jewish victims, however, is 
highly doubtful. Once the issue of gold transactions became a serious 
issue and the Swiss were aroused to act - too late, but not too little 
- the Swiss attacked the problem. The Confederation appointed a 
commission to consider the gold transactions and other issues of 
policy during the war. Working from shattered records and moldy 
microfilms spread from Missouri to Moscow, the
commission managed to locate at least three specific bars of gold that 
clearly originated in a shipment from SS Captain Bruno Melmer.

"Specifically," the commission reported, "these were bars from the 
seventh Melmer shipment" to the German Reichsbank on 27 November 1942, 
"bearing the numbers 36903, 36904, and 36905 and having a total weight 
of 37.5411 kfg. They were sent by the Reichsbank to the SNB [Swiss 
National Bank] in Bern on 5 January 1943." As well, "gold bars with 
the numbers 36783 and 36784," as well as "numbers 36902 and 36907," 
were "delivered to the Prussian Mint on 25 February 1943." These four 
bars were in turn resmelted and sold to the Swiss and to German 
commercial banks.

There is a distinction between gold stolen from Jews when they were 
rounded up, and gold literally taken from their bodies in the Nazi 
death camps. That the latter was taking place was not known until the 
final days of the war. The former phenomenon - the theft of gold from 
people as they were rounded up for what were presumed to be horrible 
work camps, but not genocide - was understood by the Swiss from their 
own intelligence reports and indeed press accounts from Germany, 
Italy, and elsewhere. "For those who want to know," an article in the 
Neve Zürcher Zeitung on August 16, 1942, argued, "there can be no more 
illusions concerning the real situation of gold trade with Germany." 
The article went on to detail the looting of gold from foreign central 
banks and from individuals. "It is known that assets held by private 
individuals were also confiscated in the occupied territories," the 
director of the Swiss National Bank's legal department commented on 
December 2, 1943. "For example, from deported Jews or from persons 
affected by sanctions, etc."

Nevertheless, Switzerland was not the only country to receive gold the 
Nazis stole from Holocaust victims, or looted from foreign central 
banks. From 1935 to 1945, some $20 billion flowed out of Europe to the 
United States. Much of it, albeit indirectly, was Nazi gold. Swiss 
purchases of gold from Germany, Italy, and Japan ($319 million) were 
barely half that from the allies ($688 million), most of it coming 
from the United States ($518 million). The U.S. was also the leading 
purchaser of gold from the Swiss, at $165 million, numbers which imply 
there was some victim gold involved.

The Swiss encirclement was exacerbated by the American economic 
embargo of the Axis powers, which was a de facto quarantine on all of 
Western Europe. In December, 1941, Washington froze Swiss assets in 
the United States, including substantial gold reserves. The ironic 
result was to drive Switzerland, needing gold reserves to conduct 
trade and defend its currency, into the arms of Germany, a needy 
supplier of gold and the one country that could unilaterally engage in 
actual transfers of the metal. Figure 18.1 shows the pattern of Swiss 
gold purchases from Germany, spiking in the first quarter of 1942, and 
returning to normal after the third quarter of 1944, when the allies 
opened a small transit corridor to Switzerland through France.

Figure 18.1
Swiss National Bank Gold Purchases from German Reichsbank, Expressed 
as a Three-Quarter Moving Average

Millions of Swiss Francs (approx.)

1940.25 - 05
1940.50 - 10
1940.75 - 00
1941.00 - 13
1941.25 - 15
1941.50 - 23
1941.75 - 08 (Dec. 1941: U.S. freezes Swiss gold assets)
1942.00 - 40
1942.25 - 80
1942.50 - 110
1942.75 - 95
1943.00 - 83
1943.25 - 93
1943.50 - 90
1943.75 - 84
1944.00 - 80
1944.25 - 82
1944.50 - 60 (Aug. 1944: Allies open Swiss corridor)
1944.75 - 40
1945.00 - 20
1945.25 - 15
1945.50 - 13
1945.75 - 00

Source: Alexis de Tocqueville Institution from data supplied by SNB, 
the Swiss Task Force on World War II, and the German Bundesbank.

Especially painful to the Swiss is the accusation that their country 
was "neutral for Hitler." The accusation takes various forms. Some 
argue that the Swiss, by selling specific equipment and armaments to 
the Germans, or trading with them at all, were aiding the German war 
effort. (The Swiss, despite their position, traded nearly as much with 
the allies and smuggled out precision instruments vital to the allied 
effort in the critical air war.) Others suggest that merely by trading 
with Germany in any extensive way, the Swiss must have been helping 
the Nazis, and therefore, are culpable.

An official U.S. document, the first Eisenstadt report, argues that 
Swiss actions even helped "prolong the war." Still others convict the 
Swiss of a kind of cultural affinity. "They're basically German," as a 
staff aide who contributed to the Eisenstadt report commented. "You 
have to keep that in mind." (Report author Stuart Eisenstadt later 
said he regretted some of the report's conclusions, but critics noted 
that this retraction took place only after Eisenstadt allegedly went 
on the payroll of a major Swiss bank.)

These notions of an insufficient disdain for Hitler, and a kind of 
tacit, cultural self-Anschluss, are highly insidious - nearly 
impossible to combat.

Once motives are impugned, much objective evidence becomes 
meaningless, even usable against itself. Any wartime action that 
advanced Switzerland's own interests, no matter how legitimately, can 
be added to the tally as another sign of shrewd Swiss venality. 
Selling paper clips to the Germans? There they go again, providing 
valuable supplies. Selling paper clips to the Americans? The Swiss are 
always out to make a profit at our expense. At various points in the 
war, both the allies and the Germans were furious with the Swiss for 
what they perceived as a tilt toward the other. America, in a much 
stronger position to chart its own course than Switzerland, continued 
a substantial trade with Germany even after the attack on France. We 
justified our policy as part of a needed effort to rebuild American 
production capacity for armaments. Later, in order to expedite the war 
against Nazism, the U.S. formed an alliance with Stalinist Russia.

Finally, the Swiss have no tradition of self-apologetics, and their 
system is designed against it. America has had great power for a 
century now, and, accordingly, attracted a long stream of insults and 
denunciations. The U.S. is inured to being assaulted as corrupt, 
aggressive, or insensitive. It has calluses for these attacks, and 
experience at wooing and battering world opinion against them. 
Switzerland, a small nation that has not threatened its neighbors 
militarily for centuries, has not often been engaged in defending 
itself from this kind of attack. The Swiss have faced and repelled 
armies. The international press, Western politicians, and university 
researchers are a different matter, and to the Swiss, in some ways 
more threatening.

For the Swiss, World War II, as an economic phenomenon, began a few 
weeks after the German leadership appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor in 
January, 1933. In the Swiss tradition, the political leaders in Bern, 
and newspaper readers around the country, had read Hitler's statements 
before and after coming to power. Unlike most in the West, the Swiss 
took them seriously. "Our people will never allow itself to be brought 
into line according to the German pattern," Federal Councilor Rudolf 
Minger, head of the military department, declared in March, 1933, 
justifying his proposal for increased Swiss defense preparedness. That 
October, as Hitler announced Germany's intention to withdraw from the 
League of Nations, Minger drew up a plan to increase Swiss military 
spending by 15 million francs in 1934, a 20 percent increase, as part 
of a four-year addition of 100 million francs - a near doubling of 
Swiss defense spending by 1938. The Neue Zürcher Zeitung, in an 
October 12 editorial, approved, adding that the country not only 
needed such armaments, but a vigorous "spiritual defense" as well - a 
term that became a Swiss rallying cry. On December 10, The New York 
Times published an article alleging that Germany had drawn up plans 
for the invasion of France through Switzerland. The account may have 
been spurious, but the Swiss could not assume that it was. On December 
14, the federal council approved more than 80 million francs in 
additional defense spending. Among the items was the start of 
construction of a vast series of hidden mountain fortifications and 
guns. This fortress Switzerland program became a $15 billion project 
in today's dollars - not much less than what Ronald Reagan and the 
United States spent on his Star Wars defense program during his entire 
term in office. At the same time, the Swiss decided to build a new 
museum to house the Bundesbrief and other documents of national 
independence - exemplifying the Swiss political and sentimental 
separation from Austria and Germany, or what one writer later called 
"pan-this and pan-that." This is where Swiss policy toward Germany 
stood in 1933, before Hitler had spent a full year in office.

The war measures continued and expanded through Hitler's abrogation of 
the Versaille treaty (August, 1935), occupation of the Rhineland 
(March, 1936), absorption of Austria (March, 1938), the Kristallnacht 
assault on Jews (November, 1938), the annexation of Czechoslovakia 
(1939), and the invasion of Poland (April, 1940), Denmark and Norway 
(April, 1940), and France (May, 1941 ). In the spring of 1934, Nazi 
textbook writers drew maps of showing Switzerland as part of a 
conceived "Greater Germany" based on language and ethnic lines. "Quite 
naturally, we count you Swiss as offshoots of the German nation," Nazi 
historian Ewald Banse, author of one of the textbooks, commented. 
Swiss newspapers and officials attacked his conception. Theodore 
Fischer, the leader of Switzerland's tiny pro-German faction, promised 
the country would be liberated from its status as a "vassal state of 
France under Jewish control."

Federal Councillor Jean Marie Musy, the Swiss finance minister, spoke 
for most of the country when he promised that Switzerland would 
"remain a democracy or cease to be Switzerland." The "racial ideal," 
he said, "can never be the basis of Swiss nationality." Defense 
Minister Minger echoed: "Events abroad have reawoken Switzerland's 
ancient defiance and the feelings for justice and liberty have been 

In the following twelve months the Swiss banned the wearing of 
uniforms by political parties; expanded the period for basic military 
training by twenty days; increased the defense budget by more than 30 
percent; enacted additional protections for the press against German 
threats and complaints; expelled German agents who were trolling 
through Zürich and Basel hoping to identify private bank transfers 
made by Jews; and rejected an initiative, supported by the small 
national socialist group, calling for greater centralized economic 
planning such as enacted in Germany, Italy, and the United States.

The Swiss people signaled their support for these measures whenever 
tested. In some ways they were more anti-German than their leaders. In 
1935, the Communist Party and others challenged the near doubling of 
defense expenditures in a national vote - a "facultative" referendum. 
They lost, 54 percent to 46 percent. This was the height of the Great 
Depression in Switzerland. It was the only significant facultative 
referendum between 1929 and 1946 that passed. And it was the only one 
between 1916and 1946 that passed while calling for significant 
government expenditures.

>From 1933 to 1937, land cultivation in Switzerland doubled. While 
there were government incentive programs, a large portion of the 
increase was the result of appeals to the Swiss people to increase the 
country's food supply voluntarily. On the eve of the war, the 
government asked for volunteers for extra military home defense units. 
The council hoped to find 20,000 to 30,000 able boys and old men who 
could shuttle ammunition to key points, aid in communications, and 
perform similar duties. Within three months, more than 200,000 had 

Popular war preparations accelerated in the spring of 1938, as Hitler 
swallowed Austria. This made Switzerland, as The New York Times noted, 
"a democratic peninsula in a politically autocratic and economically 
autarchic league." A few days later, the Socialist Party of Basel, the 
city with the closest ties to Germany, collected signatures for an 
initiative to criminalize membership in the Nazi Party. The initiative 
achieved the highest number of signatures ever seen in the city. The 
national parliament, meanwhile, had also approved a significant 
revision of the penal code. Among other things, it allowed persons 
charged with treason and other collaboration with the enemy - 
including civilians - to be tried by military courts. This change was 
challenged in a facultative referendum, but the new law was approved 
in July, 1938, with 54 percent support.

In December, 1940, the leading Nazi group was banned and its leaders 
arrested. In the United States, by contrast, Nazi groups, though 
small, were still active. America completed its second consecutive 
year of more than $100 million in trade with the Nazis as Henry Luce 
and others tried (with little initial success) to rally popular 
support for aid to Britain and other Nazi foes. The Swiss, of course, 
faced a much greater threat than the Americans did in the 1930s, and 
indeed throughout the war; they had more reason to prepare for the 

Figure 18.2 compares Swiss military expenditures with those of other 
European countries in dollars per capita for 1937. These figures 
understate the relative Swiss resistance to Nazism, because of the 
popular nature of the Swiss Army, which incorporated 400,000 members, 
expanding to more than 750,000 during an actual attack. The former 
figure meant that Switzerland, in 1938, had approximately 10 percent 
of the population under arms. Only Finland (8 percent) and Belgium (8 
percent) compare favorably and even these are significantly below the 
lower Swiss figure. The Netherlands (5 percent), Norway (4 percent), 
Denmark (4 percent), and France (3 percent) were even lower.

The Swiss looked not only to physical measures, but also to 
psychological and even metaphysical ones as well. In 1937, Federal 
Councillor Philipp Etter published a book entitled Geistige 
Landesverteidung - roughly, Spiritual Defense. The book was a Swiss 
best seller and reportedly was distributed

Table 18.1
Meeting the Nazi Threat Military Spending per Capita, 1935

Finland 24.9
Switzerland 22.6
Belgium 19.7
Norway 17.9
The Netherlands 16.5
Denmark 14.3
Austria 11.9
(in 1935 Swiss francs)

Source: Alexis de Tocqueville Institution research memorandum, 1999, 
from national data and population figures.

widely in Czechoslovakia, Austria, and other soon-to-be "possessions 
of the German Reich," as Hitler termed them.

'The German people will never forget the attitude of the Swiss during 
this war," growled the Frankfurter Zeitung on December 2, 1940. "A 
nation of 80,000,000, while fighting for bare existence, finds itself 
almost uninterruptedly attacked, insulted, and slandered by the 
newspapers of a minuscule country whose government claims to be 

The pages above place a lot of emphasis on Swiss actions prior to the 
German Blitzkrieg of France in the spring of 1940 and in the immediate 
months that followed. There's a good reason. We learn a lot about 
Swiss hopes and intentions during the period when Nazism was reaching 
its zenith. This was the time when Denmark, Belgium, and Austria were 
either giving up without a fight, or fighting but offering only a few 
days or weeks (France) of resistance.

On June 14, a Friday in 1940, Paris fell. The Swiss, neutral to the 
teeth, were already aggressively engaged in the defense of their 
national territory against "all potential aggressors" - i.e., Hitler. 
American entry into the war was still more than 500 days away, 
awaiting Pearl Harbor and the gratuitous German declaration of war 
hours later. The following Monday, June 17, General Henri Guisan - 
elected to head the Swiss war effort shortly after the German invasion 
of Poland - called together the Swiss general staff to discuss 
preparations for the defense of Switzerland against a possible 
occupation by the Nazis. Late in June, as the German-French truce 
became effective, German Captain Otto Wilhelm von Menges submitted a 
plan for an attack on Switzerland to the German general staff. On July 
25, Guisan and the Swiss general staff gathered in Luzern to boat down 
the lake to the banks of the Rütli, where they renewed the sacred oath 
of their ancestors from 1291 and the Bundesbrief. Author Stephen 
Halbrook paints the scene:

  On a beautiful day, Guisan faced the senior officers of the army 
standing in a semicircle on the Rütli Meadow, facing the lake. Canton 
Uri's flag of the Battalion 87 flew above. Addressing the measures 
taken "for the resistance in the reduit," Guisan ordered "resistance 
to all aggression." He continued: "Here, soldiers of 1940, we will 
inspire ourselves with the lessons and spirit of the past to envisage 
resolution of the present and future of the country, to hear the 
mysterious call that pervades this meadow."

Swiss elite troops had already been on active duty for almost a year - 
they were called up on August 25, 1939. "The country has one tenth of 
its population under arms; more than any other in the world," William 
Shirer diarized. "They're ready to defend their way of life."

Switzerland's orders for organization of "the entire army for 
resistance" promised the Germans that Switzerland as a nation would 
never capitulate - even if its government did. The order was posted 
all over the country both to reassure the people and to warn the 
Germans. In the event of attack, it said, the Swiss would be notified 
"through poster, radio, courier, town crier, storm bells, and the 
dropping of leaflets from airplanes." The response would not be 
limited to formal military groups acting as official units. "All 
soldiers and those with them are to attack with ruthlessness 
parachutists, airborne infantry, and saboteurs. Where no officers and 
noncommissioned officers are present, each soldier acts under exertion 
of all powers of his own initiative." Bearing in mind the case of 
other countries which had been intimidated into surrendering because 
of the capitulation of the national leadership, the order continued:

  If by radio, leaflets, or other media any information is transmitted 
doubting the will of the Federal Council or of the Army High Command 
to resist an attacker, this information must be regarded as lies of 
enemy propaganda. Our country will resist the aggression with all 
means in its power and to the bitter end.

In effect, the government was committing itself and the people to what 
Etter had called "total spiritual warfare." They deprived themselves 
of the ability to surrender even if they later wanted too: Swiss army 
units and citizens were under orders to ignore reports of such a 
decision and continue fighting.

All this makes it easy to understand the Swiss frustration at 
accusations that their country was in complicity with the Nazis during 
World War II. In fact, the Swiss people put up stiffer resistance, 
against greater odds, to the Germans than those of any other country. 
As Walter Lippmann, responding to an article in a U.S. magazine 
implying Switzerland was "occupied" by the Germans, wrote in January, 

  The Swiss nation is entirely surrounded by Axis armies, beyond reach 
of any help from the democracies.... Switzerland, which cannot live 
without trading with the surrounding Axis countries, still is an 
independent democracy....

That is the remarkable thing about Switzerland. The real news is not 
that her factories make munitions for Germany but that the Swiss have 
an army which stands guard against invasion, that their frontiers are 
defended, that their free institutions continue to exist, and that 
there has been no Swiss Quisling, and no Swiss Laval. The Swiss 
remained true to themselves even in the darkest days of 1940 and 1941, 
when it seemed that nothing but the valor of the British and the blind 
faith of free men elsewhere stood between Hitler and the creation of a 
totalitarian new order in Europe.

Surely, if ever the honor of a people was put to the test, the honor 
of the Swiss was tested and proved then and there... .They have 
demonstrated that the traditions of freedom can be stronger than the 
ties of race and of language and economic interest.

"Switzerland stands today as an island in a Nazi ocean," The New York 
Times echoed in a January 28 editorial. Referring to German 
publications that continually described Switzerland as a country 
harboring, and dominated by, Jews, the Times added, "perhaps the Swiss 
didn't mind being called a 'medley of criminals, particularly Jews.' 
To be called a criminal by a Nazi is to receive a high compliment. To 
be called a Jew by a Nazi is to be classed with those who have 
suffered martyrdom for freedom's sake."

Over the nine years of Swiss vulnerability, the Germans developed more 
than a dozen attack plans for Switzerland which were discussed at the 
highest military levels. These included deliberations by Hitler 
himself in 1934, 1936, 1938, 1939, 1940, 1942, 1943, 1944, and 1945. 
Except for a respite in 1941-42 while the German army was occupied 
with the assault on Russia - which ended as the Nazi retreat from 
Russia raised interest in grabbing Switzerland as a final redoubt - 
the Swiss were under near-constant peril.

"We woke up every morning and looked over the Rhein," a Jewish woman 
who lived in Basel comments, "and wondered whether the Germans would 
be invading that day." The woman, who asked that her name be withheld, 
said that her family attempted several times to emigrate to the United 
States. This was not because they were ill-treated in Switzerland - 
she lives near Davos where her husband is in a nursing home - but 
because they knew that if the Nazis did invade, they would be primary 
targets. They were, however, turned down, as were most appeals for 
asylum by European Jews to the U.S. State Department.

Why didn't the Germans actually seize Switzerland? The answer does not 
lie in any especially beneficial economic relationship. Swiss supplies 
of machinery to the Germans never totaled more than 3 percent of 
industrial production for a month, and averaged less than 2 percent 
over the war. Invasion would not have jeopardized much of this total 
because the Germans could seize most of the factories in the flat, 
Northern strip of the country that is most easily occupied.

The answer lies in German estimates that concluded that it would take 
anywhere from 300,000 to 500,000 men to subdue the country, followed 
by a smaller but still substantial occupation presence. Had they done 
this as well, the Germans were assured, the Swiss would destroy the 
tunnel and bridges through the Alps, depriving the Nazis of the most 
direct connection to their Italian allies. Such a move, in combination 
with German occupation of the Northern plain, would also have 
effectively destroyed the Swiss economy. It would have meant death for 
many Swiss and internees (including Jews) who lived there; the rest 
would have been, like other occupied populations, Nazi hostages. But 
the Swiss repeatedly assured the Germans that they would take this 
step and they mined key transportation points so as to be able to 
carry that threat out almost the instant Nazi troops crossed the 

A retired Swiss official who was part of the economic planning team 
during the war told me that in regular meetings the Germans repeatedly 
threatened both occupation and personal violence against the Swiss 
officials who were standing up to the German demands. "We were never 
belligerent back," he said, "but we did calmly and repeatedly refer 
them to our government's policies for dealing with those 
eventualities, which were published and repeated often to make sure 
they understood that our government and our people intended to carry 
them out."

In the context of all the country's actions, the Swiss threat to 
commit suicide - but pull Germany down as they went; a reciprocating 
Mosada - apparently struck the Germans as credible. "The Swiss are 
just the people," as The New York Times observed, "if pushed a mite 
too far, who would prefer to starve or die fighting rather than give 
in. Because they are that kind of people, they may not have to prove 
it in action."

Hitler seemed to sense this determination in the Swiss, and, as a 
result, had a loathing for them as a nation that rivaled his hatred of 
Winston Churchill as an individual and the Jews as a people.

At a war-planning conference with Mussolini in 1940, Hitler and the 
Italian dictator discussed what Hitler saw as the need to occupy 
Switzerland, to put an end to its "insolent defiance" of the New 
Europe and "collaboration with and harboring of the Jews." Later that 
year, Hitler learned of the delivery of precision engineering products 
from Switzerland to England, and flew into a tantrum. He immediately 
ordered his generals to draw up fresh invasion plans and described 
Bern - accurately - as the "center of international spying against 
Germany." Again in 1941, Hitler and the Italian dictator traded 
insulting characterizations of Switzerland, discussing the matter for 
more than half an hour. "The Führer characterized Switzerland as the 
most despicable and wretched people," recalled an aide who attended 
the meeting - the Swiss were, he later said, a "bastard" nation 
because of the intermingling of German blood with those of inferior 
races. "They frankly opposed the Reich," Hitler said, "hoping that by 
parting from the common destiny of the German people, they would be 
better off." Discussing his plans for the post-war economic order, 
Hitler said: "As for the Swiss, we can use them, at the best, as 

The Swiss press was a constant irritant to Hitler. It was not just 
what it said about him, but the very fact of its freedom. In July of 
1942, Hitler encountered Swiss press reports about the military 
strength of Soviet Russia. "Not only in England and America," Hitler 
groaned, but in Switzerland, "the population believes in Jewish 
claptrap." The Jews, he told an aide, must have special influence with 
the Swiss, because they cared about little other than grain prices, 
cows, and clocks. That August, impatient with the estimates of his 
generals that the Germans would need perhaps 500,000 men to subdue 
Switzerland - many times the relative troop strength used to conquer 
France - the Führer launched into another tirade about the Swiss.

"A state like Switzerland," Hitler told his staff, "which is nothing 
but a pimple on the face of Europe, cannot be allowed to continue." 
The wording is revealing: The Swiss state, for Hitler, must not be 
suffered even to continue. To the Reich, Switzerland's existence was 
an offense.

It was no accident that Hitler linked the Jews with the Swiss in many 
of his eruptions. Although many Jewish refugees were turned away at 
the Swiss border, thousands, particularly children and families with 
children, were accepted. (More by far than were welcomed by any other 
country in per capita terms.) The resulting Swiss ratio of rejection 
to acceptance was not nearly high enough to please the Führer. "The 
Jew must get out of Europe," he exploded at a meeting a few days after 
the infamous Wannsee Conference, where the plan to annihilate the Jews 
was drawn into a grisly blueprint. "Out of Switzerland and out of 
Sweden, they must be driven out."

Like the Finns and the Poles, the Swiss had the special honor of 
confronting both the German and Russian dictators, and exciting their 
special contempt. At the Yalta conference in 1944, Stalin proposed the 
invasion and occupation of Switzerland - ostensibly to foreclose the 
German option of using it to stage a final defense. The allies 
refused, and that night, in a conversation with Molotov, Stalin 
denounced the Swiss as a "contemptible little nation of bankers and 
farmers," and somewhere, Lenin, Bismarck, and Metternich smiled in 
agreement. Several months later, Churchill commented on the discussion 
in a memorandum to his foreign secretary:

  I put this down for the record. Of all the neutrals, Switzerland has 
the greatest right to distinction. She has been the sole international 
force linking the hideously surrendered nations and ourselves. What 
does it matter whether she has been able to give us the commercial 
advantages we desire or has given too many to the Germans, to keep 
herself alive?

Swiss today, particularly those who remember the war, are proud of 
Hitler's special disdain. They are, accordingly, hurt and angry at 
accusations that their country was complicit in any way with the Nazi 
regime. For all the superficial similarities of race and language, one 
can argue that there is not a country in the world that less resembles 
Nazi Germany than Switzerland.

 It is impossible to evaluate Switzerland's total moral position, if 
you will, in World War II without mentioning the country's positive 
contribution to the escape of thousands of Jews and other refugees 
from the Nazis. Figure 18.3 compares the per capita number of refugees 
accepted by the Swiss to those taken in by the United States, Great 
Britain, and France.

These figures understate the contribution the Swiss made to the 
protection of Jews and other refugees from Hitler's destruction, as 
the country was economically isolated for most of the period. The 
relative sacrifice made by the Swiss to care for several hundred 
thousand total refugees, interned prisoners, and others was even 
larger than the graphic suggests.

Statistics, moreover, omit the human face of Switzerland's 
humanitarian mission. One such flesh-and-blood contribution was made 
by Mr. and Mrs. Carl Lutz.

Carl Lutz was born in 1895 in Appenzell, the second youngest of ten 
children. He emigrated to the United States at age eighteen to work in 
a factory in Granite City, Illinois, not far from East St. Louis. For 
most of the 1920s he worked in assorted Swiss diplomatic offices in 
the U.S. Eventually, the Swiss Foreign Office appointed Lutz as a 
consular official in Jaffa, Palestine, where he served from 1935 to 
1939, an eyewitness to the Arab-Jewish conflicts. While there, he also 
helped some 2,500 Jewish emigrants from Germany to escape deportation 
by the British as illegal aliens.

>From 1942 to 1944, Lutz worked closely with the Jewish Agency of 
Palestine, headed by Moshe Krausz, to document and transport an 
estimated 10,000 Jewish children and young adults to (what would soon 
become) Israel. Some were orphans, others had parents who had been 
deported. Most had been smuggled to Hungary from other countries 
(Poland, Czechoslovakia,

Table 18.2
Havens from the Holocast

Jewish Refugees from Germany Accepted per 1 Million Persons in 
Country's 1930 Population


United States

Great Britain







Source: Alexis de Tocqueville Institution from figures from the UN. 
High Commission on Refugees, Yad Vashem, and the Statistical Yearbook 
of the National Immigration and Naturalization Service.

even Germany itself) by Chalutzim, Jewish pioneers. To evade the 
authorities, Lutz used British-approved Palestine Certificates, which 
he countersigned and supplemented with Swiss Schutzbriefe, protective 
"letters of transit."

In March of 1944, the Nazis, who had dominated the country but 
refrained from blatant interference, occupied all of Hungary, imposing 
a hand-picked government. On March 21, the Nazi regent closed the 
borders to all further emigration. This blocked some 8,000 Jews who 
should have been free to leave. Lutz demanded their immediate, 
unconditional release. But soon the problem was much greater than a 
matter of 8,000 emigrants waiting to leave. Though Lutz did not yet 
know it, SS Chief Adolf Eichmann, aided by the puppet government, had 
already made plans to deport all 762,000 Jews in Hungary to the 
Auschwitz concentration camp. The situation grew even more acute in 
October when the Arrow-Cross Party, the most extreme of the pro-German 
factions, came to power. The Nazis, feeling the circle closing around 
them, decided to slaughter as many Jews as they could through low-
technology methods: the infamous death march of November 1944, when 
more than 70,000 Jews were scourged towards the Austrian border.

Working against the Nazis and the clock, Lutz and his wife used every 
legal method they could think of to bring Jews under his protection. 
They used many illegal methods as well. When the Germans promised to 
respect the protection of the 8,000 visas he had issued, but only 
provided he issue no more, Lutz agreed in order to gain time. In the 
meantime he continued to print visas, perhaps 30,000 or 40,000 - but 
always numbering them between 1 and 8,000, so that if individuals were 
stopped and produced their papers, it might appear there had been no 
duplication of visas. "This idea," the Encyclopedia of the Houlocaust 
reports, "served as a model for various types of protective letters 
issued by other neutral countries and by the International Red Cross."

When the Germans caught on to this device, Lutz transferred his 
mission's emigration department to the now-famous Glass House on 
Vadasz Street, placing the building under his diplomatic immunity. He 
assembled several dozen leaders of the Jewish Community to act as 
liaisons, and collected thousands of photographs and signatures in a 
few days. Lutz then issued a series of "collective passports," 
covering some 40,000 persons in chunks of 1,000 and more apiece. Again 
the Nazis eventually penetrated the legal ruse, but it took time, and 
with the help of some of the Hungarians, Lutz had stalled the game out 
still further.

The Lutzes formed a circle of sympathetic diplomats from the other 
neutrals, such as papal nuncio Angelo Rotta, to build a network of 
safe houses throughout the city where Jews could be placed under his 
protection. He bought apartment buildings with help from sympathetic 
officials in the government and transferred several thousand Jews to 
them. When Eichmann and the SS demanded that the Jews of Budapest be 
concentrated in one spot to facilitate deportation, Lutz persuaded 
Hungarian officials to provide him with more than seventy protective 
houses within the ghetto, in the Szent-Istvan area of Budapest. This 
bought precious weeks for the more than 30,000 Schutzbrief holders 
that Lutz placed there. Lutz also acted as a mentor to other 
diplomats, such as Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden, recruiting them to the 
cause and sharing his methods. By the end of the war these men and 
women formed a wide network.

At times, the task was truly grim. Several times in the fall of 1944 
and winter of 1945, Lutz and his wife were hauled out late at night to 
the Obuda brickyard. On those occasions, the Nazis would line up Jews 
holding authentic and forged Schutzbriefe with identical numbers, 
demanding that Lutz decide which documents were legitimate and which 
were not. If he did not so indicate, the SS guards were under orders 
to simply deport all the assembled Jews. In effect, Lutz was being 
asked to determine which people should live and which were sentenced 
to death. After one such session, Lutz feared he was near a breakdown, 
and his wife asked if they should consider leaving the country. The 
next day, there was an attempt on Lutz's life, one of several apparent 
efforts by the SS officers on hand.

Like the border guards and Swiss families who regularly allowed Jews 
across the Swiss border, Lutz did not have the support of his 
government - nor of the British and American governments he 
represented. More than one exchange between Bern and London indicates 
that the two states contemplated recalling Lutz - London because it 
did not want so many Jews sent to Palestine, Bern because it worried 
Lutz's methods would compromise Swiss neutrality.

Lutz worked to make sure Western governments and eventually Western 
publics understood what was at stake. When two prisoners escaped from 
Auschwitz and related the grisly reality of what was taking place 
there, he immediately dispatched an urgent report to his superiors in 
Bern and London. When these official channels failed to act, he 
scurried copies of key documents to a friend who had taken an 
assignment as a representative of El Salvador. The news of Auschwitz 
broke in the Swiss press and soon produced an outcry in Paris, London, 
and New York. Lutz, of course, was risking his job and his life with 
each such maneuver.

The reward came in the frantic spring of 1945, as Russian troops 
closed in and the Nazis moved to slaughter as many Jews as possible 
before having to retreat. As the Soviet artillery neared, Lutz and his 
wife had to take cover in an isolated part of the city and were 
trapped for some weeks, out of contact with the world and unable to 
determine whether their efforts had even succeeded. Not long before 
the actual surrender of Germany, Lutz himself was liberated from his 
cellar in Pest.

The letters, the safe houses, the bribes, and the leaks had saved, by 
a conservative calculation, some 62,000 lives. It measures the 
magnitude of the Holocaust to consider that this total was less than 1 
percent of the number put to death by Hitler's Germany. On the other 
hand, this was the work of one Swiss citizen.

Though Lutz was in a position to render aid on a large scale, there 
were many Swiss who helped save others from the Hitler death camps one 
victim at a time. Official Swiss policy was to turn away all would-be 
entrants without passports, Jewish (whose passports carried a 
stigmatizing "J") and otherwise. But the feelings of the Swiss people 
were considerably more liberal, and families, sometimes whole 
communities, were willing to defy their own government.

Leopold Koss, now a doctor in New York City, was a beneficiary of this 
quiet heroism as he sought to escape the German occupation of France 
in 1942:

  On August 24 or 25, 1942 - I no longer remember the exact date - I 
crossed the French-Swiss border illegally on foot....The odds of being 
arrested in France as a Polish Jew and former soldier, and sent to a 
German concentration camp, were extremely high.

On the way to my destination, I heard that although the official 
policies of the Swiss government were against acceptance of refugees 
and that many (including some friends of mine) were returned to France 
or into the hands of the Gestapo, there was a recent swell of public 
opinion to open the border. In fact, a woman on the train, perhaps 
guessing my destination, handed me an article in the Journal de 
Geneve, published some days before, openly exhorting the government to 
open the borders to the victims of Nazi persecution. Apparently 
similar articles appeared in August 1942 in the German-speaking press, 
notably the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

I entered Switzerland without difficulty and was soon several 
kilometers inland, not having been molested by anyone. Rather 
exhausted, hungry and thirsty, I voluntarily entered the barracks of a 
military unit... I was fed and offered a cot. The soldiers, simple 
Swiss citizens, couldn't have been nicer.

The next day... I was interrogated by a police officer who promptly 
informed me that I was to be sent back to France as an illegal alien. 
However, he consented to listen to my story, told through tears, and 
offered to inquire of the authorities in Bern what should be done with 
me. I discovered shortly thereafter that there was a group of at least 
30 men in the same predicament.... We were all treated with great 
consideration by the police and the guards. A few days later we were 
apparently accepted and sent to a camp for political refugees - 
Belchasse. I spent several months in Belchasse, followed by several 
months in a labor camp in Aesch-bei-Birmensdorf, near Zürich. It was 
hardly luxury - but it was safe. I only wish my parents and my sister, 
who stayed in Poland, could have been with me. They all perished.

In September 1943, I was allowed to resume my studies of medicine in 
Bern. During the three and a half years that I spent at the University 
of Bern, I never had to pay any tuition.... The federal police, to 
whom I had to report on a weekly and then a monthly basis, were 
increasingly friendly.... In fact, as I was leaving Switzerland for 
the United States in 1947 to start a new life, they addressed their 
last communications to me with the title, "doctor," better than the 
previous "refugee."

Dr. Koss remains grateful to the Swiss - and takes issue with the 
"dreary image" of wartime Switzerland presented by some Western 
governments and press reports. "There was another wartime Switzerland,
" he says - one "very remote" from the portrait of "greed and 
collusion with the Nazis" that some present. Indeed, Koss writes:

  The Swiss have not only saved my life and that of many thousands of 
other refugees, but also gave me an outstanding education that has 
allowed me to forge a successful scientific career in the United 
States. I am now 76 years old and eternally grateful to the Swiss 
people for what they have done for me.

The question is not whether Switzerland or countries such as Britain 
and the U.S. did enough to stop the Holocaust. None did. The question, 
rather, is whether any countries did more to liberate Jews and other 
potential victims of the Nazi death camps, or began a firm (and 
unwavering) resistance to Hitler earlier than the Swiss. If there are 
any, they are few.


1. Like many Jews, Bär's family left Europe in 1941 because of the 
threat from Nazi Germany. Whole companies - Julius Bär, Credit Suisse, 
Nestlé, and others - moved their headquarters overseas. Most went to 
the U.S., some to Latin America.

 19 Diversity

"In Switzerland, minorities are not tolerated. They are favored." A. 

As the country eases into social peace and unity, it is easy to forget 
that, for most of its life, Switzerland was gripped by Europe's 
grudges. Alexis de Tocqueville summed up the Swiss situation in 1835 
as follows:

  One people, composed of several races, speaking several languages; 
with several religious beliefs, various dissident sects, two churches 
both equally established and privileged; all religious questions 
turning into political ones, and all political questions turning 
quickly into religious ones - in short, two societies, one very old 
and the other very young, joined in marriage in spite of the age 
difference. That is a fair sketch of Switzerland.

Even today, Switzerland suffers from natural divisions any one of 
which would severely strain national solidarity in most countries. The 
Swiss have three major languages, each of which is the home language 
to a powerful nation and culture on the Swiss frontier. Those national 
cultures along the Swiss border - in many cases less separated by 
natural boundaries from their affinity group than the three major 
Swiss language populations are from one another - have been an 
entropic magnet, always urging the country apart. "Nature has hindered 
movement and exchange within the country," as American sociologist 
Carol Schmid observes, "more than with the neighboring countries of 
the same language group."(1)

Ethnic Italians, Germans, French, Jews, and Arabs - groups that 
haven't been able to get along anywhere else for centuries - swirl 
together within a work force more than one-fifth foreign born. The 
country has long been home to two of the sternest Protestant sects in 
the world, the followers of Calvin and Zwingli, and to a highly 
orthodox Roman Catholic population in the Forest Cantons. For hundreds 
of years these sects have held sway in various cantons and communities 
not merely as the religion of preference, but as state-sponsored 
churches. Scholars and historians comparing Switzerland to such 
multilingual nations as Belgium, Canada, India, Nigeria, and South 
Africa are intrigued at the degree to which the Swiss have managed to 
form a bona fide nation.

It is tempting to call the result a melting pot. Yet this would not be 
accurate. The Swiss system is held together by something, but it does 
not homogenize its members. In the United States, ethnic groups tend - 
when not burdened by perverse incentives - to learn English, adopt 
American customs, and thus, gradually, become one people in many 
practices. The Swiss blend together on some customs, but tend to 
retain their mother tongue. They learn to cooperate with others who 
speak a different language, and, to an extent seen in few other 
countries, tend to learn one or more tongues outside their first.

Visiting Switzerland today, one remarks at the smoothness with which 
the Swiss handle their three-way language barrier. At first you notice 
it everywhere. And then, after a while, you hardly notice it at all.

Riding from Bern to Geneva, the train crosses over an invisible 
cantonal border - and the conductor shifts effortlessly from German to 
French. The P.A. announcements continue to be in both languages, but 
now French is first, and is spoken by the same voice with a nearly 
perfect accent.

In a court room, one of the more formal and tense of situations, the 
participants deal in their language of choice - with a translator if 
necessary, though it seldom is if the languages are German, French, 
Italian, or even English. In some cases, a listener simply followed 
along in his second or third language where possible, then asked for a 
translation if needed. What struck me in several different courts was 
the matter-of-fact way in which language was simply dealt with. In 
some ways, there seemed an advantage in the occasional pause for 
translation. The hiatuses cut against any buildup of emotion of the 
type one often sees even in an American traffic court. It never 
caused, in my experience, significant friction. In general, as one 
might expect, in dealings with the government poly-lingualism is 
visible and its costs seem high. In almost any settings where 
government documents are on display, one will see four or five stacks 
of everything - always German and French, and frequently in Italian, 
English, or Romansch. Even small public buildings or services often 
seem to have a second or third official around who appears to be there 
in large part to communicate with the occasional Italian, English, or 
Romansch speaker.

Restaurant menus are normally printed in the language of the district, 
though in the larger and more cosmopolitan cities there are invariably 
French or German subtexts; occasionally Italian and English ones as 
well. In German-speaking Switzerland, even in relatively remote parts 
of Schwyz, Uri, Glarus, or Appenzell, my informal survey found that 
more than 90 percent of the people could hold a basic conversation 
outside of German - either in French or English. An American asking 
for directions in Switzerland would, in many regions, have less 
difficulty than if he or she were to visit a convenience store or a 
gas station in the U.S. These statistics far exceed the levels one 
obtains from more formal surveys, but the problem with the formal 
studies is that they seek a higher level of competence than my 
informal test. The level at which a Swiss calls himself or another 
Swiss competent in a language is higher than the level at which a 
taxicab driver or office security guard might be able to communicate, 
with a few added hand signs or occasional German word, with another.

Language, for the Swiss, is the object of a whole invisible 
superstructure of conventions and assumptions and social devices. When 
a group of three Swiss, already conversing in German, is joined by a 
Swiss they know to be much more comfortable in French - and if they do 
not know at first, the Swiss are adept at finding out, so well-tuned 
is their ear - then the existing line of conversation will shift into 
French. On the other hand, an Italian-speaking Swiss, joining a larger 
group, will resist being spoken to in Italian - feeling that surely 
some of those present will not be comfortable in that language. He 
will attempt to steer the conversation back to German - or the whole 
group will ease into French, which as the second language of choice 
for both German-speaking and Italian-speaking Swiss, is a handy unit 
of exchange. In this way, everyone in the room is making some slight 
adjustment, but no one feels patronized or patronizing.

Interestingly, even "German-speaking" Swiss do not speak true German - 
but rather one of more than a dozen highly particularized local 
dialects. "High German," as is used in Germany and Austria more 
broadly, is virtually always used in Swiss written documents, even 
unimportant ones. This sets off a whole further set of practices and 
distinctions. One important effect of these dialects is to make all 
German Swiss into quasi-minorities. As German speakers they add up to 
a majority, but no dialect is anything more than a tiny minority. The 
dialects also reinforce a certain Swiss pride in separation from 
Germany and Austria. If one wants to insult a German-speaking Swiss on 
a number of levels, one need only tell him that his German sounds like 
the German spoken in Bonn or Berlin.

The Swiss linguistic codes are subtle, unwritten, seldom even 
articulated. Probably for this reason they even vary occasionally from 
one Swiss to another.(2) But they exist - and are part of a whole 
ethos of adaptivity and businesslike consideration that is the essence 
of Swiss culture and society.

In almost any social setting where a group of Swiss who didn't know me 
(or my origins) came into contact with me, they made a tangible effort 
to determine as quickly as possible what my primary language was, and 
to use it. Generally this took place within thirty seconds - though my 
later practice of speaking French in German-speaking cantons, and 
German in the French-speaking ones often achieved a delay of up to 
several minutes before my Americanism was ferreted out.

Watching the Swiss in these situations is like watching a beautiful 
waltz or minuet danced by a couple emphasizing grace and simplicity, 
not flair. There are few excesses, no gaudy shows, only an easy 
agility. In America, the non-English speaker is met with a kind of 
benign arrogance - the lovable but ugly American at home, who will 
raise his voice and say to the Japanese tourist very slowly "It's next 
to the World Trade Center." Germans now exert at least a friendly 
helpless cultural smile, "nein, kann kein Englisch," in situations 
where in Switzerland, there would be a prompt turn to a colleague and 
a resolution. In France, there is an active contempt; even the 
Frenchman who can speak English will often abstain from doing so, as 
if exacting some petty revenge. Even in Belgium (Flemish and French) 
or Canada (French and English) the determination of one party or 
another to assert his linguistic heritage sometimes makes one feel he 
is in a battle zone. The quiet dance of the tongues is one of the most 
endearing elements of Swiss society, and this facility for dancing, 
developed in one sphere, contributes to balance and grace in a host of 

How have the Swiss achieved this facility at languages - and more 
broadly, a national facility, almost an article of patriotism, for 
listening and adapting to other languages, practices, and cultures? 
The answer is a mixture of history, special factors, deliberate 
policy, and predictable (but not necessarily intended) aspects of 
policy - a tapestry of causes and effects. And yet, behind the 
picture, or abstracting from it, are strong unifying themes, such as 
the Willensnation concept of a people determined to be a people, 
adhering by free choice to a credo of democratic ideals.

We can divide the causes of Switzerland's adaptation to diversity into 
three general groups. The first group consists of historical factors 
and accidents: some of them purely random - true "accidents" - and 
others a mixture of luck and institutions. The second group consists 
of deliberate acts of policy, such as intensive instruction in second 
and even third languages in Swiss schools. The third group is composed 
of deliberate policies or institutions that do not have assimilation 
as their primary aim, but which nevertheless contribute to it. In this 
group are a whole range of Swiss institutions from the army to the 
people's strong patriotism and its basis in a set of shared ideals.

Facts, Tendencies, and Happy Accidents

Perhaps the most important fact about Switzerland's various groups is 
that there are a number of them, and they tend to criss-cross and 
overlap. There's a sufficient diversity of different societal 
groupings (race, language, religion) and of different levels of 
government and other institutions so that most Swiss are in some 
important minority and some majority groups - particularly if one 
considers more than one unit of society. Meanwhile the highly fluid, 
nonpartisan, multiparty structure of Swiss politics brings these 
groups into regular coalitions and cooperative enterprises. Much as 
Madison counted on a multiplicity of special interests to act as a 
check on one another in The Federalist, so Swiss society defuses some 
of the rigid rivalries that have formed in other countries divided 
into groups.

Religion and language cross-cuts offer one good illustration. In 
Switzerland as a whole, Roman Catholics are a minority in the 
population and a minority in the population of most cantons, albeit a 
growing one. And, of course, the majority of Swiss people and of 
cantons are primarily German-speaking. Yet there are many German-
speaking Catholics in Switzerland, as well as French-speaking 
Protestants. Anyone who belongs to one of these groups is in one 
national minority already.

The picture gets more subtle and interesting when we look at the 
cantonal level. A German-speaking Swiss Catholic who now lives in the 
Ticino, the Southern, Italian-speaking portion of the country, is in a 
national majority as to language and a cantonal majority as to 
religion, but is in a cantonal minority as to language and a national 
minority as to religion. A French Protestant in Geneva is in the 
cantonal minority but the national majority in his religion; but his 
is in the cantonal majority and national minority as to his primary 

"It is one of the fortunate accidents of Swiss history," Carol Schmid 
writes, "that the linguistic and religious boundaries do not coincide. 
Language conflict was moderated, since both religions had their 
adherents in every language area." The Swiss have learned to respect 
one another's rights as minorities - and, at the same time, the right 
of local majorities to run schools, churches, and other institutions 
by the language and faith of their heritage.

These dynamics become more powerful, not less, when we broaden our 
scope and look at other group characteristics and interests. 
Sociologist Jurg Steiner writes: "There is usually a cross-cutting 
rather than a cumulative separation between political parties, 
economic interest groups, voluntary associations, and newspapers."

Zürich, for instance, is considered a center of German culture, 
wealth, and Protestantism. Yet it ranks behind French Geneva and 
Catholic Zug in per capita income. In economic matters, the French 
cantons have tended to vote for social democratic programs - higher 
spending, higher taxes, greater federal powers. On cultural matters, 
however, the French Swiss emphasize federalism and autonomy. Several 
French cantons (Geneva, Vaud, and Neuchatel) are among the most 
affluent in Switzerland, though shaken by 1990s fiscal crisis and tax 
incentives. "The disparities are far greater within each linguistic 
group than between them," Schmid notes.

The populations of the Italian-speaking cantons, being a distinct 
minority nationally (about 5 percent of citizens and 9 percent of the 
resident population), naturally view with reserve any proposal that 
might empower Bern, or erode local identity and autonomy. The federal 
government has proved a friend in some instances, however - for 
example, in sponsoring language programs in the Ticino and the 
Grisons, to preserve the Italian language and culture as well as 
Romansch. Though less than 1 percent of Swiss nationally speak 
Romansch, it is the primary language of almost one-fifth of the people 
in Grisons canton. Hence the Italian Swiss have some suspicion of the 
federal government, but also a certain affinity for it.

Yet these myriad divisions could simply balkanize the Swiss further. 
Furthermore, some of these same criss-crosses are present today in 
multilingual societies that do not enjoy Switzerland's harmony. So 
there must be added explanations and factors that explain why the 
system does not simply fly apart - some kind of binding that, while 
allowing freedom of movement, holds the parts together as well.

A history and ethic of inclusion. Switzerland's tradition of accepting 
immigrants, small border states, and relying on foreign trade for much 
of its commerce has fostered a spirit of inclusion among the people 
and their institutions. The history is as old as 1291 and the effort 
of the Forest Cantons to form relationships with the powerful cities 
and peoples of Bern and Zürich, or accept Protestant and Jewish 
emigrés from Germany and France, and as recent as the repeated Swiss 
votes against efforts to set tight limits on immigration, and for 
promoting Romansch as an official language of Switzerland.

Foreign threats. For many nations, foreign threats become a spur to 
ethnic rivalry - since many nations are based on, or have strong 
elements of ethnicity. For the Swiss, a multiethnic nation, foreign 
threats have generally functioned the other way around. It was ethnic 
or cultural nationalism and exclusionism that threatened from the 
outside. For the Swiss, unity against these threats meant unity, in 
part, in support of their own diversity.

This phenomenon has deep roots, but is also a product of recent 
experience. If not for the alliance with border areas, Switzerland 
would have been swallowed up by Austria, Italy, or Germany in the 
fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, or by the French in the 
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries - as they were, briefly, by 
France in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, of course, 
the threat from Germany led to a rallying against "Germanism" in Swiss 
culture and politics, symbolized by the building of the Bundesbrief 
Museum in 1935.

It is revealing that the one foreign invasion of Switzerland that 
succeeded in 1,000 years, the French occupation of the late eighteenth 
and early nine-teenth centuries, was at the front of a powerful 
ideology - and a universalist, inclusionary ideology at that. By 
contrast, in 1914, when Swiss leaders wanted to rally the people 
against the Kaiser's Germany, the federal council issued a declaration 
rallying the people to Swiss values. Among them was "the ideal of our 
country as a cultural community and a political ideal above the diver

 sity of race and language." Switzerland's French-speaking general in 
World War II insisted, "we are a people and culture of inclusion," in 
calling for a military "and philosophical" resistance to Nazism.

- Elite leadership, and popular acceptance of it. Swiss elites have 
long held a more or less self-consciously liberal view, in the 
European sense, on the matter of dealing with diversity. This holds on 
questions from trade and immigration to their own children's 
education. It is a common practice, for example, among German-speaking 
Swiss to send their children abroad for a year or two to improve their 
French or (popular in recent years) English. Many German-speaking 
Swiss attend a university, or take a first job, in the French-speaking 

Arend Lijphart, the sociologist who first coined the term 
"Consociational democracy," goes so far as to say that this leadership 
is the key to effective acceptance of diversity. This may go a bit too 
far. At best, it ignores the critical question of why Swiss elites 
have been able to achieve such a positive sum outlook, while those in 
many other countries seem to feel they have more to gain by engaging 
in divisive, winner-take-all politics. The Swiss open door, moreover, 
was not always laid out by elites first. During World War II, for 
instance, it was the Swiss people who allowed thousands of Jewish 
children (and in some cases their parents) over the border and into 
their homes. In so doing they went against government policy and, in 
fact, suffered occasional arrests by the border police.

Nevertheless it is true that Swiss leaders have adopted a generally 
liberal attitude, and have a proud record of leadership on such 
questions. Once again, the unusual degree of harmony between people 
and elites in Switzerland, the mutual respect unusual even in 
democratic societies, makes it very difficult to say who is leading 

Deliberate Policies

The most visible and most important means by which the Swiss 
deliberately encourage pluralistic harmony is through the schools. 
Instruction in a second national language is mandatory, and in a third 
and even fourth language is now the common practice, especially given 
the popularity and importance of English.

In a 1973 survey of Swiss twenty years of age or older, two-thirds had 
a working knowledge of at least one other official language. Sixty-
five percent of German-speaking Swiss had a working knowledge of 
French, and 52 percent of French-speaking Swiss were capable in 
German. Today the figures are higher in each category, and as well, 
there are large numbers of Swiss who are capable in English: More than 
60 percent according to official data, and more than 70 percent in my 
experience, which probably accepts a lower level of English as 
constituting some capability. Dozens of Swiss told me they were "not 
very good in English, but willing to use English" - and then proceeded 
to converse with high fluency.

This formal training is buttressed by Swiss arts, newspapers, and 
other teachers from the school of life and culture. Most Swiss movie 
theaters carry French movies with German subtitles and German movies 
with French subtitles. Italian films and Italian subtitling is not 
ubiquitous, but normally applies to 5 or 10 percent of the offerings 
in any major German city, and more in the French zones. The result is 
an easy way for students or adults to polish one language or another. 
Newspaper stands, television, and other mass media offer a similar 
range of cross-translated materials, now supplemented by the Internet. 
Much of this activity would take place without government assistance; 
some would not. The government aid, as much as adding sheer resources, 
gives a stamp of approval and makes a statement that this is valuable 
activity. The combined message of this policy and the private 
activities is that serious Swiss citizens should be able to 
communicate in two languages or more.

An important concept that contributes to Swiss harmony is the 
principle of territoriality. Under this principle, the language of 
instruction for schools, the first language of discourse for public 
facilities and government agencies, and so on are all set by the 
canton or the community. Furthermore, this language, as set, is not to 
be challenged. Hence if in a particular district, the number of 
French-speaking Swiss was to change from 47 percent to 53 percent, 
this would not imply a change in the official language structure. It 
would remain German.

This feature of medium-term immutability is not written down; it is a 
tacit arrangement, a modus vivendi. It is, however, no less powerful 
for being understood rather than explicit. It is, in fact, likely that 
if a much larger shift were to occur in the language of usage, it 
might, like other elements of Swiss politics, eventually be adjusted. 
The formula by which seats on the executive council were allocated for 
fifty years, for instance, appeared on the verge of change after the 
1999 Swiss elections. One thing the principle would definitely rule 
out, however, in its subtle way, would be any sort of agitation of the 
question; such arrangements, once reached, tend to remain in place 
until circumstances have long since rendered them clearly obsolete. 
And by then, they are so clearly obsolete that the thing is changed 
with minimal fanfare or excitement.

The great Swiss jurist Walter Burckhardt describes the subtle way in 
which this practice can fairly be called a policy, and yet, is not a 
matter of statute or regulation:

  It is now a tacitly recognized principle that each locality should 
be able to retain its traditional language... and that linguistic 
boundaries once settled should not be shifted, neither to the 
detriment of the majority nor of minorities. It is trust in this tacit 
agreement that provides a foundation for peaceful relations.... 
Adherence to this rule, as well as respect of each group for the 
individuality of the others, is an obligation of Swiss loyalty. It is 
no less sacred because it is not laid down in law; it is one of the 
foundations of the state itself.

This implicit understanding, avoiding the persistent churning and 
reopening of certain arrangements, is critical to making the principle 
of territoriality work to defuse conflicts - rather than set off new 
ones. If a society were to merely emulate Swiss federalism as a 
negative concept - letting states and localities select their own 
language, but allowing this to change on a regular basis - it is easy 
to see that the result could be the very opposite of the social peace 
enjoyed by the Swiss. Shifting populations would render temporary 
majorities tenuous, and there would be constant battles in districts 
with evenly balanced minority populations. It was this dynamic, in 
part, that rendered the Kansas-Nebraska Act so odious to Abraham 
Lincoln and the American Republicans in the 1850s, as against the 
Missouri Compromise setting out accepted slave and free territories. 
Efforts at mere federalism, especially with unit rule and spoils 
systems, can provoke new conflicts rather than solving them.

This is an illustration of the dangers of adapting Swiss institutions 
or lessons piecemeal into different situations. Swiss federalism takes 
place in a cultural and social context. Of course, this is an argument 
for care in adapting them - not for ignoring these precious lessons 
merely because they are not an exact, test-tube match for situations 
elsewhere. He who ignores history, because it contains slight 
variations from his own situation, is condemned to repeat it, with 
slight variations.

The Swiss do not give minority languages, institutions, and cultures 
their due. They strive to give them a little more than their due. 
Swiss majority groups do not demand what they have coming. They demand 
a little less, and take comfort in their secure position as a 

This approach by both minority and majority groupings is another 
policy or tendency - or an element of many policies - that helps 
explain much of Switzerland's ability to thrive on diversity. The 
Swiss do this in both political situations such as the policies 
mentioned for language, and in social ones, such as the gentle race to 
find a person's first language and put him at ease by using it.

"No effort whatsoever is made by the Swiss Germans, who are in the 
overwhelming majority numerically, to assert any linguistic dominance,
" writes Kurt Mayer. "There are no linguistic minorities, either in a 
legal or in an informal sense."

Carol Schmid has an excellent term for this, suggesting that Swiss 
linguistic and religious majorities often "do not act like majorities.
" Or, one might say, they act as confident majorities - majorities 
that are not threatened by the rights of minorities, and gladly allow 
them to flourish. When asked what foreign country they would most like 
to live in, French-speaking Swiss, not surprisingly, named France 
first (45 percent), followed by Holland (22 percent), and Austria (10 
percent). Interestingly, though, German-speaking Swiss also listed 
France first (30 percent), followed in this case by Austria (23 
percent), and Holland (17 percent).

Perhaps Schmid's most interesting and certainly original evidence of 
this comes from her survey, mentioned previously, in which she asked 
members of the three major language groups to estimate what share of 
the Swiss population belongs to each group. For example, she asked 
German-speaking Swiss to estimate how many Swiss speak German as their 
primary language, how many speak Italian, and how many speak French. 
Then she repeated this procedure with speakers of French. By large 
majorities, both French and German-speaking Swiss overestimated how 
many Swiss speak one of the minority languages (French or Italian), 
and members of both groups underestimated how many Swiss speak German.

In most other multilingual societies, the exact opposite phenomenon is 
seen. Estimates of minority population and culture tend to understate 
the presence of the minority, and overstate the majority. The minority 
groups feel aggrieved, besieged, and hence their presence as smaller 
than it really is. The majority feels a certain arrogance, 
overestimating its own strength. The Swiss have escaped both tyranny 
of the majority and tyranny of the minority, with both the minority 
and the majority acting as if they were on a rough par.

The Swiss are similarly tolerant of religion, even in their government 
institutions, in a way the United States, Canada, and much of Europe 
are not. Diversity of religion includes individual rights to worship 
in the church of a citizen's choice, and freedom from having religious 
views or practices imposed. But diversity also includes a respect for 
religious displays and practices by official policies. Religion and 
atheism, worship and nonworship, are on an equal playing field.

In their classic History of Civilization, Will and Ariel Durant 
ascribe much of the violence of the French Revolution to the preceding 
repression of the ancient regime. By cracking down on dissent so 
severely for so long, they argue, the French kings created a cauldron 
of deep resentments. Once it boiled over, it did so with vengeance. It 
may be that modern post-religious cultures are emulating the same 
error (though only to a slight degree, to be sure) in their treatment 
of the remaining religious elements of society. Clamped down on until 
they feel little room to breathe, regarded contemptuously by elite 
culture and official institutions, the religious of the United States, 
for example, have begun a highly politicized counter-revolution in the 
form of the Christian Right. This minority feels, at any right, that 
it must fight an aggressive war for survival and recognition.

The Swiss have avoided these errors. Thus - probably not by accident - 
while the Swiss have a substantial number of orthodox Catholics and 
socially conservative Protestants, these groups do not feel under 
siege the way such groups do in the United States, Canada, parts of 
Europe, and much of Latin America. The toleration of community 
standards and religious practices, while shielding the right of the 
individual to abstain from them, has left both the religious and 
nonreligious comfortable that their status is respected and secure.

The relative lack of involvement of the courts - the least democratic 
of institutions even in Switzerland, though not nearly so remote as in 
most democracies - has helped as well. Swiss religious policies, since 
the constitution of 1848, have for the most part been worked out 
through institutions such as the referendum, and to some extent the 
different legislatures, that are highly democratic. Thus not only the 
substantive solution, but the procedure, for finding workable 
agreements about religion, have been populist and participatory in 

The bottom-up nature of this elaborate patchwork of compromises, 
worked out over many years, makes it difficult to picture its direct 
transfer to other societies - perhaps even dangerous, as in the 
example of federalism's two-edged sword. But the basic spirit - of 
real tolerance (indeed, embracing) of all sorts of persons and ideas, 
including the politically incorrect - may hold deep lessons for other 
Western countries, not to mention universities, corporations, unions, 
churches, and other institutions.

Indirect Policies and Impacts

Tolerance, federalism, live and let live - all these concepts, while 
laudable, impart a negative or at best minimalist sense of how the 
Swiss deal with diversity. These connote a kind of grudging social 
armistice, in which warring factions, while they cannot agree, can at 
least "agree to disagree" to go their own way and leave one another 

In fact, the Swiss have achieved this minimalist respect for 
individuality and separate communities. But they have achieved more 
than this. The key to Swiss "tolerance" of diversity is that the 
Swiss, in fact, embrace diversity. More than that, they embrace (and 
take pride in) the ability of their democracy, and their ability as 
people, to have worked out such a highly functional social contract 
amidst such divisions.

It is not merely that the Swiss have decided to accept such cleavages. 
Rather, they have a real, substantive unity behind certain principles, 
such as civil freedom and political equality. In this sense, the Swiss 
appear, more than any other country, to have an actual "body politic," 
an organic cooperation of the social parts. It is not that the liver 
merely "tolerates" the heart, or the lungs "obey" the brain. The 
organs cooperate.

Common ideals are the most important fact in Switzerland's 
collaboration of the parts. None of these was invented as a conscious 
effort to manage diversity, nor would they work very well if they 
were. But whenever we tug very hard on one of the policies or 
principles, such as federalism, that seems a partial explanation of 
Swiss comity, we find these deeper dynamics of unity and idealism at 
work behind them.

The lesson for other societies may be that an appreciation of 
diversity is a thing best captured not by chasing around after it in a 
mad search, but instead by building unity and a shared body of 
principles. Happy diversity, like personal happiness, may be something 
that is best attained indirectly.

One of the most important factors identified by Ms. Schmid in her 
study of Swiss diversity is the way its highly accessible democracy 
encourages crisscrossing political coalitions and cooperation. 
Significantly, because of the number of decisions reached by direct 
democracy at the federal, cantonal, and community levels, much of this 
criss-crossing is popular in nature - people reaching agreement and 
working with people across different religious, linguistic, and other 

"There is a recurrent tendency," as Schmid notes, "for French 
Switzerland to join forces with the Catholic forces of German 
Switzerland in opposing measures they feel to be either too 
centralizing or threatening to local autonomy." Swiss politics on the 
European Union, to take a highly current example, have brought 
together coalitions of greens, religious groups concerned with local 
autonomy, and others in opposition to early efforts at Swiss 
membership. The same issue has promoted combinations of business 
interests and blue collar workers in parts of French - and German - 
speaking Switzerland in favor of a more aggressive effort at 

Swiss voting on issues of diversity itself have produced unifying 
cross-alliances. When the Jura, a Catholic region of what was then 
Bern canton, wished to form its own separate canton, Swiss voters of 
all different religious and language groupings voted overwhelmingly 
for the constitutional amendment necessary to create the new state.

'Thus, although the referendum process is not a device for minority 
recognition as such," Schmid concludes, "its operation has enabled the 
religious and linguistic minorities to combine for structural reasons.
" Schmid's emphasis on direct democracy as a key sociological device 
is impressive because she does not appear to be seeking that 
conclusion. Rather one feels part of an unexpected and intriguing 

The Swiss army, like the referendum, is a great civic melting pot. It 
brings together all male youths from the age of eighteen onward - and 
continues the process, for most of them, for thirty years. Included in 
this are the conventions by which officers address individual soldiers 
in their primary language, whenever practicable, and other policies 
directly having to do with the treatment of diversity.

In his study of America, Tocqueville was impressed by the effect that 
juries had as a kind of "training ground" for citizenship. Yet jury 
service is a rare event for Americans, something most of us will 
experience once or twice, for a few days, in our life. The Swiss army, 
as we have seen, permeates social, business, and political 
relationships in a populist way - not through money or interlinking 
interests or conflicts but through people, cooperating in a national 
enterprise. The importance of the Swiss army - both as a practical 
experience, and in the institutional message it sends to all citizens 
as equals and necessary contributors - cannot be overestimated.

Indeed, when we consider the activity generated by these Swiss 
institutions, the phrase "cross-cutting cleavages," a favorite of 
sociologists, emerges as too static, as insufficiently vital, to 
convey what is going on. An improvement on such phrases might be 
"cross-pollination," or "criss-crossing association-building." Swiss 
diversity is not sterile, but active.

Over and above these operational impacts of institutions like the 
referendum and the militia system is something still more profound - a 
real national consciousness based on shared principles.

One such concept is the principle of a nation based on principle - 
rather than ethnicity or language or economic interest alone - in and 
of itself. This is the Swiss idea of Willensnation. In some ways, it 
is difficult for other countries to even understand let alone emulate 
this concept. America is an exception because it, too, is a 
Willensnation, a nation of ideals whose ancestors, as Bill Murray once 
put it, "were kicked out of all the best countries in Europe." Upon 
reflection, however, it is not clear why the presence of a certain 
ethnic affinity in countries like Germany, Russia, or France, would 
not allow for national pride and identity based on a shared vision of 
good. And these are nations no longer rent by fatal internal divisions 
anyway. Countries such as Nigeria, South Africa, and India will have 
no basis in national unity unless they can forge pride in their 
accomplishments and principles - there is no ethnic, religious, or 
even linguistic unity to start from. While a Swiss or American-style 
act of national and individual wills is obviously not in the prospect 
for them in the short term, it is what they must strive for.

Another important factor is Swiss neutrality. This includes not only 
neutrality as a foreign affairs policy, but as a kind of national-
personal ethos of the Swiss - the act of self-abnegation and 
renunciation of vast schemes or imprudent efforts. What Switzerland 
has decided is a prudent realization of its limited influence as a 
nation, most Swiss have internalized as a matter of their individual 
philosophy. Their motto is the song of Psalm 119, "Yahweh, my heart 
knows no lofty ambitions; my eyes do not look too high."

Konrad Falke provided an insightful description of this national-
personal philosophy in his work, Das demokratische Ideal und wiser 
nationale Erziehung:

  It makes a tremendous difference whether man has been brought up to 
the thought: "You belong to a great power which one day must fight for 
world supremacy," or whether he must always say to himself: "If it 
should come finally to fighting, we can hope for nothing better than 
to keep what we already have." This is the influence of the politics 
of a people upon its ethical attitude, and in the latter is influenced 
by the former. In this mutual action and reaction, the character of a 
people is formed.

It is these and other deeply shared beliefs and experiences that 
enable many Swiss to credibly say, as Corriere Del Ticino editor 
Giancarlo Dillena insists, "We are not a multi-cultural country. A 
respect for these differences, and an appreciation of a country where 
they can coexist - this is part of one, national Swiss culture. A 
pride in our democracy, our direct democracy, and a deep love for it - 
these are traits of nearly all Swiss."

This certainly appears to be the case on the basis of survey data and 
other broad surveys of national attitudes. When asked an open-ended 
question about their reasons for being proud to be Swiss, most named 
some element of the political system, such as direct democracy. This 
answer, provided by nearly 60 percent of Swiss, was larger than any 
other two answers, and almost as large as the next three most frequent 
answers combined. It is evidence, summarized in Figure 19.1, that the 
Swiss have a deeply shared ethos - and an optimism about "politics" 
perhaps unmatched in the world.

Yes, as Schmid concludes, "there are a number of accidental and human 
factors" that have enabled the Swiss to thrive on diversity. But to a 
large extent, "the so-called 'fortunate accidents' have often been 
more attributable to public policy."

Figure 19.1 Reasons for Pride in Being Swiss

French Swiss (approx.), German Swiss (approx.)

a. Political system  35%, 63%
b. Landscape 18%, 23%
c. Socioeconomic 10%, 12%
d. Quality of life 15%, 12%
e. Swiss qualities 12%, 7%
f. Diversity 2%, 2%
g. Foreign relations 6%, 3%
h. Other 4%, 5%
i. Not especially proud 21%, 6%

Whatever the causes, Switzerland has managed to make diversity into a 
strength - arguably a major source of Switzerland's greatness.

Business is only one example, but a prominent one. The Swiss facility 
with different languages has made them a natural power in the emerging 
world of global business. In an age with a premium on information, the 
Swiss are expert listeners. Meanwhile, as science locates new wonders, 
but in different languages, the Swiss are quick to assimilate its 
lessons - and to generate their own innovations as well. This is seen 
by the country's highly disproportionate share of Nobel science prizes 
and international patents.

Swiss investment bankers enjoy an edge not only because of the 
country's privacy, but because they are able to make people from many 
different cultures and countries feel comfortable that their needs are 
being heard, and will be met. Swiss manufacturers of products from 
chocolates to major engineering projects are able to reach markets no 
monolingual Frenchman, German, or American can. These countries may, 
indeed are likely, to eventually close the gap with the Swiss in terms 
of formal language instruction. But they may never be able to capture 
the full advantage enjoyed by a Swiss who lives his entire life, and 
most of every day, in a multi-lingual environment.

Ironically, perhaps - since they already have to deal with four 
official languages - the Swiss leaped past much of Europe in becoming 
a nation skilled in English, the new version of Latin as the language 
of international business, politics, and culture. Some years ago when 
a merger was announced involving Union Bank of Switzerland (which 
joined with Swiss Bank Corporation), many Swiss employees of the bank 
were informed in a press release and employee memorandum that was, 
revealingly, written in English. Statistics suggest perhaps 50 percent 
of Swiss are capable in English. In my experience, the number of Swiss 
that had a workable competency was somewhere closer to 70 percent - 80 
percent or more in the cities and in service industries there, and 
still between 40 percent and 60 percent even in relatively remote (and 
sparsely populated) areas.

As the Internet and other tools of global communication yield greater 
physical efficiencies, the remaining costs of dealing across languages 
and borders, even if declining in absolute terms, will be an even 
higher percentage of the remaining costs of transaction in the world. 
There will be even more of a premium on being able to communicate - to 
listen and talk, literally to "share" - over and above those remaining 

Far more important than the Swiss facility with language as such, with 
words and symbols, is the ethic behind it. Ultimately, what the Swiss 
emphasis on crossing various language and other barriers teaches is a 
certain view of the person who is speaking the language. Swiss respect 
for religion is not a respect for a building, but the people inside 


>From Schmid's important study of Swiss social relations, Conflict and 
Consensus in Switzerland, University of California Press, 1981.

For instance, my Swiss friends are somewhat divided on the question of 
whether it is advisable for an American to address a letter to a 
person of some stature in business or the government in German or 
English. (Particularly, let us say, some one not acquainted to the 
American, who may speak English but may not.) The majority opinion 
holds for English, because any awkwardness in the German will make the 
exercise seem strained, and as well, as one Swiss put it, "it is 
insulting to the person to act as if they can't speak English." But a 
significant minority leans toward German, especially in light of my 
argument that "a Swiss would write a letter to me in English, 
normally, and this is merely the reciprocal or symmetrical courtesy."

 20. The End of History and the Next Citizen

"The people can never willfully betray their own interests; but they 
may possibly be betrayed by the representatives of the people." - The 
Federalist, No. 63

There is little point in studying Swiss democracy unless there is 
something distinctive about it - and not only distinctive, but 
importantly distinctive. If this is a bad assumption, then Switzerland 
is worth thinking about only for the specialist. The historian 
interested in quaintness, in a land of cheese and chocolates, will 
find it diverting but not terribly urgent. The economist who would 
like to emulate the country's material economic success may find a 
survey of its institutions of use. What is more, as an age of global 
communications and national integration sets in, we might expect even 
these points of distinction to gradually decline, not sharpen, in 

In that case, to paraphrase author Francis Fukiyama, then not only is 
the world-historical evolution over, but it ends in Sweden or Chile. A 
few economic variables may alter, but the political structure and the 
guiding spirit of the system are identical and unchanged. Either in 
the "nanny state" feared by Alexis de Tocuqeville or the new 
libertarian world announced in the pompous commercials of the high-
tech Internet and cellular communications companies, it is the end of 

There is, of course, a very different possibility. It may be that 
Swiss democracy, while resembling European and American democracy in 
many features, and most of its superficial ones, is so divergent in a 
few vital particulars that it offers a meaningful alternative to the 
parliamentary democracies of Europe and much of Asia, and the 
presidential democracies of the United States and most of the 

Certainly it tends in a different direction. This is made clear if one 
merely mentions the possibility of greater use of direct democracy in 
the United States or Europe. Immediately, from most elites anyway, one 
encounters a mildly hostile reaction. Interestingly, though, the 
reasons raised against direct democracy nearly all could be used, and 
in earlier times were used, to argue against the American Revolution; 
to argue it could not be extended elsewhere; to deny the vote to 
blacks, women, and other groups deemed insufficiently educated, or 
otherwise "not ready" as a cultural or traditional matter for 

If so, it is indeed an irony that just at the moment that nearly all 
proclaim the historical triumph of democracy, it becomes clear that we 
may not even know what we mean when we say, "democracy has triumphed.
"(1) And it may make a difference to know which type of democracy has 
won. First, it may matter because the types of democracy may have 
important differences. Second, it may even affect the survivability of 
"democracy" to know which version of it will cover the globe in fifty 
or one-hundred years. Will it be the highly populist, accessible, 
citizen's democracy of the Swiss; the relatively elitist, difficult-
to-access system of Britain, Japan, or Germany; or some amalgam or 
mix, such as the American system? The latter, by both design and 
accident, stands somewhat in between - closer, perhaps, in assumption 
and present location to the European elitist democracies, but on a 
gradual path of movement toward a more Swiss version over much of its 

Is there an important difference between Swiss democracy and the 
others? If we consider the discussion of democracy among Western and 
developing-country elites, we certainly would come to this conclusion.

Among U.S. and European elites, for example, there is little interest 
in political reforms that would increase popular leverage over 
government. While many reforms are under discussion, they tend to be 
elitist in nature. Some favor term limits, some favor spending limits, 
some favor greater power to local and state governments or to private 
economic interests - but none places much emphasis on increasing 
popular access and elite accountability to the whole people. Instead, 
the stress is on different arrangements of power within the existing 
array of elite institutions. This is not to say none of those reforms 
would be beneficial, and surely some of them would be bad - but as a 
matter of fact, none of them even focuses much on popular leverage. As 
Tocqueville noted, many "democratic" episodes and reform periods are 
merely "weapons" used to defend the old regime.

When a group of elites does discuss the Swiss system of initiative and 
referendum, it is generally with nervous contempt - such a system 
would not be desirable other than under the highly specific conditions 
of Switzerland, and certainly, the people in the country under 
discussion "may not be ready for it yet." This applies even to the 
leadership class of such highly developed countries as the United 
States and Europe. Their proposals are always couched in terms of "the 
people," as are most appeals in a democracy, representative or direct. 
But any direct means of empowering the people to run the government is 
considered unimportant, even contemptible. The only type of popular 
empowerment that holds much interest is that which is achieved 
indirectly, by placing greater control on some other elite group. Thus 
a system already choking with indirection and elite maneuverings is to 
be reformed through indirection and maneuvering.

The thing one seldom hears Western leaders of either the right or left 
say, however, is that establishing a more populist or citizen's 
democracy would not matter. For all the proclamations that the 
Internet, the fax machine, or some other gizmo will change the nature 
of democracy, few of the evangelists ever suggest using these new 
devices to permit greater voter input directly on policy. When they 
do, there is a hopeful silence, and a preference to talk about other 

This becomes all the more striking if we consider the popular 
frustration with democracy common in many of the democracies today - 
just as democracy seemingly is at its historical and material zenith. 
In the United States, Britain, and Germany, public opinion surveys 
show widespread dissatisfaction with the political system. In recent 
U.S. elections, for instance, leading members of both parties have 
attacked the system as corrupted by money - William Clinton in his 
1992 campaign against the "greed" of the Reagan-Bush years, the 
Republicans in their efforts to impeach Clinton over various sexual 
and financial scandals, and such recent presidential candidates as 
John McCain and Bill Bradley in their efforts to place limits on "soft 
money" donations.

The votes McCain and Bradley received are dismissed by some because 
these challengers were not able to secure their party's nomination. 
But the strength of their campaigns, particularly the previously 
little-known Senator McCain, speaks to the powerful urge for change 
felt by many Americans.

In focus groups and surveys, people express a rage at the system's 
immobility, feelings that democracy (in America and Europe) is 
unresponsive to their concerns and frustrations. These findings are 
highly important to a discussion of representative democracy as 
against direct forms. They suggest an impatience with the filtering 
devices and indirection meant, in some sense deliberately, to temper 
popular opinion. Elite opinion shares some of this analysis, though 
leading press, business, and political figures are naturally more 
sanguine about a system that they have the money or clout to access. 
In February of 2000, The Wall Street Journal even ran an article 
extolling pork-barrel politics as a key part of the democratic system 
- confusing that which is necessary evil with that which is good, of 
course, but in a revealing way that pushes the logic of representative 
democracy to its logical conclusion.

In a prescient article in The Economist at the dawn of the new 
democratic discussion, Brian Beedham predicted this rise of, and rage 
at, the lobbyist - at least for the representative or indirect 
democracies. With the end of the Cold War, he wrote (1993):

  The old central question that is asked at election-time - which of 
these two noncompatible systems of politics and economics do you 
prefer, and how does your preference bear upon the decisions that must 
now be taken? - has disappeared. What is left of the agenda of 
politics is, by comparison, pretty humdrum. It deals for the most part 
with relatively minor differences of opinion over economic management, 
relatively small altercations over the amount and direction of public 
spending, and so on.... The new politics is full of dull detail.

It is therefore ideal ground for that freebooter of the modern 
political world - the lobbyist. The two most dramatic things that have 
happened to the developed world since the end of the second world war 
- its huge increase in wealth, and its explosion of information 
technology - have had as big an effect on politics as they have had on 
everything else. The lobbyists, the people who want to influence 
governments and parliaments on behalf of special interests, now 
command more money than they ever did before. They also have at their 
disposal a new armoury of persuasion in the computer, the fax machine, 
and the rest of it.

In the new agenda of politics, where so much depends upon decisions of 
detail, the power of the lobbyist can produce striking results. It 
will at times be, literally, corrupting. But even when it is not as 
bad as that it will make representative democracy seem increasingly 
inadequate. The voter, already irritated at having so little control 
over his representatives between elections, will be even angrier when 
he discovers how much influence the special-interest propagandists are 
now able to wield over those representatives. An interloper, it will 
seem, has inserted himself into the democratic process. The result is 
not hard to guess. The voter is liable to conclude that direct 
democracy, in which decisions are taken by the whole people, is better 
than representative democracy, because the many are harder to diddle - 
to bribe - than the few.(2)

This is not to suggest that there is no such thing as the lobbyist, 
the demagogue, or the corrupt politician in Switzerland. They do 
appear, however, to be somewhat less of a factor, and when they are, 
their presence, surrounded as they are by a system of greater popular 
access and more popular checks, gives less offense. Most important, 
the shape of lobbying and electioneering takes a different tone and 
shape, and it focuses on different objects, than in representative 

In Switzerland, by contrast, people asked an open-ended question about 
what makes them proud about their country were more likely to give an 
answer having to do with their political system than were the next 
several answers combined.(3) This is a rough reversal of the 
increasingly cynical view of politics today - and even the system - in 
the United States and Europe.

Comparing the salient features of the Swiss system to that of other, 
more indirect democracies, we see some clear differences. Indeed, 
Swiss democracy appears to be more different from any other democracy, 
than all the others differ among themselves. The distinction may be 
even more sharp than when Tocqueville observed the Swiss system in the 
1830s and 1840s, or Bryce in the early 1920s.

If democracies were a lot of used automobiles, we would not find the 
Swiss model differing only in having a different color from most, or a 
somewhat distinctive tail-fin or external appearance. The very means 
of locomotion and direction - the engine and the steering apparatus, 
and one might even say, the animating spirit - are different.

This difference is masked by the fact that all democracies have 
voting, judges, some form of representation, and some degree of 
popular access, of course. Even so, the differences are quite stark, 
as becomes clear if we consider the process by which certain critical 
and certain typical decisions are made by the different democratic 
types - and whether such decisions can be made by the people, must be 
made by the people, or cannot be made by the people at all except 
through some intermediating elite.

These differences are reviewed in Table 20.1. There are, perforce, 
generalizations made, but in its broad strokes, the figure presents an 
accurate review of some of the key distinctions.

"Who commits acts of sovereignty," as Tocqueville noted in analyzing 
the Swiss political scene in a report to the French parliament, "is 
sovereign." Tocqueville based his report on two visits to Switzerland, 
the first in 1836, the second in 1847 and early 1848 - just before the 
unexpectedly rapid conclusion of a federal constitution whose basic 
provisions have now governed the Swiss for more than 150 years.

Tocqueville was nervous about the prospects for Swiss democracy, or 
for a nation of Switzerland, because the national government made so 
few acts of sovereignty. As we have observed earlier, Switzerland had 
federalism, at this point in time, in great measure, but little in the 
way of a unifying central government. Tocqueville worried, as did many 
Swiss, that absent some such strong central government - which the 
Swiss feared - the confederation could not hold together.

Tocqueville's principle, however, applies not only to different 
divisions of government or different elite bodies but to the division 
of sovereign acts between the people and their representatives - 
between direct and indirect democracy. Indeed, had he lived much 
longer, Tocqueville would have seen both the formation of a more 
coherent Swiss government, and the extension of a principle that was 
to give the central government greater sphere for "acts of 
sovereignty" - national referendum and initiative. In effect, for this 
highly decentralized country, initiative and referendum may have been 
a key legitimizing device which made action by the central and even to 
some extent the cantonal governments a palatable thing - as any future 
encroachments could be checked by the people.

Applying Tocqueville's observation to this realm of popular versus 
elite action, of government by citizens versus government of citizens, 
we see that the people of Switzerland are sovereign in a way the 
people of France, Japan, Russia, Germany, and the United States are 
not. This is not to say that the ultimate answerability of elected 
officials to the people, in periodic elections over many issues, is 
not important. Nor does it mean that the people of Swit-

Table 20.1
Sovereign Acts in Direct and Representative Democracies

Act of sovereignty
Swiss "direct democracy"
U.S.-European "representative democracy"

Pass a law
People may have direct vote
People have no direct role

Challenge a law passed by parliament or congress
People can do directly (referendum)
People cannot do directly; a law can be challenged only through their 

Pass a treaty
Requires popular vote
No role for popular vote at all unless government desires it as a 
special measure

Alter the constitution
People can do directly with no elite support (initiative) and must 
approve for any change to be made
Some elite must initiate (Congress or convention) and a direct popular 
vote plays no role (ratification is by 3/4 of state legislatures)

Choose chief executive
People vote only through parliament
People vote directly (in some countries) or more directly (in the U.S.

Send criminal to jail
People through a randomly selected jury
People through a randomly selected jury

Confer citizenship
Popular (communal or cantonal) vote
Decision of magistrate (usually unelected)

Declare federal law unconstitutional
Arguably impossible; in practice happens only when constitution is 
altered - which requires a popular vote
Can be done by unelected court (U.S., Germany, France, other)

zerland exercise pure democratic rule: They don't, and instead rely on 
a number of representative institutions to make certain decisions and 
carry on certain acts. But these are not the only considerations. 
Surely to understand a governmental system one must ask such questions 
as, "Who actually has the final yes or no? Who sets the initial 
choices that are on the agenda? Who does these things directly, by an 
act of their own will? And who, while they may influence the 
sovereign, must act indirectly, by influencing his or her superior?" 
It is in the way we answer these sorts of questions that Swiss 
democracy seems importantly different from its Western counterparts.

These distinctions become even clearer when we consider the one awful 
and difficult question, "Where is the bottom line? Who ultimately acts 
as sovereign?" This is, perforce, not a question that can be answered 
by recourse to mathematical formulae. Political power is often used 
without being visible - as when a threatened veto of a bill by the 
president makes it unnecessary for him to issue a veto at all; or when 
an idea is known to be so popular that it must be passed even if there 
is no direct consultation of the people on the question; or when a 
congressional committee kills a bill not by voting it down, but by 
deciding not to have a vote. Beyond the elusiveness of political acts, 
we have the general correspondence in form between so much of Swiss 
democracy and the other democracies. All vote, all have some manner of 
representation. All have a division of power between three or four 
branches of government, and all have some distinction between 
executive, legislative, judicial branches, as well as some sort of 
civil service that is not subject to change by election.

Even so, one can make the case that the fundamental, animating spirit 
of Swiss direct democracy is the people, the citizen - in a way that 
U.S. democracy, and more so European democracy, do not experience. 
Table 20.2 compares the character of popular consultation in direct 
democracy (Switzerland) with that in representative democracies (a 
composite sketch of the United States and major European democracies 
plus Japan). While one might cavil about the particulars, there is 
little avoiding the conclusion that Swiss democracy places greater 
trust in popular rule, and the other democracies, substantially less 

The consultation with the public is more frequent in Switzerland. It 
is much broader as to its scope, particularly in covering policy 
decisions. Yet on any given item, it is likely to admit of a much more 
particular intervention by the people. In the communes and some of the 
cantons, citizens may literally vote on whether to allow a new bridge, 
hire this schoolteacher, outlaw (or allow) gay marriages - and so on.

When an American or European votes, he more or less accepts a train of 
a hundred or a thousand votes that her or his representative promises 
to cast - and that assumes that the promise is kept, and covers only 
the issues that can be known, and forced to discussion, in the 
election. When the Swiss votes, he

Table 20.2
How "The People" Are Heard - Direct versus Representative Democracy

Type of popular consultation

Swiss "direct democracy"

U.S.-European "representative democracy"

Federal or state (cantonal) elections - frequency

3-4 times a year in a typical canton - and more frequent "feedback" 
through referenda

1 time a year or less, on average - no other formal, systematic 

Direct votes on policy - approve or defeat acts of elites

Frequent: 2-3 times a year for national or cantonal policies

Infrequent; less than once a year; only in certain states; and none on 
federal policy.

Given the above, the nature of most campaigns for office or 
legislation, and of campaign spending is...

An ongoing, continuous effort to persuade voters - low key, and much 
of it coming through the press. Nearly all focused on the public, and 
on the public as an end in itself. Substantial fear of lost 
credibility or seeming shrillness, since any temporary victory in 
elite institutions can be overturned, and long-term losses of 
credibility with the public may cause immediate losses.

Short, concentrated bursts of highly emotional attempts to get the 
public's attention for a key vote - electing a president or 
representative - the results of which will then be permanent for 2,4, 
or 6 years. Much focus on elites, much on public - but that focused on 
the public is only a means to an end, not an end in itself. The game 
is to sway legislators by raising their fear of the public.

Initiate legislation

Citizen can do so directly (initiative) or through his representatives

Citizen can only do so through his elected officials

How does a citizen's vote make itself felt on the national laws?

In large clumps, by voting on representatives, but also in small, 
focused decisions on dozens of policy questions (through referendum)

Only in large clumps-citizen can only make his voice felt by voting 
for officials who have taken dozens or hundreds of positions.

Official blocking a piece of legislation can be circumvented by...

Initiative, referendum, and the influence that the threat of these 
works on all elected officials.

Only by throwing the official out in a multi-issue election several 
years hence, or swaying a vast number of elites (such as two-thirds of 
the Senate) to act.
Lawmaking body or committee that can avoid a vote on a subject has 
killed it?

No - see above.

Yes, in the overwhelming majority of cases.

Given the above, lobbyist who spends a fortune influencing a bill 
through Congress and the White House, or preventing it, has won - his 
money is well spent.

His money may be well spent, but may not be. Especially if the measure 
is significantly contrary to the public interest, he now faces having 
all his work overturned in a referendum challenge.

The lobbyist has spent his or her money well. The new law is law (or 
not law), assuming it is not overturned by another elite body, such as 
a federal court. The public has no direct recourse - angry citizens 
must try to make enough noise to convince lawmakers to overturn the 

accepts a large degree of judgment from his representative - but he 
also knows that many of that representative's decisions will be 
referred back to him for deliberation. And that his word, unlike that 
given to a pollster or congressional surveyor, has the potential to 
become the solemn law of the country.

The Swiss citizen even knows that if his representatives and the other 
representatives are ignoring a particular issue that is highly 
important to him - campaign finance reform, education vouchers, 
guaranteed health insurance, and others - he can force a national vote 
on the issue by collecting 100,000 signatures for a national 

>From the nature of how the citizen is dealt with flows the very 
different orientation of the two systems.

In direct or populist democracy, most persuasion is directed at the 
people, and such persuasion is an end in itself - it goes to the 
bottom line sovereign2

of the regime. In indirect or representative democracy there is more 
of an emphasis on reaching elites by arguing that the people want this 
or that - and when there is an effort at popular persuasion, which to 
be sure is common, the people are an ends, not a means; they are the 
way you put pressure on the Congress or the president or the 
bureaucracy to act.(4) The maxim of indirect or representative 
democracy is, "Write your congressman." The maxim of direct or 
populist democracy is, "vote yes (or no)."

The tool with which a citizen makes his voice felt in a representative 
democracy are the sledge-hammer and the megaphone. Lacking the means 
to commit acts of sovereignty himself or herself, the U.S. or European 
voter needs implements that can get others who have the power to act 
to do so. The tools of direct democracy are more in character with a 
scalpel - certainly not a perfectly sharp one, nor held by a perfect 
surgeon, in Switzerland. But it is possible for the citizen to cut 
right into government and remove this, or adjust that, organ.

Representative democracy is a noisy affair, because so much of the 
game involves even getting the attention of some elite, or forcing 
that elite to take action. It is a game in which other elites (big 
business, lobbyists, the press) seem to wield the only clout. Direct 
democracy is more quiet, and more characterized by appeals to reason. 
Anyone who doubts this need only witness a Swiss parliamentary or 
federal council election, read the campaign materials and press 
coverage of various referenda, or even simply compare the amounts 
spent on campaigns and public affairs persuasion and what it is spent 

In representative democracy, there is a greater temptation to blame 
the government, big business, foreigners, the media, or some other 
group for our problems. Swiss direct democracy has some of that 
temptation, but it is less - because the ultimate authority of the 
people is less ambiguous than in indirect systems. And with authority 
comes responsibility.

In representative democracy, there are constant appeals for the 
citizen to "pitch in" - in Switzerland, citizens appeal to themselves 
to pitch in, because citizens by and large run the local and cantonal 
and even federal government.

It is difficult to improve on Beedham's analysis, which has the added 
value of having been an early report on the new democratic debate:

  In much of the world, democracy is still stuck at a half-way house, 
as it were, in which the final word is delegated to the chosen few.... 
It has long been pointed out that to hold an election every few years 
is not only a highly imprecise way of expressing the voter's wishes 
(because on these rare election days he has to consider a large number 
of issues, and his chosen "representative" will in fact not represent 
him on several of them) but is also notably loose-waisted (because the 
voter has little control over his representative between elections) 
The end of the battle between communism and pluralism will make 
representative democracy look more unsatisfactory than ever...

Deciding things by vote of the whole people is not, to be sure, a 
flawless process. The voter in a referendum will find some of the 
questions put to him dismayingly abstruse (but then so do many members 
of parliament). He will be rather bored by a lot of the issues of 
postideological politics (but then he can leave them for parliament to 
deal with, if he is not interested enough to call for a referendum). 
He will be subjected, via television, to a propaganda barrage from the 
rich, high tech special-interest lobbies (but he is in one way less 
vulnerable to the lobbyists' pressure than members of parliament are, 
because lobbyists cannot bribe the whole adult population).

On the other hand, direct democracy has two great advantages.

First, it leaves no ambiguity about the answer to the question: What 
did the people want? The decisions of parliament are ambiguous because 
nobody can be sure, on any given issue, whether a parliamentary 
majority really does represent the wishes of a majority of the people. 
When the whole people does the deciding, the answer is there for all 
to see.

Second, direct democracy sharpens the ordinary sense of political 
responsibility. When one has to make up his own mind on a wide variety 
of specific issues - the Swiss tackled 66 federal questions by general 
vote in the 1980s, hundreds of cantonal ones and an unknown number 
(nobody added them up) of local-community matters - he learns to take 
politics seriously.

Since the voter is the foundation-stone of any sort of democracy, 
representative or direct, anything that raises his level of political 
efficiency is profoundly to be desired.

Other factors in the new age make the case for democracy - and 
therefore, for direct democracy, its more pure application - even 
stronger, Beedham notes. One that he does not detail is the rise of 
the Internet and many other improvements in telecommunications. Of 
course, the same observations might have been made about the rise of 
printed books in the fifteenth century, newspapers and journals in the 
eighteenth century, telegraphs in the nineteenth century, and radio 
and television in the twentieth. At the least, however, the growth of 
global telecommunications further strengthens the case that voters are 
equipped to take on more and more tasks. Of course, in representative 
democracy, the ruling class retains more means of obscuring issues, 
delaying votes, and producing ambiguous results than does direct 
democracy. That is why the hosannahs proclaimed by some are so shallow 
- because without systemic change, these increases in communications 
technology may ultimately be frustrated. There were telephones, TV 
sets, and fax machines in Russia too, as there are personal computers 
in Communist China today. The important change came when Russia's 
leaders allowed the system to become more tolerant of and responsive 
to the potential of these tools.

So too, as Beedham does note, the backgrounds of voters around the 
world - educational, economic, and other - are becoming more amenable 
to an extension of democracy. "A hundred years ago fewer than 2 
percent of Americans aged between 18 and 24 went to university; now 
more than a quarter do. The share of the British population that 
stayed in education beyond the age of 15 rose sevenfold between 1921 
and 1992; in western Germany, between 1955 (when the country was still 
recovering from Hitler's war) and today, the increase was almost 
double that." Rising income in the world, and especially among the 
voters, has made education and general knowledge outside of formal 
classroom still further. "We are all middle class now," Beedham quotes 
a Western official - "Not quite; but we are surely headed that way." 
Indeed, he notes ironically, "the democracies must therefore apply to 
themselves the argument they used to direct against the communists. As 
the old differences of education and social condition blur, it will be 
increasingly hard to go on persuading people that most of them are fit 
only to put a tick on a ballot paper every few years, and that the 
handful of men and women they thereby send to parliament must be left 
to make all the other decisions."

What is likely to come in the implicit competition between direct and 
indirect democracy over the next fifty years? And, what should we hope 
will come - in short, which system appears to be better?

In answering both these questions, the analyst is hampered by the fact 
that so far, only the Swiss, as Tocqueville put it, have taken 
democracy "to such an extent" of populism. Nevertheless, it is not too 
early - especially given 1,000 years of Swiss history, and 200 years 
of American evolution in the direction of direct democracy - to make 
some meaningful speculations.

Of the likely direction of political evolution, it is nearly 
impossible to say where the experiment is likely to begin. But we can 
say with high confidence that experimentation with direct democracy is 
extremely likely - almost certain.

There are nearly 150 democracies in the world today. The vast 
majority, if not all, face a curiously urgent pressure to reform 
either for experiential reasons (the recent democracies Russia and the 
Eastern Bloc, and much of Latin America), spiritual ones (America and 
Europe), practical political ones (Japan, Korea, Indonesia, and all 
the way out to China in the still-authoritarian Asian world), or 
material ones (Africa, India, Latin America).

We may think, in fact, in terms of those regional-political groups, as 
we analyze the likely course of democracy - toward elitism, populism, 
or a muddled middle of relatively unchanging stasis (in political 

Western Europe, soon to be All-of-Europe, is closest to Swiss 
democracy in its politics and its material conditions, not to mention 
geography and language and common experience. It is, therefore, an 
obvious candidate for evolution towards the Swiss system. Europe has 
the least to fear from its affluent, well-informed citizens from 
allowing them a greater role in political decision making, and the 
flimsiest excuse for not doing so. As well, it has an obvious interest 
in both the negative side of federalism (letting communities go their 
own way where possible) and the positive side (finding political 
instruments of unity such as European referendum and initiative - as 
the Swiss did in the nineteenth century).

These pressures will be focused further by the process of European 
integration. While the pressure from the rest of Europe on the Swiss 
to conform to its elitist system is obvious, indeed blatant, there is 
an equal and obvious pressure imposed from Switzerland on the European 
Union and its components. This pressure is not an instrument of Swiss 
policy at all; indeed, the Swiss fear to mention it. But much as Hong 
Kong represents an enclave within China that must either be crushed or 
emulated, so the Swiss populist system is within Europe. In this 
sense, it is remarkable how little has changed over 1,000 years.

While much discussion focuses on whether Switzerland should and will 
join the European Union, there is the equally important question of 
whether the European Union will join Switzerland. It may be that the 
latter will be extremely helpful to the former - even essential.

It does not follow, however, that Europe will be the easiest system to 
reform, or the first to do so. The very fact that Western systems are 
so close to a populist, democratic breakthrough in popular access sets 
off powerful forces of resistance among those who like democracy the 
way it is - comparatively inaccessible, vis-à-vis the Swiss direct 
method. This does not imply any kind of conspiracy. In fact, it would 
be impossible for the far Left, far Right, and (most important) 
"extreme centrist" forces to work together to resist direct democracy 
- they disagree about too much. Rather, as any student of history 
knows, it is inertia and conventional wisdom that form the most 
powerful cabal. Or, to paraphrase a character from one of C.S. Lewis's 
novels, "Sometimes the most difficult heresy to combat is one very 
close to the truth." Furthermore, while Europe is the closest to a 
populist democratic system in terms of the sophistication and 
development of its people, it simultaneously faces the least pressure 
to reform.

Seldom in human affairs are revolutions made by those who need only 
move a bit to reach the new revolutionary principle. They are usually 
made by those who feel they may be about to fall over a cliff - and 
will grasp at any expedient to stay in power.

Does anyone believe, for instance, that the Soviet Union was closer to 
democracy than China was in the late 1980s? My own analysis of this 
matter, in The Democratic Imperative, was that China was much closer 
to Western-style freedom up until Tienanmen Square - and, in fact, 
Tienanmen Square proves how close China was. Yet the country has now 
lapsed back into a more profound authoritarianism, while Russia, for 
all its economic clumsiness, has passed through many of the hard 
choices and difficult transitions of trusting in the people.

The greatest likelihood of some European emulation of the Swiss system 
is that it will come about through necessity in some Eastern Bloc 
country, a Russia or Poland. The next most likely dynamic would be a 
European Union adoption of federalism and Euro-nationalism - a 
European-wide referendum, limited by subject, but used as a unifying 
device in the formation of the new European Nation. The Swiss 
themselves are often unimaginative about this matter - they see their 
own helplessness in material terms, but often fail to understand the 
power of an idea, however small its application. Thus one Swiss 
author, considering the evolution of Europe, writes that "in the long 
run, Europe and Switzerland must merge into one system." Indeed they 
must - or, since nothing is inevitable in human affairs, they are 
likely to - but on whose terms? Whether Europe joins the Swiss, or the 
Swiss join Europe; whether China emulates Hong Kong, or Hong Kong is 
swallowed by China - these are open questions. They will be settled, 
like all human history, by a combination of forces, brilliant 
personalities, and chance.

My own best guess is that there will be a European union, and it will 
be closer to the Swiss system in principle. If my ideas can be proven 
right or wrong by the record of prediction, this is one test for those 
ideas to stand on.

By a similar logic, the United States is even closer to Switzerland - 
and yet, by the same token, some greater evolutionary distance away at 
the same time. There are two reasons, however, to suspect that the U.
S., even closer to the Swiss democracy, may yet move toward it with 
even greater haste.

There are many forces which argue against this. One of them is the two 
dominant political parties. Only occasionally does a populist 
Republican, a Reagan, Kemp, or Roosevelt, break through the tone-deaf 
ethos of GOP elitism. For the most part, this is the party of "Bush, 
Eisenhower, and the golf course," as one foresighted author wrote in 

The Democratic Party, though still mired in the economics of class 
warfare, has evolved significantly, and may offer a better road to 
consultative democracy than the Republicans. It is perhaps significant 
that the first proposal to extend Internet technologies to new 
institutional applications - the digital democracy proposal of 
Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. - came out of the Democratic Party.

A third possible avenue for the concepts of direct democracy is for 
some complete outsider to work under a banner of political reform. 
This might be a third party, though recent U.S. third parties, while 
speaking in populist rhetoric, have in fact had little to say about 
political reform from a popular access perspective. More likely, it 
would come from a complete outsider - a businessman, journalist, or 
independent state politician who has a deep faith not in centrism, in 
placing himself in the middle of Left and Right elites, but in 
populism, the wisdom of the people.

It is hard to picture any of these three major parties making a major 
issue of direct democracy. But the latent interest in political reform 
among the American people is so strong that it would only take one 

Against all this, moreover, are some strong reasons to suspect that 
the United States will be the next great theater of advancement for 
direct democracy - if not the next, the next major and pivotal 

America enjoys a strong tradition of political entrepreneurship and 
experimentation. A developed, "European" society, America was 
nevertheless the first country to emulate the Swiss experiment with 
referendum - though only at the state level, a critical exception. In 
the late nineteenth century, America added direct election of 
Senators. In the twentieth century came voting rights for women and 
blacks. America, to a degree Europe outside of Switzerland is not, is 
a nation of immigrants, a cauldron of new people and new ideas. Small-
business startups and entrepreneurship are traditionally higher per 
capita. America, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, remains animated by the 
philosophy, "make it new."

Perhaps most important, in the last fifty years, is the U.S. system of 
presidential and party primaries. Lacking in the parliamentary systems 
in Europe, the U.S. enjoys an ease of access at the front end not seen 
in most of Europe. This access is only for persons, not for ideas, but 
anyway, it matters.

It is difficult to imagine people like Jesse Ventura, Pat Buchanan, 
Ross Perot, Jesse Jackson - and especially, a Ronald Reagan - becoming 
major players in the European political scene. Rob Reiner (California 
anti-smoking initiative), Richard Gann (Proposition 13), or Polly 
Williams (Milwaukee voucher policy) are possible only in America - or 
Switzerland. Europe is very comfortable with the idea of combining the 
rhetoric of popular access with an elitist system of government. 
America has some of that tradition, but also a vast experience at 
punching through to provide an even higher level of popular access.

It seems likely to me that the United States will beat Europe to the 
application of direct democracy at the national level, though this is 
only a likelihood. In some ways, Europe has already taken a first 
step, with the peoples of a number of European republics voting on EU 
membership itself. But popular consultation at the discretion of 
elites extends the new principle little, if at all. Hitler and Stalin, 
Pinochet and Marcos - all held plebiscites when it suited them. The 
test of a new application of direct democracy will be its 
automaticity, the extent to which it takes place not at the caprice of 
leaders, but of the people.

Developing countries - from Russia, a developed society but highly 
underdeveloped economy, to countries like Nigeria and Brazil and India 
- stand far away from Swiss development and a Swiss political economy. 
But might they be more willing to take a stab at implementing some of 
its lessons for popular government?

Some argue - perhaps wrongly - that the gulf is too great for such 
countries for a leap-frog to direct democracy to be either plausible 
or desirable.

It is true that the distance between developing-country society is 
great. At the same time, such societies have less to lose and more to 
gain by jumping beyond the tired permutations of representative 
democracy and engaging in the greater risks but greater possibilities 
of populism.

Is the fundamental difference between Indian democracy and American a 
difference in the quality of citizens? Perhaps. But the far greater 
difference seems to be in the level of institutional and systemic 
development than in the capacity of the people. The same is true of 
Bolivia, Brazil, China, Russia, Nigeria, or Uganda.

This is not to say that the evolution, if it takes place first in the 
less affluent countries, should or will necessarily take the same 
shape, or move at the same pace, as it could in the United States or 
Europe. The racial, ethnic, and economic divisions of developing 
society, for one thing, are such that a higher degree of federalism 
might be needed - while, of course, so is a unifying device such as 
the democratic quasi-sacrament of national referendum.

It might make sense for direct democracy, under such circumstances, to 
be adopted incrementally. Beedham, for example, recommends that some 
countries start with large, national matters, and small, particular 
ones, while leaving the bulk of questions in the middle up to more 
conventional, representative bodies for the time being. This is a 
sensible general recommendation, and may have even greater urgency for 
the developing world. It resembles, in fact, the road traveled by 
Switzerland in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Even for leaders dominated by the desire for mere material success, 
the logic of political experimentation is compelling. All nations are 
competing within the realm of "economic" policy to produce the best 
system - with the result that the field is crowded. Most nations are 
competing to produce directly the most competitive educational, 
corporate, and other institutions, with little chance for any country, 
let alone one poor in resources, to stand out.

A country that tried to develop a somewhat superior political system, 
by contrast, would stand out. It would find, in all probability, that 
with superior political decision making would come better policies for 
the economy, education, foreign affairs, and other matters. Is this, 
in fact, not the road traveled by the United States and Switzerland 
over the last 200 years? Did not Japan leap into the industrial age 
most decisively in the mid-twentieth century, when alone among the 
Asian despotisms it adopted a significant degree of democracy?

The developing world thus competes closely with the United States as 
another likely arena for experimentation. Because the risks and 
benefits are higher, so is the likelihood of a misstep or even a 
crash. Possibly the idea of direct democracy will even suffer setbacks 
in the developing world, by being tried in imprudent ways, or adopted 
half-heartedly or in the wrong fields of activity. Even so there is a 
compelling case for it: Developing country invention in the political 
sphere is a vacuum, which politics abhors.

Which system is better?

The question is difficult to answer in a present time frame, except as 
a matter of expressing one's arbitrary preference. We may speculate 
endlessly about whether the people, or a group they choose, is more 

Yet we need not confine ourselves to the present time frame, for in 
discussing democracy, especially Swiss democracy, we have 700 years or 
more of history for material - and we can look many years ahead in 
making our forecast. It is sometimes easier to look across centuries, 
than across a generation.

Indeed, much of the discussion above has neglected what may be the 
most important element of discussion of all - time.

The most important impact of direct democracy in Switzerland is its 
influence upon the citizen. There are, as we have mentioned, other 
contributing causes. And there is causality in the other direction: 
The high quality of Swiss citizens - their interest and involvement in 
public affairs, their studious receptivity to information, their civic 
pride and community ethos - helps make populist democracy possible. 
This latter phenomenon, however, is well known, in Switzerland and the 
West. The idea of a people being "ready" for democracy, being grown up 
enough to stand on a par with their elites, is familiar and accepted. 
Even the radical antitheses have some widespread acceptance. This was 
captured famously by the journalist William F. Buckley, in his witty 
declaration that he would rather be ruled by 200 persons chosen at 
random from the Boston telephone directory, than by the faculty of 
Harvard University.

What is poorly understood - or anyway, not accepted and indeed 
vigorously denied by the collective subconsciousness of the Western 
elite - is the extent to which democratic institutions help develop 
the citizen. And, that the more democratic the institutions, the more 
rapid and complete the development of the electorate.

The most important impact of Swiss democracy among the Swiss has 
involved the development of the Swiss people over time. Even in the 
short run, Swiss have a greater incentive to follow political issues 
and to think seriously about them - they may well be voting on them in 
a few months. Over the longer run, a synergism of development sets in. 
The Swiss, with greater opportunity to make law, become skilled at 
making law much as, in the theory of representative democracy, members 
of Congress become skilled at legislative craftsmanship. The 
difference is that this phenomenon is spread over a whole society - 
government "by the people" in the broadest sense.

Swiss politicians, journalists, and business leaders all, in turn, 
adjust their behavior accordingly. More focus is placed on informing, 
and listening to, the people, than in any other democracy.

As a result, and following long experience with popular sovereignty, 
the leaders and the led, the elites and the people, have a greater 
mutual respect and less alienation than in any other regime.

Imagine if every American were to serve on a jury three or four times 
a year. Is there any doubt that the people would be closer to the 
legal system, and the legal system more responsive to the people, were 
this the case? The mere proximity, the culture of greater interaction, 
would produce such effects. If added to this the citizens enjoyed 
greater leverage over the implementation of police policies, or the 
development of law, the effect would be multifold.

It is no different with the frequent exercise of sovereignty by the 
Swiss, over hundreds of years.

Indeed, it is ironic that in an age that so exults expertise, 
experience, and knowledge, so little attention is paid to a people 
that have more years of democratic history than any other. It seems 
strange that amidst all the hosannahs of a "global information age," 
there is so little thinking about global principles, and so little 
information about the world's most important and revealing democratic 

At the center, radical in idea yet conservative in operation, is 
Switzerland. It is quiet and unassuming, but highly revealing. In some 
ways, it is the anti-America, but in this the two are naturally 
complementary. America is great in space, and has extended the 
democratic idea, as Lincoln and Thomas Paine hoped, across the world. 
But Switzerland is great in time, and has extended the democratic idea 
internally to an extent seen nowhere else.

"Empires such as the Swiss," as the advisor to King Louis once put it 
with unintended irony, "extend their empire by the bad example of 
their liberty."

It is possible to imagine our now-democratic world, like a latter-day 
global Athens, lapsing into despotism. This is actually far more 
possible than most present-day millenarians - who only a decade ago 
were assuring us, "you can't change the Soviet system" - can imagine.

It is possible too to imagine an end of history, an everlasting stasis 
in democracy as it is without further meaningful change. It is 
possible even to picture an Aquarian end to political and economic 
problems altogether.

Yet none of these is the most likely. Instead, a long but hopefully 
happy struggle, striving toward ever-more-perfect freedom, if never 
quite arriving - in a word, history - looms. A world of ideas and 
facts, labor and thought, good and - yes - evil, which none of the 
materialists, Marxist nor Libertarian, have abolished.

It is to this, real world of mankind that Switzerland has so much to 
offer. In this world, it may well be, as Victor Hugo cryptically 
insisted: "Switzerland will have the last word in history."


1. All this is quite aside from the fact that the dialectical 
materialists of the Right and Left are wrong altogether. History never 
ends, there are no completely new ideas under the sun, and what 
appears at one point or another in history to be the "final verdict" 
on behalf of good or evil is never more than a turn of the wheel from 
a different order. Whether we are considering the end of war 
proclaimed in the late nineteenth century, the end of material want in 
the mid-twentieth century, or the "abolition of borders" and a "world 
without money" by Internet companies and technology executives in the 
early twenty-first century, the stubborn resiliency of human nature 
remains. That history tends to favor the most just polity is clear, as 
the author argues in The Democratic Imperative, especially Chap. 3, 
"Ideopolitique." Between tendency and inevitability, however, is a 
wide and important gulf.

Brian Beedham, "A better way to vote: Why letting the people 
themselves take the decisions is the logical next step for the West," 
The Economist, 11 September 1993. Beedham is an associate editor of 
The Economist and was its foreign editor from 1964 to 1989.

See Carol L. Schmid's interesting survey, Conflict and Consensus in 
Switzerland, University of California Press, 1981.

In the paragraphs that follow we are speaking mainly about the spirit 
of direct democracy and of its acts insofar as they are different. 
Switzerland has a parliament and president too, and there is lobbying 
and grass-roots lobbying aimed at the parliament. But in those cases 
Switzerland, which itself is a mixed system, is acting as a 
representative democracy. Because it frequently acts as a direct 
democracy, however, the resulting "spirit of the laws," the animating 
logic of political activity, may be very different.

In the combined national parliamentary elections of 1999, according to 
an academic estimate cited by Aargauer Zeitung editor Peter Frey, the 
Swiss spent a total of 100 million Swiss francs.


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