Further to Fall

Owen Bennett-Jones

  • Switzerland Unwrapped: Exposing the Myths by Mitya New
    Tauris, 210 pp, £18.95, June 1997, ISBN 1 86064 300 0
  • Blood Money by Tom Bower
    Macmillan, 387 pp, £16.99, March 1997, ISBN 0 333 71517 9

For forty years after the Second World War, the Swiss had every reason to believe that theirs was the optimal form of government. There was political and social stability, full employment, virtually no crime and, for a time, the highest per capita income in the world. Switzerland’s system of government with its many celebrated peculiarities was not only unique but uniquely successful. Which helps explain why the country’s fall from grace has been so hard to bear. Not only is Switzerland now widely reviled as having been the fence for stolen Nazi loot: it is facing its first serious economic depression in living memory, with unemployment at 6 per cent and rising. Industries which once led the world face ever tougher foreign competition. Many Swiss are beginning to wonder what they have to do to stay on top: do their traditional institutions need reforming?

Take the Army, which requires nearly every male to undertake periods of military service for most of his adult life. Thanks to this, the Army boasts, the entire male population can be mobilised within 24 hours. Virtually every home contains a semi-automatic machine-gun with live ammunition. Such preparedness is credited with having deterred invasions of Switzerland for centuries, but the once unshakeable confidence in Swiss military prowess is slipping away. Even within the country it’s now accepted that Hitler’s decision to leave Switzerland alone, for example, was influenced more by his need of the services offered by the gnomes of Zürich than by fear of the people’s army. The current economic crisis is also having an impact on the Swiss military: companies are increasingly reluctant to let staff go for one or two months a year on military training courses which put an intolerable strain on productivity.

Neutrality, too, enshrined in international law since the Congress of Vienna in 1815, is coming under intense scrutiny. Historians and political scientists have built a whole national philosophy out of neutrality, describing it as the only moral stance for a country to adopt; as an expression of Switzerland’s philanthropic values; and as a geopolitical manifestation of the moral standards that lie behind one of Switzerland’s great contributions to the world – the Red Cross movement. During the Cold War the policy worked well. It afforded Switzerland an opportunity to provide diplomatic ‘good offices’ acceptable to East and West. But these are now irrelevant. And the grand theories justifying Swiss neutrality have been undermined, if not completely demolished, by the recent reassessment of Switzerland’s conduct during the Second World War.

Even if neutrality remains an ideal for most Swiss, mainstream politicians are losing faith in it. They know that the policy has always been a pragmatic one. Involvement in a European war – especially one in which Germany and France were adversaries – would tear Switzerland apart, with the Swiss-French speakers sympathising with the French, the Swiss-German with the Germans. Such considerations are beside the point today, when the chief strategic threat lies to the East, a potential source of millions of refugees. The political élite calculates that the best defence against a debilitating influx is to create solid ties with the West, and with Nato in particular. The decision to allow Nato troops bound for Bosnia to use Swiss airspace ran counter to the established principles of neutrality, but refusal was not a realistic option.

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