To be blatantly honest, I’ve never had an explicit desire to visit Switzerland. To me, it’s one of the subordinate European countries – without it’s own language, and without a strong international identity. Sure, it’s famous for it’s “neutrality” – but that’s like being famous for having the most beige house. Or so I thought. A short visit has very much changed my perception and understanding of this place.
Switzerland has a distinctive political history. It is essentially a country in the alps, which means crossing it has always been a difficult task. An exhibit at the national museum called “no one has been here all the time”, (implicitly targeting recent xenophobic trends in swiss politics) emphasized the sheer number of different migrations into and through what are today the swiss alps. This explains the trend away from cultural continuity – even “Swiss German” is spoken with a different dialect in different valleys. So, rather than the usual centralized state, Switzerland has always been a federation of provinces, or “cantons”. Even after becoming its incorporation as a modern state, cantons retain significant political power – enough to block woman’s suffrage until 1991 in one canton – and, I’ve actually been told, that some electoral processes in some places remain restricted to men. This is the conservative side of direct democracy – any changes must be approved by the voting public through constant referenda. As in the British Columbian referendum on first nations rights, it is not obvious majority votes on minority rights are democratic at all.
I want to say a word on Swiss Neutrality – it’s a load of a lie. During the second war they produced ammunition for both sides, and after 1940, exclusively for the Nazis. They complied with racist Nazi laws – marking Jewish passports with a “J”, and not accepting Jewish refugees . In other words – directly collaborating with the genocide. Furthermore, swiss banks held Nazi moneys, which includes stolen Jewish property, and even gold from the false teeth of executed Jews. Swiss collaboration with the Nazis may not have been on the level of Vichy France, but it was certainly enough that it could have been subject to de-nazification. It wasn’t, however, and it takes its place among states which feel no remorse for the crimes of its past special exhibit with closed yesterday at Zurich’s art museum was of the art collection of Emil Georg Buhrle, a swiss man whose fortune was made during the war selling arms to the Nazis. Instead of being critical of the origin of his wealth, the exhibit celebrated him as a Swiss hero, someone who kept the economy running during troubled times.
Zurich is a beautiful, international town. Lots of hipsters, nice old buildings, and streets that are curved and paved with bricks. Millions of tramways and trolley buses, and double decker suburban S-bahn trains running everywhere, and constantly. You can even rent a bicycle for free, and I did, and rode an excellent bike path 10km up the side of the lake. However, the “international” feel comes at the cost of particularity – unlike Belfast or Dublin, I didn’t get a sense that I was really “in” Zurich. It reminds me of what James May said about Munich – when you go there everything is great, but when you’ve left you never stop and say, “Damn, I wish I was still in Munich”.
If I had stayed in Zurich I wouldn’t feel as if I’d really gotten a sense of Swiss “swissness” – for that you need to go to the mountains. If you’ve seen or read Heidi, the answer is yes, it really does look like that. Kai and I took the train to Airolo, and a bus halfway up the mountain. The resulting hike was exquisite – well maintained, and passing by several settlements in various stages of repair and ruin. At the top there was a power dam, and in the valley a highway, airport, entrance to the third longest road tunnel in the world, and rail line. In other words, the place is exceedingly ge-stell. But, this didn’t damage the picturesque experience of nordic walking through the ancient land. This is the essence, I think, of modern switzerland – huge mega projects surmounting the Alps, and at the same time, the Alps set to work for personal enjoyment of citizens and tourists. I shouldn’t complain, it’s great for pictures.