Switzerland / Suisse / Schweiz / Svizzera
When one thinks of Switzerland, words such as peaceful, tranquil, stable and cheese come to mind. That’s how more or less it was described to me when I was twelve years old when my Father was posted to the United Nations Office in Geneva in 1992. Once there, we lived in a small village on top of a hill in the countryside, almost the opposite of the Brooklyn that I left. It wasn’t a lie, Switzerland is beautiful, tranquil, clean, stable and a lot more, not all positive.
Geneva for most of history, like many other cities in Europe, was a city state, at times independent, others a part of other nations such as France, and more recently and currently Switzerland. There are technically two Genevas, the City, and the Canton. Similar to New York where there is the city and the state. The Canton of Geneva includes the city and the surrounding countryside, though unlike New York, the Canton is compact with no other major city than Geneva. The Canton is approximately 110 square miles, home to 500,000 inhabitants, 40% of which live in the city of Geneva. The strange geographic particularity of Geneva is formed by its history and the surrounding topography. Geneva is a political presque-ile enclave of Switzerland within France. Connected by a thin strip of land to the rest of Switzerland, at its narrowest only two kilometers wide. Geneva has a symbiotic relationship with “la France voisine”, or neighboring France. The areas in France closest to Geneva are more integrated with Geneva than France itself. This is largely due to the topographic nature of the mountains that form a natural wall around this area, in effect blocking it off from the rest of France. The Jura mountains (the namesake of Jurassic Park), form a land border to the north and west, and the Saleve to the south and east. For years, even before European-Union/Swiss free movement agreements were in place, workers living in France would drive or take the bus through borders to go to work in Geneva, and go back at night. Thrifty Swiss residents would cross the border to go to the Hypermarchés (mega supermarkets) on the French side to get access to cheaper foodstuffs and life necessities. Swiss Border guards were in place not so much to capture migrants coming into Switzerland but to capture the Swiss foodtraitors returning back to the cantons, trunks full of meats, milks and cheeses. The ironic apogee of this came in the late nineties when Migros, one of Switzerland’s larges supermarket chains opened two supermarkets across the border in France to cater primarily to the Swiss. They would cross the border to buy the same products they would buy in Switzerland, often from Switzerland but at a cheaper price then cross back sneaking the products back into Switzerland.
Geneva, by most standards is a beautiful city. A beautiful clear lake as the centerpiece with a historic city core and verdant countryside surrounded by snow capped mountains. A city that serves as a global financial and political hub punches above its weight on the international stage due to the strong presence of banking and International Organizations. Relatively high salaries compared to basically anywhere else on the planet allows residents to afford a very comfortable lifestyle.
Geneva’s identity as a Swiss city is relatively new compared to the rest of Switzerland, having joined the Confederation in 1815. Its isolated geography from the rest of Switzerland makes it an outlier in Swiss culture. Geneva’s population is 36% Swiss only (dual national Swiss 27%) Foreign citizens account for 37% of the population due in large part to foreign International Institutions, Diplomatic Representations and expatriate financial and transnational corporation workers making Geneva by far the most cosmopolitan city by percentage in Europe. Geneva is an outlier, geographically and culturally isolated from the rest of the country, Geneva is arguably a more a world city than a Swiss city.
With all these cultures, nationalities and experiences, Geneva remains in certain aspects, a generic European, city. Visually the “Jet d’eau” might be the only defining physical characteristic of the city, remove it from a postcard and most won’t be able to say what city is depicted. Historically, Geneva’s culture is tied to Calvinism, a protestant movement within Christianity that splintered off from Catholicism with a strong conservative ethos. The Calvinist church formed the primary power structure in Geneva until a formal law separating Church and State was enacted only in 1907 after a one-time large buy-out was paid to the church. The conservative ethos remains, in architecture and how the city feels, dead at night. However, dig a little deeper and in between the main train station, Cornavin and the lake, there is an area that is Geneva’s answer to “little-[Insert Country Name Here]” neighborhood. Here you will find shops selling foods from China, Vietnam, Algeria, Syria, Philippines, Thailand and other UN member states within a tight 8 block area. Strangely the neighborhood overlaps with the redlight district, with its mix of bars, discos and services. This mix of cultures and entertainment make it possibly the most active and fun part of Geneva. In more recent years, new restaurants have popped up around the city touting less traditional European dishes and more in line with cosmopolitan trends of major world cities. If these new places can survive Covid, it is something that Geneva sorely needed. The main attraction of Geneva perhaps is that it is centrally located in Europe that you can visit most any part of Europe with a flight under two hours. Many friends that work there don’t weekend there, they jump on a flight to London, Copenhagen or Barcelona to chill and fly back Sunday night. Have fun elsewhere and comeback to safety of home and work, further cementing Geneva’s reputation to cater to well-heeled international transients.
Geneva is only second to New York in number of UN-affiliated International Organizations headquartered within the city, other large cities such as Paris, Rome or Montreal may only have one, Geneva has more than a dozen, with each UN member state also having sizable Permanent Missions representing their interests to and within these organizations. Very few cities around the world can boast a guaranteed population from each country.
The city prides itself on a concept called “Esprit de Genève”, in English “Spirit of Geneva”. Geneva exists to many outside of Switzerland as a sort of City State devoted to promoting peace, human rights and dignity. The Geneva Conventions are a set of treaties first signed starting in 1864 and the latest round signed in 1949 by 196 countries and territories. These treaties are man’s best attempt to bring civility to our infinite canvas of destruction: War. Henri Dunant, seeing the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino vowed to create an organization to aid the injured and help civilian victim populations. The Geneva Conventions in their different iterations “… defined the basic rights of wartime prisoners (civilians and military personnel), established protections for the wounded and sick, and established protections for the civilians in and around a war-zone.” The organization tasked with upholding these conventions was the newly created Red Cross, founded by Henri Dunant and is still headquartered in Geneva. In addition to the Red Cross, the United Nations and affiliated organizations, there many non-governmental and non-profit organizations interfacing with each other, the UN, other international organizations and government representations. The result of this is a sort of Silicon Valley of better world building.
At the end of the day, the rather conservative backdrop that Geneva provides to those that come here is almost that of a neutral canvas where cultures from around the world can come together and discuss how to stay together around the occasional fondue.
If you search the Internet for information on Switzerland, what most often pops-up are articles about how beautiful and pristine the landscape is, odes to the Alpen stereotypes, chocolate, watches and cheese. For most people outside of Switzerland, Switzerland is uni-dimensional, a sort of intricate display case at a high-end boutique. The Penthouse suite of countries. Behind the vitrine is a much more complex tapestry of what modern Switzerland has become and how often its public perception is often at odds with the history that resulted in the Modern Swiss Federation.
Switzerland is made up of 26 Cantons, roughly the legal equivalent of US States with 4 official languages, all on a country roughly twice the size of New Jersey. As a Confederation, there is a Capital city with powers such as military and foreign policy being handled at the national level with many powers under the control of the individual cantons such as policing and health policy. Politically, Switzerland is highly consensus driven. There is no one single head of the executive branch of government, there are seven organized in to the Federal Council with a yearly rotating Presidency amongst the members.
Europe had been in a state of near perpetual war until the middle of the XXth Century, being located centrally in Western Europe, the different cantons that now make up Switzerland had to fend off powerful neighbor empires. Aided by an unforgiving topography, nearly three quarters of Switzerland is covered by mountains, these cantons formed alliances and mutual defense pacts in order to protect themselves. The origins of the Swiss Nation date back to approximately 1291, when the first Federal Charter was signed as well as a flurry of mutual aid pacts between different cantons, the most notable of which was the Rütlischwur when representatives from three cantons (Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden) agreed to ally themselves with each other. More and more cantons joined until the structure of what is modern day Switzerland was formed. Over eight hundred year later the site of this pact is still a meadow overlooking Lake Uri, now a national monument.
There is a dish served in the southern part of the Canton of Vaud. Essentially a fried cheese ball, a cheese dish par for the course in dairy loving Switzerland. It strangely has a slavic sounding name: Malakoff. Swiss Mercenaries invented the dish prior to the battle of Malakoff (present day Ukraine/Russia) and named it after the battle where the redoubt of Malakoff was seized ending the siege of Sevastopol. When one thinks of the Swiss Military today, one often thinks about the extremely useful Swiss Army knives with little war-fighting capability than a war fighting people. Before the last Napoleonic wars, Swiss mercenaries, soldiers of fortune were feared, for their ruthlessness, not taking prisoners and never backing down. Known as Reisläufer, they were employed at the highest levels of empire often as Royal Guards or as the elite forces, predecessors to modern day special forces. Switzerland’s neutrality was key, having no alliances outside of the federation allowed mercenaries to be hired by anyone for the right price, leading up to, in some cases, Swiss fighting Swiss for the benefit of surrounding empires. Swiss warriors invented a combat technique that reduced the tactical advantage of a Cavalry charge by arranging warriors in a box with long pikes ordered in a certain fashion, this technique was called “Gewalthaufen”, translated as “Heap of Violence”. The Swiss Guard that protects the Vatican is a direct descendant of this history of violence.
Switzerland however was not immune to class conflicts between the aristocracy and peasants as well as an emerging French power, first Revolutionary forces, then the Napoleonic Empire. Between the end of the XIIXth and middle of the XIXth centuries, Switzerland went through a myriad of changes including invasion and occupation by French forces. Switzerland reacquired its freedom in the beginning of the XIXth Century, but infighting continued ultimately culminating in a Civil War that ended when all cantons were invited to create a new constitution modeled on the US Constitution signed in 1847. The period of civil unrest that led up to the new constitution was the preamble to the Revolutions of 1848 that swept through approximately 50 countries throughout Europe similar to the Arab Spring of 2010.
Switzerland has morphed from a war based, agrarian and unstable society into one of the world’s most prosperous and stable. It begs the question on a more macro level if there is an evolutionary path for the nation state that once it has gone through a phase of militaristic society building, does the society evolve to one that promotes prosperity through cooperation. Scandinavian countries are largely descendants from pillaging Viking societies, now world leaders in social programs and hosts of the Nobel Prizes.
The relevance of the Swiss military is being questioned by many Swiss Citizens in light of being surrounded by friendly countries that are allies with each other and provide a defacto barrier against unlikely foreign aggression. In 2014, an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Geneva to Addis Ababa was hijacked by the co-pilot, French Mirage 2000 fighter jets escorted the aircraft since the hijacking occurred outside of regular business hours and the Swiss Air Force was unable to respond. The same year, Swiss citizens went to the polls to decide whether the Air Force should replace its aircraft with new modern equipment. For the first time, the army lost at the polls as a majority of the electorate voted against. In 2020, a similar plan narrowly passed with 50.1% of the vote. Bunkers dot the Swiss country side, often in plain sight but most often hidden a testament to a history of protecting the territory against antagonistic European powers.
Switzerland prospered by being militantly neutral through Europe’s XXth Century wars. Emerging unscathed they did not have the burden of having to rebuild a country and became a safe haven for accumulated wealth, ethically and unethically obtained from all sides of warring parties. Switzerland’s historic niche was as a safe haven for wealth and the wealthy when their neighboring countries were at war with each other. With the rise of the European Union, the virtue of neutral island concept has come more into question. With neighbors becoming staunch allies and trading partners, Switzerland was starting to be the odd-man out. As trade barriers and border limitations fell within the Union, Switzerland was becoming less competitive. Starting in the 1970s in more actively in the 1990s, Switzerland signed bilateral agreements with the European Union that made them somewhat of a defacto member of the Union without being a member. Goods and services from Switzerland can be freely traded within the EU and Swiss and EU Citizens can travel and work throughout Europe including Switzerland freely. Switzerland narrowly rejected the idea of becoming a full EU member in 1992, choosing instead the path of bilateral treaties granting much of the benefits of membership without membership. The strange downside to this is that Switzerland is bound by EU laws through these treaties, having to obey the same rules as EU members so as to not have an unfair advantage. Without being a member, Switzerland does not have a say in how these rules are created and cannot propose new rules or changes. Insisting on Swiss exceptionalism has a political cost and certainly a risk.
The bunkers have been mostly abandoned, a testament to armed neutrality and its ambiguous existence today. Many of my Swiss friends describe the compulsory military service that takes a few days a year for most males as a way to catch up with friends, stay in shape and drink some Valaisan wine at the end of the days. Neutrality has its limits in a context where inaction is action. One of the principal accused perpetrators of the Rwandan Genocide was an affluent businessman named Félicien Kabuga. After the Genocide he was tracked down in 1994 in a luxury hotel in Switzerland. Instead of being arrested, he was ordered to leave the country and remained a fugitive for 26 years, only being caught in 2020. Had he been arrested instead of being ordered to leave, many of his alleged victims would not have to wait for justice to be applied to a now 84 year old man near the end of his days.
Rules in Switzerland are a part of daily life. Similar to Singapore, the cleanliness and precise timeliness of the nation depends seemingly on everyone following the rules. Everything runs on time, there are no jaywalkers and you can’t flush your toilet in an apartment building after 10pm, no vacuuming your apartment between noon and 2pm or on Sundays. Break the rules, prepare to be socially ostracized and heavily fined. There is a defined way of being Swiss. In many cantons, becoming Swiss takes a village, in order to become a naturalized citizen the residents of a village will vote on whether someone who has met all the requirements can become Swiss. In 2017 a Dutch woman who had lived in Switzerland since she was 8 years old and has Swiss children of her own was denied Swiss citizenship when the village voted against her deeming her to be too annoying. The cantonal government later overruled the village and granted her application. While this example maybe an outlier it strays not far from the norm. Gaining citizenship in Switzerland is one of hardest to obtain in Europe, a minimum of ten years is required, and depending on which canton you live in, minimum residency requirements need to be met as well. Even if you obtain Swiss citizenship, there is an understanding for many that you are not truly Swiss, even if you have lived the majority or the totality of your life in the nation. This is borne out by the Migrant Integration Policy Index 2020 study sponsored by the European Union and the Center for Global Development. The initial findings show that Switzerland lags very far behind most of Western Europe in terms of integration and legal protections afforded to non-European immigrants. In March 2015, a seismic event occurred in the sacred world of Swiss Banking, for the first time, an African became the CEO of Switzerland’s second largest bank, Credit Suisse. Tidjane Thiam who has dual Ivorian and French nationalities was previously CEO at UK insurer Prudential. Despite turning a flailing Credit Suisse around, overseeing thirteen months of growth including the company’s best year in history, he was forced out of office by the board of directors due to a spying affair in which he was cleared. The 2018 “Banker of the Year” (Euromoney) was never truly accepted by the Swiss establishment, the spying scandal proved to be an effective excuse to remove the man who saved the bank.
During the 1990s the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) changed under the leadership of its leader Christoph Blocher. Embracing populist far-right and xenophobic stances, it became the largest party in Switzerland, though never gained a majority in parliament. The SVP does not hesitate to portray immigrants in crude and racist depictions. I asked two of my friends who live in Switzerland, one of Chinese descent and the other of middle-eastern/filipino heritage about their experiences with race in Switzerland. Their experiences both converged on hearing from different people slight variations of “go back home”. They would be on the receiving end of insults even from medical professionals questioning their heritage or suggesting that they “move home”. Dirty looks were common and I myself (I am darker than white) saw a woman grabbing her purse closer to her with a look of fear as she saw me shopping in the same aisle in a Migros. There are signs however of slight progress. Poll numbers for the SVP have been decreasing, now under 25% after reaching a high of 33%, younger generations are more open to progressive ideas and international cooperation. A recent referendum to limit free movement of EU citizens within Switzerland and promoted by the SVP failed in September (2020). Switzerland is often a late comer realizing universal ideals, women obtained the right to vote at the federal level only in 1970, and the Canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden was forced by the Supreme Court of Switzerland to grant suffrage to women only in 1991, almost a century after New Zealand did the same willingly in 1893. A Swiss political professor I had once said “Le Suisse se leve tot mais se reveille tard”, translated: “the Swiss get up early but awaken late”.
Do not misunderstand my intentions, I love Switzerland, its people, its culture. Like every country, every tribe there are human flaws. On the balance of things, Switzerland does come out way ahead. While things may society seems rigid and entirely rules based, there is almost an equal bent based largely in the rural cultural homeland of breaking them. While subtle, and not all rules are fair game to be broken, the rebellious nature found in the original signatories of the Rütlischwur is still ingrained in the Swiss psyche, and allows a safety valve for change against stringent rules. The vast majority of people I have interacted with has been extremely positive, starting with my friends that I studied with during two academically disastrous years at l’Université de Geneve. More recently, over the summer, we were in a small town called Oftringen in the canton of Aargau. It was late and my parents and I were looking for a place to eat, we found a small neighborhood bar full of locals who all looked at us when we came in, we definitely were not in the same demographic, it was city slickers walking into a western bar. The waitress was more than friendly, caring, even if we spoke a different language. In a small neighborhood bar, we received a warmer and better service than in many Michelin three star restaurants. It wasn’t out of professional etiquette but you a true sense of caring. This is one example of many, in beautiful Switzerland, there is work to be done, but also a people rising to the task of completing it.