Why Switzerland?

Jonathan Steinberg

Read November-December 2004

Steinberg's book is considered one of the authoritative tomes on Switzerland, an excellent complement to the much more literary, but considerably narrower, Place de la Concorde Suisse. This second edition is a significant extension over the first, and its only disappointment is that a third edition, updated for the events on the past decade, isn't yet in print (though it is doubtless under preparation).

Steinberg casts a rigorous eye on Switzerland, framing his book with the following questions: Why has this exceptional nation survived? Why should outsiders take note of it? And finally, can it persist? As his opening questions indicate, this may be an academic book, but the prose is lively, with several good turns of phrase. And it has such wonderful touches as a sample ballot as an appendix. (To understand voting is to understand the Swiss?)

The book's begins with a telling piece of economic evidence: no more than about three strikes per annum persist for longer than one day. Of a piece with McPhee's, Steinberg's account is of things that did not happen. Specifically, he attributes it to an absence of centralization, extreme nationalism and religious strife (p. 9). The rest of the book is really an elaboration on these themes.

The second edition has a chapter on religion, which makes for particularly interesting reading. The Swiss are a religious lot, especially when compared to the rest of western Europe. Yet the Swiss Confederation predates the Reformation, and survived intact—without massive slaughter of either belief's adherents—through that and the Counter-Reformation, benefiting from immigration. (Indeed, some attribute the term ``Huguenots'' to a corruption of the Swiss term for themselves.) Steinberg attributes the survival of Catholics (for the mighty urban West is resolutely Protestant, anchored by the ``Protestant Rome'') to a clever use of bottom-up democracy. Steinberg's summary of this mirrors his view on most other matters: that it is the solutions, not the problems, that are uniquely Swiss. (On the linguistic split, however, Steinberg points out that the Swiss-Germans are ``defined but also confined'' by language (p. 151), unlike the French-Swiss, which may explain their views on integration with Europe.)

The question remains whether all talk of Swiss exceptionalism is now moot. Indeed, the pavements of Zürich are no longer fit for eating off of. The Swiss watch industry has recovered partially thanks to Swatch, but suffers from massive conglomeration. Luggage marketed by Victorinox is assembled in Southeast Asia. The very public humiliation of Swissair was a significant blow. The troubles of the Swiss banks are only the most public, and perhaps least significant, of the problems. Consequently, in a broader sense I wonder whether Steinberg's book is really a product of its time, the result of a sharp look at just the right moment, before the edifice had begun to crumble—and the second edition captures the beginning of that decline. But then, again, the Swiss have been counted out many a time before.