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John Waelti: Reflections on Switzerland and the 'genius' of the Swiss
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We descendants of Swiss immigrants around here just take Switzerland for granted. But when one thinks about it, this tiny, land-locked nation defies all logic. How can such a complex nation of contradictions even exist? It's one of the world's richest, and tops the United Nation's "World Happiness Report."

Think of it - a tiny land-locked nation devoid of minerals and natural resources, with a harsh climate, little arable farm land, dominated by the rugged Alps. Four official languages; five if you count English. Its population is split evenly between Catholics and Protestants. Its people are fiercely independent even as the nation is highly regulated.

During our recent Turner Hall Swiss Heritage tour to Switzerland, we counted 135 familiar Green County names. And we had a unique opportunity to view first-hand some wonders of Switzerland. But to begin to appreciate and understand the complexities and contradictions of Switzerland, required reading is "Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money," by Diccon Bewes. Bewes is a Brit who has lived in Switzerland for many years and with a keen journalist's eye has combined an outsider's analysis with the familiarity of living in the midst of Swiss customs and contradictions. With that, he probably understands Switzerland better than the Swiss themselves.

The three founding fathers of Switzerland who signed that pact on the Ruetli Meadow in 1291 could never have imagined the end result of 26 diverse cantons forming this present complex, prosperous nation. As Bewes points out, few Swiss could even name those founding fathers: Werner Stauffacher, Walter Fuerst and Arnold von Melchtal. Worship of celebrities, however worthy, is very un-Swiss. Switzerland's two most famous characters are fictitious: Wilhelm Tell and Heidi.

Unless you follow tennis, it's hard to think of a prominent Swiss celebrity. Switzerland is known more for its products, cheese, chocolate, and watches, and, of course, its efficient transportation system. Another contradiction - the world's roughest terrain, requiring long tunnels, lofty bridges over steep gorges, miles of hairpin turns to navigate and cross rugged mountains - costly, ingenious engineering wonders that result in what is arguably the world's most efficient transportation system.

The contradictions go on. "Happy, carefree, and throwing caution to the winds," are not adjectives normally attached to Swiss people. "Industrious, serious, and frugal" more readily come to mind. Yet according to that UN report, the Swiss are more happy and content with their lives than even the Scandinavian trio of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, even as they are subject to regulations that Americans would never tolerate.

For example, to cut down a tree on your own property one has to get permission from a government forester. Hunting is stringently regulated. To build, you first have to construct the skeleton of a building with a framework of pipes to give citizens the opportunity to weigh in. Names of newborn have to be approved by the government. This sounds strict, but no irresponsible parent can saddle a kid with a name that results in a lifetime of ridicule.

Is all this too much regulation? The Swiss are conservative in the sense that they are slow to change - every law is thoroughly debated. Incredibly, this diverse nation operates as much as possible by consensus that would be impossible anywhere else.

When author Bewes first toured Switzerland, he noticed something missing in its towns, namely monuments commemorating fallen soldiers. Another contradiction - although known for its neutrality, all Swiss men undergo mandatory military training and annually must demonstrate proficient rifle marksmanship.

In the early 1940s Hitler's staff had drawn up detailed plans for invasion of Switzerland. The central plateau containing the major portion of Switzerland's population could have been taken easily enough. However, the objective of invasion was to attain the Alpine passes that control routes between northern and southern Europe. The Swiss strategy was to present a very unfavorable benefit-cost situation to the Axis powers. They would have to pay a high price in men and materiel to gain territory in which strategic tunnels and bridges would be destroyed, denying efficient passage across the Alps even with Axis victory.

It's easy for a powerful nation, such as the U.S., insulated during WWII from bombing by vast expanses of ocean, to criticize for its neutrality a small nation totally surrounded by Axis powers.

So why does Switzerland continue to require military service of its male population? One explanation is that it serves as a common, unifying experience among people of its diverse cultures. The American draft once had that positive unintended consequence among American males, but no more.

Switzerland remains "surrounded" in another sense - it maintains its own currency, the sound, highly-valued Swiss Franc. There are pros and cons of not adopting the Euro. In my opinion, Switzerland is wise to maintain its own currency and not subject itself to broader European monetary policy.

Yet another contradiction is that the Swiss, as independent as they are, host 21 international organizations in Geneva alone. These include the International Red Cross and the World Trade Organization. Switzerland hosted two subsidiaries of the United Nations, UNICEF and the World Health Organization, even though it didn't join the UN until 2002, and then only after a referendum; again, characteristically Swiss.

So how did the once-poorest nation in Europe become one of the worlds richest? A Brit, Thomas Cook, in 1863, first introduced the concept of group tourism. As the foreigners were introduced to the scenic Alps, the Swiss quickly grasped the wisdom of a transportation system facilitating tourism.

But it's far more than that. It's tempting to attribute the Swiss success story to the industriousness of its people. However, other nations have smart, industrious people, and gorgeous scenery, but remain poor. It was a series of fortuitous events and successful development of its unique democracy. If there's "genius" involved, it's the Swiss genius for developing organizations and institutions that enable diverse peoples to work together for the common good.

- John Waelti of Monroe can be reached at His column appears Fridays in The Monroe Times.