Switzerland Goes Rogue

Is it still possible for a country to be neutral?


No place in Europe has clung to an anachronistic, airbrushed image longer than Switzerland. The country’s oddly entrenched reputation for pristine and inviolable "neutrality" has left it ostensibly so removed from the normal give-and-take of international politics that for many Americans the place could pretty much be summed up with the sugary, beyond-politics appeal of Nestlé chocolate.

In fact, however, the myth of Swiss exceptionalism is increasingly tattered these days. The unraveling of the legend began in the postwar period, accelerating in the 1990s, as more and more stories came out on the Swiss banks’ involvement in helping the Nazis and their stubbornness about concealing that role. It didn’t help matters that right-wing Swiss political parties continued to make periodic gains, with the Radical Party signaling a turn to the right in the 1983 parliamentary elections, for example, by drawing more votes than the Social Democrats for the first time in 58 years.

Recent months have brought Switzerland into a vortex of unwelcome international publicity, much of this brought on by a flinty, proud brand of Swiss independence that looks less and less charming to the outside world. Burt Neuborne, a New York University professor who served as counsel to Holocaust survivors in wrangling with the Swiss, went so far last year to charge in a widely read Los Angeles Times op-ed that it might be time to dub Switzerland a "rogue state."

Here’s how things got this far:

  • The Swiss tossed their reputation for tolerance out the window last November with a nationwide referendum to ban minarets. Analysts cited raw fear of an encroaching Islam, but that seemed a far-fetched rationale given that there are an estimated 400,000 Muslims in the country, but a grand total of four minarets.
  • Switzerland has found itself in a bizarre war of words with Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, who responded to the jailing of his son on assault charges in Geneva by expelling Swiss diplomats, calling for an anti-Swiss jihad, and even proposing to the U.N. General Assembly that the country be abolished.
  • Film director Roman Polanski showed up in Zurich last September to accept a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival, and the longtime French citizen was promptly arrested on a warrant dating back to 1978. Given how squeamish most are about the deeply disturbing Polanski case, dating to his 1970s admission of having sex with an underage girl, the untimely Swiss arrest did the seemingly impossible and generated some sympathy for an admitted sex criminal.
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose leadership style is built on unflashy pragmatism and a dislike of headline-grabbing, grabbed headlines in February as word surfaced that Germany was considering making a deal with known thieves to purchase a CD containing information about German tax evaders with Swiss bank accounts, a move that, as the German news weekly Der Spiegel noted, "risk[ed] a falling-out with Switzerland." Later came word that officials in the German state of Baden-Württemberg planned to buy a second CD.
  • The huge Swiss bank UBS was forced to make a deal with the United States to provide information on the banking history of thousands of wealthy U.S. citizens implicated in possible tax evasion, rather than risk U.S. legal action, a move that continued to erode the reputation of Swiss banks.
  • The controversial euthanasia organization Dignitas has taken advantage of Switzerland’s liberal assisted-suicide laws to make the country the world’s most popular destination for "suicide tourism." Widespread media coverage of the organization throughout the continent has not done wonders for Switzerland’s image.

Tempting as it might be to write off some of the controversy as mere sensation, the confluence of events serves to raise deeper questions not only about Switzerland but about how long it takes for ancient assumptions about countries to get an update. Switzerland established its neutrality at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and has not fought a war since, making it second behind Sweden as the longest-standing neutral country. But in Europe this is, to say the least, old news.

For having such a small country, the Swiss have unquestionably made an outsized contribution to world culture, notably through such admired writers as Max Frisch and Hermann Hesse (born in Germany, but the Swiss claim him). As Berlin correspondent for in the 1990s, I wrote multiple stories about a puckish group of Zurich-based Internet artists called etoy who took on a California toy company ( in a name-domain war, a decisive struggle of the early Internet age that at the time John Perry Barlow, of Electronic Frontier Foundation (and Grateful Dead) fame, referred to as "the battle of Bull Run."

But the etoy boomlet was an exception to a general sense of Swiss culture’s best days being behind it. As Frisch mused wearily in his 1954 novel Stiller (published in English as I’m Not Stiller), looking back on Switzerland’s halcyon days in the middle of the 19th century, "At that time they had a plan. At that time they wanted something that had never existed before, and they looked forward to tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. At that time Switzerland had a historic present. Do they have that today? Homesickness for the day before yesterday, which governs most people in this country today, is oppressive."

An oppressive longing for a yesterday that never existed — and the xenophobia that often goes with it — clearly lay behind the anti-minaret vote. Anti-immigration sentiment has been rising in Switzerland, as elsewhere in Europe, though the most openly resented immigrant group in Switzerland actually tends to be the Germans.

It’s clear the old definition of Swiss neutrality, dating to the country’s 19th-century origins, but gaining wide currency in the Cold War period, has become largely irrelevant in an era when globalism and economic interdependence now set the tone. Is it even possible to be "neutral" in any serious sense of the word in a globalized world?

"It’s always had this status, but I think it’s becoming pointless in this time of globalization when you have to cooperate on all levels," said Albrecht Metzger, an expert on the convergence of Europe and Islam who writes regularly for the weekly Die Zeit.

"You talk about fighting international crime. You have to cooperate. You talk about fighting drugs. You have to cooperate. It’s all interconnected. You have to ask yourself: Where is neutrality?"

Why not go further and lump Switzerland together with other countries dubbed "rogue states"? That was the argument Neuborne made. "Swiss bankers cannot manufacture bank secrecy on their own," Neuborne wrote. "They need active cooperation from the Swiss government designed to stymie legitimate efforts by other governments to obtain information needed to enforce their laws. Some rogue states export terrorism or drugs; Switzerland exports a virus — bank secrecy — that eats away at the fabric of law in the rest of the world."

Even Neuborne, seeking to make a point, was careful to avoid coming right out and labeling Switzerland a "rogue state" directly, and for good reason: Such a claim would not pass the laugh test. However, for too long the Swiss reputation for a pristine neutrality has clouded observers to the more complicated reality of a country that never was and never could be an island apart. Recent months of controversy may not have amounted to Switzerland’s being yanked into international courts for its banking practices, but it’s clear we’ve reached the point where no country gets a free pass on being above the rules and norms of a highly interconnected 21st-century world. The chocolate is still good, though.

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