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The Triumph of Liberalism: Zürich in the Golden Age, 1830–1869

by Gordon A. Craig
Scribner’s, 314 pp., $24.95

Dandies, aesthetes, and immoralists have never thought much of Switzerland. “They had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock,” says Harry Lime in Graham Greene’s film of The Third Man. Admirers of political power, like the German historian Heinrich von Treitschke, have had no high regard for the country either. Though its armies were once considered invincible, Switzerland hardly qualifies as one of Hegel’s “world-historical nations,” not even an emeritus one, like Greece or England. Because of that, few people outside Switzerland know much about it; the works of its native historians are rarely translated into English, and the scholarly literature on Switzerland in English is not abundant. There was a time, during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when playwrights and composers were inspired by William Tell and the Rütli oath (which around 1300 bound the original “forest cantons” of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden to assist each other in defense of their rights, privileges, and freedoms) to effusions of patriotism and love of liberty; but William Tell has long since joined the heroes and heroines of Scott in the opera repertory, only the Swiss remember what the Rütli oath was, and they themselves have adopted a less legendary, better documented account of the beginnings of their confederation in the late thirteenth century.

Yet, as scholars and statesmen in countries beset by linguistic, ethnic, and class divisions know well, and as Gordon Craig reminds us in his book, Switzerland is a remarkable and perhaps unique political achievement. Unlike most of the other European states, it was not a creation of dynastic designs but of resistance to such designs. French-speaking, German-speaking, Italian-speaking Swiss, those who still speak the ancient Romansch tongue, Protestants and Catholics, townsfolk and countryfolk live together in a single political community because they have chosen to do so, not because they were brought together by a conquering ruler.

There is no reason to reject the traditional Swiss view that Switzerland is the result of a voluntary association of small, heterogeneous communities that banded together for self-protection against aggressive, land-collecting princes, notably the Habsburgs. In the struggle against the Habsburgs, the Swiss developed their martial skills, and for about a century and a half the armies of the confederation were a formidable military force in the heart of Europe. When the cantons took to using their armed might against each other, however, the tide turned against them, and after a disastrous defeat by the French at Marignano in 1515, Switzerland effectively withdrew from European politics into permanent neutrality. It rented out soldiers to fight for others but stayed out of trouble itself. Surrounded by powerful neighbors, its citizens learned the art of keeping their choices open and seizing opportunities. Swiss history, after Marignano, is a prosaic history, dominated by the towns, which even in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries usually sought to restrain their more violent allies, a history of cautious enterprise, negotiations, and deals, with occasional bursts of idealism and passion (at the time of the Reformation, for instance) and a gritty determination to defend as far as possible the cantons’ right to grant asylum, a right entailed by their commitment to neutrality.

For several centuries, until a new constitution in 1848 converted Switzerland into a more modern country, one better able to hold its own in a world of powerful and aggressive nation-states, the Helvetic confederation was scarcely more than a loose defensive alliance of largely independent rural republics and city-states. Even today, after the 1848 constitution and the revised constitution of 1871, Switzerland still guarantees considerable autonomy to its separate cantons. Though Bern has been the federal capital since 1848, the quiet, pleasant old town on the Aar can hardly be said to dominate the nation in the way other European capitals do. For centuries there was no permanent seat of government, and the general assembly of the cantons met in various cities on a rotating basis. In the heyday of Versailles and Potsdam and Vienna, Switzerland was a country without a capital, a court, a national language, or allegiance to a sovereign. In only a few cantons did the old feudal aristocracy retain any influence. Most were ruled by the guildsmen in the towns or by landowning peasants.

Because of its unusual history, Switzerland has long had a distinctive ideology (even if that ideology did not at all times correspond to reality) of civic and republican virtue, and of citizenship as something created by political will, reason, and consent, rather than something organically inherited, the product of blood, soil, and language. In addition, while in almost all the major European countries the well-to-do and educated middle classes, from which writers, artists, architects, and musicians were chiefly recruited, were powerfully influenced by courts and the values and tastes they foster, Swiss culture is almost entirely a product of the middle classes of the towns, artisans as well as merchants, and of a rural population of free peasants and, to a lesser extent, an independent-minded gentry.

Such a country was fertile ground, for the Reformation and then for the Enlightenment. In the commercial Swiss cities particularly—Basel, Zurich, St. Gallen—the ideas of the philosophes made rapid progress, for these cities were dominated by rich merchants and manufacturers whose strong local interests were counterbalanced by far-flung international business connections. Provincial in their manners and their way of thinking, these merchants were also men of the world, educated, widely traveled, fluent in several languages. The ideals of the Enlightenment—free exchange of goods and ideas, personal freedom, the rational conduct of all human affairs, human well-being and happiness—made sense to them, whereas the epic age of medieval Swiss history meant little, even if they retained a certain pious regard for it, in the way that the Scots of the age of Adam Smith and David Hume preserved the memory of a turbulent past of clans and Covenanters. On the eve of the civil war that set the predominantly rural and Catholic conservative cantons against the predominantly urban and Protestant ones—the so-called Sonderbundkrieg of 1847—the merchant class was not unhappy that the heroic medieval Swiss had long since settled down and, in Engels’s words, “busied themselves in all piety and propriety with milking cows, cheese-making, chastity, and yodeling.”

A combination of historical and geographical factors thus favored the development in Switzerland—especially in the guild-dominated and increasingly well-to-do and influential merchant cities and cantons—of a particular kind of political culture unlike any other in Europe. Since the sixteenth century the most advanced cantons had been committed to what we would nowadays describe as basically bourgeois values: peace, commerce, education, improvement, respect for law, and compromise in all matters of serious dispute. There is no premium in Switzerland on crisis and confrontation. (Even the 1847 Sonderbundkrieg, the worst crisis of the confederation, lasted barely a month, the casualties numbering fewer than a hundred dead and five hundred wounded, according to Gordon Craig.)

This is a culture that for centuries has aimed, with a fair degree of success, to reconcile piety and profit, individual freedom and respect for law, particular interests and the well-being of the whole. It took the French Revolution to jolt Switzerland into a consciousness of national unity; but the country’s ideology of republican virtue and freedom dates from the ancien régime and is not essentially revolutionary. The challenge in Switzerland has not been to embrace republicanism, but to acknowledge what the Greek city-states did not acknowledge, namely that the republic itself can be an oppressor by excluding certain groups, which it exploits, from full membership. The task for Swiss liberal politics has been to mitigate and ultimately eliminate the injustices suffered by those who are technically defined as outsiders: resident foreigners, who by the eighteenth century had become a significant minority and in a few cases a majority of the population of the larger cities, while enjoying almost none of the rights of citizenship, unless they disposed of the very large sums of money needed to buy into citizenship; or so-called dependent populations in the country districts, who were recruited to work for city merchants, but denied equal rights.

Moreover, the patchwork of religious, linguistic, and ethnic entities that make up Switzerland was only gradually stitched together, and it is clear from Gordon Craig’s long opening chapter on the history of Zurich up to the first liberal regime of 1830 that relations among the cantons were not always harmonious. The original bund or confederation of three (or possibly four) cantons expanded over several centuries. Zurich, for instance, joined in 1351; Basel—out of expediency and with misgivings—only in 1501; Geneva did not become a fully fledged member, rather than an associated state, until the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The “Prussia of Switzerland,” Bern was long regarded with fear by the other cantons. In the troubled times of the fifteenth century, Craig relates, Zurich attempted to increase its power and territory within the confederation, and only French intervention saved it from the destructive vengeance of the other cantons. Between 1830 and 1833, when all the other advanced Protestant cantons were electing liberal governments, Basel became embroiled in a protracted civil war with its dependent rural population, which ended with the confederation’s intervening to impose a division of the canton into two half cantons. The resulting disaffection among many of the leading Basel families made the largest German-speaking city in Switzerland a reluctant partner in the movement, led by Zurich, toward centralization and a unified national state. Though it has had moments of crisis, in sum, Swiss history (and Swiss historiography in contrast with that of France, for instance) has been, in the main, undramatic, a history of difficult compromises, accepted for the sake of long-term interest, rather than of radical confrontations.

Even though it lost out to Bern as permanent federal capital in 1848, Zurich is probably, among all the major cantons and cities, the one that best represents modern Switzerland. Bern was never a commercial or industrial center; even under the enlightened administration praised by Gibbon and others, until the liberals seized power there in 1831, it was military and aristocratic. Bern also has a tradition of state control and management which is foreign to the more entrepreneurial and commercial societies of Zurich, Basel, Geneva, or St. Gallen. Of the other major centers, Basel and Geneva, which until the middle of the last century were richer and more populous than Zurich, are eccentric not only geographically but culturally. The links of Basel to Germany and France, and Geneva to France and Piedmont were as important to them as their ties to the rest of the confederation. It is not an accident that both were late in joining the confederation and remain keenly conscious of their difference from the rest of its members.

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