Success Story

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

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

Gordon A. Craig
Gordon A. Craig; drawing by David Levine

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…

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