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 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.

Zurich, in contrast, was closer to the center of the new national state, which, as Craig shows, its liberal statesmen promoted with enthusiasm. Likewise, Craig demonstrates, the Zurich capitalists had the vision to develop a railway system for Switzerland of which Zurich became the hub. They also used the wealth generated by the city’s industrial development, which was partly financed by Basel capital, to establish modern methods of finance that allowed Zurich to overtake Basel and Geneva as the leading financial center of the new Federal Switzerland. While the established moneyed class of Basel and Geneva was slow to develop banks with publicly traded shares, the Zurich financiers quickly realized that these were more appropriate than private banks to the vastly expanded needs of industry and government in the new conditions of the mid-nineteenth century. Above all, Basel’s influence on the National Council and on federal affairs in general had been drastically reduced by the division of the canton in 1833. While some Baselers made important contributions to the administration of the new Switzerland, part of the Basel elite clung to a traditional conception of the city-republic—Senatus Populusque Basiliensis or SPQB, as the city government has continued to announce on public buildings—that had less and less contemporary relevance or reality.

Even though much was similar in the culture of the chief commercial cities of Switzerland—the combination of capitalist enterprise and community concern, of profit and piety, of Geld und Geist, as Craig put it in the title of the original German edition of his book (1988), set limits to “Manchesterism” in most parts of Switzerland—it was therefore Zurich that achieved the greatest successes of modern liberal politics and economics in Switzerland during the nineteenth century and that deservedly occupied the position of leadership in the new Switzerland created by the federal constitution of 1848.

If, as he implies, Gordon Craig’s aim is to examine the merits and defects of a political culture in which the liberal revolution that failed so miserably in Germany achieved brilliant and universally acknowledged success, his choice of Zurich could not be more appropriate. Compared to Paris or Vienna, Zurich is an unlikely, unglamorous, and bourgeois historical subject, but it is precisely this, one suspects, that attracted Craig. And he does not try to make Zurich something that it was not. He simply wants us to understand what it was and what it achieved.

Craig has come to Zurich late in a career mostly devoted to Prussian, German, and general European history. In his now classic Europe Since 1815 (1961) and Germany, 1866–1945 (1978) he follows a well-established tradition by reserving special sections for such subjects as education, religion, literature, music, and painting within a general narrative of political and international history. Like most historians in the classical tradition, he tells stories that make his readers reflect on important issues of ethics and politics—not abstractly in the manner of philosophers, but in relation to specific and complex historical situations. His more recent works, however—The Germans (1982) and The End of Prussia (1984)—might seem to mark a shift away from the narrative tradition of political history toward the kind of cultural history pioneered by Jacob Burckhardt, and The Triumph of Liberalism could be viewed as a further step in that direction.

The Burckhardtian impression is reinforced by the absence of the usual scholarly apparatus of footnotes from both The Germans and The Triumph of Liberalism, indicating the author’s desire to write for what in Burckhardt’s day was called “ein gemischtes Publikum“—that is to say, a lay public of educated men and women*—and by the tendency to organize the story of liberal Zurich around a number of preeminent Zurich residents, a tendency highlighted by the portrait illustrations in the English edition.

Thus the account of Zurich’s rise to economic preeminence in the seventeenth century centers on the career of its leading banker and developer, Alfred Escher, a man of great energy and vision; the creation of a strong university life at Zurich turns chiefly on the historians Theodore Mommsen and Francesco De Sanctis; other chapters concentrate on Wagner in his Zurich period, on the architect Gottfried Semper, and on the literary salon of Emma Herwegh, the wife of the inept revolutionary soldier and poet familiar to readers of E.H. Carr’s Romantic Exiles. In Zurich’s golden age, as during Burckhardt’s Renaissance, it seems, civic unity was not incompatible with the prominence of engaging personalities.

Craig first outlines the history of Zurich and its role in the Swiss confederation in the centuries preceding the period that largely occupies him, while at the same time setting the stage for what is to follow by picking out certain dominant traits of that history—distrust of charismatic politics, sobriety and lack of show, the cautious, conservative rule of the guilds. He explains the immediate circumstances of liberal politics in Zurich and of the liberal government of the mid-century—the popularity of Enlightenment ideas in Zurich; the enthusiasm for reform generated by the French Revolution; the impetus toward a unified Swiss state sparked by the short-lived Helvetic Republic at the turn of the eighteenth century; the nationalist sentiment that was exacerbated by Switzerland’s status as a French satellite between 1803 and 1814; the widespread conviction that significant changes were needed if the city was to adapt to “the age and its demands” (a phrase also much used by the generally more conservative politicians of Basel) and the feeling among Zurich’s liberal-minded business leaders, clergymen, and educators that the weak Zurich cantonal government of the period of the restoration following the Congress of Vienna was not making such changes.

In 1830, the liberals won their first electoral victory, the result of an uneasy alliance of city reformers with the far more radical and disaffected country parties. That alliance cost the liberals the support of the more moderate elements in Zurich, according to Craig, and ultimately led to the collapse of the first liberal government. Without the restraining influence of the moderates, the ruling party moved too fast, overreached itself, and finally provoked an armed popular uprising over the appointment of David Strauss, the celebrated liberal German theologian, to a chair at the newly founded university. “Much of the gathering resentment,” Craig writes in a characteristic summary,

was understandable: It was not, after all, surprising that the church disliked its diminished role in education, that parents and manufacturers alike objected to restrictions on child labor, that military officers were indignant over the abolition of garrison duty for Zürich’s army and the liberals’ apparent intention to reduce it to a small civilian militia,…that users of forests were furious over laws restricting cutting [wood] in the interest of future generations.

During their years out of power, between 1839 and 1846, however, the Zurich liberals learned the value of careful planning, so that when they were returned to power in 1846 on a platform calling for national unification, they were better prepared to carry public opinion with them. For the next two decades they had broad support and were able to carry out most of their policies.

Aside from chapters devoted to politics, economic activity, and education (fairly traditional topics that might well have been covered in a straightforward narrative), Craig’s treatment of the life of Zurich in the golden age between 1830 and 1869 seems to have been devised less systematically than Burckhardt’s in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. Taken together, however, the different chapters are intended to produce a composite picture of liberal Zurich in its heyday. Thus one chapter evokes the cultural life in which an ordinary middle-class Zuricher might have taken part in the mid-nineteenth century: the choral groups, the learned societies, the plays and operas, above all the public lectures, which, here as in Basel, were a major civic activity and the chief point of contact between the city’s scholars and professors, whether local or, like Mommsen and De Sanctis, imported, and the public that supported the institutions where they taught and carried on their research. From this account Zurich emerges as a city where “culture,” even if it seems to have been more edifying than joyful, was not the preserve of a special category of people, such as courtiers or academics or wealthy patrons or avant-garde bohemians, but rather the affair of a broad section of the citizenry.

Another chapter concentrates on two of the most celebrated foreign-born residents of the city: Wagner and the architect Gottfried Semper, who came to Zurich after designing his famous opera house in Dresden and was responsible for some of Zurich’s grandest buildings, notably the Neo-Renaissance palace conceived for the Federal Polytechnic. This gives Craig an opportunity to discuss the relation between music and architecture on the one hand and the local society that sustained them on the other. In both cases he discovers in the work of the artists a growing emphasis on ornament and effect rather than structure, a tendency to escapism, which he reads as possibly marking the “inability of the upper classes of society to assimilate the social realities of the time or to recognize the existence, let alone the misery, of the fourth estate.” In Wagner’s last operas, he writes, “the music, like the furnishings of the bourgeois home, was overrich and overpowering.”

In some respects, then, the increasingly self-regarding work of Wagner and Semper is seen as having anticipated the failure of liberalism in 1869. Though Semper remained committed to bourgeois democracy, Craig observes, he never seriously thought about the social and economic foundations of change, and his understanding of both art and society remained essentially idealist.

Just before the final chapter, which recounts the collapse of the liberal regime under the weight of social changes, particularly popular demands for direct democracy, to which it had no adequate response, Craig writes eloquently about the civic conscience of the greatest of Zurich’s homebred artists, the novelist Gottfried Keller. It is obvious that Craig deeply admires Keller’s dogged insistence on combining artistic creativity with unflinching commitment to political democracy and selfless dedication to the service of his fellow citizens. Had he cared to, Keller might have led a brilliant life in one of the larger German cities, but he chose to stay in Zurich, where he acted as secretary of the governing council, just as Burckhardt, with whom Craig compares him, chose not to pursue an informal offer to succeed Ranke in the prestigious chair of history at the University of Berlin, in order to devote himself to the one institution in the world about the value of which he said he had no doubt: the tiny, meagerly endowed university of his native city of Basel.

Of the two, it is Keller that Craig sympathizes with most. Burckhardt’s sense of social responsibility he judges, not without reason, to be “fastidious, intellectual, and limited in its reach to the educated middle class rather than to the whole community.” Keller’s, in contrast, is generous and popular. Above all, perhaps, it is the successful—though always somewhat uneasy—combination in Keller of the artist and the active citizen that fascinates Craig, no doubt because it is in such striking contrast to the destructive, antipolitical, and antidemocratic positions often taken by artists in the country where liberalism failed to strike deep roots—the Germany whose troubled history has occupied Craig throughout most of his career. Zurich, it seems, represents for Craig the possibility of successful reconciliation not only of Geld und Geist but of art or culture and civic conscience, and Keller achieved that reconciliation in greater measure than the exiled scholars and musicians who found a home in liberal Zurich, in greater measure even than Semper, who of all the immigrants was the most attached to Zurich, and for whom Craig has, after Keller, the most sympathy.

Craig’s turn toward Burckhardt’s kind of history, then, does not mean he is less concerned about ethical and political questions. If Craig’s account of Zurich in its liberal heyday is partly an indirect and somewhat elegiac reflection on our own already sadly eroded civic tradition, Burckhardt’s study of the Italian Renaissance was itself partly a reflection on the humanist ideal to which the historian believed his own city of Basel had come close, but from which he believed it was falling away rapidly in his own time. “The Florentine merchant and statesman,” Burckhardt writes in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy,

was often learned in both the classical languages; the most famous humanists read the ethics and politics of Aristotle to him and his sons; even the daughters of the house were highly educated…. The humanist, on his side, was compelled to the most varied attainments, since his philological learning was not limited, as it now is, to the theoretical knowledge of classical antiquity, but had to serve the practical needs of daily life.

A passage such as that has to be set beside a remarkable letter to his friend Friedrich von Preen of July 3, 1870, in which Burckhardt notes with sadness the strenuous demands modern business makes on those who practice it. The merchants of Basel, he declares, used to pride themselves on their learning, but now they claim they have no time and in truth they probably have no inclination to read. Burckhardt, it would appear, discovered in the Italian Renaissance something not unlike the ideal bourgeois culture, the marriage of Geld und Geist, that Craig discovers and invites us to discover in nineteenth-century Zurich. The ideal of The Civilization of the Renaissance may reflect a more “fastidious,” less democratic temperament than Craig’s Triumph of Liberalism, but the concern of both historians is with a civic culture in which the general and the particular, practical activity and the life of the mind, private profit and public weal, art and civic responsibility are not at odds with but complement each other—and both historians describe the failure and collapse of a culture in which their ideal seemed, for a brief moment, to be embodied.

On the whole, The Triumph of Liberalism arrives at a favorable balance sheet for nineteenth-century Zurich. Craig convinces us that the liberal leaders of the city developed industry, commerce, education, political freedom, civic spirit, entrepreneurial energy, and public welfare to enviable heights, immeasurably enriching the material and mental well-being of the citizens and setting an example not only for the rest of Switzerland, but also, as Matthew Arnold’s enthusiastic review of the education system of the canton testifies, for the whole of Europe. Under its aegis, Zurich founded a great modern university, became home to the Federal Polytechnic, one of the leading scientific centers of the modern world, and opened its gates to liberal and progressive minds from all parts of Switzerland and Europe. At the beginning of the century, Zurich was a small and rather insignificant place. Even in Switzerland, it was overshadowed by Basel and Geneva. By the end of the century, it had become a major European city, a center for advanced industries like the manufacture of machine tools, a financial market, and the setting of an active cultural life.

In time, of course, it became clear that classical liberalism could not in fact reconcile, as it purported to do, private profit and public spirit, the rule of “reason” (the “educated” and “enlightened” representatives of the people) and democratic government according to the will of the people. By the mid-1850s, conservative Baselers were already comparing Switzerland under Zurich’s liberal plutocrats with France under Napoleon III. In both countries, it was said, materialism had allied itself with popular democracy to destroy true republican virtues. By the late 1860s Craig finds this malicious comparison being taken up by journalists in Zurich itself. In the end, he appears to share the view of many contemporaries that something was lost, “perhaps irretrievably so,” in the “ostentation that accompanied the booming economic growth of the eighties and nineties.” Still, Craig does not believe that it was entirely an illusion to call Zurich “Athens on the Limmat” (the Limmat is the small river that runs through Zurich and empties into the lake). The lesson one carries away from this book is that the liberal experiment in Zurich was supported by a genuine practical and worldly ethics and that the contradictions liberalism harbored, the compromises it resorted to, do not disqualify it or make it unworthy of our respect. In particular Craig appears to find in Gottfried Keller’s vigorous civic conscience a model of self-critical liberalism, of liberalism relieved of its smugness and self-serving optimism, which can continue to have validity for us today.

Craig conceals neither the failures of the liberal regime in Zurich nor the limitations of the Swiss ideal of civilization as it has been variously articulated over the centuries. Though it is never narrowly unintellectual like the culture of the small local communities of Germany (Mack Walker’s German “home towns”), the Swiss ideal of civilization does, Craig acknowledges, subordinate individual achievement to community harmony, art to morality, and it does involve a real restrictiveness, a tendency toward “disciplined mediocrity” in George Steiner’s words, to which the response may sometimes be resigned submission, sometimes exile, sometimes provocative rejection (Steiner speaks of “the perfect appositeness of Dada to its Zurich setting”). But having pointed out the drawbacks, Craig reserves judgment. Toward the close of his book he quotes from an entry in the diary of Max Frisch (whose Andorra, incidentally, is as biting an exposure as one could wish for of the potential pharisaism and moral mediocrity that seem inseparable from the very virtues of Swiss culture):

By culture we [i.e., the Swiss] understand in the first instance civil achievements, the community attitude more than the artistic or scientific masterpiece of a single citizen. Moreover, if it is a rather dry air that surrounds the Swiss artist in his homeland, this evil, no matter how nearly it affects us personally, is merely the disagreeable reverse side of an attitude which, though scorned by most Germans as philistine, on the whole has our complete agreement—precisely because the opposite attitude, the aesthetic idea of culture, has led, and must lead, to a deadly catastrophe.

In view of the alternative familiar to him from his lifelong preoccupation with the recent history of Germany, Craig concludes that the Swiss way has much to recommend it, and in particular that “Athens on the Limmat” deserves to be compared not to a figure of comedy, as its detractors on the left and on the right have wanted, but rather to the hero of a nineteenth-century novel (a novel by Gottfried Keller, for instance)—hardworking, ambitious, basically decent, by no means devoid of the finer feelings, trying to get on without abandoning all principle, and succeeding only partially.

This Issue

October 26, 1989