The special case of Switzerland. A narrative which constituted Swiss national identity, and its present use
Eberle, Thomas S.
Institute of Sociology University of St. Gallen St. Gallen, Switzerland
The national histories of European states have much in common: myths of origin and foundation, a panorama of glorious heroes, a hereditary enemy, and a division of history in dark and light times, in times of prosperity, decadence, crisis and rebirth. Many of these national myths, symbols, narratives, rituals and traditions were shaped in the 19th century, and constituted a national identity which successfully resisted supranational categories, like religion, class or gender. Although these national myths and narratives have been deconstructed by modern historical research and proven as incompatible with historical facts, they are still alive in popular culture and in the heads and emotions of many people, and they are time and again politically exploited by national-conservative elites.
My paper focuses on the narrative that Switzerland is a special case (Sonderfall). In the second half of the 19th century, this meant a liberal conception of a republican, federalistically organized state with direct democracy; a militia system in politics and army; the permananent neutrality as a state maxim; the principle of collegiality and the idea of a ?nation of will? which unites regions with different languages and cultures. In the context of the constitution of nation-states in Germany and Italy, which were organized along language boundaries and ethnic criteria and which took the form of centralistic monarchies, Switzerland was indeed a special case. The narrative was used to integrate the country internally and unify it against exterior threats, like World War I, then fascism and WWII, and later communism. Nowadays, it is invoked by a rightist political parties as a demarcation against the European Union. Political counterparts, supported by many social scientists, contend that Switzerland is no special case anymore if compared to other European countries. A third strand in the debate attempts to endow the traditional narrative with a new meaning, which takes into account the political changes in Europe during the past decades as well as the recent transformations of life-styles which make other collective identities more relevant. The analysis of this debate shows how national identity in present-day Switzerland is constructed and which major issues are involved.