SWISS Letter

Dear Christoph,

I'm sitting here in the cafeteria of my university and thinking of the relations between the Swiss and the Germans in this city. I find it very difficult to describe the situation and not fall into clichés. Some would say that thinking so hard about this is already typically Swiss. I just don't want to stand on anybody's toes. I particularly hate to generalise and pigeonhole different people based on one attitude.

Even here at the University of Zurich, a very international campus, I am actually quite surrounded by Germans. At the institute of political science, for example, a lot of the staff come from Germany. About 40% of all professors at the university and some 4% of the students are Germans. Switzerland is their favourite destination; last year the number of Germans immigrating to Switzerland increased by about 16%. In the city of Zurich, they're by far the biggest group of foreigners; already 11% of the whole population of the town are Germans. There is no clear job classification within this group of immigrants as there was in the 60's, when most of the builders on construction sites were Italian and German. Nowadays immigrants come in two groups; the bigger one with mostly an academic background is working in the medical business, at universities and in all kind of companies. The smaller group is mostly working in the service industry, like hotels or restaurants.

But do the Swiss people actually like the Germans? Let's say that it's a bit complicated. There are many Germans who are actually quite surprised to find that the Swiss are not Germans with a strange accent. Recent surveys in Germany, which also have been published in the Swiss media, showed that about 40% believed that Switzerland was a federal state of Germany. Over 70% thought that only marginal differences existed between the two countries. German immigrants, including friends of mine, had to find out that not only a linguistic difference existed. And here's the crux of the matter. Even though Switzerland and Germany may share a linguistic and partially historical background, the two countries developed differently in cultural terms. That's what a lot of Germans don't know when they come to work and live in Switzerland. The main reason for this is probably that there's a fundamental different understanding of the state's role in society.


Andrea has recently finished her studies in political science and social anthropology at the University of Zurich. She won first price in the Swiss history competition 2005 and participated in the 5th EUSTORY Youth academy in Venice. She currently works for the Swiss history competition. Her wish is that European cultural diversity be accepted and cultural difficulties become a thing of the past.

Switzerland is, apart from the USA, the only nation that in some way invented itself, where people of several different ethnicities made up their own constitution from the bottom. With the time pressure of Napoleon, the quarrelling citizens created a basic democratic federation, the division of power and democratic participation as central maxims. Otherwise Switzerland would today be a part of France. As a result, the cultural codes are not the same as in other countries. Examples for those different codes are countless, and have mostly to do with behaviour. There are different customs of how to work in offices, how to cooperate in a team, and how to order something in a restaurant.

Recently, the parting director of the Zurich theatre Matthias Hartmann denounced Switzerland in an interview as being hypocritical. He quoted Baccaleaureus from Faust II: "One lies, in German, would one courteous be" (or in modern English: "When people want to be polite in German, they lie"). Hartmann accused Swiss people of always treating him as "the German" and therefore being unfair - according to him, they never appreciated him as they should have. Though what he forgets to add is that he received an enormous salary and an extravagant villa on the lake of Zurich. His statements show that he broke nearly all the cultural codes of teamwork in Switzerland. And furthermore that he has no idea about the job and country he chose: he generalises the Swiss population as a whole, even though he only has been in contact with a certain group.

As a result of some those misunderstandings and the rudeness of people like Hartmann, the German community is confronted with general accusations of taking everything over. Then the tabloid-press jumps on the bandwagon and publishes surveys about the feelings against Germans. Most reactions covered stereotype the 80 million strong population as arrogant. So the ignorance of some new citizens leads to quite powerful allegations at least in the media.

Is there something similar to be found in Germany? Maybe because of our outsider position, as we are not in the EU, or the recent discussions about taxes and bank secrecy, the accusation of a maverick could come up. For a better understanding of these facts, it's worth noting that Switzerland is not in the EU because 51% of the population voted against it; the other 49% have to accept the democratic verdict. One of the main reasons was the fear of being overruled by a supranational institution, the fear of losing grassroots democracy. 90% of the Swiss are not bankers, but none really want their lives to be dictated by a minister from a different country. Furthermore, I live in a very urban and multicultural area, and for me Switzerland represents diversity. The political system gives rights to every citizen and empowers minority groups. The most important cultural code in Switzerland, then, is that the bigger groups have to respect and regard minorities. This approach goes through all institutions and also into the private life. Immigrants from the biggest nation in Europe could take this into account and then the cute little Swiss would begin to love them.

I hope I've managed to avoid just pouring out stereotypes; I've tried to give you an image of the experiences I have made with some Germans here in Switzerland. I'm looking forward - with some trepidation - to hearing from you, to hearing from you.

Lots of love,


German Answer

Dear Andrea,

Thank you for your letter and for being frank and honest about the current "neighbour"-situation in Switzerland. As I, as a German, have not lived in Switzerland myself, it is impossible for me to speak for the German minority there. So please don't take it amiss if I can neither vindicate their behaviour nor join you in criticising it.

According to the EDA, the Swiss ministry of foreign affairs, about 75 000 Swiss citizens live in Germany. Even though the unemployment rate in Germany is far higher than in Switzerland, personally I have not heard of Germans being afraid of Swiss people taking away jobs or the like. Thus, to answer your question, I do not see allegations towards the Swiss in Germany comparable to those you described.

What is the common image of Switzerland in Germany? Well, it's a bit difficult to explain. Generally, German people really like Switzerland and the Swiss. However, a strong European identity has developed and established itself in Germany, in particular throughout the young generation in the cities such as Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne. In a Eurobarometer survey in 2006, 67% of 15-24 year-old Germans (compared to the EU average of 57%) expressed a strong sense of belonging to the European Union. Correspondingly, a lot of young Germans are confused by the Swiss position on the EU and its insistence on a special status, while being right in the middle of Europe. I can only speak from my Berlin-based point of view, but this is an aspect which is always quite present when I speak to other young people about Switzerland in Germany.


Christoph Janosch received his B.A. degree in German Literature, Music and Media from Humboldt-University Berlin, and Universidad de Salamanca, Spain. He is going to be a Master's Student at the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University. As a winner of the German History Competition in 2004/05 he participated in numerous EUSTORY activities, among others an academy in Ukraine and the European Cultural Parliament in Romania.

Why do German people have this European feeling, you may ask. I am not a political scientist, but personally I would explain it through history. Germany, as it exists today, is a fairly new state. The peaceful revolution in 1989 and the re-unification in 1990 formed the image of our country. It's important to realise that there were probably only very few countries in the world where the Cold War was as visible as it was in Germany. Families divided by two political systems, a whole capital split by a wall - this has obviously had a deep impact on German society. Born in 1985, I was only five years old when Germany was reunified; nevertheless, I feel that this historical event has had a strong impact on me and my generation. Suddenly, there was a unified Europe from West to East and our people had created this momentum. In my opinion, this European identity - even though it is without a question an ambiguous one - provides a strong sense of belonging and a feeling of security to the German people, in particular to the young generation.

Allow me to express my doubts about the number of 40% of Germans believing that Switzerland was a German federal state. As I said: from my point of view, the first thing Germans associate with Switzerland is usually its non-EU position. Therefore I am quite sure that many more than only 60% of Germans are aware that Switzerland is not part of Germany. Inspired by your letter, I started a - obviously non-representative - survey within my circle of friends, asking "How many of you think that Switzerland is a German federal state". Result: 0%.

Let's talk about the aspects of Switzerland which German people love: there is, of course, the beautiful landscapes, the Alps and the ski resorts which German people enjoy travelling to. There's the image of great cities such as Zurich, Geneva or Basel. And, having studied literature, my first thoughts included authors such as Max Frisch, Friedrich Dürrenmatt or Martin Suter, who had and have a tremendous impact on German-language literature. By the way: at the same time, they all - to a greater or lesser extent - intentionally preserved their individual Swiss identity, a fact of which critics and student of German-language literature are well aware.

You say Switzerland is the Germans' favourite country to emigrate to, and even though I personally do not have any concrete plans to do so, I hope that it will remain so for many years and that the recent issues will be resolved soon. As you say, I think that the conflict you are describing and of which you are giving examples is mostly based on misunderstandings on both sides. Stereotypes like "the arrogant German" are dangerous and lead to those misunderstandings; therefore, one should try to distance oneself from them. No one should be judged by his or her nationality or origin - accepting differences and eventually profiting from them is the base of every efficient and harmonic society. Paul McCartney apparently once managed to formulate this idea in a beautifully ironic way:

"I used to think anyone doing anything weird was weird. Now I know that it is the people that call others weird that are weird."

All the best from Berlin and looking forward to seeing you soon!

<table class="profileBox_right">\ <tbody>\ <tr>\ <td>\ <p><strong>This initiative is supported by:</strong></p>\ <p><a href="http://www.eustory.eu"><img class="smallimageright" style="border: 0px none; float: right;" src="UserFiles/File/ABOUT_US/PARTNERS/eustory.gif" width="120" height="68" /></a><span style="line-height: 20px; -webkit-border-horizontal-spacing: 0px; -webkit-border-vertical-spacing: 0px; font-size: 12px;"> </span></p>\ </td>\ </tr>\ </tbody>\ </table>Christoph Janosch

Photo on first page: Robert Kaczynski / www.youthphotos.eu

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