Jun 21, 2019 in Exploratory

The uniqueness of Switzerland has many faces. One of them is the fact the country has emerged at the intersection of three great European cultures: German, French, and Italian. Hereby, each cultural border within the confederation is also a language border that separates country into different cantons where dissimilar groups of people live. Thus, the Swiss identity has always been a problem of the country, but despite it the population groups live in peace, prosperity, and constant inner mobility so that the Swiss identity has been forming out of traditional understanding and may be argued to be still in the process of its formation.

Formation of Swiss Identity

The problematic question of Swiss identity takes its routs from the puzzled formation of Switzerland as a nation-state in the 19th century. Until the very end of the 18th century, Switzerland was a loose confederation of lands called cantons, where no capital and no common government existed for almost 550 years. Under the danger of being occupied and suffering from centralized French rule in the period of 1798-1813, the unified state emerged (Cederman, 2001, p. 60). 

The main purpose for unification was a guarantee of security for its culturally diversified members. The newly emerged confederation comprised Protestant and Catholic cantons with populaces speaking German, French, Italian, and the less widespread Romansch. Economic integration and debatable issues of foreign policy were the main concerns that took a discussion annually with the help of the Federal Diet of Switzerland. Even though this decision-making gathering was a loose attempt to create a common sense of belonging, it still was the first step on the national identity formation path.  

According to Cederman (2001), few strong elements of this process may be observed. Firstly, in order to restrict strong foreign involvement in its internal affairs, the Swiss government forced cantons to use a more preventive asylum policy, being convinced that immigrants were tied to subversive activities threatening the state security. Secondly, the freedom of canton press was also restricted to prevent political subversion. Additionally, the elite used a myth of the 1291 confederal pact among the three Alpine districts to defend the lands in a long struggle for independence. The limits of canton’s local powers, tracking the migrants flow, and strong national myth stimulated national consciousness to rise (Cederman, 2001, p.60-61). Furthermore, the Swiss territories did not face large-scale external threats, but the image of a common enemy to the Swiss inhabitants became a winning strategy to raise the national Swiss identity. 

Eventually, the modern Swiss Confederation was founded in 1848 by a new liberal constitution, which stayed unchanged to the present day. After a short civil war between the Catholic and Protestant cantons, the constitution was introduced as a compromise so to resolve the ongoing disagreement between cantons that had a paralyzing influence on the country. Right then, Switzerland finally received its first central government, a capital, and became truly a unified economic region (Muller, 1994). Nevertheless, the main principal of the formal unification was a principal of federalism, which in turn made it difficult to complete centralization and merger. Being under a fear of internal instability and realizing the strength of the expansionist-minded neighboring states, the Swiss elite were strongly convinced that the pursuit of neutrality in foreign affairs would be a resolution. That in fact was true as the tensions of the two World Wars torn country into different camp supporters: French and German. Therefore, an internationally recognized and internally strict Swiss neutrality served as a major factor of its economic and national strength. In the situation of a common culture, Swiss democratic institutional cornerstones created unifying predispositions to successful emergence of a national identity. 

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Sources of Swiss National Identity

According to Smith (2005), national identity is “fundamentally multi-dimensional”, “it can never be reduced to a single element”, and it includes such fundamental features as “an historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a common mass public culture, common legal rights and duties, and a common economy with territorial mobility for members” (p.14). Swiss national identity appeared at the behest of the institutional political will rather than natural evolution of the nation. Thus, culturally different cantons sharing the name of Swiss still are more connected to their small “homelands”, local cultures, and languages. Muller (1994) was convinced that “for most Swiss, it is more important to be a citizen of a particular canton, than it is to be Swiss.” The problem of national identity exists, but it does not prevent the country from being prosperous and enjoying its way of life. Furthermore, the Confederation intensively cares about its residents, providing them with equality and common wealth, making it the main source of Swiss strength as a nation. Nevertheless, it means to give cantons a right to preserve their own individual identities.

Not without a reason, Switzerland is known as a European “anomaly”, remaining a strong wealth state while being so much culturally diversified. As it has been previously stated, the main source of Swiss identity is its well-designed central political institution based on the constitutional patriotism that in turn secures a truly federal state. Muller (1994) gives the best understanding of where the Swiss identity comes from:

The Swiss elites during the period of the formation of nation states throughout Europe did not attempt to impose a national language or a nationalism based on ethnicity, instead pushing for the creation of a civic nation grounded in democratic ideology, common political institutions, and shared political ritual. Political allegiance and patriotism was directed towards the cantons, not the federal level, where a spirit of rivalry and competition rather than unity prevailed. 

Explaining Swiss identity, Andreas Wimmer (2011) gives Max Weber’s citation:

The Swiss are not a nation if we take as criteria common language or common literature and art. Yet they have a strong sense of community… This sense of identity is not only sustained by loyalty toward the body politic but also by what are perceived to be common customs (irrespective of actual differences)… The pride of the Swiss in their own distinctiveness, and their willingness to defend it vigorously, is neither qualitatively different nor less widespread than the same attitudes in any “great” and powerful “nation”. (p. 720)

In comparison with Italian, French, or German nationalisms, Swiss nationalism is “nothing” from the perspective of culture or language, but it is a well-organized civic nationalism, which supports the idea that nor pan-German neither pan-French or pan-Italian ideologies can influence the state, which expresses the collective will to be one nation despite of being so different. The term Willensnation, “nation by will”, is a crucial one in realizing the sources out of which Swiss identity derives (Wimmer, 2011, p. 731).

Thus, taking political background as a basic platform for Swiss identity, historical myth and memories aroused. Even though people of different cantons take these forced historical myths skeptically, it is hard to argue that political efforts to organize and keep together the heterogeneous cultural state were successful. In order to support this thesis, results of the newly conducted survey among Swiss people appear. Being a good Swiss citizen does not require to speak all official languages; it is possible even if you are naturalized and without knowing the national anthem (Bradley, 2014). It seems that among traditional Swiss values of solidarity, independence, security, wellbeing, and the right of self-identity, the core idea of Swiss identity is a freedom from any personal, cultural, or religious limitations.

French, German, and Italian Identity Coexistence

Röstigraben is a special term, which indicates the imaginary cultural and social divide between German-, Italian-, and French-speaking parts of Switzerland. Even though the term has a humoristic connotation nowadays, it does not exclude the true situation of cultural diversity Switzerland faces. According to the Constitution, cantons in Switzerland are divided based on the linguistic ground as following: 17 German-speaking cantons, 4 French-speaking cantons, 3 Franco-German cantons, 1 Italian-speaking canton, and 1 Italian-German-Romansh canton. All these linguistic zones and administrative units are significantly different from each other. Despite the fact that the Swiss government was initially formed only by the German-speaking community, in respect to other cultures the confederation consists of a policy of Germanization has never been used. Thus, the stability of the language situation in Switzerland today as well as in the past largely depends on the strictness of the language-supportive law and effectiveness of its functionality.  

There is no doubt that such a division of Switzerland into cultural and linguistic regions breeds some kind of a dissociation problem, which can be seen as a threat to the Swiss identity formation. It especially exacerbates the difficulty of personal contacts among fellow citizens because of the lack of language skills. One of the main states’ tasks is to adapt its language policy to the existing diversity by means of contributing to the study of the national languages, but also by stimulating translation from one language to another. Paradoxically, the only right solution to preserve country’s peace and common sense of belonging is to promote multilingualism among individuals of the Confederation. The growing number of immigrants in Switzerland as well as elsewhere in Europe makes this approach quite suitable and successful. 

In addition to the law, linguistic and religious minorities in Switzerland use a common “civic culture”, which in fact describes the peaceful way they coexist. Of course, that does not mean that differences disappear, but it does indicate that various groups of people have gotten used to accept their differences in a way moderated by other things they have in common. The compelling view on the topic is represented by Carol Schmidt (1981):

The German Swiss underestimate their own numbers in the population and overestimate the linguistic minorities, while in general the opposite tendency is true of the French Swiss, who overestimate themselves and underestimate the German-speaking population. Linguistic harmony among the German-, French-, and Italian-language communities is certainly fostered by this balance, which favors the smaller groups. (p.151)  

Theoretically, Switzerland is used to be known as the country of perfect multicultural coexistence even if in practice everything is probably not that smooth. However, according to the above-mentioned survey held in 2014, only the minority of 22% believes that there is such a thing as a strong division in the country. They also think that it is possible to eliminate it by giving weight that is more political to Italian- and French-speaking people in the country and teaching more national languages at school (Bradley, 2014). That is exactly what the Confederation is striving to do.

Conflicts among Different Cultural Groups

Even though the general situation seems to be quite peaceful, it is impossible to imagine any society without conflicts. In this case, a multi-cultural society for sure is not deprived of disagreements. It is noteworthy to mention in this respect the Muller’s idea of the essential assessment of true Swiss identity: 

For me it would be more convincing to explore Swiss identity in the details, in daily attitudes and behaviors, in the way daily political decisions are made—all the little signs telling you that something has changed when you have crossed the border from Germany or France. (Muller, 1994)

Once again, the major language issue arises. Even though all the languages and cultures are treated equally, inner mobility within the country becomes harder as not every person is quadrilingual or at least bilingual to become an integrative part of the society. Swiss schools accept English language as an additional one and always provide the course of the second official language in dependence on the location – German or French. However, in practice there are still many people who speak only one language. 

The other predisposition triggering the conflict is a different mentality. Each group has saved it specific characteristics as French aristocratic supremacy, German self-control, and Italian passion that have probably not once resulted in local “clashes”. The latest well-known conflict was a secession of French-speaking Jura from the canton of German-speaking Bern in the past century. After a long resistance, the Constitution accepted the change, giving a right to Jura to become a separate canton. However, the question was still open as the southern part of the region, which is also predominantly French-speaking, but has a Protestant majority, did not want to join the newly formed canton, instead staying a part of the German canton of Bern that was financially richer and had more federal power in Switzerland (Schmidt, 1981, p.45-49). Luckily for all parties concerned, Switzerland supported such kind of separation as the emergence of a new canton did not mean creation of “a lawless zone”, but rather meant that there emerged one more additional support for Switzerland as a whole.

That, in fact, is the theory and practice of “constitutional patriotism” formed as a result of conditions for a bloodless solution to a complex dispute over Jura and Bern. This does not mean that there is no problem. There are problems, but in Switzerland a hope for the compromise and a peaceful solution remains real. The consequences were as follow: the canton adopted the title of Republic and Canton of the Jura that means the autonomy of the canton and its nominal sovereignty within the Swiss Confederation. Other cantons in Switzerland that have the same title are Italian-speaking Ticino, Canton Geneva, and Canton Neuchâtel. Even nowadays there are some confrontations in the region of Jura as there was a federal proposition for French-speaking Jura to reunite with the specific Canton as the language issue is still predominant in the country. Nevertheless, the reunification has not occurred yet.  

Despite of the conflict, Switzerland is quite lucky in terms of the ways to find consensus. Despite all the differences between dominant French and German parts of the country, understanding of the need to maintain a liberal constitutional order always wins in the end, forcing to turn away from the path of violence into a rational political process. Nowadays, being one of the most intercultural countries in Europe, Switzerland also pays special attention to a similar immigrant policy, trying to keep a balance and not diversify the country with other cultures and languages. Therefore, the state actively works on the political regulation of the residential permits for incoming immigrants, forcing them to learn one of the official languages of the region they reside so that to produce a longer residential permit.


Switzerland is often mentioned as an extremely successful example of coexistence between different cultural communities still gathered under the common belonging spirit. Even though this country is a mixture of four different identities drawn together as a Swiss nation, its real background is not built on traditional language and cultural features, but rather on the civic and political ones. The Confederation truly aims to remain strong under the conditions of growing migration and globalization; thereby, it is reasonable to claim that the Swiss identity is under the process of undergoing ethnogenesis.


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