Monday, January 9, 2017

What's so different about the Swiss?

Switzerland.  The name conjours visions of grand mountains and flowing rivers of chocolate.  A true paradise, but what about the inhabitants of paradise?  Voltaire imagined the inhabitants of the great city of gold in his eloquent Candide.  His imaginary inhabitants looked at gold as worth nothing more than rocks, but what about the Swiss?  Are the big mountains really just rocks?  What about their culture, politics, and beliefs?  Just what makes someone Swiss?


Probably the greatest way to describe Switzerland and what makes it so different is that it is a paradoxical world.  It's a world that is at once united and as disjointed as any weak or strong state.  A world of opportunities and a blatant lack thereof.  A rich state that produces very little, and a land of peace populated by warriors.


This is one of the most interesting aspects of Switzerland.  Since the world wars, the inhabitants consider Switzerland to be a beacon of peace to the world.  It is home to various organizations built to maintain the peace.  From the Red Cross to the UN, Switzerland is supposed to be the land of peace.  They even have an entire week in Geneva dedicated to the fundamentals of peace.  

Historically, however, this is just not the case.  From the earliest accounts of the Swiss by Caesar, the Swiss were anything but peaceful.  Caesar's own account states that the Swiss were bored (I'm not joking) of fighting each other in their mountain surrounded homeland, so they left to Gaul to fight new battles.

Eventually the prowess of Swiss fighters became so renowned that the popes used them specifically for their own security forces in the Vatican.  In fact, you can still find the Swiss guard protecting the Vatican.  As of the 16th century, however, the Swiss were no longer the pure Catholics they had once been.

Zwingli appeared on the scene, preaching a Catholic reformation that eventually led a protestant revolution throughout many cantons in Switzerland.  The Swiss fought many bloody battles, which the Catholics eventually won, but they were unable to ever completely squash Protestantism.  Eventually they gave up, and allowed cantons the freedom to choose their religion - Protestant or Catholic.  

Finally the world wars arrived, and Switzerland became one of the first "neutral" countries.  This is a little misleading, however, as the Swiss made a literal killing off of each world war.  They became the world's bankers, and a safe haven for rich outcasts both before and after the war.  But most importantly Switzerland stayed out of the wars because of the huge diversity in their population and state system.  With 1/3 German, 1/3 Italian, and 1/3 French, it is very difficult to join any wars where all three fight each other.  Of course, that doesn't mean that all of them sat out the fighting either.


This is another large paradox in Switzerland.  Because it's long been a tax haven for the wealthy, the entire country is built to extort the wealthy.  Everything is much more expensive because the tax system brings little money from the in and out flows of hidden cash.  This rich system then pays for much of the living in the country, so the country, even though it probably produces less than Greece, ends up being much wealthier.  The end result is this feeling that many of the Swiss just don't relate to the real world.  Can you blame them?  They're born into a rich world of possibilities where the minimum wage is a desirable salary, and where there are few political decisions to be made because the cantons opinions are so disparate that changes are much more difficult than they're worth.

The bottom line then is this head in the clouds effect on the population.  They want to help others, but they seriously misunderstand that their prosperity is reliant upon poverty of other nations.  Besides the well documented use of the Swiss banking system to hide cash and avoid taxes, there's the glorious Swiss chocolate, which I absolutely love (and you can check out some great Swiss chocolate food tours here), but is one of the most condemned industries for extraction of natural resources.


Probably the last thing to really create the Swiss psychy is the geography.  Beautiful mountains surrounded by big lakes really make Switzerland into a magical world.  It's no wonder then that the Swiss have this psychy that the world is great, when it's easy to go do the Tour du Mont Blanc, or hike the Jungfrau, or take in the sites of the Swiss Rail, or hike the Dolomites.  In the end, come to Switzerland, and you'll probably leave the same way.  A little dazed, and a little unsure of why all the world isn't that way.

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