Philipp Etter, portrayed by Ernst Emil Schlatter, graphic print, 1943.
Philipp Etter, portrayed by Ernst Emil Schlatter, graphic print, 1943. Swiss National Museum

Switzerland’s first architect of cultural policy

Federal Councillor Philipp Etter held office for 25 years. Laying out Switzerland’s cultural policy from the 1930s onwards was one of his greatest challenges.

Thomas Zaugg

Thomas Zaugg

Thomas Zaugg is a historian and has written a biography of Philipp Etter.

In 1941, Paul Senn photographed some members of the Federal Art Commission in the Wandelhalle in Bern. A few familiar faces can be identified in the group picture, such as the painter Augusto Giacometti. But the panel also included a number of individuals still more or less unknown today: there’s Geneva sculptor Luc Jaggi in a beret, Fritz Metzger, the Winterthur architect of the Neues Bauen (New Objectivity) school, and the painter Susanne Schwob. Senn’s photograph is intriguing because it captures the often forgotten quieter voices in the history of Switzerland’s cultural policy. The picture dates back to the early years after the founding of the Pro Helvetia cultural institution in 1939. The first steps towards establishing a national policy on support for art and culture in Switzerland can be traced back to the 1880s. But until the 1930s, cultural policy remained marginal. Individual associations such as the Neue Helvetische Gesellschaft (New Helvetic Society) couldn’t disguise the fact that in this federalist country, there was a dearth of institutions, and of ambitions. This became a problem in the second half of the 1930s. Swiss propaganda had little to offer by way of countering its dictatorial neighbours. It was only from August 1940 onwards that there was a weekly film reel of Swiss news. Under the pressure of the economic crisis and the increasing cultural strangulation from abroad, Social Democrat politicians in particular called urgently for a job creation programme for needy artists.
Members of the Federal Art Commission examine specimen pieces in an art scholarship competition in Bern’s Wandelhalle in 1941.
Members of the Federal Art Commission examine specimen pieces in an art scholarship competition in Bern’s Wandelhalle in 1941. Staatsarchiv Zug

Minister for Culture Philipp Etter

The Catholic Conservative Philipp Etter, elected to the Federal Council in 1934, took on these duties as head of the Interior Department. As a scholarship student in Einsiedeln, the lower-middle-class boy from Central Switzerland had enjoyed the benefits of a humanistic education. He had studied law in Zurich and had become a party journalist for the Zuger Nachrichten newspaper at a young age. Around 1937, Etter began to work out the initial plans for the ‘spiritual national defence’ for which there was widespread demand, which resulted in the establishment of Pro Helvetia. Although he did pay some heed to party representations, Etter preferred non-political panels of experts. Rather than centralising culture, he chose to lean on existing associations and federal institutions such as the Federal Art Commission. The Commission’s composition, a meticulously precise piece of national arithmetic, was pivotal in this decision. Representatives from different regions and fields can be seen in the group photo from 1941. Etter, himself not devoid of anti-Semitic stereotypes, championed Susanne Schwob in particular, for example, when she was exposed to anti-Jewish hostility in artistic circles during the 1930s.
Federal Councillor Philipp Etter was a cigar aficionado.
Federal Councillor Philipp Etter was a cigar aficionado. Swiss National Museum

Ambivalent relationship with ‘supporting the arts’

‘Catholicism has the mission to be the guardian of the centre’, Etter wrote to a friend in 1936, criticising the impending belt-tightening measures in the area of social policy in favour of the army. ‘We must not become zealots even to the right.’ However, Etter rarely embraced this self-professed objective, especially as the ‘centre’ did not correspond to his political position. As a representative of political Catholicism, he was not uncontroversial in left and liberal circles. Etter certainly had an ambivalent relationship with modern art and with some cultural representatives. The campaign against the Germanist scholar and Spitteler specialist Jonas Fränkel, in which Etter was also involved, with its anti-Semitic overtones, is much discussed. The painter Hans Erni, after he was attacked in parliament as a communist by a Lucerne FDP National Councillor in 1949, lost a number of exhibition opportunities and commissions due to Etter’s influence. Even after his resignation from the Federal Council in 1959, Etter was not on good terms with every artistic movement. As a member of the board of directors, he redacted the termination letter to Otto F. Walter, director of the Walter Verlag publishing house, which in 1966 had published Ernst Jandl’s collection of poems Laut und Luise, a work that was felt to be objectionable on religious grounds.
Print of Erni’s ‘Landi’ picture Die Schweiz, das Ferienland der Völker (Switzerland, Vacation Land of the People).
Print of Erni’s ‘Landi’ picture Die Schweiz, das Ferienland der Völker (Switzerland, Vacation Land of the People). Swiss National Museum
Nevertheless, there is substantial evidence that Etter organised cultural support to be subsidiary, federalist and as open and transparent as possible. He was and remained a lifelong devotee of Catholic mysticism. But the National Socialist ‘Mist-ik’ (a play on the German word for manure), as he expressed himself in a private letter in 1937, was under no circumstances to be emulated. Etter was opposed to the imposition of a centrally controlled, uniform culture. Under his patronage, folklore and abstraction were possible at the same time. As a member of the ruling council’s upper chamber (Ständerat), in 1931 Etter was already interested in the new Landesbibliothek building in Bern, built in the style of the ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ (New Objectivity). As a Federal Councillor, he defended Heinrich Danioth’s mural on the Bundesbriefarchiv in Schwyz, which had been criticised as ‘Bolshevik’. Etter commented on the call for more national education, as proposed by the Teachers’ Union, with the words: ‘And do they still believe today that the spirit of a good citizen can be drummed into people through “constitutional studies”?’
The Bundesbriefarchiv (now the Bundesbriefmuseum), established in 1936.
The Bundesbriefarchiv (now the Bundesbriefmuseum), established in 1936, caused quite a stir among many in Schwyz with Heinrich Danioth’s controversial modernist mural. Staatsarchiv Schwyz
Internationally, Etter was very well regarded as Federal President in the patriotic frenzy of the National Exhibition in Zurich in 1939. A modernist mural by Hans Erni was one of the notable pieces on display at the ‘Landi’. Die Schweiz, das Ferienland der Völker (Switzerland, Vacation Land of the People) was devised by the Marxist art theoretician Konrad Farner who, along with his family, was later the victim of anti-Communist agitation during the Cold War. The German-Jewish writer Victoria Wolf gave the 1939 National Exhibition some ambiguous praise: ‘Four million Swiss have gone it alone. And we really must take our hats off to this millionfold effort. I shall do so.’ At that point in time, Wolf had already been ordered by the immigration authorities to leave the country. The articles she wrote had been serious competition for Swiss writers.
At the 1939 National Exhibition in Zurich, the sea of flags of the municipalities and cantons on the Höhenweg mountain trail represented the Swiss Federation’s ethos of diversity in unity.
At the 1939 National Exhibition in Zurich, the sea of flags of the municipalities and cantons on the Höhenweg mountain trail represented the Swiss Federation’s ethos of diversity in unity. Dukas / RDB

Opinions were divided on Etter’s cultural policy

So what was ‘spiritual defence’ in its beginnings? Without describing the phenomenon in more detail, historians read Switzerland’s new cultural policy as either an ‘anti-totalitarian basic compromise’ or a ‘Helvetian totalitarianism’ in the form of patriarchal monumental images and a militarisation of society. These perceptions are strongly influenced by the Cold War and its dichotomy. In many accounts, the fact that in 1945 Etter called for the nation to ‘break out of the spiritual and cultural réduit mentality’ was simply ignored. At that time, he even endeavoured to bring in a whiff of the ‘air of the world’ with an exhibition of American architecture in Zurich. With hindsight, exclusionary tendencies are clearly discernible. But the modern style had evidently been able to take hold despite the time of crisis and despite conservative influences. In 2010, art historian Stanislaus von Moos therefore suggested that the spiritual defence of the country had been ‘more future-oriented, more modern in terms of cultural policy’ than the ‘aesthetically enlightened’ like to think.
Philipp Etter and Leland B. Harrison, US Minister to Switzerland, at the opening of the ‘USA baut’ exhibition of American architecture at the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Zurich, September 1945. Keystone / Photopress-Archiv / Milou Steiner
Philipp Etter and Leland B. Harrison, US Minister to Switzerland, at the opening of the ‘USA baut’ exhibition of American architecture at the Kunstgewerbemuseum in Zurich, September 1945. Keystone / Photopress-Archiv / Milou Steiner
Etter’s initial refusal to undertake any sort of organisation of culture may be part of the explanation. In a wide range of areas art was left to itself and this laissez-faire attitude had consequences, for good or ill. In these circumstances, major cultural projects were able to move ahead only with difficulty. However, in 1971 Jakob Wyrsch, psychiatrist and writer, wrote appreciatively to mark Etter’s 80th birthday: ‘As a Federal Councillor, Etter wisely had no interest in a federal Ministry for Culture. Because artistic creativity and scientific activities should flourish, or even struggle at times, in freedom without direction from a central authority.’ Initially the spiritual defence concept, along with the Pro Helvetia foundation, in fact was on a very small financial footing. One social democrat National Councillor was quite underwhelmed in 1939 by the ‘very modest proposal’ for the establishment of a cultural foundation, while Etter was content with the fact that Pro Helvetia would not perform ‘all the tasks given it’, and also would not be able to bring to bear any ‘spiritually standardising force’.
Philipp Etter with curator Paul Hilber and Art Commission members in Lucerne, 1943.
Philipp Etter with curator Paul Hilber and Art Commission members Augusto Giacometti and Alfred Blailé at the opening of the exhibition ‘Die Kunstpflege des Bundes seit 1887’ (Support for the Arts by the Swiss Confederation since 1887), Lucerne, 1943. Staatsarchiv Zug
The country’s early cultural policy threatened to founder on a wave of strong resistance, internal obstacles and mutual distrust: anti-Socialist resentments and cantonalistic reservations on the part of Etter himself, anti-Catholic reflexes, the Conservatives’ antipathy to artistic works that were even remotely modern, ultra-federalist or intellectualist doubts over ‘conformist’ federal cultural propaganda, and the fear, expressed from time to time by both the left and the right, of under-representation in the crucial centres controlling the cultural policy of the future. ‘Spiritual defence!’, Etter complained to a friend as early as 1937. ‘When I approached the task of resolving this problem, I was already aware of the difficulties that would stand in my way. The “spiritual” is not as easy to organise as the material.’

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