Postcard featuring the Matterhorn, 1980.
This is how many tourists imagine Switzerland: picturesque Alpine scenery. Postcard featuring the Matterhorn, 1980. Swiss National Museum

Switzerland: a land of paradoxes

It can be hard to get a true picture of something when you’re only seeing it from the inside – to really understand it, you need the view from outside as well. Take the Swiss mentality, for example. On closer inspection, our mindset turns out to be a multifaceted mirror reflecting a country filled with paradoxes and contradictions.

Alexander Rechsteiner

Alexander Rechsteiner

Works at the PR department of the Swiss national museum and holds an M A in modern English literature and political science.

Switzerland: a neutral country in the centre of Europe, known for its humanitarian tradition, its perfectness, its superior quality standards and its sophisticated democracy; a country held very dear by most of its inhabitants and admired by many who don’t live here. A bit pedantic and parochial sometimes, perhaps, and with little sense of humour, but on the other hand, it’s impeccably well organised and people leave each other alone. Many of Switzerland’s inhabitants probably have this idea of their nation. But there’s also the image of a tight-fisted country whose greedy bankers crouch in their vaults trading in the suffering of others; or the image of a country with idyllic scenery, but where people are subject to constant social monitoring and it simply doesn’t pay to draw attention to oneself or put one’s head above the parapet. If we dig a little deeper, one thing becomes clear: Switzerland is a nation of paradoxes. It’s not only the view from abroad that gives a very diverse picture; even here on home soil, the self-image of the nation’s inhabitants varies widely.
Gold
Switzerland handles 50 to 70% of the global gold trade, despite the sometimes questionable provenance of the gold. Via intermediaries, Switzerland also receives gold from mines in which slaves and children work. Swiss National Museum
We need look no further than the mythical birthplace of the Confederation for an example of such a paradox. For many Swiss, the liberation tradition and, as part of that, the narrative of the freedom fighter Wilhelm Tell are the bedrock of national self-image. The value of freedom is pivotal not only in the constitution, but also in our political discourse. In referendum campaigns the freedom of the Swiss people or the country’s independence and autonomy is often cited as an argument which, most of the time, needs no further explanation. At the same time, surveillance and distrust are not unknown features of life in Switzerland. The 'secret files scandal' of 1989 shook the country to its very foundations. An immense system of state surveillance was keeping tabs on citizens who behaved in a politically “noteworthy” manner: a massive violation of personal freedom.
Station clock and Micheline Calmy-Rey’s shoes: symbols of punctuality and diplomacy, two “typical” Swiss characteristics.
Station clock and Micheline Calmy-Rey’s shoes: symbols of punctuality and diplomacy, two “typical” Swiss characteristics. Swiss National Museum
Postcard showing touristic subjects such as flag-throwers, Cervelat and the Matterhorn, 1990.
Postcard showing touristic subjects such as flag-throwers, Cervelat and the Matterhorn, 1990. Swiss National Museum
Although the files are a thing of the past, the monitoring hasn’t simply disappeared. One well-known cliché is what we call 'Bünzlis', people who call the police for the smallest disturbance. A somewhat less well-known phenomenon is the 'Swiss Stare'. Expats in particular are always complaining on online forums that in Switzerland they feel as if they’re being constantly watched. Supposedly, the Swiss like to stare at other people more or less openly and to shamelessly eye up foreign people, mostly, but also each other. One blogger from Canada suspects the reason for this lies in the specifically Swiss 'militia' system of citizen legislature. The Swiss people live their lives 'in a combat-ready state', so they’re always on the lookout for potential threats. Paradoxically, prominent individuals from other countries praise the discretion we practise here, which is also perceived as typically Swiss. Whether one or the other is true, or even both: what’s interesting about this example is the fact that sometimes it takes an outside perspective to get to know yourself a bit better.
“They’re overwhelmed. Our culture leaves them lost for words!” “To exterminate or not to exterminate? That is the question!” Chuchichäschtli, or, being overwhelmed by Swiss culture.
“They’re overwhelmed. Our culture leaves them lost for words!” “To exterminate or not to exterminate? That is the question!” Chuchichäschtli, or, being overwhelmed by Swiss culture. © Caspar Frei, 1990

Amazingly ambivalent

04.02.2022 24.04.2022 / National Museum Zurich
Everything’s a bit better in Switzerland – it’s a sentiment you occasionally hear expressed both here and abroad. But among those who actually live in Switzerland, the feeling of being ‘something special’ alternates with a latent sense of inferiority. A paradox? On closer inspection, other contradictions emerge: Is Switzerland a humanitarian model state, or a bastion of egoists closed off from the world? Is it an alpine utopia of democracy, or a profiteer nation ruled by greedy banks and large corporations? The exhibition explores some divergent views of Switzerland and aims to prompt visitors to reflect on our country’s self-image, and how it is perceived from the outside.

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Swiss National Museum
Landesmuseum Zürich
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Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).