Friday, October 31, 2014

Highlights of A Concise History of Switzerland

I have finally finished reading A Concise History of Switzerland from the Cambridge Concise Histories series by Clive H. Church and Randolph C. Head. As I was reading it, I underlined a couple of paragraphs that contain the most interesting parts (at least for me). I am now going to paste these highlights here and attach a short commentary to some of  them. Needless to say, it's up to you to make your own opinion. Maybe you will want to read the book in its entirety in a desire to reflect on the possibility to learn from someone else's fails and wins a little more.

Neither dynasty, nor language, nor religion brought about a Swiss national identity that could bolster a Swiss political nation. Instead, modern Switzerland seems in an important sense the result of its inhabitants’ own decisions – a Willensnation, a nation resting on its inhabitants’ will – and of its own and its neighbours’ willingness to accept its various forms through the centuries as a single and continuous political unit.
This is my first highlight and it conveys perhaps the strongest message of the whole book. It's like an affirmative follow-up on the question mentioned in the third sentence of the opening paragraph of Hamilton's Federalist No. 1, which goes like this:

It has been frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force.
Going back to the book, some of the following highlights (from all over the book) support the idea of a Willensnation and debunk the homogenous people and language fallacy:

Although all of the original eight cantons spoke German, and shared a certain contempt for Romance, especially Italian, mores and attitudes, their shared language did not in itself increase their cohesion or limit their alliances with neighbouring Romance-speaking communities or lords. As in the polyglot kingdoms around them, language played only a minimal role in Swiss nation-formation before the seventeenth century.
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Despite the hazards, many Swiss intellectuals were drawn towards thinking about their own Swiss identity and asking what held them together despite their linguistic and religious differences. The late 1750s saw the publication of a number of introspective writings, such the Patriotic Dreams of both Franz Urs Balthasar from Lucerne and Isaak Iselin from Basle. The latter was historian, philosopher and critic both of Rousseau and of Switzerland’s mercantile and aristocratic spirit. Balthasar and others were even more critical of the state of the Confederacy, the former proposing a federal college, a unified army and a confederal tax to remedy its weaknesses. More than in previous centuries, intellectuals now thought of Switzerland as a single nation, though one sorely lacking in political unity. Folk songs and the increasing interest in the mountains helped to further the idea of distinct Swiss and Alpine identity.
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The leaders of the new state were able to forge a new nation based on political will and the key institutions of direct democracy, federalism and neutrality.
The last quoted paragraph above refers to the period after 1848 when Switzerland finally became a classical federation operating on the terms of a federal constitution. However, in the following chronological sequence of highlights, I would like to draw your attention to the deficiencies of the several old Swiss political systems before 1848 - something which will seem igloriously familiar to most contemporary Europeans:
The Diet provided a site for discussions of such problems, but negotiation also took place before the councils of individual cantons, or in secret with leading political figures.
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Persistent resentments helped, in other words, to prevent any rapid change to the ramshackle constitutional structures of the Confederacy and its subject territories. It remained a contractual system based on a network of treaties, respect for the established order and multiple layers of privilege. Hence the Diet was little more than a symbol and a means of socialization, lacking army, finance and a proper administration as it did. Indeed, if anything, the Diet became even less active at this time because of the need to meet in private and refer all decisions back to the cantons. The joke circulated that the Diet would not agree that snow fell in winter without asking for instructions. Even when decisions were finally reached, cantons were not obliged to act on them.
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The Confederacy thus remained a weak body, lacking a constitution, an army and a reliable tax-based income . Far from being a state comparable to its more powerful reforming neighbours, it remained self-satisifiedly dependent on an implicit French guarantee, which in turn depended on a balance of power that had turned against France following its defeats in the Seven Years War. Hence the suggestion made by Johann Georg Stokar, a chairman of the Helvetic Society , that the country needed to unify and accept equal rights for all, was ignored. Indeed, things were already going in the opposite direction.
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Refusing ideas of unification was, in other words, symptomatic of the oligarchies’ approach in the 1770s and 1780s. Going beyond immediate challenges, the oligarchs sought aggressively to entrench their positions and interests at the expense of lesser breeds, something that prompted very significant risings in Geneva and Fribourg.
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Such victories won the patriciates a few more years of unchallenged peace, but these were not used to institute reforms that could have helped them cope with rapidly changing circumstances at home and abroad. The authoritarian oligarchs continued to see no need to adapt. They preferred to rely for their legitimacy on custom, heredity and closeness to an established church. Indeed, they saw themselves as a divinely ordained elite at the peak of a hierarchical society. In this they eschewed the newer representative ideas emerging in the Anglo-American world in favour of continental traditions of the seventeenth century.
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At the confederal level, the inherent weakness of the system became all too apparent after Schwyz in 1789 refused to agree to a renewal of the Defensionale, which coordinated joint efforts for defence of the borders. Likewise, the St Gallen politician Müller-Friedberg’s call for a new charter between all the cantons and allies had no effect. Such continuing preference for local over general interests made it almost impossible for the Confederacy to muster sufficient political and military force to resist French encroachments. It remained an assemblage of self-interested rural and urban communities. As a result, the Diet failed to agree on any emphatic measures until very late in the day, because disagreements and traditional arrogance continued to dominate, even though passive stability was no longer enough.
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Nonetheless, in all cases it was the cantons that provided sovereignty . The fact that the confederal constitution came at the end was symptomatic of this. The new regime was chaired by a rotating directing canton, known as the Vorort, whose head was the Landammann of the new executive, a body with rather limited powers.
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The new Charter was essentially a treaty amongst sovereign cantonal states. The cantons mutually guaranteed their own security and constitutions – often quite backward-looking – and sent representatives to the Diet under strict mandates. The Charter did not provide for a Landammann, a national judiciary or separation of powers. Nonetheless, it represented a step beyond the Mediation and towards a Swiss Confederation, the term being formally used for the first time. It contained a commitment to a common fatherland and gave the Confederation new powers. Significantly, the Diet could make binding decisions by a two-thirds majority. Cantons were banned from creating leagues amongst themselves, and the Diet gained responsibility for upholding confederal decisions, a new power, as well as for trade, diplomacy and defence. For the first time, a national army was established , even if it was made up of cantonal contingents.

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