Germans in Switzerland: so near, and yet so far

Expatriate Germans Gerald Rinke, Sandra Günter and Ulf Schiller (l-r)

Record numbers of Germans have flocked to Switzerland since free movement accords were signed with the European Union in 1999. decided to meet up with three expatriates to find out what they think of their adopted country.

This content was published on July 10, 2012 minutes

German residents have more than doubled their numbers in Switzerland in the past ten years, becoming the second largest group of foreigners in the country.

Some Swiss are concerned about the influx. Highly qualified Germans are now able to compete directly with Swiss citizens for top jobs. Flare ups of “German bashing”, notably from the political right, periodically hit the news.

Like the majority of their 279,000 compatriots in Switzerland, Sandra Günter, Gerald Rinke, and Ulf Schiller are highly qualified, with skills in demand by the Swiss economy.

Günter, a 41-year-old native of Hamburg, became a professor of sports sociology at Bern University three years ago. Rinke, a 46-year-old who hails from Dresden in the former East Germany, is employed by a mobile communications company in Bern and has lived in the country for 16 years. Ulf Schiller, a 50-year-old from Cologne, is a professor of economics at Basel University and has lived with his family near Bern for ten years.

The large percentage of German academics residing in Switzerland is no coincidence. Switzerland does not produce enough academics to meet demand.

“A high number of German academics actually end up moving back to Germany. Many people in Switzerland are not really aware of this,“ Günter said. She herself fully expects her academic career path will take her outside of Switzerland at one point.

Schiller and Rinke, in contrast, have decided to stay. While all three enjoy life in Switzerland, it is not without its challenges.

“If I park my car wrong, I’m not just a person who parked wrong,” said Schilller. “I’m a German who parked wrong.”

Güntner believes that one reason the cultural differences between the Germans and the Swiss are emphasised so much is that they are so minimal, and the similarities so strong.

Rinke, who moved to the country to be with the Swiss woman who is now his wife, agreed. To him, the cultural differences between southern Germany and Switzerland are about the same as those between southern and northern Germany.

However all three Germans agree that differences can feel enormous.


“Because of Germany’s recent history, I was brought up to feel rather ashamed of saying that I’m German,” said Günter. “I certainly would never dream of saying something like ‘I am proud of Germany’.”  

In Switzerland, she observed, this is completely different. “Generally speaking, the Swiss are raised to feel confident in their national identity, that it’s great to be Swiss, and that being able to live here is a privilege, something special.”

Rinke found that the Swiss culture of expressing opinions and debating took some getting used to.

“If I say what I think, be it over politics or other themes, here it’s always taken very personally. It doesn’t bother me in the least when a Swiss says the German chancellor is incompetent with regards to solving a particular problem. But if I say the same thing about the Swiss cabinet, then the Swiss feel hurt.”

It is precisely in these kind of situations that Rinke misses a certain element of playfulness and  humour that Germans use as a means of defusing tension. “For example, in Germany people often make jokes about the differences between the eastern and western Germans.”

On the other hand, Rinke said he had learned many positive things from how the Swiss communicate.

“I’m a better listener now. When you have a discussion in Switzerland, you listen for a really long time before you say something. In Germany, you tend to first speak for a long time.”

Schiller agrees, noting that his personal development had changed “very strongly in the same direction” since moving to the country.

“There’s a very strong respect for others here in Switzerland, a very strong urge to understand the other person.”

Swiss German versus German

The language situation is a bit trickier, and a classic flash point between Germans and Swiss Germans.

While standard German is an official language in Switzerland and used for reading and writing, Swiss German dialect is spoken almost exclusively in daily life, at the workplace, and in social situations. Because of the huge differences between the two, a newly arrived German would not normally be able understand Swiss German.

Whereas Swiss are almost always encouraging when non-native speakers try to learn Swiss German, Germans seem to be the exception to the rule.

“I have no idea if the Swiss even want me to speak Swiss German,” remarked Günter. She needed a full year before she was able to understand Swiss German, and made a point of asking Swiss to always speak Swiss German with her, instead of standard German.

Hopefully, throwing in a word or two of Swiss German adds a bit of charm, said Schiller. But he was advised to refrain from doing more. “When I was new to Switzerland, the first thing my work colleague told me was to not make the mistake of trying to speak Swiss German, because it just comes across as ridiculous.”


All three of these expatriates admire Swiss direct democracy. But even this causes some confusion.

Rinke is perplexed that “Swiss citizens have to vote on energy issues, for example, the consequences of which even experts themselves are not able to accurately assess”.

Schiller, the economics professor, is concerned that Swiss direct democracy is increasingly misused as a forum for clashing by the political right and left, while increasingly urgent questions about economic relations between Switzerland and the EU take a back seat.

Yet, he is “very impressed” with the professional competence of the average Swiss voter. “In economic issues, which I understand something about, the Swiss mostly decide the same way as I would.”

All three said they would support foreigners having the vote in Switzerland, at least at the local level and those who have lived here for a certain length of time.

“I totally underestimated what it means not to be able to vote on a school closing in a nearby community,” said Schiller. “I really miss being able to have a say on local issues.”

Germans in Switzerland

As of April 2012, 1,789,374 foreigners were living in Switzerland. They constitute 22.6% of the total Swiss population.

Of these,  279, 672 are German, an increase of 11,500 from the previous year. They are the second largest immigrant group in Switzerland after the Italians (291,000).

In addition there are about 50,000 German cross border workers.

Germans make up about 3.5% of the total Swiss population.

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Saved education costs

In Switzerland every eighth manager, every fifth university professor, and every tenth doctor comes from Germany.

In some hospitals Germans make up about one-third of the doctors.

Just the 3000 German doctors living in Switzerland have saved the country about 3 billion francs in education costs(Source: Avenir Suisse, 2011). Not included in this number are doctors who are dual German-Swiss citizens and German cross border workers.

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Foreigner voting rights

Voting on the national level is reserved for those with Swiss citizenship who are at least 18 years old, though some cantons allow foreigners to vote on local issues.

Most cantons in French-speaking Switzerland allow foreigners to cast ballots on local issues and some allow it on cantonal issues as well. German-speaking cantons are much more reserved in allowing foreigners the right to vote. In total, about a third of Switzerland’s 26 cantons offer some form of voting rights to non-Swiss residents.

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