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Modest National Day festivities conceal contented mood

Switzerland celebrates its 709th anniversary Keystone

The nation's press has plenty to say about the renewed optimism in the country, which appears to contrast sharply with the expectation that First-of-August festivities will be dull and badly attended.

This content was published on August 1, 2000 - 09:13

If Switzerland's main daily newspapers are to be believed the Swiss are beginning the new century in an upbeat mood. For the "Neue Zürcher Zeitung" (NZZ) the reason lies not only in an economic outlook in which "globalisation and competition are again embraced with more confidence" than during the last couple of years, but also in changes in Swiss mentality.

"Switzerland has lost much of its suffocating, petty bourgeois attitude and parochial mindset", the NZZ writes. "In the cities and their suburbs, a society has evolved which is tolerant, liberal and multicultural. It is one which allows for different lifestyles to be considered normal."

The NZZ is echoed by its rival, the "Tages-Anzeiger" (TA), also based in Zurich. The TA dedicated all 70 pages of its weekend supplement "Das Magazin" to the issue of "what holds Switzerland together".

Apart from a representative survey that shows the Swiss to be an optimistic people, "Das Magazin" interviewed 69 Swiss in more detail on the values they tried to follow in their daily lives.

"The despondency of yesteryear is light years away", concludes the paper's cultural affairs editor. "What remains is a healthy amount of scepticism, paired with an even greater amount of curiosity. What better present for a national day."

However, most writers agree that what they call a new - not only prosperous, but more tolerant - Switzerland, has little to do with its national day, which is considered a low-key event.

"Our French neighbours celebrated [their national day last month] with a giant picnic, whereas the little that is left of any national enthusiasm in Switzerland unfortunately comes across as shrill," notes "Le Temps".

The unwillingness to celebrate on the national day has a lot to do with it, the Geneva-based paper explains in an interview with the historian, Catherine Santschi.

Santschi says that when festivities took place for the first time on August 1st, 1891 - half a century after the creation of the Swiss federal state in 1848 - "they weren't part of a popular tradition. They were the result of an intellectual effort by the radical [liberal] elite to forge a national consciousness."

It was no accident that the founding of the national day followed a bottom-down approach, writes the "Basler Zeitung" (BaZ) in a similar story about the historic origins of the First-of-August. "There is no common experience that all the Swiss can relate to, nor is there a common culture. Hence, there is no room or theme for a true national day."

"Le Temps" highlights the story of Switzerland's national anthem, in itself "a good illustration of the problematic character of the Helvetic identity". The anthem was only introduced in 1961 after the Swiss had been singing a version of Britain's "God Save the Queen" for over 100 years.

"Even today, and contrary to most countries, [the anthem] isn't written into law or the constitution. ... [Only] three per cent of the population know it by heart in its entirety, and 30 per cent can sing at least the first paragraph," the paper writes.

"Le Temps" compares the hundreds of thousands of spectators who attend the various music, theatre and cinema festivals during this time of the year with the few who attend First-of-August celebrations, and concludes: "Popular festivals nowadays have to please the taste of a consumer culture influenced by 'zapping'... To unite the Swiss of the new millennium you have to provide as much diversity as they themselves combine."

Some editorialists try to put forward suggestions for how the gap between the optimistic mood in the country and a lacklustre national day could be bridged. The NZZ says the reason for the latter lies in the fact that First-of-August celebrations "usually convey an image of a country which for the majority of its people is known only via folkloristic broadcasts, [and in which] the thinking remains rural, traditional, defiant and clothed in age-old symbols."

"The tradition of a national day needs new, not fewer myths",the BaZ says. "These should be drawn from cities and cultures bordering with neighbouring countries, such as the tradition of Humanism from [the Renaissance philosopher] Erasmus and [the 20th century philosopher] Karl Jaspers in Basel... or the history of Enlightenment in Geneva."

By Markus Haefliger

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