Merging communes raises identity issues


The wave of agglomerations of Swiss communes and the resulting drop in numbers of municipalities could lead to a loss of identity among citizens, an expert has warned.

This content was published on February 3, 2013 minutes
Chantal Britt,

Rainer Schweizer, a historian from the Research Institute for Legal Sciences at St Gallen University, tells that citizens will find it increasingly difficult to relate to their ‘place of origin’ as the trend for communal reforms and mergers continues.

The Swiss inherit their place of origin from their fathers. The village, town or city stores the certificates of family origin when citizens leave; and it records births, marriages and deaths in the parish registers.

In order to save administrative costs, more and more communities have agreed to be swallowed up by larger neighbours or opted for the creation of a new entity with a new name together with surrounding municipalities.

Schweizer is a co-author of the Historical Dictionary of Switzerland, an academic reference work. How important is the Swiss ‘place of origin’ today?

Rainer Schweizer: What’s decisive is that its former role as a place that would look after you when you were in need, does not exist anymore. Today, the place of residence has taken over that role.

The place of origin is still significant for personal identity, an element which still plays a surprisingly important role irrespective of age and provenance. It is the place where a family originates. Some communes still administer communal forests or mountains, while others pay out additional social benefits or sponsor cultural institutions. How have civil rights and duties in communes of origin changed in recent years?

R.S.: In Switzerland, there is an enormous wave of communal mergers, a trend that makes identification with a place increasingly difficult. The justice ministry is constantly updating the list of places of origin that are no longer a political commune. The trend is steadily increasing. It is particularly extreme in canton Glarus, where a number of communes have combined [such as North Glarus and South Glarus].

It does not make any sense for somebody to come from North Glarus. It’s a joke. What is North Glarus? It’s not a commune, but a district. You’re talking about a number of communes which were patched together. I’m very sceptical. The big problem with the reforms in Glarus is that communal democracy was abolished. Citizens are no longer locally involved.

The trend is that the place of origin is becoming less significant, although it depends very much on the region. In Ticino, origin is very significant because the upper-class are still going very strong. It also plays an important role in cantons Schwyz, Lucerne and Bern. In other cantons it has lost a lot of its significance.


In 1990, Switzerland had 3,021 communes, varying widely in size. At the beginning of 2012, there were 2,495 communities left, statistics show. The smallest is Corippo in Ticino with 20 inhabitants, the largest Zurich with 370,000.

For Swiss citizens the decline of the numbers sound high, but in a wider context, the cuts are a lot less pronounced than in neighbouring countries because direct democracy slows down the erosion of autonomy.

Compared with Germany and Austria, where the number of communes halved within 50 years, the Swiss numbers only dropped 17%.

End of insertion Could the place of residence not take over some of the functions of the place of origin?

R.S.: Several cantons say the commune of residence can take over the functions of the place of origin. They have merged the commune of origin with the place of residence, and the wealth and the benefits are paid out to everybody. This trend started in the 1970s, but has accelerated over the past 20 years. This is obviously a development which eroded the significance of the place of origin.

When foreigners are naturalised, you will often find that the place where they live is much more important to them. I know Germans at St Gallen University who want to get Swiss citizenship. They are very keen to get it from the city of St Gallen. There is a desire to be attached to the place of residence through citizenship. This goes for all immigrants, but also for some Swiss. A Zurich guild member, for example, will even sometimes want to become a citizen of some village in canton Aargau to demonstrate that this is where he belongs. Where did the concept of the place of origin come from?

R.S.: The concept of citizenship with a local affiliation, [the related] rights of participation and a share in the local wealth, goes back a long time. The German expression for citizens, ‘Bürger’ or ‘Burger’, comes from the ninth century, where it described people living close to castles. In later centuries it described people who owned a plot in cities or belonged to either a town or another entity in the countryside.

Citizenship gained importance in the 19th century when the old burghers resurfaced and when civil rights were introduced in the whole of Switzerland.

It was the craftsmen and the tradespeople who established civil rights in cities from Dijon to Lübeck. In alpine regions the inhabitants set up local self-governing bodies from Slovenia all the way to France. In Switzerland, we had self-government in the cantonal open-air assembly. Outside of the alpine region, you would only find feudal sovereigns or farmers and villagers with no particular rights in the countryside.

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