The big bad foreigner in poster art

First it was Bolsheviks and Jews. Then it was migrant workers from Southern Europe. Now it’s more exotic newcomers such as Muslims. There have been many Swiss political posters bedeviling foreigners, as displayed in an open-air exhibition in Neuchâtel.

This content was published on May 24, 2013 minutes

A muscular man reminiscent of William Tell grasps a sword in both hands, ready to strike a blow against the many-headed monster attacking him. The monster is red, like the danger it represents. The scene is set against a white Swiss cross, and in the background we see a man ploughing a field with his horse and a city in flames – a dire warning of what awaits the country if it does not remain vigilant. “Hands off! Switzerland for the Swiss”, proclaims the poster from 1919.

From Bolshevik to Muslim

If there is one constant in Swiss political history, it is without a doubt controversy over foreigners in the country. “Between the two World Wars, debate on immigration focused on Bolsheviks and Jews. Then in the 1960s, at the time of the Schwarzenbach initiative against too many foreigners, it was migrant workers from Southern Europe. In recent years, the focus has shifted again to people coming from cultures farther afield, such as Muslims,” explains University of Neuchâtel historian Francesco Garufo.

Together with Christelle Maire of the Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies, Garufo has created an exhibition entitled “Focus on the foreigner: otherness and identity on Swiss political posters 1918-2010”.

The idea arose from the 2009 controversy over a notorious poster from the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, which was campaigning against the building of minarets in Switzerland. It featured a woman in a burka and a Swiss flag covered in minarets shaped like missiles. “Previously there had been controversy over other poster campaigns, like the black sheep from the same party,” notes Maire. “During the campaign, however, the debate grew in intensity. For the first time, cities took a stand on these posters and some decided to ban them.”

Given Switzerland’s tradition of direct democracy, with citizens usually being called upon to vote four times a year on the most varied of topics – often issues to do with foreigners – the two curators of the exhibition had a wide range of material to choose from. From an initial corpus of about 300 posters, they chose 52, based on four major themes: openness and closure, economics and demographics, cultural diversity, and human rights. They tried to strike a balance between the political views expressed both for and against immigration.

Recurrent symbols

While the graphic style of the posters has changed with the times, what is striking is the persistence of particular symbols over the past century. Red is often the dominant colour, the white Swiss cross is regularly featured, we see pristine mountain landscapes, and the typical Swiss is a rustic shepherd. The foreigner, on the other hand, has a dark complexion, exaggerated facial features and a large moustache, and in the 1960s he always seems to be eating spaghetti and helping himself to a bottle of Chianti.

“These stereotypical representations are actually common to the different political shades of opinion,” notes Garufo. There seems to be a kind of bipartisan agreement on symbolism. For example, take a poster from 1970 opposing one of the Schwarzenbach initiatives. The worker in the picture, sporting a moustache and an Italian cap, is an exact copy of the one who appears on another poster from the same time, which clearly states: “Stop the influx of foreigners”.

At times the stereotypes are exploited so as to counter them better. “How do Jews make their money?” asks a 2003 poster campaigning against racism, on which we see the face of a man with a pronounced nose, black hair and a wide mouth. “By working, like everybody else”, the poster says in answer to its own question.

In some cases, the same symbolism is reused years later. In a 1999 poster launched by the People’s Party in support of an initiative against abuses of asylum law, a sinister-looking character wearing black gloves and dark glasses appears, breaking through a Swiss flag. More than thirty years earlier, the figure breaking through the flag was a Southern European migrant with a battered suitcase on his shoulders.

There has been a significant change, however, as Maire points out: “With their posters, the People’s Party have started a process of criminalising the foreigner. In the 1960s no one dared to go that far.”

A recurring theme

Foreigners have always been a hot political topic in Switzerland. Already in 1866, on the occasion of the second nationwide vote after the creation of the federal state in 1848, one of the topics put to the electorate involved equality for Jews and naturalised citizens.

In 1922 two popular initiatives were rejected, concerning the naturalisation and expulsion of persons committing acts that endangered national security.

It was in the 1960s, with the massive influx of workers from Southern Europe, that the debate really heated up. Between 1966 and 1977 no less than four popular initiatives were launched to oppose the influx of foreigners. The chief promoter was James Schwarzenbach, the leader of an extreme right-wing party called National Action.

What really caused a shock was the initiative of 1970, which called for a ceiling of 10% for the foreign population (it would have meant expelling 300,000 people). The initiative was rejected by 54% of the voters nationwide. However, in eight cantons the proposal won more than 50% of the vote.

Another two initiatives to limit the number of foreigners were put to the Swiss people in December 1988 and September 2000. Both failed. There have also been regular initiatives and referendums on the right to political asylum. The Swiss are to vote on this very topic again on June 9 this year.

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Us versus them

As the curators point out, these political posters about foreigners tell us more than just how the representation of the outsider has evolved over the past century. They also tell us something about Swiss national identity.

“By representing the outsider, we say what Switzerland is not,” notes Garufo. When a 1936 poster says that “the true patriot is one who buys from shopkeepers of his own country, or his own race”, the message is that Swiss is not Jewish. Another poster from the same year proclaims that anyone in Switzerland who is a Communist is a puppet of Stalin. Thus he cannot be a true Swiss. (Neither can a Muslim, as many posters from recent years suggest.)  

Clearly, not everyone likes being confronted with the issues raised by “Focus on foreigners”. The exhibition, which was mounted not in a museum but on the Neuchâtel lakeshore so as to reach a broader public, has since been temporarily closed due to vandalism.


The exhibition on the lakefront in Neuchâtel had to be closed due to acts of vandalism. According to the exhibitors, the motive for the acts was not political. They are searching for an alternative venue.

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