Swiss reputation emerges bruised but intact after Nazi-era scandals

Switzerland's reputation abroad has not been badly damaged by revelations about its wartime past. That's the finding of a national research programme, set up to examine how Switzerland is viewed by its European neighbours.

This content was published on May 26, 2000 minutes

Switzerland's image abroad has long been a troubling issue for the country. Swiss banks' dealings with the Nazi regime, deportations of Jews, and the country's self-imposed isolation have left many Swiss feeling distinctly uneasy how the rest of world sees the country.

But results from a four-year study, conducted by the National Science Foundation, suggest that Switzerland's reputation has emerged more or less intact, despite the scandals of recent years. Indeed, the study found that Europeans continue to take little interest in Switzerland, with the vast majority holding stereotypical views of the country as a land of cows, chocolate and cheese.

"The image is not so bad," said Laurent Goetschel, head of the research project. "I think Switzerland still has a solid reputation among its neighbours. But there are certain areas in which the country should be more aware of the effects of its policies on its image."

The news will be welcomed by those who feared Switzerland had become an international pariah. But, as Goetschel pointed out, the survey also suggests that Switzerland needs to change the way it deals with the world, especially by becoming an active participant in the international community.

The survey canvassed the opinions of 16,000 politicians, business leaders, and members of the public across the European Union. It also monitored the content of five well-known news publications to assess the quantity and nature of their coverage of Switzerland.

Overall, European countries had a positive image of Switzerland, with the notable exception of the Netherlands and Denmark, where public outrage over Swiss banks' dealings with the Nazis is still very strong.

The survey organiser, Michal Arend, said he was surprised by these findings. "In these two countries, public opinion about Switzerland is very negative. This contrasts with other EU nations, where the public seems supportive of the Swiss. In Britain, for example, the media and not the public, were found to be highly critical of Switzerland."

The survey of news publications, including The Economist and Der Spiegel, was less encouraging. Few made any mention of Switzerland, and when articles did appear they were predominately negative.

Significantly, the opposite was true among business leaders and politicians. Across Europe, they were overwhelmingly positive about Switzerland, praising its political systems, economic structure and performance, and its strong humanitarian tradition. Except in the Netherlands and Denmark, the public concurred, although to a lesser extent.

In other studies, the Swiss government has found that Britain, the United States and Israel are most concerned about the Swiss banks dealings with Nazi Germany. In much of continental Europe, though, Switzerland's refusal to get closer to its European neighbours is seen as most damaging to its reputation.

The survey suggested that Europeans with some knowledge of Switzerland believe it's time for the country to shed its "Heidi-land" image, as well as its traditional isolation, and become an active member of the international community.

In sum, the key findings confirmed that Switzerland's reputation has not yet recovered from revelations that its banks did business with the Nazis, and refused to disclose dormant Holocaust-era accounts. International outrage over the issue has lessened, but is still prominent in certain countries and among certain sectors of the population.

More importantly, though, it's clear that the over-riding impression of most Europeans is that Switzerland is an anachronism: a place where yodelling farmers rear cows on Alpine hillsides, where dairies churn out chocolate and cheese, where waist-coated watchmakers squint into the mechanisms of their timepieces.

Convincing the world that the reality is different will need good public relations, but also a willingness among the Swiss to change the way they deal with the world.

by Jonas Hughes

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