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Switzerland "no longer a special case"

The 78-year-old author at his desk in Zurich Ex-press

Swiss author Hugo Loetscher has called for a new form of federalism that reaches beyond the country's borders.

This content was published on March 30, 2008 - 10:16

He says Switzerland has no reason to believe it is so different from other countries and warns that the federalist structure could be an obstacle for integrating into Europe.

Loetscher told swissinfo that many of his compatriots are shocked by the thought that they are no better than everybody else.

The 78-year-old author from Zurich is an unrelenting critic and observer of political and social life, on a par with Max Frisch and Friedrich Dürrenmatt - two literary heavyweights of 20th century Switzerland. Unlike Dürrenmatt however, Loetscher never compared life in Switzerland to living in jail.

swissinfo: You have travelled a lot and yet you never complained about Switzerland's perceived narrow mindedness. Does the country look bigger from a distance?

Hugo Loetscher: I think the attitude towards your home country changes in more than one way when you've been abroad. You become more critical of it, but you also discover characteristics you haven't been aware of before.

At the same time you begin to notice that many things once considered typically Swiss, are not uniquely Swiss at all. They are a variation of something that exists elsewhere too.

Take Switzerland's multilingual situation. Egypt for instance is in a similar situation with standard Arabic and its dialect.

swissinfo: Switzerland is a small country and it is reduced even further by its federalist structure. Why is it not possible to have a more centralised system?

H. L.: It is the history of Switzerland. It began as a loose alliance of autonomous states which formed a federation.

Such a structure was indispensable to preserve the cultural diversity of the country. The country has its roots in German-speaking central Switzerland. French or Romansh language regions only joined later.

But many elements that used to be crucial from a federalist point of view have become obsolete. The education system is a good example. We have more than 20 different school systems. But this obviously doesn't make sense in an increasingly globalised and mobile society.

That's when federalism becomes an obstacle for European integration. What we need is a new style of federalism that goes beyond Swiss, and possibly also outside European borders.

swissinfo: Switzerland is in the heart of Europe but has not joined the European Union. How damaging is it to stay outside the 27-nation bloc?

H. L.: The debate for and against European integration is not new for my generation. It was an issue of utmost importance for us who had witnessed the Second World War. No more war was our slogan.

I'm deeply convinced that Switzerland should join the EU. It is wrong for the Swiss to stand on the sidelines. A Swiss citizen is a citizen of Europe by default.

Our cultures inherently have a cross-border dimension. Geneva looks to France, Bellinzona looks to the Italian city of Milan and Zurich is oriented towards Germany's capital, Berlin.

The point is that the notion of a centre and the periphery is no longer valid. Portugal was once a far-away country on the fringes of Europe. But it held the EU presidency not long ago.

There has been this sea change in a globalised world. Every point on a globe can be the centre. It is imperative for us to understand other cultures and religions.

swissinfo: What role does Switzerland have in Europe?

H. L.: I'm not sure I agree with those who praise Switzerland's federalist system as a role model for others.

We were lucky that Switzerland was founded in the 19th century when the country was relatively homogenous. It has become a lot more difficult in a society of such diverse origins and religious beliefs.

People of Albanian or Portuguese mother tongue in Switzerland outnumber Romansh speakers in the country.

I would put it like this. Let's turn into a country amidst other countries to find our identity again.

It is a balancing act and you have to choose between your traditions and new influences from the outside. Switzerland has to find its own way like many other countries.

We perceive Switzerland as a rural country. Heidi and the mountains are still part of our consciousness. But Switzerland is a high-tech enterprise. Our mountains have been hollowed out to house fashion boutiques.

swissinfo: In what way can Switzerland claim to be different and special?

H. L.: I don't know a single country that is not unique and special. Historically speaking we were lucky enough to remain neutral during the Second World War which defined and justified our claim to be a special case, - or Sonderfall as it's called in German.

Apart from that there is indeed nothing about Switzerland that distinguishes our country from the others and makes us special.

An author from Zurich described Switzerland as a special case back in the 18th century. He said the average Swiss considered himself to be among the chosen ones, as he wrote.

Here's a provocative and subversive thought: We are probably as ordinary as the rest of Europe. It is a view many Swiss find shocking because they maintain that we can't be like the others.

swissinfo-interview: Corinne Buchser and Susanne Schanda

In brief

Hugo Loetscher, born in 1929, is among Switzerland's best-known living authors.

Der Immune (The Immune Man), published in 1975, is probably his most important book.

Loetscher studied philosophy, sociology and literature at Zurich University and in Paris.

He was a member of the editorial team of the monthly culture magazine Du and worked for the Weltwoche weekly between 1958-1969.

Since the 1960s Loetscher has travelled extensively in Europe, Latin America and southeast Asia.

He has been guest lecturer at universities in California, New York, Munich, Porto and Fribourg.

In 1992 he was given Switzerland's most prestigious literary award – the Great Schiller Prize. Other laureates include Max Frisch, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Maurice Chappaz, Giorgio Orelli, Chales Ferdinand Ramuz and Carl Spitteler.

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