TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

On Switzerland and the Virtues of Pacifism

Each Tuesday in the TELOSscope blog, we reach back into the archives and highlight an article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Etel Sverdlov looks at Rick Johnstone’s “Ethnic Purges and Neighborly Pacts: Reflections on a Swiss Statue,” from Telos 115 (Spring 1999).

Optimism can never be overrated. It is simply too easy, when examining the world with a keen eye, to become lost within daily strife. For this reason, I found Rick Johnstone’s article “Ethnic Purges and Neighborly Pacts: Reflections on a Swiss Statue” particularly refreshing. Within his text, he traces the development and achievements of Switzerland, emphasizing the modesty of their political ambitions as one of the causes for their success. What saturates the article, however, more than anything, is a committed positive outlook concerning the Swiss. Johnstone glories in their pacifism and applauds them for their tolerance. When analyzing national policy, most people judge countries by what they have accomplished; Johnstone, on the other hand, steps through the looking glass and rejoices in what the Swiss have not done. And what they have not done is a lot. He points out with satisfaction the lack of war monuments to the fallen of World War I in Swiss villages: they had no desire to die by machine-gun fire in the muddy trenches. He emphasizes their invisibility on the political scene: “People jest that no one knows who is the President of Switzerland. . . . If no one knows who the President of Switzerland is, that is because it does not matter, and if it does not matter, that is not because Switzerland is not a success, but because it is, and because its success comes not from above, but from below.” He praises the most useless weapon of war, the Swiss Army Knife—a symbol, with its miniature corkscrew and scissors, of self-reliance and autonomy.

Have we therefore been asking the wrong questions of countries? Perhaps in the quiet progress of Switzerland, it is possible to see a contrast with the grand gestures of other nations. The beginning of democracy for the Swiss began with the Oath of the Reutli, where rather than, for example, locking themselves in a tennis court in order to lessen the power of the monarch as the French did at the outset of the Revolution, the people of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden signed a treaty for mutual assistance. Johnstone describes it as “a kind of pre-Enlightenment democracy, that was not based on abstract concepts about human rights.” As trivial as such a difference may seem, the very concreteness of the terms may have offset any danger of ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansing, a term usually relegated to dictatorships and the more gruesome parts of history, seems unnervingly common within the story of developed countries. It is not unnecessary to commend the Swiss on avoiding what so many other kingdoms could not. The land of the Magna Carta alternated between prosecuting the Catholics and Protestants, depending on the monarch in power. The country that wrote the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man descended upon enemies of the state without mercy during the Revolutionary period. Even the originators of the Declaration of Independence cannot consider themselves absolved, for the Americans, if nothing else (and there is much else), treated the native settlers of the continent with unbearable cruelty.

Switzerland, therefore, accustomed to acting moderately and lacking desire for nationalistic conquest, used their peaceful tradition not only to side-step internal brutality but to avoid the First World War. The philosophy of 1960s America, “make love not war,” was in fact a more extreme version of the Swiss attitude toward conquest. Although they defended themselves fiercely in defensive campaigns, the lack of interest in external recognition and glory separated them from their more idealistic, and perhaps crueler, neighbors. Thus Johnstone asks the question, “Where were Swiss peasants during the Battle of the Somme? They were in the Alps making cheese. . . .  ‘No, I’m sorry, I can’t make it to the trenches, I have to milk my cow, so I guess I’ll have to miss all that glory.'”

One can tell that Johnstone derives great pleasure in recounting the actions of the Swiss over the centuries. His laudatory analysis of the Switzerland, although bordering on a panegyric, does raise questions on whether loftier principles may often unite with baser morality. “Ethnic Purges and Neighborly Pacts: Reflections on a Swiss Statue,” acts, therefore, as convincing praise for political inaction and a cheerful commendation of the peaceful life.

Read the full version of Rick Johnstone’s “Ethnic Purges and Neighborly Pacts: Reflections on a Swiss Statue” at the TELOS Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at the low rate of $5/article.

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