Switzerland’s Neutrality, Independence, and Federal Cohesion

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

A Webinar with Dr. Peter Lehmann
Date: November 1, 2023
Time: 8:00 (Washington DC), 13:00 (Berne), 21:00 (Tokyo)
Place: Online Via Zoom.
Link: https://temple.zoom.us/j/91734067732
Meeting ID: 917 3406 7732
To sign up and receive a reminder write to [email protected]

Neutrality …

… has been an integral part of the Swiss political self-image for decades and enjoys a largely undisputed high esteem among the Swiss population. But this was not always the case. When, on November 20, 1815, the major European powers signed the document confirming Switzerland’s perpetual neutrality, its reputation had reached a low point. In the storms of the Napoleonic era the Confederates had obviously failed to maintain their independence, which was already understood at the time as a prerequisite for neutrality. Since 1798, Switzerland had been a de facto French protectorate. Accordingly, the neutrality of the Swiss Confederation was discredited. 

At the same time …

… however, neutralized Switzerland formed a central buffer zone in the post-war order of the anti-Napoleonic alliance. In order to fulfil its intended role as a buffer state, the Confederation had to restore confidence in its neutrality. To do so, it was necessary to repair the gaffes of the years from 1798 to 1815 at least rhetorically. The point was to make clear that Switzerland after 1815 was not comparable to that of 1798, that it had gained and would continue to gain internal strength. This inner strength was to come from the Swiss coming closer together by adopting the Confederation as their common fatherland, not their respective cantons of origin. But internal strength also had to be based on institutional improvements. Especially national defence had to be brought to a level worthy of that name. Neutrality functioned as an argument in political disputes, but the real issues were the internal organization of the Confederation and its relationship to surrounding powers. For this purpose, reform discourses of the second half of the 18th century were used, with the goal of strengthening the Confederation economically and militarily and to reduce its dependence on the great powers. After 1815, these reform discourses were linked to the question of how to shape perpetual neutrality and stylize it into a central component of Switzerland’s raison d’être. This makes it understandable why the new perpetual neutrality became important for the emerging Swiss national feeling. 

This lecture…

… is not intended to trace the “history of neutrality” of Switzerland. Rather, the aim is to ask which framework conditions were considered indispensable for the maintenance of neutrality around 1815. It ties in with research on political and economic reforms, but also on the construction of national identities in 19th century Switzerland. At the same time, the consideration of the interpretation of neutrality reveals the tension between integration in Europe and demarcation from Europe, and thus the European character of Swiss history. The recognition of perpetual neutrality shows most clearly the close entanglement with the European policy of equilibrium, while its subsequent interpretation emphasized the distance to the surrounding nations, the own independence, and the strengthening of national cohesion.

Dr. Peter Lehmann…

…studied history, theology, and business administration at the University of Bern and received 2018 his PhD from the University of Lausanne. Since 2009 he teaches history and religion at the Kantonsschule (high school) Solothurn. He is the author of the German language work Die Umdeutung der Neutralität. Eine politische Ideengeschichte der Eidgenossenschaft vor und nach 1815 (The Reinterpretation of Neutrality: A Political History of the Swiss Confederation Before and After 1815), Schwabe: Basel. 2020.