The Swiss: an ethnically homogenous people?

By Nicolas Gehrig

Since the 2000s, the Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP – Swiss People’s Party) has become strongly involved in debates on immigrants, citizenship, and the integration of foreigners. In 2015, the party achieved an electoral record in the Federal Assembly elections, snagging 30 percent of the Seats. But the party has been making headlines long before that. Throughout the last ten to fifteen years, the party has consistently been under fire for many of the promotional materials it used to defend its position in country-wide referendums, especially those concerning immigration and their integration into Switzerland. The main point of criticism, is that like many other populist-right wing nationalistic parties, the SVP has also bought into the trend of depicting foreigners as posing a threat to Switzerland and its very identity. And this is where the crux of the problem lies. In its attempt to depict foreigners as posing a threat to Switzerland, its people, and its identity, the SVP has inadvertently conceptualised Swiss identity on an ethnically homogenous line, which this article argues is not a constitutive element of Swiss identity. It is argued instead, that a look at the history of the Swiss state and nation, shows that things such as ethnicity and homogeneity were never thought of as core values on which the Swiss identity is built on.  

This starts with the idea that Switzerland has been, and still is, defined as a Willensnation – a nation that exists and that is held together as the result of its inhabitants’ own decision. This adherence to the concept of Switzerland being a Willensnation brought forth, over the centuries, a common appreciation of political values such as direct democracy, federalism and neutrality, and the acceptance and appreciation of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-cultural nature of Swiss nationhood. The latter two values, in particular, are often seen as crucial elements of Swiss identity: the fact that four different language groups managed to live side-by-side peacefully and under one political system is a matter of considerable pride for the ordinary Swiss citizen. This harmony between the different ethnic and language groups is further reinforced by the fact that Cantonal borders are not based on language either.

Bern, 20. 5. 2003 Copyright Peter Mosimann: Kuppel
Willensnation: Unus Pro Omnibus, Omnes Pro Uno (one for all, all for one). Ceiling in the Swiss Federal Palace

It has to be acknowledged of course, that this idea of Swiss identity, and the values attributed to it, is in no sense primordial and, like many other national identities, it changed and evolved throughout history. For example, the founding of the Old Swiss Confederacy in the 14th century had nothing to do with ethnicity or identity. Cantons joined together not because of common values, but because of security concerns and the desire to defend themselves against the common Habsburg enemy. Furthermore, the expansion of the Confederacy, and the addition of new Cantons, most often happened through conquest and the purchasing of land. However, the survival of the Swiss confederacy through the tumultuous history of Europe, and its unique form of political system, did over the centuries evolve into an appreciation of common values among individual Swiss cantons. The 19th century in particular was a turning point in regards to the construction of the Swiss identity. Awareness of the rising tides of nationalism in neighbouring countries, and in an attempt to prevent internal divisions, led to an explicit effort to strengthen and maintain Swiss identity along the lines of the Willensnation. It was indeed in the late 19th century where the term Willensnation became the catchword characterising Swiss identity. This kind of civic nationalism emphasized Switzerland’s long adhesion to shared constitutional rule, and the fact that the Swiss were a nation explicitly not built on homogeneous and ethnic foundations.

This conceptualisation of Swiss identity survived the test of time: neither the ethnic nationalisms of the First and Second World War were able to decouple the Swiss identity from its common political values and appreciation of internal diversity. It was in fact during times of crises where the idea of Switzerland as a Willensnation was firmly re-established, to the extent that it survives to this day. The term continues to be used as a description of the country in speeches celebrating national days, and the values associated to it are salient to this day. A survey done in 2014 asked Swiss citizens the question of what it means to be a good Swiss citizen. The two most important figures from this survey are the 79.9 percent of people that believe that one can still be a good citizen even if one is only a naturalized Swiss citizen (i.e. not originally born in Switzerland), and the 64 percent that see one as a bad Swiss citizen if one never votes. These sentiments clearly reinforce the notions that ethnicity traditionally plays a limited role in the constitution of Swiss identity, whereas participation in the direct democracy is seen as an important part of Swiss identity.

Consequently, a brief look at the history of the construction of Swiss identity shows that it is not grounded on a homogenous ethnic and linguistic community. This in turn, shows that the way the SVP conceptualises Swiss identity in its political campaigns is nothing short of erroneous, and even antithetical to its claims of representing the Swiss people.

The SVP, being on the right/conservative side of the political spectrum, claims the represent the traditional values of Switzerland and the Swiss people. And, in many ways, it does just that, being a strong supporter of Swiss armed neutrality and protection of Swiss sovereignty, especially vis-à-vis the EU, and a fervent supporter of Swiss direct democracy. As a result, the SVP does claim to uphold many of the values that form a core part of Swiss identity. Furthermore, the party is not actively attempting to create a new Swiss identity based on ethnicity and homogeneity, as this would contradict their traditionalist claims.  However, like many other right-wing parties in Europe, the SVP has realised that immigrant bashing gets one a lot of votes. Consequently, the party has spearheaded several initiatives and referendums over the past years that aim at curbing inflows of foreigners, forceful deportation of foreigners who committed crimes, and fighting against the easing of Switzerland’s stringent naturalisation laws.

Wachhund Willy: The SVP’s official mascot. A Bernese Mountain Dog seemingly protecting traditional Swiss values

In its campaigning of these initiatives, the party has depicted foreigners as threatening Switzerland on several fronts, including its identity and culture, and in the process, has relied on depicting the Swiss people as forming one ethnically homogenous nation. For example, the infamous sheep poster used in 2010 and 2016 referendum for the forced deportation of foreigners convicted of even minor crimes, depicts a herd of white sheep kicking out the black sheep. The racial connotations are obvious, but what this poster also shows is the conceptualisation of the Swiss people as one ethnically (white) homogenous identity. The racial connotations are also significant, as it links a set of normative identities to both sides based on their ethnicity and place of origin. A 2008 poster used to prevent the easing of naturalization of foreigners, depicts primarily dark-skinned hands making a grab for Swiss passports, further reiterating the idea that the SVP is portraying Switzerland as being under attack by foreigner due to their ethnicity.

Poster used during the 2008 campaign to prevent the easing of the stringent Swiss naturalization laws

Therefore, the SVP is not only undermining its own claims to representing traditional Swiss values and identities, but it is also actively undermining some of the very values that make up Swiss identity. Its homogenization of the Swiss along ethnic lines, and its fear of Switzerland being undermined by foreign races and cultures goes against the very multi-ethnic and multi-cultural nature of the country, in a sense creating an exclusionary multi-culturalism. In addition to this, because the SVP is far from being a fringe party, its exclusionary conception of Swiss identity based on ethnicity and homogeneity has real societal consequences, such as the normalization of xenophobic discourses. There needs to be a realization that not only does Switzerland benefit immensely from its immigrant population, but also that the ethnicity of its foreign population should pose no threat to Swiss identity. Rather, the inclusion and acceptance of more cultures would further help to reinforce the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-lingual character of the country, reinforcing a core feature of Swiss identity.

The Alps have often been linked to common Swiss values. Mountains in general, are thought to have a “purifying effect on human beings”. It’s a shame that this purifying effect seems to be lost on the SVP.



Further Reading:

Roberta Maggi Neo-Orientalism and the fear of ‘seeing’ the other in contemporary Switzerland

‘A Swiss anomaly? A relational account of national boundary-making’ – Andreas Wimmer.

Church, Clive H., and Randolph Conrad Head. A Concise History of Switzerland. New York: Cambridge UP, 2013

‘The Swiss Radical Right in Perspective’ – Damir Skenderovic 

The evolving Swiss identity: 1964-2014 – Simon Bradley




Featured Image: HTMi (Singapore) wishes everyone a Happy Swiss National Day!


Nicolas Gehrig is a third year International Relations student at King’s College London with a particular interest in Political Economy and European History.

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