National Geographic : 1950 Aug
Switzerland Guards the Roof of Europe BY WILLIAM H. NICHOLAS With Illustrations by National Geographic Photographer Willard R. Culver ONE sunny Sunday afternoon in April, a thousand Swiss gathered in a semi circular ring on the castle hill above the town of Sarnen. They wore their somber Sunday suits and black hats. From the window of an old clubhouse be hind them I looked out over their heads to the raised platform we all were facing. There, alongside a medieval church, sat the elders of the community. A few were in traditional flowing robes denoting cantonal office. Obwalden, one of the two half-Cantons of Unterwalden, was holding its annual Lands gemeinde (Country Council), reminiscent of the forums of ancient Greece or Rome, or the town meetings of New England. Here were revealed the roots of Swiss democracy. Any male of the Canton over 20 years of age might have his say on public issues, and could vote for his cantonal officers and the men sent to Bern, the Swiss capital, to represent him in the Federal Government. Beyond the roped-off ring stood women and children, vote less spectators at the annual event. "Showing of Hands" Decides Issues An issue was debated in Swiss-German. The presiding officer put the question. Most of the men raised their hands to vote "aye." The measure was passed. In the year the Magna Carta was signed in England,* the three original Swiss Cantons, of which Obwalden was a part, were voting by this "showing of hands." When feudal lords ruled most of Europe; later, when Na poleon was building his Empire; and still later, when Hitler was forcing totalitarian rule on all Germany, the basis of Swiss government continued to be the "showing of hands." Today in most of the 22 Cantons free elec tions with secret ballot, right of petition, initi ative, and referendum take the place of the cantonal council. But in Glarus, Unterwalden, and Appenzell the councils are held each spring on traditional spots where they have taken place for many centuries.t This Swiss tendency to welcome modern ways but still cling to tried traditions results in many contradictions. One day in Geneva (Geneve) I was sitting at a table of a sidewalk cafe when the noon time whistles blew. From stores and offices people poured forth. They converged upon an open space where a hundred or more bicycles were parked. In a few moments they had joined a growing stream of pedal pushing traffic. On bridges across the Rhone, flowing from Lake of Geneva (Lac Leman) through the heart of the city, traffic soon became so con gested that motorists were slowed down to a crawl. Geneva, en masse, was going home to dinner and would not return until 2 p. m. Dinner in the Evening? Absurd! A few days later I asked an industrialist about the survival of this custom among an alert, hard-working people. "Many manufacturers would like to see the practice abandoned," he told me. "People could come to work later and go home earlier if they would adopt a brief lunch period. They might be more efficient." "However," he added, "there isn't the slightest chance of a change. The Swiss pre fer to take two hours for dinner at midday, and that's that." There are many other contradictions. Switzerland is far from the sea. There are jocular remarks about the Swiss navy and nonexistent Swiss admirals. Yet this inland, mountainous country is famous for its manufacture of huge Diesel marine motors. The Dutch ocean liner Oranje is powered by three Diesel engines of 12,500 horsepower each, built in the industrial city of Winterthur. The watch industry employs 50,000 persons. But in 1949 Swiss machinery exports were of greater value than exports of watches. Swiss heavy machinery goes all over the world. Swiss-built Diesel engines provide the power for a big Shanghai power plant. Many Swiss Diesel locomotives and railway cars operate in South America. Switzerland imports virtually all of its raw materials and huge quantities of food. Every year it buys more than it sells abroad. It receives not a cent in Marshall Plan aid. Yet Swiss currency is the strongest in Europe. By nurturing its important tourist trade and by making wise investments abroad, Switzer land keeps its books balanced. * See "The British Way," by Sir Evelyn Wrench, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, April, 1949. t See "Swiss Cherish Their Ancient Liberties," 21 illustrations, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, April, 1941.