Opinion |

The Swiss Alps Seem Quaint Until You Learn the Truth About Their Residents

It turns out that the more pastoral a place looks, the more it’s swarming with racists and nationalists

Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany
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A goat sitting on a rock in Switzerland.
A goat sitting on a rock in Switzerland.Credit: JTB Photo / Getty Images
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

The world, we know, is becoming homogeneous. Uniformity prevails. We travel long distances in order to experience a different place, but see exactly what we saw at home. The landscape is undergoing uniformization. Wherever we go, there are the same branches of international chains, the same apparel, the same smartphones, the same shops with the same fast food. These are the same tourists you saw in Madrid or Petra – you know them and they know you.

I’m in Switzerland, at a conference. It’s nice here. Waterfalls gushing from the mountains, huge goats grazing on expanses of grass. It seems to me that I even saw a female goose-herder, like in the tales of the Brothers Grimm. Tourism, too, seems a bit outmoded here: hotels with reception-desk clerks attired in faded brown-and-white vests. At dusk, the all-male orchestra positions itself next to the hotel entrance and plays French horns. How pastoral everything is in Switzerland! Pastoral and idyllic, with simple, good people, uncorrupted by the modern world.

At least that’s what I’d have thought, if I hadn’t read in the local paper that in Kandersteg, the region I have been staying in, 48 percent of the votes in the last federal elections went to the right-wing, nationalist Swiss People’s Party. Furthermore, it turns out that this very village was the youthful haunt of the party’s leader, Albert Rösti, and also of one of its previous leaders, Adolf Ogi. The latter even has a sitting corner in the hotel named for him.

What a pity that newspapers exist. If I hadn’t read them, I’d probably have thought that the residents of Kandersteg are pleasant, humanitarian types. All those rosy-cheeked village girls serving rosti, all those solidly built goat milkers. But it turns out that the more pastoral a place looks, the more it’s swarming with racists and nationalists. The more like a postcard it appears, the more politically benighted it is. The purer the sausage, the more authoritarian the personality structure. Best not to think about what the little goose girl would have been doing had she lived 75 years ago.

In contrast to Germany and Austria, Switzerland was not destroyed by bombing in World War II. Whereas the other German-speaking countries rebuilt themselves after the war, based on universalist ideas, Switzerland wallows in a mystique of continuity. The houses in the country look like old German houses, possibly what you’d see in Heidelberg or Freiburg. But many of them have small signs on them with a verse from the Scriptures and the year of their construction – 1512, 1561, 1570. They were built before the Cold War, World War II, World War I, the Franco-Prussian War, the Napoleonic wars, the Seven Years’ War, the Thirty Years’ War. Before the whole of German history, in essence. Through all those years the residents continued to make their cheeses. But all that only makes the local culture parochial and cantankerous.

The situation is even grimmer in the adjacent canton, Valais. Here the local leaders actively encourage the inhabitants to wear traditional attire in public, in order to preserve the ancient cultural heritage (and that, of course, also brings tourists to the district). At the same time, the political mood in this mountainous district to the south is notably isolationist. Many of the residents there don’t make do with the demand that Switzerland stay out of the European Union – they are also opposed to the very idea of the Swiss Confederation itself. As usual, this isolationism is accompanied by hostility toward everything perceived as foreign. But because Valais has almost no immigrants, local politicians direct their aggression at a different victim: wild animals.

The wolf population in the region began to grow in the 1990s, thanks to laws intended to protect wild animals. For the locals, the wolves are “foreign interlopers” that were brought by the bleeding hearts from the big cities. “The people in Valais view the wolves as foreign intervention, an alien entity,” a local conservation activist told the German paper Süddeutsche Zeitung. Nationalist politicians slyly encourage citizens to break the law and shoot the wolves, as an expression of autonomy and what they see as a healthy popular sentiment. Villagers who have shot wolves have gained the status of heroes, like Elor Azaria, the “Hebron shooter.”

The chief agitator in this regard is Oskar Freysinger, the leader of the cantonal branch of the Swiss People’s Party, who also played a key role in the campaign that led to a ban on the building of minarets on mosques in Switzerland. The campaign drew the support of right-wing parties in Austria and Germany, which are also inciting against their own, local wolves.

A campaign posters of the far-right Swiss People's Party depicting a woman wearing a burqa against a background of a Swiss flag upon which several minarets resembling missiles October 26, 2009 in ZuriCredit: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

The price of conservation

Swiss xenophobia is one of the phenomena that pull the rug out from under the learned explanations for the rise of the far right in Europe. It’s said that the right has drawn strength from the economic crisis of the past decade, but Switzerland is as rich and sated as ever. It’s said that the right wing is on the rise because of the influx of Muslim refugees, but there are no foreigners at all in Kandersteg and similar districts. Muslims account for less than 1 percent of the population in the town. It’s a safe bet that many far-right voters have never encountered a Muslim – Sunni, Shi’ite or other – anywhere other than their television screen. It turns out that among the causes of the right-wing surge, we have to number also narrow-mindedness and plain conservatism. And those traits are closely connected with the effort to preserve the local heritage.

From this point of view, Switzerland exemplifies one of the great paradoxes of tourism. We go to a different country in order to acquaint ourselves with a different reality. We long for someplace authentic, where uniformity hasn’t infringed, a place that has successfully resisted globalization and is preserving its difference and distinctiveness. But preserving a heritage comes with a price. Politically, opposition to globalization often assumes an ugly form: xenophobia and electoral support for nationalist parties. Right-wing parties fawn over ostensibly delightful traditions such as local beer and a rural way of life. Three months ago, the Venice Municipality decided to prohibit the opening of shawarma stands in the city’s streets. The desire to “preserve cultural heritage” dovetails clearly with enmity toward Muslims.

“Europe is changing,” “Europe isn’t what it used to be,” tourists cluck when they return home from a visit to the Continent. But maybe the problem with Europe is different in character: that it’s not changing enough. All the movements to preserve the baguette, to eradicate smartphones and to lead a “slow life” are generally another name for xenophobic and antipathetic politics. The Europeans view themselves as animals of the wild in need of conservation, for protection in the face of globalization. But very often it’s hard to say who’s becoming extinct and who’s causing the extinction.

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