No place in Europe has clung to an anachronistic, airbrushed image longer than Switzerland. The country's oddly entrenched reputation for pristine and inviolable "neutrality" has left it ostensibly so removed from the normal give-and-take of international politics that for many Americans the place could pretty much be summed up with the sugary, beyond-politics appeal of Nestlé chocolate.
In fact, however, the myth of Swiss exceptionalism is increasingly tattered these days. The unraveling of the legend began in the postwar period, accelerating in the 1990s, as more and more stories came out on the Swiss banks' involvement in helping the Nazis and their stubbornness about concealing that role. It didn't help matters that right-wing Swiss political parties continued to make periodic gains, with the Radical Party signaling a turn to the right in the 1983 parliamentary elections, for example, by drawing more votes than the Social Democrats for the first time in 58 years.
Recent months have brought Switzerland into a vortex of unwelcome international publicity, much of this brought on by a flinty, proud brand of Swiss independence that looks less and less charming to the outside world. Burt Neuborne, a New York University professor who served as counsel to Holocaust survivors in wrangling with the Swiss, went so far last year to charge in a widely read Los Angeles Times op-ed that it might be time to dub Switzerland a "rogue state."
Here's how things got this far:
- The Swiss tossed their reputation for tolerance out the window last November with a nationwide referendum to ban minarets. Analysts cited raw fear of an encroaching Islam, but that seemed a far-fetched rationale given that there are an estimated 400,000 Muslims in the country, but a grand total of four minarets.
- Switzerland has found itself in a bizarre war of words with Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, who responded to the jailing of his son on assault charges in Geneva by expelling Swiss diplomats, calling for an anti-Swiss jihad, and even proposing to the U.N. General Assembly that the country be abolished.
- Film director Roman Polanski showed up in Zurich last September to accept a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival, and the longtime French citizen was promptly arrested on a warrant dating back to 1978. Given how squeamish most are about the deeply disturbing Polanski case, dating to his 1970s admission of having sex with an underage girl, the untimely Swiss arrest did the seemingly impossible and generated some sympathy for an admitted sex criminal.
- German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose leadership style is built on unflashy pragmatism and a dislike of headline-grabbing, grabbed headlines in February as word surfaced that Germany was considering making a deal with known thieves to purchase a CD containing information about German tax evaders with Swiss bank accounts, a move that, as the German news weekly Der Spiegel noted, "risk[ed] a falling-out with Switzerland." Later came word that officials in the German state of Baden-Württemberg planned to buy a second CD.
- The huge Swiss bank UBS was forced to make a deal with the United States to provide information on the banking history of thousands of wealthy U.S. citizens implicated in possible tax evasion, rather than risk U.S. legal action, a move that continued to erode the reputation of Swiss banks.
- The controversial euthanasia organization Dignitas has taken advantage of Switzerland's liberal assisted-suicide laws to make the country the world's most popular destination for "suicide tourism." Widespread media coverage of the organization throughout the continent has not done wonders for Switzerland's image.