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What does neutrality mean for Switzerland, Georg Kreis?

Text: Georg Kreis

From participation in international alliances to its stance on the war in Ukraine – Swiss neutrality is in a constant state of renegotiation within Switzerland. A historian and a political scientist reflect on how the role of Switzerland in the international community has developed over time and how it is defined today.

Drawn portrait of Georg Kreis
Prof. Dr. Georg Kreis. (Illustration: Studio Nippoldt)

If we look at history, we see that there is no fixed interpretation of Swiss neutrality and that its implementation is always situation specific. We should therefore really speak about “neutralities”, in the plural. While neutrality is always there as a basic principle, in practice it is observed in different ways. What is generally said – and written – about neutrality tends to follow the same patterns, but the intensity of debate on the issue fluctuates over time.  The annual ETH surveys on neutrality, which show consistently high levels of support for the policy, demonstrate that neutrality is a key element of the collective Swiss sense of identity, but what is meant by it remains an open question. However, the solution is not to codify an interpretation that meets our main needs at present by redefining neutrality in more precise terms as “active”, “co-operative”, “supportive” and so on.

The traditionalist view seeks to locate the origins of Swiss neutrality as far back in the past as possible in order to give it the greatest possible significance. Neutrality first became significant in the 17th century, during the religiously motivated international conflicts of the Thirty Years’ War, which threatened the unity of the religiously mixed Swiss Confederation. Later, too, Switzerland’s theoretically neutral stance in relation to the outside world always had the function of ensuring that no further conflicts arose within the country itself.

The recognition of Swiss neutrality as “in the interests of Europe” by the powers at the Congress of Vienna in 1814–15 was an important milestone in the concept’s subsequent development. For the advocates of neutrality, the fact that Switzerland was not directly affected by the great military conflicts of the 20th century is proof that it has stood the test of time, although during World War II, in particular, there were other reasons for this, such as Switzerland’s usefulness as a financial hub.

Georg Kreis is Emeritus Professor of Modern History and the History of Switzerland at the University of Basel and was the founding director of the Institute for European Global Studies. He is the author of numerous publications on Swiss history, Switzerland’s foreign relations and minorities.

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