NS Profile - Switzerland

T S Eliot wept here, while Thomas Mann wrote a novel about a man with a hacking cough. A good place

From Leighton Buzzard to Zurich - what a miserable pilgrimage route to death this must have been for Robert and Jennifer Stokes, the couple who killed themselves recently by drinking sodium pentobarbital poison (£55 a pop, under the auspices of the Swiss non-profit organisation Dignitas). Had they travelled to Rome, or Rio de Janeiro, or Barcelona, perhaps the clouds in their minds might have lifted just briefly enough to see the flash of a better day ahead. But Zurich? Their destination could only have hastened their decision.

When T S Eliot was having a nervous breakdown in 1921, he decided to go to Switzerland. He sat down on the shores of Lake Leman and wept, and then went back to his sanatorium to immortalise his misery in "The Waste Land". Eliot survived the trip to Switzerland, but there is no evidence that his stay cured him of his "emotional derangement". Indeed, Switzerland seems to have attracted only the most melancholic and maladjusted of imaginations. I cannot think of a single book or film that treats the subject or the idea of Switzerland (as opposed merely to the location) with levity, with lightness of touch, with anything approaching celebration. When Thomas Mann visited his wife Katya in Davos for four weeks in 1912, he caught a heavy cold. More than a decade later, this had matured into the hacking cough of the psychoneurotic Hans Castorp, protagonist of The Magic Mountain, surely the most depressing examination of moral and physical inertia ever written. Albert Einstein came here to work in the Toblerone factory - but quickly made his exit to America. Charlie Chaplin spent his last years in Switzerland. But there is nothing to suggest that he found it an amusing place to live (though he might have laughed at the fate of his corpse, which was stolen and held to ransom for weeks, before his family finally retrieved it for burial).

Other than to have a nervous breakdown, or to die, is there any reason to visit Switzerland? If you're a millionaire like Mohamed Al Fayed, Phil Collins, Jean-Luc Godard or Jackie Stewart, you would probably argue that Switzerland has much to recommend it. Income tax varies depending on the canton you inhabit, but is always under 30 per cent. The wealth tax is under 1 per cent and there is no capital gains tax whatever. You don't have to entertain in your house (most Swiss don't have drawing rooms, as they rarely invite anybody in, preferring to meet at restaurants or social clubs), and you can enjoy some of the most relaxed alcohol and drugs laws in the world. But if you are on the other end of the social scale you may not subscribe to this sunny Swiss scenario: 2 per cent of the population owns 42 per cent of the country's wealth; if you are one of the 1.2 million foreigners working in Switzerland, you are banned from voting even in the local elections - and you live in the knowledge that every time a reform of your insignificant status is put to the electorate, the good Swiss burghers vote almost unanimously against giving you any more rights.

What is Switzerland? It is not an ethnic, linguistic or religious entity. As a country, it had literally to will itself into existence by the resolve of its citizens, who in 1848 approved the formation of a federal state. Swiss proponents of the Enlightenment - Jean-Jacques Rousseau (born to French Huguenot refugees in Geneva) and Emmerich de Vattel - greatly influenced Thomas Jefferson and, ultimately, the evolution of American concepts of democracy. Switzerland can be viewed as the perfect working model for the Enlightenment state, whose key political idea Rousseau formulated as the total voluntary subjection of every individual to the collective will.

The commitment to consensus in Switzerland is such that it can contain a country of four languages, many more dialects, 26 cantons and 2,903 communes, all with fierce loyalties and bitter political conflicts. Seven million people living in an area half the size of Scotland enjoy extraordinary economic wealth, which has replaced the miserable poverty of barely a century ago.

But Switzerland's much-vaunted system of "direct democracy" and the "people's initiative" can slow down, as well as accelerate, political reform. Women's suffrage was finally passed only in 1971. Even so, it was not until the 1980s that women were granted the right to vote in cantonal elections. In the small eastern canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden, where votes are still counted from a show of hands at the Landsgemeinde, or open-air meeting, women were not enfranchised until 1990.

Clearly, a decentralised state has to work hard to pull together a coherent sense of national purpose and identity. All national myths are prophylactics, protection against the undesirability of reality. Just so in Switzerland, whose stereotypes are implausibly benign: of lederhosen-clad, rosy-cheeked mountain people yodelling to each other across the valleys; of the neutral state par excellence, the epitome of stability, above the squabbles of other nations; of a "lifeboat" into which refugees - from the Huguenots of the 17th century to the anti-fascists of the 20th - can clamber; of the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention, both cherished symbols of a rich humanitarian tradition.

What is this Swiss neutrality (granted in perpetuity by the Congress of Vienna in 1815) that needs to be defended by the largest and most costly army (per capita) in Europe, an army whose opaque mannerbund elite dominate not only the military, but the civilian establishment as well? What about the bankers and financiers who manipulate the world's currency system for their own ends ("If you see a Swiss banker jump out of the window, jump after him. There's bound to be money in it," Voltaire reputedly once advised)? Evidence of Switzerland's role in laundering vast amounts of securities, currencies, works of art and Nazi assets during the Second World War, under cover of neutrality, has led one historian to describe this tiny Alpine country as a prime accomplice in "the greatest robbery in history". The robbery continues, with private Swiss banks handling an estimated one thousand billion Swiss francs of capital in flight from the developing world, according to the Erklarung von Bern, an independent group monitoring Swiss banking practice).

Then there is the Red Cross. This inscrutable institution, accountable to no outside body, is governed by up to 25 elderly Swiss lawyers and businessmen whose predecessors on the International Committee whitewashed conditions in the Nazi concentration camps. Allied intelligence reportedly viewed Red Cross officials as nothing more than Nazi agents. Indeed, recently declassified documents from 1943 disclose that the US Joint Chiefs of Staff were so concerned about the role of the Swiss in supporting Nazi Germany that they recommended a total economic blockade on Switzerland. Their advice, however, was rejected by President Roosevelt.

Equally, the Swiss lifeboat myth needs some revision. In 1930, the number of Swiss and foreign Jews living in the country was between 0.4 per cent and 0.5 per cent of the total population. In the wake of Nazi persecution, this figure rose steadily, though not dramatically. In 1938, however, the government secretly and successfully pressed the Nazis to mark German Jewish passports with a distinguishing stamp (a red "J"), so that Swiss border officials could more easily pick them out at the frontier and deny them admission. In August 1938, the Swiss government further decreed that all Jewish refugees without a visa should be turned back at the borders. Those who managed to cross illegally were caught and sent back across the frontier. Only when the war had clearly turned against the Nazis did the Swiss government find the courage to change its policies. New research indicates that the Swiss turned away 39,000 European Jews during the Second World War. Against this, it should be noted that approximately 25,000 Jews were accepted during these years, though many found themselves in ski resorts that had been hastily redesignated as sites for forced-labour camps.

Today, as compensation deals are belatedly negotiated on behalf of Europe's plundered Jewry, a quarter of the Swiss electorate has given its endorsement to demagogues such as Christoph Blocher, a wealthy, populist businessman-politician who opposes the "foreign Jewish organisations that want money from us". Blocher's rise testifies to a high level of xenophobia. Blocher and his Swiss People's Party made big gains in the 1999 election on an anti-Europe, anti-UN, anti-asylum-seekers and anti-socialist ticket. He plays to what Jean Ziegler, professor of sociology at Geneva and the Sorbonne, and a former member of the Swiss parliamentary foreign affairs committee, has described as a "mania for self-righteousness, guiltlessness and perpetual purity".

Switzerland, Ziegler claims, has consumed more peace and democracy than it has produced. Neutrality has provided a convenient smokescreen - although it should be pointed out that there are few nations on earth which have not benefited from this neutrality. Even those suicide tourists who end up on trestles in Swiss morgues can avail themselves of its privileges. You can arrive at the Zurich apartment of Dignitas in the afternoon, and be dead by the evening. The organisation is the epitome of neutralism, providing as it does an exit from this world unhindered by awkward examinations of conscience.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The global backlash