The village cluster of Oberwil-Lieli (pop. 2,000) refuses to accept nine refugees during the refugee crisis of 2015. Instead, it insists on paying a fine of CHF 290,000. The decision divides the commune, with half of the locals disagreeing. In true Swiss spirit, it all comes down to tiny referendum.
The first half of the film follows nationalist right politician Andreas Glarner (SVP) as he tries to persuade voters to opt for the fine over the refugees. We’re clearly supposed to think he’s wrong. In the red corner, the zealous young farmer Johanna Gündel does her best to “fight the good fight”.
The results of the referendum are revealed early. We then switch to soundbites from the SVP party conference, snippets of the racist provocateur Glarner visiting the Karamanlis refugee camp in Greece, and hasty historical footage of Schwarzenbach’s Überfremdung initiatives. Other advocates of refugee rights appear and struggle to match Glarner’s intensity.
In an intriguing coda, we discover the repercussions of the vote as the Swiss system of consensus democracy once again whirls towards compromise. The pro-refugee camp’s demands may be met – but it will come at a cost.
Worth a watch?
The film provides general insight into the nature of direct, consensus democracy at Gemeinde level. Unlike most of the rest of the world, many small Swiss communes permit their citizens to cast a decisive vote on local policies. The system should work to give minority views a voice, keep a check on overdominant individuals, and take the sting out of extreme positions. Whether it succeeds or not in Oberwil-Liela is highly debatable.
Why did Willkommen in der Schweiz bother with all that filler, like the archive footage and SVP conference banalities? During the tedious multicultural choir scenes I felt like the filmmaker was treating me like a child. They were not riposte enough to the extensive platform she unwittingly gave Andreas Glarner (see Swissness Lab below).
I longed to get down and dirty with the villagers, visit the pubs and family meals where they debated the issue, and hop into the neighbouring Gemeinde to see how the existing refugees are doing there, all while the referendum narrative bubbles away. The contextualizing cutaways could have provided information we didn’t already know: How does the arrival of refugees really affect communities in the long run, beyond what SVP parrots like Glarner tell us? How did neighbouring boroughs, cantons or even countries address local fears of taking on refugees during this time?
The best scene in the film is a discussion between Swiss restaurant staff on how it was to work with refugees, the differences between the cultures, and the efforts they made to help them integrate. For this one scene we get some insight into what ordinary Swiss voters in a conservative region are thinking. Unsurprisingly, they give varied, thoughtful responses.
Swissness Difficulty Level
The DVD I had was blessed with subs in D, F, I and E.
Found at my local library. Vimeo has it to rent and stream.
Swissness Lab Report: The SVP’s Spiritual Defence of the Nation
To some extent, Willkommen in der Schweiz is complicit in giving a platform to Andreas Glarner, a clever politician with nothing to lose by taking part.
Glarner entered the public consciousness as another SVP Islamophobe provocateur, with campaign flyers such as a bloody knife besides an ISIS emblem and the phrase “Kopf hoch, statt Kopf ab!” (“Heads held high, not severed!”) The Swiss system allows for parallel roles at different levels of government, and at the time of filming Glarner was engaged in Bern as Nationalrat and Oberwil-Lieli as Gemeindesammann (Mayor). In effect, Glarner instrumentalized his commune to make a name for himself.
In his always-excellent Why Switzerland?, Jonathan Steinberg examines the rise of the SVP from the late seventies, characterized by increasing electoral success and an endless torrent of controversial popular initiatives. The populist party’s success, according to Steinberg, is down to two things. Both of these, I argue, are clear in Glarner’s rhetoric.
Clear issues and scapegoating
The first is the SVP’s relentless focus on clear issues which cross party lines and linguistic regions. The most impactful issues to do this always involve scapegoating : “Too many foreigners and it’s all the fault of the European Union.” In Willkommen in der Schweiz, Andreas Glarner uses this argument deftly:
“We’re letting all and sundry in. Criminals and ISIS members come in unchecked. EU borders claim to do checks. But in the Schengen area there are no controls. Anyone can move freely. It’s alarming… [Muslims] threaten Western, Christian culture whilst gaining influence. The quality of life will go down in Switzerland. In a few decades, the neighbouring states will probably have a Muslim majority. That doesn’t bode well for our small country… [I’m talking about] France and Germany. France will definitely be Muslim in a few decades.”
Steinberg notes that this kind of negative messaging particularly resonates with “less well-educated, older, less urban and poorer voters”. The left-wing filmmakers who made Willkommen in der Schweiz would do well to help us understand this demographic if they really want to make progress in this debate.
“Spiritual defence of the nation”
The second ingredient to SVP success is much more positive one, idealizing a very specific type of conservative Swissness: Geistige Landesverteidigung – “spiritual defence of the nation”. This concept traces its roots to the outbreak of the Second World War, using the Gotthard as a symbol for the Swiss state – “The mountain which divides and the pass that unites”.
“Switzerland, in this vision, became more than a small state but rather an idealised version of the original Confederation, a band of comrades bound by oath and symbolised by the might of the Alps… The cold war allowed these patriots to continue to praise the fortress mentality and little Switzerland as the small but virtuous society. The Swiss knew that they were better than anybody else, and their combination of democracy and prosperity proved that.”Jonathan Steinberg, Why Switzerland?
Binding it altogether is a sense of the nation as spiritually elevated, and the sanctity of the cantons and communes within. In secular SVP arguments, this spiritual side may be evoked in soul-stirring patriotism of Sonderfall Schweiz (Swiss exceptionalism):
INTERVIEWER: Can Switzerland survive alone without Europe and the world?
GLARNER: Yes, of course. We’ve just been following suit lately. Switzerland is a successful country. A little more than century ago, it was the poorest in Europe. We managed to get something done with our hard work (Fleiss), tenacity (beharrlichkeit), innovation and research. Well, and bank secrecy. We’ve surrendered all those things.
Later, Glarner invokes a Christian spirituality directly to put him and his party on the side of a higher power:
INTERVIEWER: Might God have issues with you being such a hardliner on asylum policies? Can you justify that before God?
GLARNER: I think as a Christian you should. It can’t be that a Christian is killed every minute and we bring people over here who want to do just that… The Catholic church and all our churches should consider that very carefully.
All in all, Glarner’s rhetoric deceptively simple. Resting on this powerful dual foundation of his party – on the one side the very clear issues which revolve around scapegoating and on the other the “spiritual defence of the nation” – he spins Christian, economic, political and nationalist arguments, morphing them together or splitting them depending on context, polarizing, inciting emotion and always emphasizing the otherness of refugees. For his detractors in the media he breaks out the old Nazi line – “Lügenpresse”, the lying press. This was a year before the term “Fake News” was popularized.
Meanwhile, Glarner’s local opponent – philosophy student and farmer Johanna Gündel – possesses an unfortunate combination of unfocussed religious zeal and monotone delivery. Her passion cannot be faulted, and I personally agree with much of what she says, but Gündel isn’t a politician and her convictions, stemming from the parable of the Good Samaritan, provide neither a logical, point-by-point takedown of Glarner’s inflammatory arguments, nor a suitably weighty counterattack against his juggernaut ideology.
In her final, shaky address to the commune, Gündel is booed.
Make no mistake about it, Glarner won this battle in every way possible. He got his wish to avoid Oberwil-Lieli taking on Muslim refugees, and by finding a “compromise” only had to pay up CHF 50,000 from the commune’s coffers. He showed “grace” by ceding some ground even after winning the referendum; he thereby chastened the 48% who had voted against him, and maintained his position as Gemeindesammann. Above all, he caused a huge stink, and set a dangerous precedent.
In effect, the film unintentionally enables Glarner to fulfil his goals: to solidify his reputation as a migration hardliner, and to infuriate the left.
The assessment of the twin foundation of SVP rhetoric is from Steinberg’s Why Switzerland, 3rd Edition. His analysis of the link between “geistige Landesverteidigung” and the SVP is taken from Thomas Zaugg’s Blocher’s Schweiz.
This website (German) is a quality source with a succint description of the the devlopment and evolution of geistige Landesverteidigung.
NOTE: Steinberg’s discussion is closely linked to the rise of Christoph Blocher since the late seventies. I only skipped over Blocher here to make the text simpler. If you’re new to this: Blocher wasn’t the Swiss Trump, Trump was the American Blocher.