Switzerland celebrates Its 700th anniversary this year. At a historical moment when nations are being pulled apart by the centrifugal forces of ethnic and religious differences, the story of Switzerland is particularly instructive.
On Aug. 1, 1291, in the Rutli Meadow on the shores of Lake Lucerne, the free peasants from the forest cantons of Schwyz (from which Switzerland was to gain its name), Uri and Unterwalden formed an "eternal alliance" of mutual defense. When the three communities successfully defended themselves against multiple attacks by the Hapsburg Empire, they emboldened surrounding communities to join their alliance.
Today Switzerland's 23 cantons contain 6 million residents who speak four national languages: German, Italian, French and Romansch. These cultural communities cling to their differences.
As Christopher Hope concludes in a recent comprehensive piece in the Manchester Guardian, "Deep down, there are no Swiss. There are instead the inhabitants of the canton, the members of the Gemeinde, or community. You are defined by your place of origin, the particular look and lie of a valley, each as distinctive as the local cheese."
The Swiss are localists. They are also nationalists. German-speaking Swiss do not view themselves as Germans, nor Italian-speaking Swiss as Italian. Switzerland's ethnic communities have never succumbed to the strong gravitational forces of the great powers surrounding them.
Switzerland is known for its strict adherence to neutrality. Yet this should not be viewed as reflecting a pacifist tradition. With no natural borders, Switzerland is highly vulnerable to attack by nations who have repeatedly demonstrated their propensity for expansion.
Switzerland is one of the world's most heavily armed nations. All male Swiss soldiers spend 30 years on active service. Each is required to own a rifle and to maintain it in good working condition.
Switzerland's military prowess has enabled it to ward off, or forestall, attacks from without. Its political genius has allowed it to minimize conflict from within.
At least in theory, Swiss cantons are sovereign republics. The 1848 and 1874 constitutional revisions greatly expanded the role of the cental government, but cantons still retain considerable authority.
And they exercise that authority with a clear preference for direct participation. Smaller communities elect their officials by a show of hands. In annual assemblies, the people ratify or reject legislation proposed by their governments.
As befits a confederal country, the Swiss national government has a collegial structure. A seven-member federal council, elected by Parliament, constitutes the head of state. The presidency rotates among council members each year.
The Swiss can challenge federal policy more easily than any other people. The citizenry can demand a vote to overturn a federal initiative by gathering 50,000 signatures, about 1 percent of the population. To enact rather than thwart federal legislation, 100,000 signatures are required.
Political independence depends on economic independence. Switzerland has had little to work with. It possesses no natural resources. Practically all its raw materials are imported. Yet it is become one of the world's most prosperous countries. Its banking industry is formidable, but Swiss prosperity rests less on its legendary bank secrecy laws than on the ingenuity of its people.
"Deprived of an appreciable home market, stifled by the protectionist politics of all their clients abroad, and burdened with heavy transportation charges, Swiss manufacturers cannot indulge in mass production," one eminent economist noted in describing the Swiss economy in the 1940s.
Instead, they have had to produce goods "which have a high value at a reduced volume:" complicated machinery; durable consumer goods such as watches; luxury products like silks or perfumes. Switzerland registers more patents for inventions than any country in Europe.
For nations in turmoil because of disputatious minority populations, Switzerland demonstrates the possibilities of collaboration. It has fashioned a political and economic system that allows peoples with the most profound differences in language and religion and culture to live together in peace. And it has done so while encouraging an individual initiative that has produced one of the world's most dynamic and productive economies.
, Happy birthday, Switzerland.
David Morris, an author, lecturer and consultant, is a columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Ernest B. Furgurson, whose column usually appears in this space, is on vacation.