Porcupine or Chameleon? Switzerland and its Foreigners in the Light of the Rise of Populist Parties

Master's Thesis 2011 67 Pages

Communications - Journalism, Journalism Professions


Table of Contents



1. Methodology
Chapter outlines and research questions
Literature review
Conceptualizing a research design
Research design
Study design
Methods of data collection
Interviews and observations
Selecting interviewees
Ethical issues of data collecting
Processing and displaying data
Methods of displaying data
Types of displaying data

2. Haven or hell? The distory of xenophobia in Switzerland from 1945 until today
The boat is full – The role of Switzerland in the Second World War
Apartheid in the heart of Europe?
The 1980s and 1990s: Splinter parties
Take a walk on the right side – The rise of the SVP

3. The influence of Swiss national identity on the contact to foreigners
La Suisse n’existe pas – Thoughts about Swiss uniqueness
Babylonian confusion in Basel – The role of language
Do you speak German? Yes, I don’t!
My canton is my castle – The role of Swiss regionalism
So how bad is it?

4. Creating an alternate reality? – Populism Swiss style
You’re being treated like a doormat? It's the black men's fault!
The wolves in sheep’s clothing?
Popular populism – Why the SVP still is so successful

5. Journey through Switzerland – The pursuit of uniqueness
- Basel – A peaceful invasion
- Wila – The snarling pit-bull who kisses cheeks
- Wald and Unteriberg – Of rolling hills and crushing cliffs
- Wollerau and Längi – Good foreigners, bad foreigners?
- Interlaken and Lucerne – 200.000 cut-throats at large in Switzerland?
- Back in Basel


Most important survey results

Bibliography and references
Statement of originality

For Susanne and my Parents


My work only deals with the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Research in the French- and Italian-speaking parts would have been worthwhile, but also complicated due to a lack of language skills. This book chapter consists of five main chapters. The first chapter, the methodology, has an overview of its own.

The next part deals with the history of immigration in Switzerland since the end of the Second World War until present. It shows how the little country dealt with a huge influx of foreigners, but also examines the xenophobic movements and feelings that accompanied this development.

In the third chapter I shed light on unique features of the Swiss character, and how those traits influenced the contact to foreigners from all different nations. I will focus particularly on the role of language and regionalism. As I have a Swiss mother and have lived in Switzerland for a while, I have gained some expertise which helped me to further research this part.

An analysis of the election campaigns of the popular Swiss People’s Party (SVP) and the disputed methods which the party uses will be the chief subject of the fourth chapter. I examined the election programme of the party and compared it to reality. Furthermore, I was interested in the deeper reasons which lie behind the success of the disputed party, and therefore spoke to people who could tell me more about that.

Finally, I decided to widen my research and consequently travelled to seven different destinations in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. There, I examined the different everyday realities of Swiss and foreigners, witnessed a speech of a controversial SVP- politician, and went to places where integration works, but also to one where coexistence between Swiss and foreigners went horribly wrong.


Autumn 1942. Nearly the whole of Europe is occupied by the Wehrmacht. Nazi Germany is at the height of its power. Only a few countries, among them Switzerland, are not occupied. But the tiny nation is completely surrounded by the Axis Powers, and the government is constantly afraid of a looming German attack. Yet, they have already prepared for it. As soon as Hitler’s forces had invaded Poland, Switzerland had mobilized its army, and only three years later the country was honeycombed with anti-tank obstacles, hidden bunkers, trenches and barbed wire. For the German soldiers on the other side of the Rhine, Switzerland must have looked like a porcupine.[1] At least they sang a song which went as follows: “And Switzerland, the little porcupine, we’ll conquer her on our way home.”[2] The Swiss adopted this designation and made it part of their defence philosophy: in case of an attack, the whole country would “curl itself up” and repel the attacker with its “spines”.

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Reminders of the past: 10.5 cm gun on the Gotthard pass, camouflaged as a rock.

Even if there are still reminders of that time in form of military fortifications today, Switzerland has now a much more relaxed approach towards foreigners. Around 1.7 million now live in Switzerland and have changed the face of the once secluded country. But despite all the years that have passed since the end of Second World War, the “porcupine principle” (Aviss 2006:106) is sometimes brought back into use. Critics from abroad, who denounce Switzerland’s bank secrecy laws or complain about xenophobic initiatives[3], often trigger that reflex in parts of the society. And when former German finance minister Peer Steinbrück compared the Swiss with Native Americans during a tax row in 2009 and threatened to whip them (Von Rohr 2009), it led to a wave of anger across Switzerland and caused a diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

At the same time, Swiss culture and society have absorbed the foreign cultures in a nearly chameleonic manner. Many different nationalities coexist peacefully (at least most of the time), mixed marriages are common, and Swiss cuisine no longer only consists of cheese fondue and rösti,[4] but also of pizza, doner kebab, and curries.

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Butter would not melt in his mouth: SVP mascot billy goat Zottel

During this four book chapters I am now going to examine which one of those two animals could serve as a symbolic animal of contemporary Switzerland. Is it the porcupine, which stands for segregation, or the chameleon, which stands for willingness to change? And what has billy goat Zottel, the mascot of the populist party SVP, got to do with all of that?

1. Methodology


This project deals with the topic of foreigners and populist parties in Switzerland. The work was split into five chapters including this methodology. It was written as a journalistic book chapter. A mix of qualitative and quantitative research methods was employed. Data was collected from semi-structured face-to-face interviews, the Federal Statistical Office of Switzerland, observations, and a survey. The survey was conducted via internet among 84 Swiss nationals. Interviewees were selected without bias from a wide range of occupational areas and social sectors. Ethical issues were considered. The retrieved data was displayed in form of maps, diagrams, and charts. The chapters were written in different journalistic styles.

Chapter outlines and research questions

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Did refugees find shelter in Switzerland?

Castello di Montebello near Bellinzona

The second chapter deals with the history of immigration and xenophobia in Switzerland since 1945. Was Switzerland really a refuge for people in need most of the times, as politicians and officials claim when they highlight the humanitarian tradition of Switzerland? To which extent did xenophobia become socially acceptable in the 1970s? Was the foreign media right to call Switzerland an apartheid state in

those days? What are the reasons for the rise of the right-wing populist SVP? And to which extent does the party distance itself from neo-Nazism?

Unique Swiss character traits which influence the attitude towards foreigners, are examined in the third chapter. Do multilingualism and the diversity of the country make people less prone to xenophobic feelings? Which role do other special Swiss features play? How does regionalism influence the attitude shown towards foreigners? Is Swiss society freed from historical prejudices, which are a breeding ground for xenophobia?

In the fourth chapter I examined the role which the populist party SVP and its disputed initiatives play in the development of xenophobia in Switzerland. Are the party’s arguments valid or are they out of proportion with reality? How do the Swiss see the problems which the latest initiative against mass immigration is directed against? Are the highly disputed posters campaigns racist or just trenchant? And why is the SVP the most successful populist party of Europe?

The last chapter is an account of a journey through Switzerland. Is the country as racist as it is sometimes depicted by international media? How do foreigners and Swiss live together? What do Swiss not like about foreigners and vice versa? Are people from Central Switzerland really more conservative than others?

Literature review

A number of studies concerning the role of Switzerland in the Second World War have been written. The first which investigated Switzerland’s actions was published twelve years after the war had finished (Ludwig 1957). In it, the author researched the story behind the infamous “J”- stamp”[5], and published documents which showed to which extent Swiss authorities were involved in its introduction. It took further 42 years before a detailed and critical work about Switzerland’s refugee policy was published (Spuhler 1999). It was written by an independent commission of historians, and was highly critical of Switzerland’s role in the war. Especially the high amount of refugees which the commission claimed had been rejected baffled observers. It led to an apology of the Swiss Federal Council and caused outrage in conservative parts of the society, where the work was criticized for not acknowledging the war time situation, which had allegedly left no other choice. It gave however only a general overview of the situation. Therefore, it is vital to include a research which also looks at smaller areas (Battel 2000). It shows the fates of individuals and the courage of several officials who acted contrary to their orders. It also revealed that especially Swiss people who lived close to the borders were helpful towards the refugees.

For a research of the Schwarzenbach initiative in the 1970s I used one of the two main studies about that period (Buomberger 2004). The vivid description of the atmosphere of that time and of the deeper reasons behind the high approval rates of the initiative makes it an important and relevant work. It shows why the first nationalistic party in Europe after the war developed exactly in Switzerland and how its politics influenced the modern day populist party SVP.

The third chapter is mainly based on observations and interviews. For a broader understanding of anti-German feelings it is indispensable to deal with one of the few works which have been written about the topic (Helbling 2010). The discussion of the separating power of close cultural similarities is an important aspect in the discussion of the reasons of Swiss xenophobia. Additionally, it has to be taken into account that there can be a lot of similarities even between different countries. A British author (Hickey 2005) shows how similar Swiss are to British people in some respects.

Conceptualizing a research design

Research design

My research is of journalistic nature. The study population consists of several Swiss nationals and foreigners of all ages and from a range of social and educational sectors. The sample was selected regarding the importance which the respondents had for my research. The majority of them were contacted by email. Most of the data used was collected from the respondents through face-to-face interviews. They took place where the interviewees preferred, in the majority of cases this was in their or neutral territory, which helped to create a relaxed atmosphere (Keeble 2006:79). Additionally, I received answers from respondents of a survey which I conducted.

Study design

The study design is a mix of qualitative and quantitative research methods (Kumar 1999:45). The second chapter was compiled with qualitative descriptive research, as I wanted to find out more about the phenomena of the success of xenophobic and populist movements in the past of Switzerland.

The third part is based on qualitative correlational research (Kumar ibid:16). I was interested in the correlation between specific Swiss values and character traits on the one side, and xenophobic feelings or behaviours on the other side. Therefore, I conducted interviews. Additionally, quantitative research was applied, for example when I used maps or statistical data to find out whether those feelings were influenced by certain geographical or political factors.

Mainly quantitative explanatory (Kumar ibid:385) research was needed for the fourth chapter to find out more about the reasons behind the high approval rates of the SVP, how they were influenced by their aggressive campaigning, and which other influences played a role. Therefore, statistical data and a survey among Swiss nationals proved to be useful. Qualitative research in form of interviews played a vital role as well.

Qualitative exploratory research (Kumar ibid:15) is the foundation of the fifth chapter. On a journey through the German-speaking part of Switzerland I compared my previous research to the life reality of Swiss and foreigners and gained additional insights.

Methods of data collection

Interviews and observations

My methods of data collection consisted of interviews, observations, and surveys. The main method used was the face-to-face interview. I interviewed 18 individuals for an average length of 30 minutes and recorded their answers. They were chosen from a wide range of backgrounds and nationalities, and included old and young people, politicians, academics, and members of the working class. Contact to the interviewees was made through direct contact, by email and phone, and on the recommendation of friends. Questions to the interviewees allowed for open-ended answers. Thereby, they were encouraged to talk freely. The interviewer did not interrupt the answers of the interviewees, but occasionally summarised statements deemed important. The interviews were conducted semi-structured in order to follow a certain line and to be able to compare the findings (Kumar ibid:145). At the same time that method allowed to focus on interesting secondary aspects which came up during the conversation occasionally (Keeble op cit:83). Therefore, I grouped my questions into areas of interest, which made it possible to deviate from the topic, but also to revisit it again with ease.

Observations play a role in the third, fourth and fifth chapter. The author, who is Swiss himself, is familiar with some of the unique character traits of the Swiss. Thus, some unstructured observations (Kumar op cit:164) which were made before and during the research were integrated into the text. Additionally, chapter four is mainly based on observations which the author gathered on his journey through Switzerland. The author tried to be aware of eventual bias and to avoid it.


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Developer of the Likert

scale: Rensis Likert

Another form of data collection was the abovementioned attitudinal style survey, for which I used the ordinal Likert scale (Sirkin 2005:73). It consists of twenty strictly positive or negative items, which all referred to relevant topics such as the influence of foreigners on the society or specific Swiss character traits. The items could be answered in five different ways, ranging from acceptance (strongly agree) to rejection (strongly disagree). Therefore it is the right survey method for such a complex topic and also the easiest to construct (Kumar op cit:389). Questions with an expected predominantly negative result were mixed with questions of an expected predominantly positive

result to prevent respondents from rushing through the survey. It was de-

veloped web-based and sent to friends and colleagues of Swiss citizenship as a hotlink. Each initial participant was asked to send the link to other Swiss friends and colleagues all over the German-speaking part of the country. Thereby, it was possible to reach 85 respondents in four weeks time. The survey website[6] allowed for controlling the origin of the participants to make sure that no foreign nationals took part. The settings of the survey were specifically adjusted so that it was only possible to fill in the survey once from each IP-address.

Selecting interviewees

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Economic historian

Dr. Bernard Degen

Interviewees were chosen with regard to what they were probably going to say. A contemporary witness in form of an Italian immigrant was essential for the second chapter to be able to understand the reality which Italian immigrants had to face in the 1970’s. Dr. Degen is an important interviewee, as his theory of the alleged humanitarian tradition, which was only reserved for the refugees who had a lobby in Switzerland, is new, keen, and coherent. His research shows that many official statements concerning refugee policy have to be taken with a pinch of salt.

In the third chapter journalist and campaigner Linda Stibler gives important insight into the role that dialect plays in Switzerland. As a member of the committee which launched an initiative for the preservation of dialect in nursery schools, she knows how deeply it is rooted in Swiss society and character.

Personal consultant Rolf Dürrenberger as a representative of the Swiss industry profits from the influx of foreigners. Through the wide network of branch offices which his company maintains and the close contact he keeps to his foreign workers, he is perfectly informed about the acceptance they receive in (Central) Switzerland.

Catherine Brunner is a relevant interviewee as she works for the World Peace Academy where she supervises 35 students from 25 countries. Additionally, she is a trained psychologist, which made for interesting insights into Swiss psyche.

As the SVP is the Swiss party which puts most emphasis on the subject of immigration, at least one party representative had to appear in this chapter. Toni Casagrande is the best person to discuss Swiss characteristics because his ancestors had emigrated from Italy long ago. As he is able to compare today­’s life with the experiences of his family he might see the uniqueness of Switzerland from a different angle. Being a member of the justice- and safety commission of the Basel city council, he draws from his experience when the topic of integration problems comes up.

Nicole von Jacobs, who is of German origin, brings in the perspective of the foreigner who is faced with the task of integrating into Swiss society. As she is the head of the department of integration in Basel she cannot only talk about her own experiences, but also about those of others.

The first interviewee of the fourth chapter is SVP member Sebastian Frehner. His opinion is valid as he works as a national councillor, president of the SVP Basel, and Basel city councillor and can therefore give an insight into the local and national side of things. As a political hardliner he was the right interviewee for a conversation about the new “initiative against mass immigration”.

Doris Mumenthaler works as a teacher in a Berne school. She teaches a class in which 50 percent of the pupils are foreigners. Ms Mumenthaler gave a first-hand account of the experiences she makes and the problems she encounters. She is an important interviewee as she is able to tell whether there is some truth to the arguments of the SVP initiative.

The president of the Thai-society Basel, Sumitra Salzmann, was a foreigner in Switzerland once and has now become a Swiss. As she has been here for more than 30 years, she has more integration experience than many other foreigners. Helping other people to integrate, she knows best about the problems which they face.

Ueli Mäder, an academic known across Switzerland, has done a lot of research about the wealth gap and its implications. He makes important points about deeper reasons which the success of the SVP has. As he was city councillor for a left-alternative party in Basel, his statements also have a political dimension.

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Controversial: Ueli M äder

This can also be said about Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold’s statements.

During her time as a national councillor she was a part of the commission

which dealt with asylum laws. Now she acts as the president of the Swiss Monitoring Centre for Asylum- and Foreigner Law, where she watches closely how asylum seekers are being treated and how the tightening of laws influences their situations.

Ethical issues of data collecting

Ethical issues were considered during data collection for this thesis. Neither trespassing nor invasions of privacy took place. All interviewees were contacted before the interview and agreed to being questioned. A web address, which linked to a detailed description of what the survey was intended for, was brought to the attention of all participants. In order to receive their informed consent, interviewees were briefed extensively about the project and their role in it. Before the interview started, interviewees were asked whether they agreed to being recorded on tape. No deception in the form of covert recording devices took place. The interviewees were also informed about their right to stay anonymous.

The SVP is a right-wing populist, but not an extremist party. However, if racist language had appeared in the interviews, it would have been valid to report it given the topic of the book chapter (Keeble 2009:185). A racist remark appears in the 5th chapter because it is important for the understanding of the background story. Generally, the race of people was only mentioned when it was relevant to the story (Keeble ibid:193). No risks were involved during the study as most of the interviews took place in public areas with interviewees who were unlikely to resort to violence.

Processing and displaying data

Methods of displaying data

The collected interview data was integrated into the text in form of quotes in order to bring it to life. Sometimes, quotes were paraphrased by the author to introduce an interviewee in his own words.

The data gained through the survey was displayed in form of a bar chart. This is the most descriptive possibility for a survey which was conducted on a five-figure Likert scale with a limited number of responses. The chart serves to substantiate an argument: The different height of the bars makes it easy to focus the attention of the reader on the one bar with the highest value. Thereby the chart conveys meaning fast and clear.

The data gained from figures of the Federal Statistical Office is displayed in form of maps, diagrams and charts.

The use of maps is favourable to illustrate a Switzerland-wide development that can only be demonstrated on a map which shows the different values for certain geographical areas (e.g. the approval rates for a party in a canton). At the same time this allows to compare two maps with each other and spot similarities and differences.

The use of line charts was expedient to show how two or more values correlated with each other (e.g. the criminality of foreigners and Swiss during a certain time span). It is an indispensable tool to transfer the raw data, as it was found on the website of the Statistical Office, into a demonstrative and convincing form (Kumar op cit:305).

While pie charts are sometimes criticised for being unclear, they are still useful to illustrate the criminality rate of foreigners in my article. This is because they become clearer the higher one single percentage in the chart is (in this case the percentage of Swiss population). The limited amount of space they need also allows for a comparison with another pie chart on the same page. As there are only four variables, clarity is still ensured.

The radar chart is valid as it shows the reader the political profile of a city and a party at a glance and makes it possible to compare it.

Types of displaying data

My work as a journalistic book chapter consisted of several types of work. The second chapter comes close to an academic essay about the history of xenophobia. To bring it to life, I included two interviews with people who are legitimised to say something about that topic, and an eye-witness intro (Keeble 2006:221). The third chapter is an extended feature with observations in the beginning and explaining interviews at the end. As the new initiative against mass immigration has launched while I did research for my project, I decided to make the fourth chapter a piece of literary journalism with a longer background section. For an unusual read, I started the chapter with a narrative opening (Keeble, ibid:223). The fifth chapter is a travel feature, where I describe my journey through the country on the lookout for the identity of a multi-cultural Switzerland (Keeble ibid:271).

2 Haven or hell? The history of xenophobia in Switzerland from 1945 until today

The boat is full – The role of Switzerland in the Second World War

October 1938. Six weary figures, three adults and three children, groan under the weight of their load while they slog across a freshly ploughed field in a cold and rainy night. One of them carries a little child and a bag, and fights to keep up with the others despite sinking in the muddy ground with every new step. In her bag fifteen-year-old Sophie Haber carries the few belongings which the Jewish girl was able to pack before she had been forced to leave Austria hurriedly. Five months previously, the Nazis had annexed her adopted homeland and only a few days afterwards reprisals and pogroms against Austrian Jews had begun. Now Sophie and her fellow refugees seek to enter neutral Switzerland from Germany. It is a dangerous undertaking. Two months ago Switzerland had sealed off its borders, and refugees who were caught crossing them were turned away or in many cases even handed over to the German authorities, who sent a large number of them directly to concentration camps.

But Sophie is lucky. After being captured by Swiss border guards, she is sent to police Captain Paul Grüninger, a man, who at the end of his career will have saved over 3500 refugees including Sophie by acting against his orders and allowing them to enter Switzerland. Finally, he was dismissed and sentenced to a high fine for his breach of duty. It was not before 1995 that he was rehabilitated by justice after several politicians and the media had criticised the fact that he was still considered a criminal (New 1997:14). Sophie Haber, however, always knew that “I had luck, and my luck bore the name Paul Grüninger. He saved my life” (Alton-Scheidl 2005).

Unfortunately, many refugees were not so lucky and not all officials acted as courageously as Grüninger. Even if Switzerland sheltered over 50.000 civil refugees during the war (Spuhler 1999:24), it still rejected 24.500 people who tried to escape the terror of the Nazis (Spuhler ibid:20). And those are only the figures which are verifiable. In many cases people were turned away by border guards who did not bother to report those incidents to their superiors. Sometimes, the guards even used violence. In September 1942 French national Léon Moille had to pay the price for his courage. The young fisher had rowed a group of refugees across Lake Geneva and was intercepted when he reached the Swiss shore. The unarmed youth was shot dead by a Swiss border guard who was later acquitted. The judge later ruled that the guard had acted in self-defence and in compliance with his official instructions (Spuhler ibid:119).


[1] The shape of the country also resembles a pig (Schwein). In German the term porcupine translates to Stachelschwein

[2] Die Schweiz das kleine Stachelschwein, das nehmen wir auf dem Heimweg ein.

[3] Which for instance outlaw the erection of minarets. Proponents of an initiative have to collect 100.000 signatures in 18 months, than the Swiss people can vote whether they want to change the constitution.

[4] A Swiss potato dish

[5] For further information see chapter 2

[6] www.fluidsurveys.com


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ISBN (Book)
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University of Lincoln – Department of Journalism
Switzerland SVP Populist Parties Foreigners Asyl Basel Wila Wald Unteriberg Mörgeli Wollerau Längi Pratteln Interlaken Lucerne Schweiz Rassismus racism Ausländerfeindlichkeit Schweizerdeutsch Swiss German Xenophobia Schwarzenbach Ueli Mäder Richard Keeble Judenstempel Jew Stamp Switzerland during World War 2 Apartheid Gaddafi Major von Dach Der totale Widerstand




Title: Porcupine or Chameleon? Switzerland and its Foreigners in the Light of the Rise of Populist Parties