What “makes a Swiss”?

Rossella Blattmann

A few weeks ago, nineteen year old Sandra Marjanovic from Volketswil (ZH) was elected Miss Zürich 2012. Straight after the election, an article about the beauty queen appeared on the online version of Tages-Anzeiger. I expected to see reader comments about whether beauty pageants are something positive or negative, or debating whether the new Miss Zurich should be blonde, taller or have a more pronounced cleavage! I was obviously wrong. Sadly, it was comments about Sandra Marjanovic’s origin that prevailed. I was shocked and alarmed to see that a great proportion of the newspaper’s readership seems to believe that people with a different cultural background other are second-class citizens, not “true” Swiss – whatever that may be anyway. (This is especially true for the Balkan countries; in Switzerland the ending –ic sets many people into a state of alert.) 

Such comments got me thinking: in our supposedly enlightened times, how is it that there are still people who do not understand and appreciate that Switzerland IS a multicultural society that does not only consist of Heidis, Peters and Renzo Blumenthals – and that it will continue to be, whether one likes it or not? Wouldn’t it be wiser to stop the scaremongering, and the scapegoating of particular cultural (and religious) groups – be it people from the Balkans, the Italians, the Muslims, or the Germans – and start focusing on Switzerland’s real issues?

For instance, there was recently a heated debate on the online version of Tages-Anzeiger about a Bosnian couple who committed social benefit fraud to the amount of 430’000 CHF. Once more, commenters on the article chose to focus on the couple’s origin. Towards the end of this article, the reporter mentions an SVP-politician who committed the same crime (36’000 CHF, in her case). Crucially, the journalist gave less space to the case of the politician, a Swiss national who belongs to the very party that most heavily denounces the abuse of social benefits.

I found it disturbing that so much emphasis was placed on the origins of the couple in question. Does it really matter where the culprits come from? Shouldn’t we be more concerned with asking how we might prevent such cases in the future, instead of continuously blaming the “evil other”? Rather than focusing on the couple’s Bosnian background, shouldn’t there be more of an outcry against the SVP-politician who has abused her position of trust and power?

Perhaps the best way to end this article is to mention one of the most successful Swiss movies of all time, Die Schweizermacher (“The Swissmakers”, 1978). The film is about two Swiss clerks who handle incoming foreigners wishing to become Swiss citizens, and the multiculturalism in Switzerland. Even though it first appeared more than 30 years ago, it has not lost any of its relevance for today. I would highly recommend its insights into the development of multicultural Switzerland and the question of what “makes a Swiss”!



8 responses to “What “makes a Swiss”?

  1. Great article indeed, even if I don’t particularly care for “Die Schweizermacher”. 😉

  2. anninatroxler

    I don’t know the movie and am not interested in beauty contests, but have sth to say here.
    Such kind of discrimination is nothing new and you can’t actually call it discrimination. Sometimes it’s us that see discriminating behaviour where there’s none. I’m a born Swiss but I’m not criticising your article because of that. You did well to write it, but you could have written it from another angle.
    Essentially, this is what I think. Election of misses from other cultures happened before, if not in Switzerland, in the USA for sure. I agree that one become a Swiss has the right to be considered Swiss, but beauty contests like “Miss Switzelrland” aren’t about citizenship. Misses around the world must represent their country’s characteristics, culture, history and, why not, physical traits characteristic of a population.
    I’m not an expert here, but maybe Brigitte Bardot was once Miss France (I assume so) and other wonderful girls were Misses in their countries: that is correct. When I look at a Miss, I want to imagine the country, the food, the history, and the Miss must be a representation of all that: she must be.
    This is not discrimination. Simply, citizenship is one thing, roots are another.
    Switzerland’s multiculturalism is growing, but for the people who read about us on Wiki or hear the news around the world, the three cantons are staying as they were: French, German and Italian. The Miss should represent that: one of the three.
    I don’t want to be called a discriminating person though, because I am not. Only, I think of myself in another land. Take Sweden for instance, which is so similar to our culture in many things. Now, even there I wouldn’t feel at ease if someone came to me and told me I’m going to be their new Miss Sweden (I don’t even know if they have one btw!). In the imaginary, Swedish are pale blonde etc, while I’m brunette (cinder actually). No Swedish Bond Girl was ever chosen with dark hair!!!
    That is to explain what is my view, which has n-o-t-h-i-n-g to do with discrimination, but with representation of ethnicities. Anyway, I don’t believe in these contests. They should be abolished as they “fry” girls’ brain.

    • Annina, I think Switzerland’s Romansh people wouldn’t quite agree with your statement that a Miss should represent one of the THREE language groups (why do you refer to them as cantons?).

    • Vicarious Reality

      Oh yay, another person who thinks ‘roots’ are some kind of universal, timeless attribute the ‘people’ of an arbitrary geographic location have always shared.
      Let me spell this out to you and all of your ilk: there is no such thing as a stable, national ethnicity. The European continent has been awash with dozens of massive population shifts for thousands of years; what you see as your national ‘roots’ are but brief moments in time. What’s worse is you conflate these stabilities with the even briefer constructs of state identity.
      Switzerland as a state has no ethnic, national or cultural state identity, it has a constitutional one.

      I’m sorry to be harsh, but this kind of ignorance is the breeding ground for all the vicious xenophobia we witness festering around Europe at the moment.

  3. Annina – I think you have a point that “Miss Switzerland” is not about citizenship. Nor am I a fan of beauty contests – but I think Rossella is using this example as a platform to highlight the issues that arise when considering a multicultural Switzerland.
    You say that sometimes we see discrimination where there is none – but we also see it where it IS. I have seen direct evidence of an anti-immigrant stance in Switzerland: one morning as I was journeying to the University, I got on the tram to see that someone had left a whole mass of flyers there saying “Stop Nigger Invasion” – which I was extremely shocked by. I have not had the misfortune to come across such blatant racism before; we collected up the flyers and threw them in the bin where they belonged.
    Undoubtedly in most places there are minorities who have these kinds of extreme views – but I have also seen the anti-immigrationist stance in the SVP’s poster campaigns as well (the black boot stamping on the Swiss flag, the black sheep being thrown out of the flock…)
    I’m not saying by any means that Swiss people in general are racist – but the fact is that these kind of entrenched anti-immigrant attitudes are dangerous, and that they are undoubtedly present in this country.
    So I think it’s a good thing to be conscious of it, draw attention to these extreme views, and take a stand against them. As Rossella says, it’s a case of the “demonised Other” – a kind of extreme nationalism and prejudice against anything that strays from this conception of the “Swiss norm” (whatever this might be).

  4. rossellablattmann

    Exactly Ciara, that’s what I meant! The Miss Zurich beauty contest was just a current example I chose to include to catch readers attention to the issues I am mentioning in the article.

  5. great read! as my origins lie in serbia, i can relate to this article perfectly. i am not easily offended, but i actually did take offence to annina’s comment. i don’t see why someone who was born and raised in switzerland and has a swiss passport shouldn’t be able to take part in the miss switzerland pageant. i am pretty sure there aren’t that many PURE swiss people in switzerland anyway – you know, people stemming from uri, unterwalden (nowadays obwalden and nidwalden) or schwyz. almost all my “swiss swiss” friends have some foreign influences, be that italian, german, french etc. so what DOES make a swiss person swiss? what does annina mean when she says “looking like a swiss person”? i have some swiss friends who claim they’re actually PURE swiss – one of them is a ginger with brown eyes, the other one has dark hair but blue eyes. one is short, the other is tall. so which one of them is more swiss? i think it’s silly to make claims like that.

    if it’s not looks that make us swiss, then it must be our characteristics or behaviour, right? well, as i said, i’m originally serbian. yet i can positively claim that i’m more passionate about the “schwiizer nati” than 90% of “pure” swiss people. i love cheese and chocolate. i don’t mind hiking. i have milked cows and herded some sheep in the (serbian) mountains. very heidi like – and isn’t she the symbol of female ‘swissness’? so shouldn’t that make me more swiss than those “pure” swiss girls who have done neither? obviously i think that’s ridiculous. i just wanted to show that you can’t really measure “swissness”; if you were born and raised here and you FEEL swiss and love your country, then screw all those people who make you feel like a second-class citizen; YOU ARE SWISS. i am swiss.

    -marija josifoVIC.

    p.s. congratz to sandra marjanovic, well done!

  6. I’m not swiss and I’m surely no racist, but there are some things that are wrong with this commentary and the messages here.
    I am politically far-left myself, but a thing I have to criticize is that many of the people who think alike seem to have developed a tendency to only see negative things on one side.
    When you criticize that small group of narrow-minded Swiss people (and being “different”-looking and hardly ever criticized for it here, I really think we can assume it’s a small group) who said that an -ic girl should not represent Zurich, well just turn around and take a heartbeat to also represent the truth on the “other” side. about 20 of my 40 facebook acquaintances who have balkan roots cheered because on of THEIR beauties won, saying things like “OUR beauty” etc. All of them are university educated, intelligent people. How can you criticize Swiss people for saying “this is not our kind of beauty” (and again, you shouldn’t concentrate on that small group of Swiss people who truly think like that. only because they’re loud does not mean they’re the majority) and not see that the “other” side is just as bad?!
    How come people are never criticized for being proud of their foreign origins except for when they are Swiss?
    Again, I’m not propagating that we only pick originally Swiss girls to represent Switzerland, for I wouldn’t be able nor do I want to pinpoint “Swiss-ness,” but I’m really against one-sided criticism.

    And on a different note, while I think your commentary is nicely written and it is necessary to balance out those narrow-minded Swiss people, because it shows that not everybody is like that, I don’t care for the second part.
    Yes, the fact that nationality is pointed out in articles about criminals is not particularly nice, but you have to take a look at the statistical truth and reconsider. Yes, it is not just foreigners who do that, but they do make up a big percentage. Being a foreigner from two different backgrounds, I don’t feel bad about the fact that it is printed, I feel bad because my “fellow countrymen” do stuff that makes all of us others look bad. That, again, is something you fail to mention.

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