German Swiss

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German Swiss

ETHNONYMS: Deutschen Schweiz, Schweiz, Swiss, Tütsch Schweiz


Identification. The German Swiss are the linguistic majority in nineteen of Switzerland's twenty-six cantons and halfcantons. They call their country "Schweiz," which comes from the canton of Schwyz. They are generally either Roman Catholic or Protestant.

Location. Switzerland is located between 46° and 48° N and 6° and 10.5° E. It is a small country of 41,295 square kilometers. The German Swiss occupy central, north, east, and a third of the south of Switzerland's land area. The west is French-speaking, while the southeast is either Italian- or Romansh-speaking. The geography of Switzerland is divided into three areas: the Alps, the Mitteland, and the Jura. The Alps are the mountainous spine of Europe forming the Southern portion of Switzerland, while the Mitteland is a plateau between them and the Jura Mountains, which form the northern frontier along with the Rhine River. The German Swiss live principally in the Alps and the plateau.

Demography. The population of Switzerland in 1982 was 6.5 million with 5.5 million of that figure being Swiss. German Swiss comprise 65 percent of the total population, and they represent 73.5 percent of the native Swiss. The population density is 153 persons per square kilometer, ranging from 9,868 persons per square kilometer in Geneva to 1.3 persons per square kilometer in Fieschental, in the canton of Valais. The population is growing at a rate of 40,000 persons per year or less than 1 percent per year. The three largest cities in SwitzerlandZurich (369,000), Basel (182,000), and Bern (149,000)are in German Swiss cantons/Switzerland as a whole has become an industrialized urban nation with a large net internal migration from the mountain areas to the plateau (with 26 percent of the country's total population migrating in 1850, decreasing to 15 percent by 1950, but still comprising a significant amount). This is particularly true for German Switzerland. The urban population has shifted toward German Swiss cities, with Geneva and Lausanne both being larger than Zurich in 1850 and rating fourth and fifth in overall population size today.

Since 1976, German Switzerland has had a decreasing population. The reasons include reduced marriage rate, lower number of births, increase in childless marriages, unwed cohabitation, and postponement of births. The largest demographic problem in German Switzerland is considered to be the alien or foreign-worker problem (Auslander Probleme ). Over 1 million non-Swiss work in the Swiss economy. This wave of immigrants is a post-World War II phenomenon. Most were, or are, unskilled workers who do the menial labor the Swiss refuse to do.

Linguistic Affiliation. Swiss German (Schweizerdeutsch, Schwyzertütsch, or Schwyzerdütsch) represents a wide range of local and regional dialects that are derived from the Old Allemmanic, a West Germanic language. Most are classified as High Allemmanic, with exceptions such as Basel (Low Allemmanic) or Samnuan (Tirolean). The number of dialects has been estimated to be in the hundreds, but they are Generally mutually intelligible, with rare exceptionssuch as dialects spoken in the most remote valleys. High German, Hoch-Sprache or Schriftdeutsch, is taught in schools and used as the written language. Strangers are addressed in High German, and for the German Swiss it constitutes their true Second language.

History and Cultural Relations

The German Swiss trace their ancestry to a Celtic tribe called the Helvetti, who were defeated by Rome in 58 b.c. This is suggested by the Latin name for the Swiss Confederation, "Confoederatio Helvetica." Romanized for centuries, the fall of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century a.d. brought Germanic tribes (Allemani and Burgundians) into Switzerland. These tribes were, in turn, conquered by the Franks, with the area of Switzerland becoming part of Charlemagne's eighth-century Holy Roman Empire. Under the vestiges of this polity during the Middle Ages, the Swiss lived under rious duchies until 1291, the founding date of the first Swiss Confederation. Formed by the three German Swiss "forest cantons" of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwaiden, the nucleus of modern Switzerland was born as a defense league against the Hapsburg emperors. From this time until 1515, Swiss militarism enlarged the Swiss Confederation and fostered an export of mercenary soldiers primarily from the poor, mountain cantons. At the Battle of Malignano, Francis I of France forever punctured the bubble of Swiss invincibility with a crushing defeat wherein Swiss fought Swiss. During this period, Bern was ascendant, being the largest and most dominant of the thirteen cantons. During the Reformation, Geneva replaced Bern in international importance, being the home to Calvin and Voltaire. Napoleon occupied Switzerland in 1798, dissolving the old Swiss Confederation to form the Helvetian Republic with six more cantons. In 1815, the Congress of Vienna added Geneva, Valais, and Neuchâtel to a reconstituted neutral Switzerland. Only Jura (established in 1979) is of twentieth-century origin, being formed out of the German Swiss canton of Bern. Switzerland remains politically neutral today and is the home of the International Red Cross. German Swiss Bern is the capital of the modern Swiss Confederation.


German Switzerland is a modern economic landscape of cities, towns, and villages. Urbanism is a feature of the plateau, while the mountains remain the domain of villages. Towns are found throughout the German Swiss area, being concentrated along the larger valley floors and plateau. The pre-World War II agricultural villages of the mountain areas are generally a thing of the past. Many villages of this type have shifted to tourism as their principal economic endeavor. Villages have post offices, Gasthofs (guest houses), churches, and houses with barns. Chalets and field buildings are found outside the alpine villages. Villages and towns are located on avalanche-free slopes. Tree lines and barriers are maintained to prevent avalanches. In the major valleys, villages and towns are along principal automobile routes or rail lines. Less and less construction of houses is of wood. Modern homes are brick or block, even in the most remote areas. The older homes in the mountain and foreland areas are wooden with shingled or tiled roofs. These houses have carved gables, other ornamentations and inscriptions. Regional styles Differentiated the carved Bernese farmhouse from the rock-roofed, inscribed Valais home. With the advent of stone or masonry construction, these embellishments have all but disappeared on modern homes. The exceptions are chalets built by urban dwellers as vacation homes, which imitate the older rustic forms. Towns and cities are characterized by a center with older buildings. The newer homes, apartments, malls, and industrial buildings lie on the periphery. The train station or Bahnhof is still a central focus in the larger towns and cities.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The mountainous landscape of much of German Switzerland makes over a quarter of its land area unproductive for agriculture. Even Before the addition of more modern agricultural aids, there was rarely little more than subsistence farming in the mountain areas. The agro-pastoralism of pre-twentieth century Switzerland gave rise to much that is considered "Swiss"community, cooperative labor, frugality, provincialismpeasant values born out of a unique adaptation to a harsh environment. The shift away from agriculture is reflected in a comparison of 1860 and 1980 agricultural population percentages: 43.6 versus 6.2, for the German Swiss cantons. Nonetheless, Switzerland as a whole produces more than half its food. This output comes principally from the plateau, while the Rhone Valley is a major fruit and vineyard area. Stock farming is the most important part of agriculture, which results in two-fifths of the arable land being devoted to pasture, alpine or otherwise. As a result of this emphasis, milk and its by-productsespecially cheesesform the major agricultural export. Swiss wines are rarely exported and there are heavy subsidies for this and other agricultural products provided by the government.

Industrial products are four-fifths of the commercial output of Switzerland. The bulk of this is centered in German Switzerland at Zurich, Winterthur, Basel, and Oerlikon. The major products are chemicals and pharmaceuticals (Basel), with engineering, armaments, and optical products manufactured at the other centers.

Banking and insurance are major industries with principal centers in the German Swiss areas. Swiss industry is depauperate in raw materials and energy, with the exception of electricity. As a result, Swiss industry competes in foreign markets on the basis of quality rather than price. Because of its reliance on world markets, Swiss industry emphasizes English as the language of world commerce. As a rule, most German Swiss engaged in commerce are bilingual in English rather than any of the national languages.

Division of Labor. German Switzerland emphasizes a traditional division of labor by sex. As in all Western countries, this division has been modified with women playing roles in all elements of Swiss society. Increasingly, women work outside the home, particularly in the urbanized cantons of the plateau. In the more conservative mountain cantons, the traditional roles were more varied as cooperative labor was necessitated by subsistence agricultural practices. Today, with men of these cantons involved in trade, the woman's roles have centered on the home or jobs in tourist-related fields, such as hostelry. Women work as nurses, teachers, and shopkeepers in rural areas and are part of industry, notably watch-making and electronics in the urban zones. Young German Swiss are encouraged to follow the pattern of a Welschlandjahr, a period of apprenticeship or domestic service outside German Switzerland. Both sexes participate in this practice.

Land Tenure. Land is a limited commodity in German Switzerland as it is in the whole country. Dense population in the plateau and continued emigration from the mountain areas has increased property values throughout. Maintenance of property rights through inheritance predominates. In the rural areas, land has passed to developments or otherwise is not used for agriculture. "Alp rights," or access to pastures, are sold to urban dwellers to build chalets or homes for vacations. Decentralization of industry has produced industrial plants in smaller towns throughout the plateau and even the alpine foreland. Housing access, particularly in urban areas like Zurich, has led to unrest among younger German Swiss. While not necessarily a "landless" stratum, they represent a result of changes in land tenure and usage in modern German Switzerland. Property can be owned by non-Swiss, but it is controlled both by federal and cantonal regulations to limit foreign penetration.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent is bilateral with a very slight emphasis upon the male side. Men never use the wife's maiden name, but women may include it in a hyphenated form after marriage. No attempt is made to distinguish patrilateral or matrilateral kin. A distinction is made between female and male first cousins. No distinction exists for more distant cousins, although distant relatives are considered to be of the Stamm or kin group. Fictive kin, such as godparents, have a specific role in religious ceremonies in Catholic areas. Affinal kin terms are noted in normal speech. Neither fictive nor affinal designations connote any special reinforcement of obligations within kin groups today.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages are monogamous. Prohibitions on first-cousin marriage exist in Catholic cantons of German Switzerland. Neolocal residence is favored today, but newly married couples often reside with either the man's or woman's family. This practice reflects less on the role of kin ties than on the availability of housing or land. Under Swiss law, married women have some of their premarital privileges proscribed or limited. A married woman needs her husband's permission to seek employment, to run for political office, or to open a bank account. Marriage ages have fallen to younger levels in rural and urban settings. Marriage in the mid-twenties for both sexes is common. In rural areas, there is a high level of endogamy to, for example, a specific valley. This practice is less prevalent today with out-migration to cities becoming more common. German Swiss tend to be endogamous to their language group as a whole. In 1960, a total of 51,800 German-French households were recorded. Divorce is more common in non-Catholic areas.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family is the minimal family unit. In Catholic cantons, it can number between six and seven persons with fewer members in the urban, non-Catholic cantons. Family size has dropped since 1970 with the falling birthrate, and three or more children are increasingly rare. Men no longer exert the same control over their children as in pre-industrial days, although they are recognized as the family head.

Inheritance. Inheritance is both partible (equal divisions among children) and impartible. In rural areas, Swiss law requires agricultural operations to be inherited intact, if one of the male heirs who is capable of managing it makes the request. If an heir dies childless, the estate is divided among Siblings and does not go to the surviving spouse. Landholdings within rural valleys do promote a certain level of endogamy as the joint inheritance of the partners provides for a certain security. Again, this is less important with the decreased importance of agriculture for subsistence.

Socialization. Infants are reared by both parents and any relatives who are household members. Children live at home during schooling, until trade school or college age. The interest in children is strong at the commune level. Each canton is responsible for its educational program and, until recently, has seen considerable diversity in educational philosophy. For instance, the obligatory schooling is nine years, seven primary and two secondary. The Federal Maturity Certificate awarded after completion of upper-level secondary schooling at age 19 or 20 is recognized as qualification for entry into other sectors of higher education. Schooling acts as a primary agent in socialization and reflects the accepted standards of the community and nation as a whole. All Swiss males Between the ages of 20 and 50German or otherwiseare required to serve in the military. The importance of the military service in Swiss socialization is more appreciated today after its integrative role during two world wars, which produced great tensions between German Swiss and non-German Swiss. Many scholars credit the military with modeling the ethos of modern Switzerland. Still, socialization begins with family and continues through community (schooling, Religion, service). Religion's socializing role is more important in Catholic areas of German Switzerland.

Sociopolitical Organization

Switzerland is a federal, constitutional democracy termed the Swiss Confederation (Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft ). Its head is a president chosen for one year from the Federal Council (Bundesrat) of seven members who serve four-year terms. These are elected by the 200-seat Federal Assembly (Bundesversammlung ) composed of representatives of the twenty-six cantons and half-cantons.

Social Organization. The German Swiss, by virtue of sheer numbers, have more influence than the non-German Swiss within the Swiss Confederation. All Swiss citizens, German or otherwise, consider themselves equal. No social classes exist within German Swiss society. Status is achieved rather than ascribed. If there is a tiering of German Swiss Society, it is not recognized as such, although the farmer or peasant is unofficially recognized as the lower rung of the Economic ladder. By extension, then, the industrialist, being more economically successful, holds a higher position. Few Swiss, German or otherwise, would publicly validate this Hierarchy. The foreign worker or Auslander is the true lower classisolated and often shunned.

Stereotypes exist, with the German Swiss temperament characterized as orderly, practical, little given to abstractions, capable of intense commitment to work, scrupulously honest, blunt and plain-spoken, solid, unswerving, and implacable in the application of rules. Among the German Swiss, the most extreme form of this stereotype is applied to the residents of the alpine cantons. These hillfolk turn the negative aspects of the stereotype into virtues by emphasizing hard work, communal spirit, and religious conviction over what they perceive to be the lesser virtues of the city dwellers. Social mobility is based mainly on education and acquired wealth.

Political Organization. The smallest and most important administrative structure is the commune or Gemeinde. There are more than 3,000 of these independent bodies that raise taxes and maintain municipal councils. The German Swiss's first loyalty is to the Gemeinde. The next highest order is the canton, and then the Swiss Confederation. Under the 1874 constitution, no Swiss can be denied residence anywhere within the confederation unless he becomes an "undesirable" because of criminal activity. German Swiss have voting rights in the canton of residence. Bern is the federal capital of the Swiss government. The structure of Swiss federalism is predicated on initiative and referendum. To call a referendum, 30,000 signatures are required. For an initiative (proposed legislation), 100,000 signatures are needed. Any Swiss, age 20 or older, can initiate the process. Female suffrage came last to German Switzerland, with Appenzell being the last canton to grant it, although women were given the right to vote in federal elections in 1971.

Social Control. A shared value system exerts the greatest social control in German Switzerland. This value system has been erected on foundations of the values of the past. Order and continuity are prized in social life. Still, control is not overt but discrete. Peer presence as much as overt pressure operates throughout German Swiss society. The German Swiss is rarely outside the community of his or her peers Because of the small size of the country itself. Self-control is taught early by the family and reinforced throughout all stages of the German Swiss's life.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. German Switzerland is equally divided between Protestant (44.4 percent, 1980) and Catholic (47.6 percent, 1980). Religious divisions within the German Swiss reflect those of the confederation as a whole. These divisions have been a major source of internal tensions since the Reformation. The canton of Bern is over 75 percent Protestant, while the alpine zone is Catholic. Religion plays a structural role in countering the linguistic pluralism within German Switzerland itself and the confederation. Greater tensions exist between German Swiss Protestants and Catholics than between the German Swiss and French Swiss. Political affiliations crosscut these dimensions and tend to offset religious differences today. Alpine areas of German Switzerland have customs that relate to supernatural beliefs outside the traditional religions. In the mountains, natural forces are viewed as generally malevolent or, at best, neutral. These forces manifest themselves in avalanches, landslides, mists, or storms. The Föhn, a warm, gusty wind blowing from the Alps and creating sudden temperature reversals, has been associated with madness. These beliefs are fading in the Alps today.

Ceremonies. Each canton and commune has ceremonies unique to it. To the non-Swiss visitor, German Switzerland must appear, at times, to be on some continual form of vacation. There are festivals to herald the coming spring, harvest festivals, major and minor religious days, founder's days, and the Swiss National Day, 1 August. The most famous carnival is the Baseler Fastnacht, a 48-hour festival with grotesque masks and garb and parades.

Arts. German Switzerland was particularly rich in folk arts. Today there is a renewed interest in this heritage. Many of the skills in native woodcrafts have disappeared, as the winterbound peasant farmer is essentially a thing of the past. Tourism and nostalgia have promoted activity in carving, weaving, embroidery, and traditional dressmaking (Frauentracht ) among both urban and alpine German Swiss. Much of this craftwork is done at a cottage-industry level with commercial sale as the ultimate objective. The federal government encourages this activity, and authorized craft outlets (Heimattwerke ) are found in the large cities. The arts and customs of dance and song have survived less affected by social and Economic changes. Yodeling, which originated in ancient times, persists, and alp horns are played. The German Swiss hold a strong place in the literature, music, and art of modern Western culture. In particular, they have merged architecture and engineering into structural art, most notably with the bridges of Robert Maillart, Othman Ammann, and Christian Menn.


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