In the 2006 franchise reboot Casino Royal, James Bond meets his MI 6 contact Vesper Lynde on the train to Montenegro to be briefed on the details of his mission. After dinner they spar conversationally, each trying to size up the other. (And from an operational and sexual standpoint battle to impose their respective dominance.) Lynde wonders aloud if Bond is little more than a former SAS type with an easy smile and expensive watch. “Rolex?” she asks. Bond replies “Omega.” Both esteemed brands made only in Switzerland, a country long associated with high-end watches.
One wonders how a small, mountainous, landlocked country with few natural resources could be a global leader in quality wristwatches but also secure (and secretive) banking as well as delectable milk chocolates, all while enjoying centuries of political neutrality. Add to this a premier tourist destination, especially for the world’s rich and famous.
Over the years Claire of the book blog The Captive Reader has been one of my go to sources when it comes to books about Europe. (As well as the Interwar Period.) Last December in one of her Library Loot posts she mentioned Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money by Diccon Bewes. Needing something representing Switzerland for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I went looking for a borrowable copy of Bewes’s book and secured one through Overdrive. One of Financial Times’s books of the year Swiss Watching didn’t disappoint me. Like Bruce Henderson’s Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler is one of the year’s pleasant surprises.
Bewes, after falling in love decided to leave his native England and move to Switzerland to be with his boyfriend. Traveling from one end of the country to another his book is an intimate, intelligent and candid perspective on Switzerland’s history, culture and geography, similar to what his fellow Brits John Hooper and Tobias Jones did for Italy in their respective books The Italians and The Dark Heart of Italy: An Incisive Portrait of Europe’s Most Beautiful, Most Disconcerting Country.
Through Bewes’s eyes you see Switzerland as a land of contradictions, starting with the nation’s longstanding practice of political neutrality. For hundreds of years, even through two world wars Switzerland has avoided belligerency. Neutral but not pacifist, Switzerland is a leading exporter of military hardware, on occasion even selling arms to both warring sides. Traditionally, all Swiss all males are required to serve in the military. (Only recently was a nonmilitary service option added.) After released from active duty each reservist is required to keep a service rifle in his home, leading to Switzerland having more gun-related suicides than anywhere in Europe. (In hopes of addressing this disturbing distinction, the ammo is now safely secured in Swiss armories.) Lastly, the nation is crawling with fallout shelters, even apartments have a basement location where Swiss can ride out a nuclear exchange.
Politically, Switzerland is probably one of the most democratic nations on earth. Like most European nations it has an elected bicameral parliament but Switzerland boasts no president or prime minister with executive powers. The closest the Swiss have is the seven member Federal Council which serves as a collective head of state with a rotating Presidency that’s chiefly ceremonial. Almost all important legislation is decided by referendum, both at the national and local level. However, despite being one of the world’s few, if only direct democracies voter participation is surprisingly low. Because Switzerland’s path to citizenship is heavily skewed against immigrants and their children close to 20 percent of the population are non citizens and thus ineligible to vote. Another rarity among the world’s democracies, Swiss women didn’t earn the right to vote in national elections until 1971. Not until 1992 did the last Swiss federal state or Canton grant women the vote in a local election.
Landlocked and bereft of natural resources the Swiss would need to be creative if they were to be successful. Beginning in the 19th century the Swiss built a network of railways crisscrossing the country, connecting it to its larger, more resource and sea port blessed neighbors. High value products easily transported via rail, products like premium time pieces, cheeses and milk chocolates became lucrative exports. Calvinistic Geneva with its orderly, literate and industrious culture combined with a healthy respect for thrift and privacy would make the city, and the nation as a whole a banking Mecca. Innovation would be key to Switzerland’s success, whether it be crafting a better cheeses, making chocolate more delectable by adding milk or manufacturing sexier wristwatches. Like a determined prize fighter punching above its weight no wonder the small alpine country ranks 8th in the world for Nobel Prize laureates.
Originally published in 2010 and updated in 2018, like I said at the beginning Swiss Watching is one of this year’s pleasant surprises. It might even make my year-end list of Favorite Nonfiction.