At the risk of incurring the wrath of readers based in Singapore or even in Switzerland (as there is a community of Singaporean expatriates in this country, albeit a very small one) should they stumble upon this post, I am proud to be able to affirm that not only does Switzerland have no founding father but it does not cultivate the myth of a father figure either. By ‘father figure’, I mean a political figure, usually of the male sex (although Margaret Thatcher came close to embodying this type of figure in the UK a number of years ago), whom the common folk are groomed to look upon as the person who either founded, built, saved or simply put a nation back on its feet – hence this figure’s association with the father metaphor.
Such a tradition goes back, if not to the mists of time, at least to the Romans if we look at it from a European perspective. The Romans had a term for this concept: pater patriae. Their founding myth was based upon such a figure, that of Romulus, and the title of father of the nation was then bestowed upon the general (Marcus Furius Camillus) under whose command the marauding Gauls who had sacked Rome were defeated in circa 387 BC, then to Cicero, then to Julius Caesar and, subsequently, to several Roman emperors. Elsewhere in Europe and several centuries apart, historical kings or leaders such as Peter the Great and Stalin (both in Russia) were associated with the title. As for other parts of the world, the small city-state of Singapore made the headlines this week as the Southeast Asian nation came to mourn the loss of its (so-called) founding father.
Owing to Switzerland’s history (the country grew out of a loose alliance of independent rural communities, which eventually turned into a confederation of states), there have not been many genuine figures of this type in our history. The historical figure which probably comes closest to that of a founding father was not Swiss, but French. Yes, one could claim that Napoléon Bonaparte’s invasion of Switzerland triggered a chain of events which brought about the ‘birth’ of Switzerland’s modern federal state and that, in this sense, one can consider him as one of the country’s founding fathers. Another figure which is sometimes conferred this title is Alfred Escher, a Zurich businessman, banker and politician who played an instrumental role in helping set up and fund Switzerland’s nascent railway network in the nineteenth century (for more information on this figure, read this article – in Credit Suisse’s Americanised English –, entitled ‘Escher: the founder of modern Switzerland’).
Apart from the lack of any founding father figures in our history, the other main reason why Switzerland does not cultivate the myth of fatherly figures has to do with the country’s political system: unlike our European neighbours, strong executive power is not vested in the President of the Swiss Confederation, who holds office for only a year, is chosen among six other candidates (the acting members of the Swiss Federal Council) and whose role is more to chair meetings and assume representational duties than to steer the country according to his or her whims. A country composed of highly different regions as regards language, culture, economic activity, etc, Switzerland is, unsurprisingly, a country which places great importance on consensual politics.
Although it would be foolish to try to deny the impact an exceptional individual may have on the course of a country, be this for the better or the worse, I feel that by cultivating the cult of the father figure one glosses over a simple fact: that the rise of any country to ‘greatness’, or for that matter its fall down the ‘ladder’, is, first and foremost, a collective achievement, i.e. the sum of each individual’s efforts in his or her life towards the common goal, whether she or he does so wittingly or unwittingly. Of course, politicians have a vested interest in having us believe that they can be the saviours of a nation. I would think that history provides little evidence of this.
In a twisted process, the cult of the father figure also somewhat clears the ground for politicians’ demonising of rivals at home or, worse, those abroad which have been singled out as enemies – a process which by now we ought to have been only too familiar with here in the West but which sadly seems to work almost every time it is being performed (whether by the politicians themselves or by our media) as one only has to think of Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Gaddafi and, more recently, Vladimir Putin. Of course, the media in our country do take part in such demonising, but I reckon that it is less effective here precisely because we do not cultivate the cult of the father figure – the other reason why we are less inclined to demonise other countries’ politicians is that our defence forces have not at all been designed for offensive purposes unlike, say, those of the USA, the UK or France.
Of course, the lack of a father figure in our culture does not mean that myths are not cultivated in this country for the purpose of sustaining a common cultural identity; on the contrary, we have several such myths. However, this is too complex a topic to be treated here and it can only be done so in a specific entry, ideally to be published on the occasion of the Swiss national day (1st of August). 😉