Clive H. Church and Randolph C. Head, A Concise History of Switzerland (2013) — a Book Review

© 2015 Peter Free


17 August 2015



In brief —a debatably flawed, but very useful effort


Cambridge University Press’s A Concise History of Switzerland (Professors Clive H. Church and Randolph C. Head, 2013) is an arguably peculiar history book.


An unidentified reviewer at Amazon dot com summed its narrative flaws from an understandable perspective:



If you want a good history book of Switzerland, do not purchase this one. The authors just throw out information without explaining anything about the history or facts behind it.


Authors should have done a better job or researching and providing well detailed explanations of facts and history to the public instead of just throwing out information and letting you do the research to find further information on what it was they were trying to tell.


© 2015 No Name “lauralkyzour”, Concise History of Switzerland – A Major Disappointment, (24 May 2015)





I suspect that the “concise” nature of this volume meant that its authors had to string together bunches of only vaguely explained detail. Which is what the Amazon reviewer was upset with.


I cannot say that I disagree with her impression, even though I found significantly more merit than she did in the volume.


To let you be the judge, let me to start with a fairly representative quotation from the book. Subsequently, I will tie some of the extract’s internal references back to the attenuated explanations that preceded them.



Here is the representative block of text


It comes from the chapter entitled, “Forging the new nation, 1848-1914.” I have inserted a stylistic comment in italics:



The anti-Catholic tone of the new constitution was one aspect of a recrudescence of religious conflict in the early 1870s, a phenomenon known as Kulturkampf . . . .


[What follows this statement trails off into 3 pages of a scattered discussion of the prevailing economic situation.


The authors then suddenly veer back to the concept of Kulturkampf in their discussion of the Church’s reaction to ostensibly socialist trends.]


The issue of socialism alarmed many Catholics, because, following the Syllabus of Errors, they saw it as atheistic and subversive. But combating it required new tactics. A new generation of leaders realized that they could not simply rely on ex cathedra condemnation, especially in light of Kulturkamp suspicion of the Papacy. Catholicism needed new allies and more political influence, which meant taking a more active and collaborative part in mainstream Swiss politics. The path to such engagement was eased by the accession of Leo XIII, who helped wind down the Swiss Kulturkampf by withdrawing Mermillod’s status as Apostolic Vicar and transferring Lachat to Ticino. In response, the persecution of the priests began to ease, and many were allowed to return to their posts.


On the political front, the Catholic conservatives failed to gain a seat on the Federal Council in 1875 for Josef Zemp, a leading parliamentarian from Lucerne, they were more successful in using the new rights of challenge to block legislation of which they disapproved. Although their effort to obstruct the 1877 Factory Act failed, in 1882 they were successful in blocking the proposal to create School Inspectors, whom they nicknamed ‘Balifs’ (Vögte) as if they were latter-day Gesslers. Such inspectors would, of course, have undermined the Church’s position in education. Proposals for military taxation, patent reform, labour conditions and constitutional revision were also rejected. Indeed, in May 1884, all four government proposals up for public vote were defeated. This made people aware of the strength of political Catholicism.


© 2013 Clive H. Church and Randolph C. Head, A Concise History of Switzerland (Cambridge University Press, 2013) (at pages 177-178)


As “No Name” (at Amazon dot com) complained, I did not recall reading about Memillod or Lachat before this. And the book’s index did not refresh my possibly failed memory.


Wikipedia explains what an apostolic vicariate is here. And after reading that explanation, one can see why the Pope’s implied territorial meddling might have ruffled feathers. Though how this worked in the instance addressed, the authors do not explain.


They, however, did refer to a Factory Act only 6 pages earlier — but (a) in a way that left readers hanging as to what was in it and further — (b) why, with only one canton seemingly subscribing to it, anybody (including the whole Catholic Church) got especially bent out of shape about its appearance:



The democratic trend continued to spread beyond Zurich, and progressive constitutional reforms were pushed through in several more cantons . . . .


The social pressures behind the movement also spurred important social legislation during the 1860s, with a Seventy-Two Hours Act and a Factory Act in Glarus forced through by the Landsgemeinde, and similar legislation in other cantons. Cantonal banks were also widely established, crafts given freedom from guild regulation, bankruptcy laws changed and indirect taxes whittled away, moves which helped hard-pressed craftsmen, peasants, shopkeepers and minor professionals. In 1864, trade unions were legalized nationally, followed by strikes the next year.


© 2013 Clive H. Church and Randolph C. Head, A Concise History of Switzerland (Cambridge University Press, 2013) (at page 171)


I found it just a bit odd that these seemingly major socio-economic trends and the reactions to them — which are still very pertinent today — got so little shrift.


As for “Gessler” — he had been mentioned 107 pages (and roughly 550 years) before the above reference:



The oldest surviving version of the [William] Tell story . . . dates to 1470, when it was copied into a book of charters, the White Book of Saarnen, compiled in Obwalden. It described how after the death of the good king Rudolf in 1291, greedy bailiffs from the Thurgau and Aargau oppressed the inhabitants of Ur, Schwyz and Unterwalden by seizing their animals, abusing their wives and daughters, and threatening their sons. In response, the men of the valleys formed a secret conspiracy to protect their traditional liberty.


Before they could act, the Uri bailiff Gessler placed his hat on a stake, demanding that every man bow to it as though he himself were present.  The wild hunter Tell refused, and when he mocked Gessler after his arrest, was ordered to shoot an apple from his son’s head. Gessler then reneged on his promise to leave Tell unharmed, but Tell escaped, and after lying in wait, killed Gessler with another arrow, triggering a general rebellion by the Confederates.


© 2013 Clive H. Church and Randolph C. Head, A Concise History of Switzerland (Cambridge University Press, 2013) (at pages 70-71) (paragraph split)


Even with regard to this allegedly important myth, the book jettisons what must have been a stirring story in favor of being “concise”.


Given that the authors claim that Swiss myths are the major key that holds the politically and religiously diverse population together, one would think that their account would have fleshed the Tell story out in greater detail.



Even with these supposed shortcomings, there is very significant merit to this book


By the time I finished it, I knew (admittedly impressionistically) more than I had before.


And the concluding chronology (pages 283-296) provides a very helpful overview of Swiss history. Consider this extract:



1870-1 — Franco-Prussian War leads to mobilization and internment of Bourbaki’s French army


1871-84 — Kulturkampf in Switzerland after First Vatican Council.


1872 — Revision of Federal constitution fails because of opposition from French speakers and Catholics.


1873 — Start of economic depression.


1874 — Federal constitutional revision succeeds.


1878 — Completion of St Gotthard railway line.


1888 — Creation of Social Democratic party triggers modernization of parties and party system. Rise of Überfremdung feelings against immigrants.


© 2013 Clive H. Church and Randolph C. Head, A Concise History of Switzerland (Cambridge University Press, 2013) (at page 292)



The authors also included an insightful bibliographical note


Having originally been trained as a historian, the thought that went into these paragraphs impressed me.





Switzerland poses special problems for the English-speaking reader. To begin with, three languages are regularly necessary [presumably German, French and Italian], which discourages easy access in many cases. Moreover, much of the literature is focused on the cantons rather than on the nation as a whole, which makes things even more difficult. This has meant that the country has received relatively little attention from foreign writers.


Much of what is available is also date or simply inaccurate . . . . It also often misses the fact that Swiss history is a more sensitive subject than many outsiders realize. History is much more salient to the Swiss than their history is to the English — if not to Americans — and relies on myths which are not always known, much less shared, outside Switzerland.


In light of these conditions, we thought it wise to list the most important general resources not in English, before turning to the Anglophone literature.


In listing books in English, whether by British or American writers, or, increasingly, by Swiss authors, we have largely restricted ourselves to books published in the last twenty years or so. This is because there has been a revolution in historical research and thinking in Switzerland since the 1970s, and most works published before then are now rather out of date, as well as being less accessible to readers.


© 2013 Clive H. Church and Randolph C. Head, A Concise History of Switzerland (Cambridge University Press, 2013) (under Further Reading) (at page 302) (extracts)


These comments should give readers confidence in the authors’ expertise, as well as their sense of craft.



The moral? — Recommended


In my view, A Concise History of Switzerland — arguably over-condensed though it may be — is a worthwhile read for anyone wishing to get a fuller impression of how Switzerland came to be what it is today.


When one thinks of the mass of materials that Professors Clive Church and Randolph Head had to sort, make sense of, and intelligibly summarize — one should, in fairness, be appreciatively impressed.