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The postwar Federal Constitution of 1848 – still in effect today – marked the birth of the modern Swiss state. It enshrined a host of liberal measures designed to limit severely conservative, patrician power and to permit continued expansion of industry and the economy. For the first time, Switzerland had a central government, with a parliament comprising two directly elected houses. With the background of revolutions breaking out alarmingly all over Europe during 1848, the radical liberals – conscious of the centuries of Swiss conflict behind them – devised a constitution that was able to defuse the age-old Catholic fears of Protestant domination. They did so principally by dividing power between the centre and the cantons, thereby allowing the majority Protestants and the minority Catholics to engage in democratic debate together, in the knowledge that each needed the other to survive. Devolution of power to self-governing cantons – federalism – allowed the retention of strong Catholic communities at the cantonal level and the creation of strong Protestant-led institutions at the national level. And, following 25 years of continued peace and consolidation, the formal adoption in 1874 of the referendum as the prime tool for consultation of the people – on matters of local, cantonal and national interest alike – ensured that politicians remained directly accountable to the electorate. Amidst steady economic growth, in railways, tourism, chemicals, engineering and heavy industry, national reconciliation was allowed to develop organically over the second half of the century, and with it came further democratization, with the adoption of proportional representation in cantonal elections and the growth of consultation and compromise at executive level in the federal government.
With the mood of reconciliation after 1848, plus an ever-increasing flow of tourists exploring the newly fashionable Alps, the huge national celebrations of six hundred years of Swiss history in 1891, and the unveiling of the idealistic monument to William Tell in Altdorf in 1895, a new, specifically Swiss national identity began to develop. However, although the appeal of Swiss national unity was strong, the new mood of European nationalism threatened – paradoxically – to split the country apart again. The alluringly woolly ideas that developed at this time of race, social darwinism and the mystical destiny shared by all people who shared a particular language (exemplified in the concept of uniting Europe’s German-speaking Volk), held a far more romantic, supranational appeal. German Swiss looked towards the achievements of Germany, with its booming economy, military prowess and advanced social-welfare policies, and felt themselves to be part of it, distanced from their French-speaking compatriots. Similarly, French Swiss looked towards the cultural achievements of fin-de-siècle France, and saw their Swiss-German neighbours as foreign. Italian-speaking Swiss in particular felt the arbitrary international border between them and the “rest” of Italy, its culture and literature, to be increasingly absurd. More even than at the height of religious conflict in centuries past, at the dawn of the twentieth the Swiss had stopped talking to each other.
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