Fritz ErnstEuropean Switzerland, Historically considered

2.30 Fritz Ernst, European Switzerland, Historically considered, Zurich 1951, p. 1-72

a) Background

Fritz Ernst excelled in writing essays and is a prominent representative of the important tradition of this form of writing in Switzerland. In order to better understand the role of this tradition, we make a few introductory remarks.

From an international perspective important Swiss essayists at the 20th century are Carl J. Burckhardt, Jean Rodolphe de Salis, Gonzague de Reynold primarily before World War II, Herbert Lüthi (see text 2.32), Francois Bondy, Karl Schmid (see text 2.31), Francois Bergier, Peter von Matt (see text 2.34)  and later Iso Camartin – Carl J. Burckhardt, Jean Rodolphe de Salis and Gonzague de Reynold primarily had roots in the French speaking culture and Iso Camartin in the Romanic culture as well – all of them were well versed in German and basically wrote their essays in German. The topics addressed by those essayists show a deep knowledge of the essence of the historic emergence of Switzerland as a nation. At the same time, before and after World War II, they looked far beyond Swiss borders, primarily towards Europe, and not so much to the emerging Anglo-Saxon and in particular, American world. Some had their roots in literary, some in historical sciences, some both. Those teaching at universities as academics were comparativists in general.
For some reason maybe due to smallness and insularity? – Switzerland was rarely a topic of non-Swiss social scientists, essayists or writers. The analysis of books and texts in the three parts Europeanization, Americanization and Globalization has shown the absence of foreign writings on Swiss law even more patently. Exceptions exist and have to be named, in particular,  Ernst at hand: Lionel Gossman’s book Basel in the Age of Burckhardt, A Study of Unseasonable Ideas is among the – towering – exceptions. Lionel Gossmann is a professor emeritus of Romance language and literature at Princeton University and a Scott by nationality. Gordon A. Craig belongs in the same league, The Triumph of Liberalism, Zurich in the Golden Age 1830-1869. (See text 2.7 in the part on Americanization)The book was written in Zurich and originally published in English in 1988. Gordon A. Craig at the time was a professor of history at the University of Stanford. He has been called the most gifted historian of Germany writing in English; we also mention Nicolas Bouvier, Gordon A. Craig and Lionel Gossmann, Geneva – Zurich – Basel, history, cultural and national identity with an introduction by Karl E. Schorske, which appeared at Princeton University Press in 1994. The three studies in this small volume were originally presented at a colloquium on the topic “Cultural Unity and Diversity: Switzerland after 700 years,” which was held at the University of Southern California on March 15, 1991. The colloquium was intended to mark the seven hundred anniversary of the Swiss Confederation.

The text at hand of the comparative and literary scientists, Ernst’s “European Switzerland, historically considered” has to be situated in that tradition of Swiss essayist mentioned. The text is a translation of  Ernst’s essay “Europäische Schweiz – eine geistesgeschichtliche Studie.” Contrary to the German original, the translation does not contain the postscript In which Daniel Bodmer explains the history of the coming about of the text as well as its translation. This is particularly relevant in the view of the purpose of this Anthology. The text Europäische Schweiz of Fritz Ernst was a text, which had been planned for publication but had not appeared anywhere at the time (1951). Ernst, according to the postscript in 1947, agreed with the Pro Helvetia Foundation to write a book with the title Der Beitrag der Schweiz zur Weltkultur (The Contribution of Switzerland to World Culture). The basis was meant to be his academic course Europäische Kulturwerte der Schweiz (European Cultural Values of Switzerland), which he held in 1948 at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. A student – memento de Saussaure – stenographed Ernst’s classroom presentations. This text stayed as manuscript with Foundation Pro Helvetia in 1950, since in the meantime Fritz Ernst had become a professor of comparative literature at the University of Zurich and he was involved with writing other publications. The foundation first decided to publish an English version of the study and entrusted Cecil Clifford Palmer with the translation of the German original. The essay appeared in 1951 under the title European Switzerland in the Zurich publishing house Fretz und Wasmuth, which no longer exists. Contrary to the majority of the texts in this chapter of the Anthology, this is the only early text after World War II which was destined and addressed to non-Swiss readers and was translated into English for that specific purpose. The fact that the Foundation Pro Helvetia – the guardian of Swiss culture nowadays in Switzerland and in particular abroad – recognized this and made this publication in English possible is to be noted. Nine years later, Ernst wrote the volume, Der Helvetismus (The Helvetism), which had as its aim to explain the Swiss – and not primarily the foreigners – the diversity of the cultural history of Switzerland.

The text at hand is a contribution of a neighbouring social sciences and humanities – here comparative literary criticism – to the Anthology of texts focussing on the Europeanization of Swiss law and legal culture.

Fritz Ernst was born in 1889 in Winterthur and died on March 26th, in 1958 in Zurich. He was a Swiss literary scholar and an essayist. Fritz Ernst studied German language and literature in Berlin and Zurich. In 1915 he received his doctoral degree with a dissertation on Romantic irony. From 1917 to 1947, he worked as a high school teacher at a girls’ school in Zurich. From 1943 on, he was Professor of History of Literature at the Swiss Institute of Technology (ETH) and, from 1948 on, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Zurich. Fritz Ernst wrote studies in literature in a conservative and cultural critical manner. During the Third Reich, he also actively contributed to the official mental and intellectual defense of the country (Geistige Landesverteidigung).

b) Summary

The text at hand is a translation of the original text in German with the title Europäische Schweiz at the request of the Pro Helvetia Foundation.

The opening statement of the text at hand of Fritz Ernst, reads:
“Whoever approaches Switzerland from the Rhine or the Rhone or the Po is prepared to find a miracle of nature rather than a homeland of culture. Yet it is true that sciences and arts always had a home here where they were assiduously cultivated. The population of the country amounts to no more than a two-thousandth part of the human race. The foundation of Swiss self-respect is not to be imperilled by reference to these unpretentious figures. A long historical development, the conquest of many a difficulty, the enjoyment of many a favour granted by destiny – all have imparted to the Swiss the feeling of a right to their existence as well as a sense of their capacity to face the strains of life. They do not appeal to any community of languages or creeds in order to find an exponent of their national characteristics, but to certain fundamental ideas, which, though applicable beyond their frontiers, are particularly congenial to them. They are aware, besides, that the eyes of the world have often been upon them and that disappointment has not necessarily been the result. In this sense readers outside of Switzerland may avail themselves of this short inventory, drawn up by a Swiss, of those values which seem to him to have European validity.”
The text at hand in a sequence of a few pages each  describes the key elements the texts in this inventory; the titles of the commented essay are William Tell, Renaissance, The Reformation, The Period of Enlightenment, Rousseau, Nature and Naturalness, The Conception of Individuality, The Conception of a Nation, The Struggle Against Napoleon, The XIXth and the XXth Century, Amiel and Burckhardt and Neutrality and Community with the World.

The last sentence of this text was visionary in 1951. It is the first scholarly attempt to publish on the inevitable development of a confrontation of Switzerland with the unification of Europe after World War.: “If Switzerland should ever see herself obliged by the course of world-wide events to give up here neutrality, a conscientious retrospect would enable her to do so without regretting her past.”


c) Text

You can find a scan (PDF) of the original text here:
E_2.30_ERNST_European Switzerland

© Prof. Jens Drolshammer,,

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