The changing face of German immigration

Keystone/Peter Klaunzer

Germans nowadays are appreciated as highly-skilled labour and academics, but are not always given a warm welcome by the Swiss. History, language and politics have all affected the two nations’ changing relationship in the past century.

This content was published on July 10, 2012 - 11:00
Renat Künzi,

Education and know-how are natural resources which have helped make Switzerland one of the foremost research centres in the world. Yet, the science community depends on foreigners to make up for the shortage of young academics with Swiss passports.

Germany is the main reservoir for the necessary manpower, as official data confirms. The number of German citizens has doubled to 280,000 since Switzerland joined the common labour market of the European Union in 2002.

History - notably during the Third Reich and two world wars - has certainly played its part in a sometimes strained relationship between the two neighbours in the last century.

It is therefore hardly surprising that the noticeably stronger presence of Germans in Switzerland’s public life, particularly in the majority German-speaking part of the country, has prompted criticism not least from the political right.

“There are too many Germans in Switzerland,” rightwing Swiss People’s Party parliamentarian Natalie Rickli has said, attracting plenty of media attention. She has openly called for immigration restrictions for German citizens.


Wilhelm zu Dohna, a German-born Swiss anaesthetist and author, says the concerns and fears about the increased numbers of German immigrants are understandable. He refers to the number of foreigners in Switzerland (around 22 per cent of the population) and to the lasting negative image of Nazi Germany as the dominant power in Europe of the 1930s.

In his book, Grenzenlose Liebe. Kann ein Deutscher Schweizer sein? (Boundless love. Can a German be Swiss?), the 56-year author analyses the traditionally fragile relationship, with original, albeit provocative thoughts and insights.

Zu Dohna, who likes to describe himself as a “wanderer along the interface of Helvetians and Teutons”, has a unique personal background from an immigrant family. Descendant of Saxon-Prussian gentry and at the same time a member of the old aristocracy of Bern, the author has dual citizenship and has been living in Switzerland since 1975.

The competitive professional environment is just one of the reasons why many German academics often rub the Swiss up the wrong way, he says.


Zu Dohna says his book, which was published in 2010, wants to face the common prejudices, misunderstandings, pitfalls and errors.

He says both the well-read Germans and Swiss may share a love of authors such as Dürrenmatt, Frisch, Hölderlin and Goethe, but it would be a mistake to imply that a similar highbrow education can be taken for granted in everyday popular culture.

“But this is exactly what many Germans do. They consider Switzerland as some sort of extended living room.”

“They wrongly believe they are familiar with the Swiss mentality. Instead their assumption is based on preconceived ideas and clichés,” zu Dohna says.


Oddly enough the biggest difference between Germans and Swiss Germans is the use of the language, according to zu Dohna.

German in its standard form is an official language in both countries. (Switzerland has three other official languages, see sidebar). Complicating the matter further is the fact that standard German is hardly spoken in everyday Swiss life. Instead people use the local dialects which are hard to penetrate. Children speak dialect at home and learn standard German as the first foreign language at school.

Zu Dohna, who speaks flawless dialect, says it is crucial for a German living in Switzerland to understand that dialect is the most common idiom.

“It is the actually the vernacular they have to learn themselves,” he says as, after all, immigrants everywhere in the world have to learn the local language.

However, many German immigrants try to avoid speaking dialect not least because of often discouraging experiences. Still, zu Dohna says some of his colleagues have followed his example successfully.


Georg Kreis, professor emeritus at Basel University and former head of the Federal Anti-Racism Commission, chooses a different approach to tackle the relationship between Germans and Swiss.

He says sensationalist headlines, such as “The Germans are coming!” or “There are too many Germans!” are discomforting.

“Making such statements echoes similar sentiments in Germany against the Jews in the 1920s and 1930s,” says Kreis.

He acknowledges that Germans can be tough competitors on the job market or in searching for a house. Nevertheless, German doctors and other medical personnel are crucial for the Swiss health sector.

Kreis adds that it is offensive to single out individuals belonging to a larger group. “There is no need to appeal straight to the human rights aspect. But an enemy stereotype is not making it easier to live side by side peacefully.”

No issue

At the beginning of the 20th century such negative stereotyping did not exist. This might come as a surprise as the percentage of Germans living in Switzerland made up almost six per cent – far more compared with the 3.5 per cent nowadays.

Kreis says the presence of Germans wasn’t an issue in the years before World War One, although Switzerland was “no paradise of a multinational state”.

The best-known German in Switzerland at the time was arguably the physicist Albert Einstein who developed his famous theory of relativity in Bern. Yet most German immigrants were craftsmen and building workers, not academics.

“There was a kind of ‘free movement of the people policy’ as foreigners in those days could live and work where they wished,” says Kreis.

In the decades before World War One, Switzerland was very much focused on the German Reich.

“During a visit to Switzerland in 1912 the German emperor, Wilhelm II, came to inspect the troops during a major military exercise to ensure that the brave Swiss soldiers were up to their task of providing protection on the flank from the French,” Kreis explains.

Then immediately before war broke out, the immigrants, notably the Germans, left Switzerland in droves to enrol for military duty.

“Paradoxically the exodus went alongside a wave of xenophobia,” says Kreis.

Commenting on today’s controversy about Germans in Switzerland, Kreis offers a twofold explanation.

“Apart from historical and cultural difference it could also be the similarities which might be a problem for some.”

Germans ins Switzerland

Switzerland had a population of 3,753,293 in 1910 according to an official census.

Non-Swiss residents accounted for 14.7%.

Of the total 552,011 foreigners in Switzerland a century ago, Germans made up the biggest expat community of 219,530 people or 5.9%, followed by the Italians (5.4%), with the French and Austrians lagging behind.

The number of Germans reached a low in 1950 with just 55,437 people, but the community grew again to 93,406 people ten years later.

Between 2001 and 2003, the German community increased from 127,088 to 151,095 people largely as a result of Switzerland opening up its labour market to citizens of the EU.

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A survey published by the Blick tabloid newspaper last April found nearly two-thirds of respondents said they had no problem with the increasing number of Germans in Switzerland.

The poll among 1,001 people in the majority German-speaking part of Switzerland only, was carried out by the Isopublic institute.

It found 58% of the respondents coming out against immigration restrictions for Germans, but 37% were in favour.

A previous poll by author Jörn Lacour in 2010 concluded that the media and the rightwing Swiss People’s Party were fuelling the alleged fear of Germans.

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Languages in Switzerland

Switzerland has four official languages – German, French, Italian and Romansh.

65.6% of the population above the age of 14 speak mainly Swiss-German, 22.8% speak French, 8.4% Italian and 0.6% Romansh, according to a recent report by the Federal Statistics Office

4.5% of respondents said their main language of communication is English.

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