A young historian thinking about Switzerland’s cultural influence

by Pauline Milani

Pauline Milani est historienne. Après une thèse sur la politique culturelle de la Suisse à l'étranger, elle travaille maintenant sur les artistes femmes du XIXème siècle. Elle enseigne à l'Université de Fribourg et à UniDistance.

Pro Helvetia was founded in 1939 to join the struggle for the Spiritual Defence. The characteristics of Swiss culture were considered under threat, and feared to be undermined by  truly highly developed foreign propaganda. At first, because of the war, Pro Helvetia hardly participated in the promotion of Switzerland’s image abroad. But, once peace returned to Europe its role needed to change, and careful consideration was necessary. Herbert Lüthy, a historian, was appointed to propose guidelines for Switzerland’s future cultural foreign policy.

In 1946 Herbert Lüthy was only 26 years old, but his career was already impressive. In 1942, he had defended his thesis at the University of Zurich, and started his weekly column in the Swiss German regional paper “St. Galler Tagblatt”. His articles bore witness to his sharp sense of reality and critical mind, which subsequently earned him some national recognition.

In spring 1946, Pro Helvetia appointed Henry Lüthy to study the system of cultural relations of other nations. His report, kept confidential for a long time, was published a year later. The historian started off by criticising the concept of propaganda and warning against the dangers of state-controlled cultural relations, which would only bring about a dirigiste culture in the service of the country’s prestige. Still, a small state like Switzerland would stand to benefit from a policy of cultural influence abroad, highlighting its distinctive features. In his opinion, the best solution was a semi-official association, government subsidised, while bypassing standard diplomatic procedures.  He insisted on the necessity to develop a policy of cultural exchange in harmony with the encouragement of  an intra-cultural dialogue in Switzerland itself. He also recommended joining multilateral networks, where bridges to several cultural spheres could be built at the same time.

Herbert Lüthy’s report indicated general principles, which could be used as guidance for Swiss cultural policy. Some of them were, incidentally, put in practice, so that finally Pro Helvetia’s structure corresponded with the ideal model the expert had presented. Furthermore, in 1949 the Confederation joined UNESCO, which promotes multilateral cultural exchange. However, plans for a policy of cultural influence abroad were not envisioned until the 1960s. 

Lüthy had listed several useful tools:

A policy concentrating on elites would bring awards and honours and attract influential personalities to visit Switzerland or encourage sending scientific missions abroad; events like exhibitions, concerts or conference tours would reach a wider audience; concentration on press policy would bring faster but also more superficial results. Audiovisual means, radio, documentaries, cinema were considered most efficient but also expensive.

The expert also pointed out the risk of  depending on merely commercial and touristic propaganda, both certainly important for a country’s reputation but insufficient means to shape an adequate foreign policy.

The report, visionary in many of its aspects, carried the thumbprint of one of the most outstanding intellectuals of contemporary Switzerland. But it was after all not a user’s guide to Swiss cultural policy and it quickly ended up in a bottom-drawer at Pro Helvetia.


Bibliography :

Pro Helvetia (éd.), Politique étrangère d’information et de propagande culturelle. Rapport sur l’organisation des relations culturelles et intellectuelles avec l’étranger, sur la propagande culturelle, la politique d’information et de propagande dans les principaux États de l’Europe occidentale, de l’Amérique, de la Tchécoslovaquie et de la Turquie, Zurich, avril 1947.



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