The Swiss abroad – promoting 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.

Swiss Abroad

For  a long time, Switzerland had been a country of emigration, its inhabitants leaving because of economic hardship. Humble peasants from Aargau or Bern have taken to the road at least since the 17th century, even travelling overseas in their search for a better life. From the 19th century on emigration increased,  not least because of better means of maritime transport. At the beginning of the 20th century, between 40- and 50’000 Swiss left their country every decade. From the 1930s on their number decreased by several thousand a year, but veritable Swiss colonies remain to be found all over the world, mainly in the Americas.

Swiss emigrants liked to gather in patriotic societies, they created their own schools and newspapers, and maintained comparatively strong ties to their homeland. During the inter-war, growing national sentiment led to the founding of several institutions in support of the exiles. The Organisation of the Swiss Abroad, founded in 1916, and the Secretariat of the Swiss Abroad, established in 1919, reinforced the ties between the Confederation and the colonies.

After its constitution in 1939, Pro Helvetia was meant to particularly “uphold and strengthen the spiritual link with the Swiss abroad and improve the understanding of the spiritual importance and the originality of the Confederation abroad.”[1] Often, the emigrants were presented as the vanguard of Swiss culture, a hub for spreading knowledge about traditions, folklore and cultural achievements of Switzerland.

During the war, Pro Helvetia handed over responsibility for the question of international cultural relations to the Secretariat of the Swiss Abroad. Alice Briod, in charge of the Secretariat from 1927 to 1959, organised conferences, screenings and concerts. Special care was given to the creation and distribution of the magazine “L’Echo suisse”, which painted the Confederation and Swiss culture in  bright colours.

Alice Briod returned to the Board of Pro Helvetia in 1953. Until her retirement in 1959 she continued to strengthen ties with “ the 5th Switzerland” by means of culture. Expert at networking, her numerous contacts with the entire world proved helpful for the foundation. 

More than once Pro Helvetia’s news service successfully relied on her connections to have articles about Swiss culture written or published abroad.

Generally, the emigrants’ societies and the Swiss schools abroad looked favourably upon Pro Helvetia. On the other hand, the members of the foundation did not always share their fellow citizens’ ideas of  how to promote culture abroad. Every now and then the choices of the former were far from the patriotic displays of the latter, who felt more nostalgic for a Switzerland rooted in traditional values.  Nevertheless, the Organisation of the Swiss abroad was an important driving force for change. 1965, at their annual assembly, the delegates worried about Switzerland’s lack of cultural influence and added their support to demands for reforming Pro Helvetia. In 1966, its funding was doubled.

1976,  a federal law provided for the coordination of all agents in the cultural field, including the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad, thus acknowledging its role in promoting Switzerland’s image on the international scene.


Bibliography and sources :

Arlettaz Gérald, « Les Suisses de l’étranger et l’identité nationale », in Études et sources, n° 12, Berne : Archives fédérales, 1986, p. 5-35.

Dictionnaire historique de la Suisse : Marc Perrenoud, « Suisses de l’étranger », « Colonies suisses ».

Archives fédérales suisses.


[1] Excerpt from Federal Council Etter’s speech at the constituting session of Pro Helvetia, November 15, 1939, AFS, E3800, 1976/87, v. 5 ; translated from the French version.



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