Today's claim to be skeptical about comes to us from a fairly infamous speech in a movie "The Third Man ":

in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock - Orson Welles playing Harry Lime.

Now that sounds like a total hyperbole, but still, it would be good to have the claim (dis)proved. So the actual questions are:

A. For given time periods (see below), were there significant inventions/discoveries/cultural-or-inventor-type personalities in Switzerland?

B. For given time periods, did Switzerland literally experience "X uninterrupted years of democracy and peace"?

The time periods in question would be:

  1. The Renaissance period

    Let's defined that very loosely as beginning late 13th century, or as late as 1401; to between mid-16th/mid-17th century.

  2. During Borgia era

    To make it more precise, Wiki seems to imply that the era is between Alexander and Lucrezia, so to approximate the quote's "30 years" we will make it 1492 => 1519, between the start of Alexander VI's papacy and death of Lucrezia.

  3. 500 years, in case no good examples can be had in the first two periods

    Since the movie came out in 1949 (and was about post-war period), this should theoretically be 1450-1950.

    I'm going to cheat and make Einstein to be an ineligible example despite being in this time period.

UPDATE: Executive summary of answers: the skepticism was well founded, as the speech was busted in all 3 of its assumptions:

  1. The Swiss didn't have much of peace and brotherly love, especially in Renaissance time frame

  2. The Swiss had produced things/people of importance. In the relevant early timeframe, 2 great examples are Bernoulli family and H. Zwingli, and later on, Euler.

  3. And, to top it off, as per comments, the Swiss didn't even produce the cuckoo clock! (that was Germany)

  • 4
    I can't remember the answer, but hold on, my Swiss army knife has an app for that:) Commented Apr 27, 2011 at 21:08
  • 8
    The cuckoo clock is a German product (from the Schwarzwald region, just north of the frontier with Switzerland). But who cares as long as tourists are buying?
    – Jonas
    Commented Apr 27, 2011 at 21:53
  • 2
    This: > fairly infamous speech in a movie "The > Third Man ": shows sillyness of "the" average American on everything abroad. Maybe this was meant as an irony by Graham Greene or Alexander Corda or Carol Reed? Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 11:22
  • 3
    @No longer here - this being a skeptics site, I assume you are prepared to back up that condescending generalization with citations?
    – user5341
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 14:17
  • 3
    Swiss cheese...
    – MSpeed
    Commented May 3, 2011 at 9:33

4 Answers 4


For given time periods (see below), were there significant inventions/discoveries/cultural-or-inventor-type personalities in Switzerland?

#1 and #2:

Zwingli, Huldrych (1484-1531)

One of the founding fathers of what then became Calvinism.

Zwingli, Huldrych http://thejesusvirus.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Zwingli.jpg

An easy answer to #3:

The Red Cross (1863)

It was founded in 1863 in Geneva and has since received 4 Nobel prizes.

In February of 1863 in Geneva, Switzerland, the Société genevoise d'utilité publique [Geneva Public Welfare Society] set up a committee of five Swiss citizens to look into the ideas offered by Henri Dunant in his book Un Souvenir de Solferino

Other answers to #3:

  • Ursula ANDRESS (Actress)
  • Daniel BERNOULLI (Physicist)
  • Le Corbusier (Architect)
  • Leonhard EULER (Mathematician)
  • H. R. GIGER (Painter)
  • Johanna SPYRI (Writer, "Heidi")

source and more

  • 2
    Zwingly was a competitor of Luther, who died in Kappel while trying to convert the world. Calvin came later, and established "Calvinism" in Geneva, then allied with the Swiss Federation.
    – Jonas
    Commented Apr 27, 2011 at 21:57
  • 3
    I'm torn between +1 for including Euler (I was so hung up on his St. Petersburgh period I forgot he was born in Switzerland); and -1 for listing Urula Andress before Bernoulli and Euler :)
    – user5341
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 1:35
  • @DVK, it's just the order on the original site, I would have been torn choosing between Euler and Bernoulli for first place ;-)
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 1:38
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    OK, Bernoullis plus Zwingli makes this the most on-topic answer as far as "Renaissancyish" people pre-18th-century, so I'll accept this one, though all the answers were great!
    – user5341
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 1:46
  • How about Jaquet-Droz? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaquet-Droz_automata.
    – Benjol
    Commented Oct 3, 2014 at 9:12

Swiss brotherly love 1450-1950:

  • 1515 Battle of Marignano

    It was one of the most savage and (for the Swiss) decisive battles of the age.

    It pitted the French army, composed of the best armored lancers and artillery in Europe and led by Francis I, newly crowned king of France and a day past his 21st birthday, against the heretofore invincible Swiss Mercenaries of the Old Swiss Confederacy, considered the best infantry in the world.

  • 1531 Second War of Kappel between protestants and Catholics. The first war of Kappel ended without any battle being fought after mediation.

  • 1653 Unsuccessful peasant revolt

    Many exponents of the insurrection were captured, tortured, and finally received heavy sentences. Niklaus Leuenberger was beheaded and quartered in Bern on September 6, 1653.

  • 1707 Successful revolt in Toggenburg against the abbot of St. Gallen.

  • 1707 - 1738 Successful revolt against the aristocrats in Geneva who was later restored in 1782 by 11'000 soldiers from France, Berne and Piedmont.

  • 1717 - 1729 Unsuccessful revolt of Wilchingen against Schaffhausen

  • 1719 - 1722 Unsuccessful revolt of Werdenberg against Glarus

  • 1723 Unsuccessful revolt of major Abraham Davel in Lausanne (Vaud) against Berne.

  • 1726 - 1739 Unsuccessful revolt of the peasants of Jura against the prince-bishop of Basel

  • 1755 Unsuccessful revolt of the Leventina (Ticino) against Uri

  • 1781 Unsuccessful revolt of Chenaux (Fribourg) against Fribourg

  • 1792 - Successful revolution in Geneva following the French revolution.

    the égilaseurs rose up at Geneva, displaced the old government, and effected "revolution."

  • 1793 - Revolt against taxes at Gossau

  • 1794 - Peasant revolution

  • 1802 Stecklikrieg

    The Stecklikrieg (Stäcklichrieg) of 1802 resulted in the collapse of the Helvetic Republic, the renewed French occupation of Switzerland and ultimately the Act of Mediation dictated by Napoleon on 10 March 1803.

    The insurgence originated in Central Switzerland, the cities of Zürich and Bern as well as rural parts of the Swiss plateau (Aargau and Solothurn). After several hostile clashes with the official forces of the Helvetic Republic, which were lacking both in equipment and motivation (Renggpass at Pilatus on 28 August, artillery attacks on Bern and Zürich during September, and a skirmish at Faoug on 3 October), the central government at first capitulated militarily (on 18 September, retreating from Bern to Lausanne) and then collapsed entirely.

  • 1845 Armed radicals [radicalized liberals] march for Lucerne, they are defeated by regular troops.

  • 1847-1848 The Sonderbund War a civil war.

Notable historical Swiss figures 1450-1950

  • Leonard Euler (1707-1783), one of the most famous and most productive mathematicians of all time.

    Leonhard Euler was by far the most productive mathematician in the history of humankind and one of the greatest scholars of all time. He was cosmopolitan in the truest sense of the word: he spent his first 20 years in Basel, and worked altogether more than 30 years in St. Petersburg and a quarter century in Berlin. As happens to only a very few scholars, Euler's work brought him fame and popularity, comparable to that of Galileo, Newton, and Einstein.

  • Henry Dunant (1828-1910) founded the red cross and won the Nobel peace prize.

  • Bernoulli family - scholars of note in 17th-18th centuries

Answering this is such a huge undertaking I've decided to make the answer a community wiki if anyone wants to chip in with better references and to make a more complete answer.

  • Don't have the time for a nice edit - but the Swiss developed milk chocolate (Daniel Peter, for Nestle, a Swiss company), or DDT (Paul Hermann Mueller at Geigy, now Novartis, a Swiss company). The discovery of DDT was worth the Nobel price in medicine in 1948. Also, Brown Bovieri & Cie (now ABB) probably came up with some innovation, as well as Swiss watch makers.
    – Jonas
    Commented Apr 27, 2011 at 22:15
  • you forgot Euler's teacher, Bernoulli (and the whole Bernoulli family :) +1 anyway - great detail on the history!
    – user5341
    Commented Apr 28, 2011 at 1:46

For given time periods, did Switzerland literally experience "X uninterrupted years of democracy and peace"?

I will concentrate on "peace". Here are some selected events suggesting that the longest period of peace has been since 1845 (104 years by 1949).

  • 1386 Battle of Sempach (Austria)
  • 1440–46 Old Zurich War (Zurich v. Swiss confederacy)
  • 1499 Swabian War (German)
  • 1515 Battle of Marignano (Italian)
  • 1529-31 Wars of Kappel (religious civil war)
  • 1620 Massacre of Valtellina (Italian religious revolt)
  • 1653 Swiss peasant war (revolt)
  • 1712 Toggenburg war / second war of Villmergen (religious civil war)
  • 1798 Overrun by French republic
  • 1845 Sonderbund War (religious civil war)

This speech completely dismisses the extreme importance of accurate timepieces, especially to navigation at sea. While it was an Englishman who eventually won the Longitude Prize, Swiss Made(tm)[1] watches and Chronometers (ie Ulysee Nardin) were the gold standard from the mid 19th century to about 1970.

It's roughly tantamount to saying "The Americans didn't produce anything of importance aside from the GPS network". Even if this statement were true (and it's obviously not), this invention is of such stunning usefulness and importance that if this were the case, they still deserve heaps of praise for this one accomplishment alone.

[1] Swiss Made(tm) is capitalized and trademarked for a reason.

  • Vat iz zis "GPS" thing? </russian_Glonass_user>
    – user5341
    Commented Dec 27, 2012 at 13:13

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