Is Switzerland a country without a national history?


While the peoples of Latin American countries remember mainly national events, the collective memory of Western Europeans, and particularly the Swiss, is far more meta-national in nature. This is the conclusion of a study supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF).

​How do we remember our own lives? How do we relate to the historical events that shape them? An international study that was supported by the SNSF has revealed that dictatorships in particular have marked the memories of people in Latin America. In contrast, for inhabitants of Western Europe memory focuses primarily on international phenomena.


The research focused on one single question: "Thinking about the major events and changes that have occurred in your country and during your lifetime, which of these have affected you the most?" This question was asked of almost 12,000 men and women. The respondents were able to refer to a maximum of four events. The responses were classified by age. It appears that the events that have the greatest impact in the memory are those that occur during adolescence and early adult life. The study was coordinated by two sociologists at the University of Geneva, Stefano Cavalli and Christian Lalive d’Epinay.

Five countries in Latin America were selected, showing different results according to their national history. While the memories of Argentinians, Chileans and Uruguayans were strongly affected by dictatorships, the inhabitants in Brazil and Mexico recalled the governments of Lula and Vicente Fox. The only international event frequently quoted by these groups of people was the attack of 9/11.

Second World War

In contrast, Western Europeans, and particularly the Swiss, reported few strong national references. The list of international events that were quoted was broadly homogeneous in Switzerland, Belgium, Spain, Finland, France, Italy and also Croatia. The events were headed by the Second World War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11. This demonstrates the existence of a shared experience in the European Union, despite the recent political difficulties.

The Swiss also recall these three, followed by man's first step on the moon, progress, the European Union, the war in Iraq, May '68, the assassination of JFK and the Gulf War. This paints a picture of a country without a national memory, since of the ten events that are most frequently quoted, none are national in nature.


C. Lalive d’Epinay, V. Concha, L. Gastrón, E. Guichard, G. Henríquez, G. Lynch, M.J. Oddone, Mondialisation et mémoires de l’histoire. Une comparaison internationale et intergénérationnelle, in R. Bourqia (ed.), La sociologie et ses frontières. Faits et effets de la mondialisation, Paris, 2012, 119-133.
(Available on request as a PDF;


Dr. Stefano Cavalli
Centre inter-facultaire de gérontologie et d’études des vulnérabilités
Université de Genève
Route des Acacias 54
1227 Carouge
Phone +41 79 667 07 95

Communication division