Zurichois lawyer Matthias Erne responds to the controversy that swirled around the views expressed by a celebrated military journalist, Peter Forster. The latter openly took issue with the Federal Council’s questioning of Swiss neutrality. Can a journalist working for the state express a personal opinion against the government that employs him? And on whose initiative can Switzerland’s neutrality be called into question: the Federal Council’s or that of the Swiss people?
- Peter Forster, editor-in-chief of the military magazine "Schweizer Soldat", has publicly denounced the questioning of Swiss neutrality by his employer: the state.
Voltaire (1694–1778) was one of the most influential thinkers of the European Enlightenment and is regarded as a pioneer of the French Revolution. Whenever he propagated what he considered to be right, he showed great knowledge and empathy. Voltaire spent a part of his life in Switzerland and his criticism on the mischief of absolutism and feudalism left its marks. The quote “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is indeed falsely attributed to him, but it aptly characterizes his attitude. The phrase sums up what is understood today as “freedom of expression”. It demands respect for others and restraining one’s own desire for power and one’s wish to forbid the other to speak.
The GSoA is a political alliance in Switzerland. The full name of “Group for a Switzerland without an Army” is its program. It brings together advocates of the integration of Switzerland into NATO and the EU as well as radical communist and utopian pacifist movements. It is a wellmanaged political grocery store; one can wonder about its leaders and their predetermined categorisations. Later this year there will be a vote on an initiative of this group. It requires that the mandatory military service shall be abolished in the constitution. Thus the militia army would have to be converted into a professional army which would be incompatible with the self-image of the successful model of Switzerland. The highly topical general peace concept of “perpetual armed neutrality” based on Immanuel Kant and his book “Perpetual Peace” is rejected by the GSoA.
Peter Forster is now editor in chief of the military magazine “Schweizer Soldat”. For many years he has been Colonel of the Army’s Information Regiment, quasi the militarized media for the supply of the population with information in the event of a crisis. He has been correspondent of the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” and for many years chief editor of the “Thurgauer Zeitung”.
For him the Federal Council went too far cutting again and again the army’s finances and leading the ability to maintain the armed neutrality ad absurdum. He wrote: “The Federal Council knowingly plays with a valuable good, the security of our country which is entrusted to him as the original duty of the State. We already wrote here about the question of ‘adaption or resistance’. Then as now we come to the conclusion: Silence would mean betrayal and adaption submission – in a situation in which our conscience forces us to resist against the own government.” Forster expressed his opinion in a periodic journal. He is well-known, however. His word is important. He has always been loyal to the flag.
This prompted National Councillor Jean-François Steiert of the SP Fribourg to ask the Federal Council whether a soldier and officer – who in a democratic State publicly refers to his conscience as a reason to resist the democratically elected government – was still acceptable for the army. If this was the case, he asked where the Federal Council saw the limits of loyalty from which senior officers would have to protect democratic institutions and the democratically legitimized authorities.
Steiert, who himself is close to the GSoA, studied Swiss history and Communication Sciences as subsidiary subject in Fribourg. Today, he is delegate for inter-cantonal affairs in the Department of Education of the Canton of Vaud. From 1998 to 2000, he was Secretary General of the SP Switzerland and later political group chairman of the SP in the National Council. Prior to that, he had been Secretary General for press and information of the SP Switzerland for five years. The name slightly reminds us of the Soviet Union but in essence this means that he was his party’s spin doctor.
In his opinion a senior militia officer apparently must not express his own opinion, in any case no other than that of the Federal Council. A left historian calls for blind obedience which was responsible for great crimes against humanity? Has the man got no mind? This attitude is typical for historians from the “generation Bergier”. They show the index finger of the know-it-all, find shocking deficits everywhere in the democratic self-image and are executives of a department of education. Did they have a seat behind a column in the civics lessons and read nothing of Voltaire? Or are they so opportunistic?
A look at the publications of the Faculty of Law of his own Alma Mater would reform the gentleman, for example if he read the book by Peter Hänni Rechte und Pflichten im öffentlichen Dienstrecht (Rights and responsibilities in the Public Service Law) which was published in 1993 by the Universitätsverlag Fribourg Switzerland, at the time when Steiert studied and began to stand on his own political feet. On page 97 there is a decision of the Government Council of the Canton Obwalden that would please Voltaire. Here is the decision from Central Switzerland:
“For civil servants and authority members there is no interdiction to speak about proposals which they never had to deal with. Such a ban would be incompatible at all with our democratic principles. On the contrary, democracy means discussion – any factual expression is required. In fact, it would therefore be incomprehensible why in the discussion about issues of far-reaching importance officials, administration members or former members of the commission would not be allowed to have a say as experts just like all other voters, only because they happen to be or have been civil servants or members of the administration or former commission members. The authority of the government or a department would certainly not suffer. It would only suffer if the government tried to make the subjects wear a muzzle so that the people could not listen to the objections.” (VVGE II, p. 12, Translation Current Concerns)
In Zurich, too, the right of freedom of expression of officials was seen and confirmed by the Federal Court, last in the context of the proceedings against teachers around VPM in the 1990s. Democracy means discussion. Period.
If the GSoA does not cease to suppress other opinions and even calls for state repression of opinions they do not like, we will turn their referendum on the mandatory military service into a vote for freedom of expression. Then it will be even more fundamental. Then the closing of ranks will be made even broader.
Apart from Gotthard Frick and Helmut Hubacher there are many more responsible SP members who do not appreciate the pacifist line of the party leadership and want to revise the passage in the SP platform which calls for the abolition of the army. Maybe the sense of reality will return more easily to this party if the machinations of certain alpha animals during the Cold War are reviewed. A look at the historical research of E. Bischof may contribute to the clarification.
Very strange: In France the Left wages an imperial war abroad. Here the party leadership cannot even commit to the selfdefense of a state in times of distress. As long as they cannot accept the highly topical peace model of perpetual armed neutrality and its consequences, and as long as Voltaire is not the guiding principle for a fair debate, something is basically wrong, I would say.