Today is Remembrance Day in many countries. But Switzerland has no Remembrance Day as it has nothing to remember. As I explained in this post last November, the only poppies you see here are the few worn by English-speaking expats like me, and those of us who wear them with pride have spent the last two weeks explaining what it means. Very few Swiss people realise the significance of the little red flower, so perhaps it’s no surprise that this week Fifa tried to ban English footballers from wearing poppies on their shirts at an international match: the HQ of world football is in Zurich and run by Sepp Blatter as his own Swiss empire. Given that Switzerland stayed on the sidelines throughout the 20th century, it was clearly too much to expect Fifa to understand the meaning behind the poppy.
Of course, it was all about sticking to the rules, which state that players’ shirts can’t show any religious, political or commercial messages. Wearing a poppy would ‘jeopardise the neutrality of football’. What poppycock! And what a very Swiss phrase – although Fifa is only based in Zurich for tax reasons (ie, probably avoiding as much of it as possible) rather than because it is particularly Swiss in origin. Funny that Fifa itself isn’t very neutral when it comes to deciding where to place a World Cup and certainly isn’t un-commercial: in 2007-10, its revenue was $4.2 billion with a $631 million profit. So it seems it’s one rule for the players, another for the bosses. How sad. Even though a compromise has now been found (players wearing poppies on black armbands), I wonder if Fifa merely recognised its own-goal and failed to realise how disrespectful it appeared. Maybe not, as it seems to forget that outside its plush ivory tower in Zurich, there is a world that remembers what happened 97 years ago.
Despite the lack of poppies, and the lack of understanding, I have finally discovered a war memorial in Switzerland from after the Napoleonic era. It’s only taken me six years! Tucked away up on a hill behind the station in Montreux is an obelisk (shown above and right), dedicated to the soldiers of the town who died for their country 1914-18. I have no idea where they fought or why, but it is the first such memorial I have ever seen here. I doubt there are many others. For many Swiss people today is not about wars they never fought in but it’s about the start of carnival. At 11.11, just as half of Europe is getting back to normal after the two minutes’ silence, the bands will start and the party will begin. It’s the same in those parts of Germany where carnival celebration also takes precedence over commemoration. The interesting point there is: why don’t Germans remember the war in the same way? After all, they lost just as many men as everyone else. Do they feel guilty about starting it? Or ashamed that they lost?
Switzerland has had the luxury of not losing its young men in tragic conflicts, but it must remember that it is the exception. Wearing a poppy is not about glorifying war (as one Swiss man said to me) or making a political statement, as Fifa seems to think. It is about realising that we owe a debt to those who gave their lives in the past. Our world – and Switzerland – would be very different if they had not done so, and to honour that I will be silent today at 11am for two minutes. I wonder how many others in Switzerland will do the same?