Regionally ambivalent Switzerland

Another chapter in the delineation of regions (areas, territories) — there’s a Region-talk Page on this blog listing my postings on the topic — prompted by my coming across various sites referring to Switzerland as a central European country. I was puzzled: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, maybe Austria, ok, but Switzerland? If Switzerland is in central Europe, what’s in western Europe?

The answer is: not much. France, Belgium, the Netherlands, the UK, maybe Luxembourg. Having a coastline on the North Sea seems to be a necessary condition, but not a significant one: Denmark, Norway, and Sweden count as northern European (or Scandinavian), and Germany as central European. Whoa, Germany is in central Europe? What happened to the western European alliance, with the UK, France, and Germany as its major elements?

It’s a now-familiar story: different categories are delineated for different sociocultural — or other — purposes, with many transitional zones (lacking clear boundaries) and with political boundaries standing in, faute de mieux, for actual boundaries, though the categories cut across and subdivide political units.

Europe, with its extraordinarily complex cultural, political, economic, ethnic, linguistic, and religious history (not to mention its geographical , climatic, and biological diversity), is naturally going to present a wild patchwork of categorizations into regions, all of which have some claim to validity. In the midst of all this, Switzerland is going to be categorized in a variety of ways.

Consider Western Europe (Wikipedia article here). If we’re talking about political spheres of interest during the Cold War, then we’ve got a pretty clear two-way division into East (the Soviet sphere) and West. In a more nuanced map:

(#1)The West is everything in some shade of blue or in gray, and the East is everything else

In this category world, little gray Switzerland is pretty much in the center of the West.

But the Wikipedia entry also entertains the much more refined region characterizations of the CIA World Factbook, which looks like this:


Here, Switzerland is in Western Europe (with France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, UK), but just barely. Meanwhile, the many cultural differences between France and Germany put Germany in a separate region, along with Poland and Austria-Hungary.

(Note from Wikipedia: “The World Factbook, also known as the CIA World Factbook, is a reference resource produced by the [US] Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with almanac-style information about the countries of the world.)

But… in the Wikipedia article on Central Europe, which tells us that

Central Europe is the region comprising the central part of Europe [as opposed to Western Europe and Eastern Europe]. … The concept of Central Europe is based on a common historical, social and cultural identity

the countries of the region are enumerated as:

Austria, Croatia (or placed in Southeastern Europe), Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia (or placed in Southeastern Europe), Switzerland

Here, not unreasonably, Switzerland is grouped with Germany, and Germany is (as above) in Central Europe.

The CIA maps show one set of regional distinctions, but fail to note any number of regions cross-cutting these: the Balkan region as a whole (including Greece); the Baltic region (roughly corresponding to the area of the old Hanseatic League); a Mediterranean culture zone extending from Spain through France and Italy to Greece and Turkey (and shading into the Mediterranean Middle East); a North Sea fishing zone (running from Brittany through Sweden, and also taking in parts of England and Scotland); an Alpine region (running from western France through Switzerland and the Bavarian Alps to the Austrian and Italian Tyrol); a Rhineland region (along the banks of the Rhine through Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands); a Black Sea culture zone; and so on.

As for Switzerland, let’s just say it’s squarely in West Central Europe, the crown of the region in fact.

One Response to “Regionally ambivalent Switzerland”

  1. [BLOG] Some Sunday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky considers which part of Europe Switzerland lies in. Is it central European, or western […]

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