Philipp Etter

The Catholic conservative from Zug, Philipp Etter (1891-1977), was a member of the Federal Council from 1934 to 1959. With respect to social security, he was committed to protecting the family unit and became a leading figure in the introduction of disability insurance during his tenure as head of the Federal Department of Home Affairs in the 1950s.

Etter was born into an artisan family in Zug. After attending convent school in Einsiedeln, he completed a law degree at the University of Zurich. Etter acted as editor of the conservative newspaper ‘Zuger Nachrichten’ during his studies. He continued to publish works later in life, distinguishing himself as an author of school and political books. Etter was deeply involved in Catholic society as he was a member of the Swiss Students’ Association and Catholic Conservative People’s Party. He never questioned the authority of the church and rejected political liberalism and the free-market economy. His speeches and writing toyed with ideas of an authoritarian democracy in which prominent leaders and corporatist organisations would set the agenda. He had little reservation liaising with the authoritarian right, which gained momentum in the 1930s. Etter started his political career as an examining judge. He was elected in the cantonal parliament in 1918 and in the cantonal executive four years later. He served as president of the cantonal executive of Zug from 1927 to 1928. As from 1930, he served as a member of the Council of States for the canton Zug. Etter was the ‘man of the hour’ in 1934, when he was elected to the Federal Council at only 43. He replaced the Catholic conservative, Jean-Marie Musy from Fribourg. During his extraordinarily long tenure, earning him the nickname ‘L’éternel’ (the eternal), Etter was elected federal president four times. He announced his resignation in 1959 and thereby made way for the ‘magic formula’ that guaranteed proportional representation for the four major parties.

Throughout his tenure, Etter headed the Federal Department of Home Affairs. In the period leading up to the Second World War, he particularly distinguished himself as a politician defending cultural values and a propagandist for ‘National Spiritual Defence’ (Geistige Landesverteidigung). In the 9th December 1938, Etter federal message on culture, Etter defended Swiss democratic core principles and its cultural characteristics against ethnic nationalism and totalitarian ideas. Etter’s ‘National Spiritual Defence achieved a major breakthrough with the national exhibition of 1939. During the war, he was part of the right wing of government advocating a policy of accommodation in relation to National Socialist Germany. When France capitulated in June 1940, he read out the address by federal president Pilet-Golaz on Swiss German radio, calling for an alignment with the new order. Monitoring and censoring the press was also one of Etter’s duties. In the post-war period, Etter’s department became more important after having previously occupied a rather marginal role in the federal administration. With the development of the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), the establishment of the Swiss National Fund for the Promotion of Scientific Research, the 1953 constitutional article on the Prevention of Water Pollution and the expansion of road building, he set a new course. In addition, social security was expanded from the mid-1950s. 

In terms of social policy, Etter soon made a name for himself as a politician defending family values, himself being a father to ten children. According to Etter’s Catholic-conservative worldview, the family unit formed the foundation of society and represented the ‘biological and social source of life and energy’ requiring special protection. In his role as federal councillor, he thus actively supported broader attempts – such as those articulated by the Swiss Philanthropic Society – to reinforce the idea of family protection and introduce family allowances. Facing a decline in birth rate that threatened the traditional family model, Etter organised a population and family protection conference in 1940 with the aim to provide a forum to a range of organisations dedicated to protecting the family. Soon after, his party launched the popular initiative ‘For the Family’ that was to declare the family unit as the ‘foundation of state and society’ and pledged comprehensive protection for families. At about the same time, Pro Familia was founded, an organisation also heavily influenced by the Catholic milieu. Etter himself, however, only had a limited say in these matters. In 1942, he already had to cede family policy to the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, headed by his liberal colleague Walther Stampfli. Stampfli gave priority to old age and survivors’ insurance (AHV) and secured a counterproposal to the family protection initiative that gained a great majority at the ballot box in 1945.

Etter began pushing for an expansion to social security again in the mid-1950s when the Federal Social Insurance Office (BSV) was attributed to his department. Following pressure from two popular initiatives by the communists and social democrats, Etter focused on implementing disability insurance (IV). This had not been one of the federal administration’s previous priorities. In collaboration with BSV director Arnold Saxer and officials in the Federal Department of Finance, he devised a social security system based on the principle of ‘work before benefits’ that insisted that people with health problems should be integrated into the labour market. In July 1955, the Federal Council appointed an expert commission; the legislative draft was ready by October 1958 and in June 1959 – just months after Etter’s resignation – disability insurance was wrapped up. During the years in which Etter was responsible for the BSV, there were no substantial new developments in the other branches of social insurance,. The two AHV revisions (the third and fourth) that Etter brought forward to Parliament primarily contained pension improvements, particularly for the AHV entry generation. Furthermore, Etter resumed attempts to introduce a health insurance bill, which had been halted in 1949 after the rejection of the tuberculosis act. In 1957, he appointed an expert commission tasked with preparing national standards for family allowances. However, both planned reforms (the standardisation of family allowances and a fundamental revision to health insurance) were abandoned during the first half of the 1960s.

Literatur / Bibliographie / Bibliografia / References: Kreis, Georg (1995), Philipp Etter – „voll auf eidgenössischem Boden“, in: A. Mattioli, Intellektuelle von rechts. Ideologie und Politik in der Schweiz 1918–1939, 201–217, Zürich; Sarasin, Philipp (2003), Metaphern der Ambivalenz. Philipp Etters „Reden an das Schweizervolk“ von 1939 und die Politik der Schweiz im Zweiten Weltkrieg, in: ders., Geschichtswissenschaft und Diskursanalyse, 177–190, Frankfurt am Main; Altermatt, Urs (1991), Die Schweizer Bundesräte. Ein biografisches Lexikon, Zürich.