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Büsingen am Hochrhein: The Town Torn Between Two Countries

Büsingen am Hochrhein is a German town with a lot of Swiss character. That’s because this small town on the Rhine is entirely surrounded by Switzerland. That makes Büsingen an enclave, and like many territorial enclaves, Büsingen has absorbed the many forms and conventions of its host nation—perhaps a little more willingly.

Residents of Büsingen speak Swiss and prefer to use Swiss francs instead of Euro. In fact, until the late 1980s, Büsingen didn’t even accept the Deutsche Mark. Even the Büsingen post office accepted only Swiss francs for payment of German stamps. Although kids go to a local German school, many high school students end up studying on the other side of the border. Most Büsingen residents work for Switzerland in nearby Swiss towns and get paid in Swiss francs, which explains the town’s preference for their neighbor’s currency. Even their electricity comes from Switzerland. Yet, they pay German income taxes, because technically they are still German citizens.

Büsingen am Hochrhein

Büsingen am Hochrhein on the Upper Rhine. Photo: donald.kaden/Flickr

There is a lot of duality in Büsingen. Residents can choose between two postcodes, and telephone providers from both countries compete with each other for customers, and so do insurance companies. You can find both German and Swiss power sockets in people’s homes and in hotels. They even have two police forces. A troublemaker caught in Büsingen may get tried either in a German court or a Swiss one depending on which police forced was involved in the arrest.

So how did Büsingen end up in this bizarre position? It all started with a family feud in 1693. At that time Büsingen was under the control of an Austrian feudal lord named Eberhard Im Thurn. Eberhard belonged to a Protestant family, but after an argument with the town’s pastor, Eberhard was accused of being a clandestine Catholic. Soon after, he was kidnapped by his own cousins and handed over to Swiss authorities in Schaffhausen. Eberhard spent six years in a dungeon before he was returned to Büsingen physically and mentally battered. Upon return, Eberhard actually converted to Catholicism. The abduction and imprisonment of the Lord of Büsingen at the hands of the neighboring Swiss almost led to war between Austria and Switzerland. A few decades later, when Austria sold its local holdings to the Swiss canton of Zurich, it held on to Büsingen just to spite them. Eventually, this part of the Austrian empire got absorbed into Germany and Büsingen became German territory.

Büsingen am Hochrhein

Büsingen is separated from Germany by only 700 meters at its closest. Image credit: Julian Fleischer

But Büsingen residents didn’t like being under the Germans, and in 1918, they held a referendum to decide which side the town wanted to become a part of. A whopping 96 percent of voters voted for annexation by Switzerland, but since the Swiss couldn’t offer Germany any territory in return, Germany refused and Büsingen remained reluctantly German.

Finally, in 1967, Büsingen officially entered into a customs union with Switzerland, making it the only German territory that is not part of the European Union, and thus EU economic regulations do not apply there. This has made Büsingen sort of a tax haven. When residents buy goods in the EU and export them to Büsingen, they are able to claim back the VAT paid on their purchases. Purchases made within Büsingen are subjected to Swiss VAT which is already lower than German rates. Büsingen residents also pay no property tax.

Büsingen am Hochrhein

The German-Swiss border in Büsingen runs through this restaurant. Photo: Triefeline/Wikimedia Commons

On the flipside, the income tax is higher than the surrounding Swiss towns, which is causing many young people to move away from Büsingen into Switzerland. But the situation reverses once a person retires. Pensioners, as in the rest of Germany, pay little to no tax on their pensions, and thus for many Swiss people Büsingen is the ideal place to retire.

As for Büsingens themselves, many feel that life would be much easier if their town was a part of Switzerland. But that’s unlikely to happen. So instead, people just pretend to be Swiss. They fly the Swiss flag and celebrate Swiss festivals.

When BBC reporter Larry Bleiberg asked the town’s deputy mayor about Büsingen celebrating Switzerland’s National Day on August 1, the deputy mayor explained: “To make holidays here, it’s attractive. This is just something you do. Our spirit and heart are Swiss.”

Büsingen am Hochrhein

A mural in Büsingen. Photo: Davidmoerike/Wikimedia Commons

References:
# BBC, http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20190922-germanys-tiny-geographic-oddity
# Buesingen.de, https://www.buesingen.de/de/Wirtschaft+Bauen/Wirtschaftsförderung
# Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Büsingen_am_Hochrhein

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