World War I

Switzerland as a small neutral state was spared from direct military events during World War I. In economic and social terms, however, Switzerland went through a difficult period.

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Switzerland before World War I

The beginning of the century was marked by rapid economic growth with the textile industry (fabrics and garments) playing the leading role. In 1900, almost half of all industrial employees worked in the textile industry. In the early years of the 20th century, however, many Swiss emigrated: between 1900 and 1910 50,000 people left their homeland. At the same time, many foreigners found work in Switzerland. They were primarily engaged in construction. At the outbreak of World War I they comprised about 12% of the population.

World War I and neutrality

During World War I (1914-1918), Switzerland remained neutral. Nevertheless, the war had a major impact on the political, social and economic life of the country.
Switzerland was resource-poor but highly industrialised and dependent on tourism. It had to negotiate with the warring parties in order to obtain a minimum supply of raw materials. Its dependence on imported coal during and after the war led to the expansion of electricity generation from (indigenous) hydropower. And the pioneering role of the Swiss railways in the transition from steam to electric locomotives is largely due to the experience of the war.
The social climate deteriorated during the war for several reasons: the scarcity of food imports, rationing, massive increases in prices and the loss of wages during active service resulted in severe distress for the poorer sections of the population. During the war, the men had to serve in the military to protect the borders while hardly receiving any compensation. They also received no compensation for their lost wages, and many had no more work to go back to after the war.
There was widespread indignation about war profiteering in industry and agriculture, and about pacifist currents (Max Daetwyler, Romain Rolland) within a section of the left. In particular, demands were made for a 48-hour working week and for proportional representation in favour of social democracy for the National Council.
In 1918, the distress, political agitation and socialist revolutions abroad led to a national strike, a general strike in which 250,000 workers and trade unionists from all over Switzerland participated from 11 to 14 November. However, in the face of huge troop deployments the strike soon crumbled.
Some of the demands made by the Olten Action Committee, a top-level group representing Swiss workers were only taken seriously after they had first been rejected. In the national elections in October 1919 the majority system was converted to a proportional system. And the new Factory Act delivered the 48-hour week that had also been sought. Most of the other demands were also later realised through the democratic process.
Moreover, the war exacerbated the tensions between German-speaking Switzerland and French-speaking West Switzerland (Romandie), since the former was more likely to sympathise with the Germans and the latter with the French.

Humanitarian Actions

World War I represented a great challenge for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and one that it could only cope with it due to to its close cooperation with the national Red Cross societies. In addition to the Red Cross humanitarian services, the Central Agency for Refugees established in October 1914 was already employing 1,200 volunteers at the end of that year. Its tracing files are now part of UNESCO’s World Document Heritage. From 1916 to 1919, the central office was housed in the Musée Rath in Geneva. These humanitarian efforts were internationally recognised by the awarding of the 1917 Nobel Peace Prize. There was also the "Investigation Service for Missing Persons Winterthur" which was initiated by Julie Bikle. The Federal Council concluded an agreement with Germany, France, Great Britain, Austria-Hungary and Belgium that, between 1916 and the end of the war, enabled 68,000 wounded and sick soldiers from both sides to spend time in Switzerland recuperating.

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