The outbreak of the "Great War" triggered a brief period of enthusiasm and patriotic elation in Switzerland. The Federal Council ceremoniously declared the country's neutrality. It soon became apparent, however, that modern war was total war and affected everybody – soldiers and civilians, men, women and children. The widespread hope of a fast end to the war disappeared into thin air with the onset of trench warfare.
Military national defence
Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, the Federal Council ordered the mobilisation of the Swiss Army on 1 August 1914. 220,000 soldiers were drafted into active service within one week. The United Federal Assembly granted the Federal Council unrestricted authority to assert the country's independence and neutrality. The pro-German Ulrich Wille was elected General.
Mobilisation had demonstrated that the army was prepared for the event of a military threat. Important issues of national defence, however, remained controversial: Should the army actually defend the entire territory? What did "armed neutrality" mean?
The existing plans of the German and French General Staff for outflanking manoeuvres on Swiss territory represented the main military threat to Switzerland. None of these plans came to fruition and Switzerland's border remained intact. Around 50,000 troops were permanently on duty to protect the border during the course of the war.
The military history of the First World War is documented extensively in the National Defence (1600-1960) fonds. It contains, among other items, documents on the defence deployment, the General's activities and plans. Supplementary files on the First World War are also in the fonds of the General Staff Division (1914-1968) and the Staff of the General Staff Service Group (1892-1999). Interesting material on partial aspects can also be found in a number of private fonds, for instance in those of Ulrich Wille (1896-1925) or the later Chief of General Staff Emil Sonderegger (1888-1975).
Extensive photographic material is available on the subject of national defence, in particular the negative plates of the "First World War Photo Series" available online and a number of photo albums in the National Defence (1600-1960) fonds. There is also a small collection of photographic prints in the Active Service During the First World War (1914-1918) fonds. Finally, the fonds of the Training Group Staff: Army Film Service (1912-1993) contain a film document on the Swiss Army in active service 1914-1918.
Experience of active service
Switzerland's soldiers were spared the brutal experience of the trenches. Active service was nonetheless a distressing experience for most of them. The 500 days of service on average were marked by boredom and military drill. The knowledge that their manpower was sorely missed at home put a strain on many soldiers. But worst of all was that they did not receive any compensation for the loss of income due to military service - apart from a little pay. The situation put many households into financial difficulties.
The diaries of staff divisions and units, active service reports and documents relating to Recollections of active service from the National Defence (1600-1960) fonds contain information on everyday life in active service. Numerous individual cases of minor and major violations of military order can be found in the Office of the Military Attorney General: Crime Records fonds (1823-1996).
Neutrality: of good deeds and affairs
Switzerland's political representatives were not yet sure-footed with regard to dealing with neutrality. The appointment of the declared Prussia sympathiser Ulrich Wille as General deepened the void between German-speaking and French-speaking Switzerland. The void became particularly apparent in the spiteful dispute between the two cultural regions in relation to Germany's aggression against Belgium on 4 August 1914, which was contrary to the provisions of neutrality. Whilst the act of aggression was strongly condemned in western Switzerland, some newspapers in German-speaking Switzerland even went as far as to justify the actions of the German army.
Two affairs demonstrated clearly that the concept of political neutrality was less than well established among the military and political elite. During the "Colonels' Affair" that came to an end in 1916, Swiss officers relayed secret messages to the central powers, namely the German Reich and Austria-Hungary. The officers concerned were covered by their superiors. The secret attempts by Federal Councillor Arthur Hoffmann to mediate a separate German-Russian peace deal in 1917 also put Switzerland in an awkward situation with regard to its foreign policy. Federal councillor Hoffmann had to stand down as a result. Documents on the "Hoffmann Affair" can be found in the Federal Political Department (1848-1962) and Federal Council: Secret Minutes (1914-1985) fonds as well as in the private fonds of Federal Councillor Edmund Schulthess (1910-1943) and of social democratic politician and subsequent Federal Councillor Ernst Nobs (1906-1957).
Despite these problems, Switzerland made use of its neutral status to pursue a policy of "good deeds" and to lessen the suffering caused by war. Corresponding documents can be found in the Service for representing third-party interests and internment (1875-1939) and the Foreign Affairs Division (1768-1961) fonds.
The Minutes of the Federal Council and the Federal Assembly are of particular importance alongside the relevant Foreign Policy fonds in relation to the subject of "neutrality". Various private fonds, such as the estate of Edmund Schulthess (1910-1943), also contain information on the policy of neutrality.
Tips for further research
- Government publications: Proceedings of the Federal Assembly, proceedings of the Federal Council, annual reports of the Federal Council and a repertory and overview of the Federal Assembly's negotiations.
- Federal Gazette: The Federal Council's main lines of policy. The reports to the Federal Assembly in which it accounts for its actions, e.g. in the Bericht des Bundesrates an die Bundesversammlung über den Bericht des Generals Ulrich Wille über den Aktivdienst 1914/1918 dated 6 June 1922, are of particular interest. The General's report on active service (1919-1926) itself is filed in the National Defence (1600-1960) fonds.
- The Federal Council routinely provided "Neutrality Reports" as accounts of its activities within the scope of the authorisation regime. They are also published in the Federal Gazette.
- Neutralitätsbericht (dated 1 December 1914)
- Neutralitätsbericht (dated 19 February 1916)
- Neutralitätsbericht (dated 15 May 1916)
- Neutralitätsbericht (dated 9 September 1916)
- Neutralitätsbericht (dated 17 November 1916)
- Neutralitätsbericht (dated 9 March 1917)
- Neutralitätsbericht (dated 24 May 1917)
- Neutralitätsbericht (dated 10 September 1917)
- Neutralitätsbericht (dated 20 November 1917)
- Neutralitätsbericht (dated 24 May 1918)
- Neutralitätsbericht (dated 2 December 1918)
- Neutralitätsbericht (dated 23 May 1919)
- Neutralitätsbericht (dated 15 November 1919)
- Neutralitätsbericht (dated 25 May 1920)
- Neutralitätsbericht (dated 9 November 1920)
- Neutralitätsbericht (dated 6 May 1921)
- Neutralitätsbericht (dated 28 October 1921)
- Neutralitätsbericht (dated 21 April 1922)
- Neutralitätsbericht (dated 17 November 1922)
- Neutralitätsbericht (dated 29 September 1923)
- Historical lexicon of Switzerland with articles on, among others, the First World War (ger), General Ulrich Wille (ger) and on the Major General and subsequent Chief of General Staff Emil Sonderegger (ger), who commanded the security forces against striking workers in the Zurich-Winterthur area in 1918.
- Memobase database (ger) of the Memoriav Association: audio-visual sources on the First World War.
- State archives of the cantons (ger): Extensive material (on social history, the local implementation of the Federal Council's martial enactment, etc.).
- Library on Guisanplatz: Extensive material on military history. A collection of postcards from the First World War can be seen among other items at the Swiss Army Museum.
- HelveticArchives - the archives database of the Swiss National Library: An overview of the private fonds held in Swiss libraries and archives.
Publications of the Federal Archives
Arlettaz, Gerald et Arlettaz, Silvia, Les Chambres fédérales face à la présence et à l'immigration étrangères (1914-1922), in: Studien und Quellen, no. 16-17, Zurich, 1991, p. 9-156.
"Imaginer la guerre - The Swiss General Staff 1804-2004 - L'Etat-major général suisse 1804-2004". Three-part catalogue on the exhibition at the Swiss Federal Archives in Bern. Published by the Swiss Federal Archives, Bern 2004.