Economic warfare and social hardship in Switzerland during the First World War

The First World War was characterised by total warfare. Economic capacity and performance played a decisive role. Following an initial war-related boom, Switzerland tumbled into a severe economic crisis. The country faced many difficult challenges with regard to securing its supply of raw materials and food.

Foreign policy and economic warfare

From an economic viewpoint, Switzerland was ill-prepared for the outbreak of war. Its grain reserves, for instance, were sufficient for a mere two months. The small neutral state was unable to escape the effects of relentless economic warfare. The warring nations wanted to control the Swiss economy and use it for their military objectives. Switzerland suffered a painful loss of sovereignty as a result.

After an initial shock paralysis immediately following the outbreak of war, Switzerland's export industry in particular benefited from Europe's war efforts. However, the initial wartime boom turned into a severe economic crisis around mid-1916. All in all, the wartime economy widened the social and economic divide between export and domestic industries, between urban and rural regions, between workers and farmers, between rich and poor.

The fonds of the Federal Political Department (1848-1962) and Foreign Affairs Department (1768-1961) contain extensive material on Swiss foreign policy and preparations for war.

 The following fonds are of particular interest with regard to securing national economic supply: National Defence (1600-1960), Secretariat of the Federal Department of the Economy: Sub-registry for the wartime economy of the First World War (1904-1932), General Secretary of the Federal Department of the Economy (1887-1967) and the private fonds of federal councillor Edmund Schulthess (1910-1943). The private fonds of the Société suisse de surveillance économique S.S.S. (1915-1923) document in detail the efforts undertaken by the Entente of France, Great Britain, Russia and Italy to control the Swiss economy. The private fonds of Hans Schaefle (1915-1919), advisor to the Swiss Trust for the Control of the Transport of Goods (S.T.S.), the controlling body of the central powers, contain information on these efforts and on the S.T.S itself.

Social hardship and the polarisation of society

The urban population suffered under rising prices and the housing shortage, especially during the second half of the war. The working classes endured the most hardship. Many families went hungry. Speculation, hording and "wartime profiteers" were the cause of resentment among the populace. Malnourishment was one of the causes of the devastating influenza epidemic ("Spanish flu") during the last year of the war that cost the lives of 25,000 people.

The rural farmers fared a little better. They had sufficient nourishment and profited from the rising cost of foodstuffs. However, the women in these communities suffered in particular as draught animals were conscripted and the menfolk mobilised.

At the end of the war, Switzerland was a divided nation in more ways than one. Societal tension and the economic hardship suffered by large sections of the populace called for social and political reforms. Lessons had been learned from the problems of the First World War before the Second World War broke out. The Federal Council and army command were able to avoid similar crises thanks to comprehensive plans for a wartime economy, the election of an integrative general and "intellectual national defence".

Documents on the social aspects of the wartime economy can be found in many different fonds. The subjects of housing shortage, public welfare and rising food prices are doucmented in the fonds Social insurance and welfare (1879-1925), Federal Price Control Office (1914-1982), Federal Department of Justice (1875-1969), Federal Welfare Office (1912-1926), Federal Authority for Industry, Trade and Labour (1892-1962) and Secretariat of the Federal Department of the Economy: Sub-registry for the wartime economy of the First World War (1904-1932) and elsewhere. Business records and case files on violations of the Food Ordinance can be found in the fonds of the Office of the Military Attorney General: Collected judgements (1908-1991) and Office of the Military Attorney General: Criminal files (1823-1996).

The fonds of the National Defence (1600-1960), Federal Social Insurance Office (1888-1949) and Federal Insurance Office (1885-1963) provide information on the influenza epidemic. Other documents such as the Business dossiers of the Federal Assembly (1858-2005) may be of interest depending on the concrete area of research.

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