On 3 August 1914, the United Federal Assembly granted the Federal Council unrestricted authority to assert the country's independence and neutrality. This authorisation regimen gave the Federal Council the right to intervene directly in matters of the economy. It backed away from imposing too many restrictions on economic freedom in keeping with its liberal credo. The Federation nonetheless took on new tasks and duties during the course of the war. State interventionism increased.
State finances and new taxes
The war was the cause of massive costs at every level of the political system (federal, cantonal and municipal). Federal debt had grown significantly by the end of the war due to the issuance of bonds. The state saw no option other than to impose new taxes. One year after the outbreak of war, the Swiss populace voted for the first time in favour of a one-off, direct federal tax to cover the cost of mobilisation. But it did not end there. In 1917, the Federation introduced a war profit tax, which was followed by stamp duty in 1918. The introduction of a permanent federal tax, however, was rejected in a referendum held in June 1918.
Information on state finances and taxes can be found primarily in the fonds of the Financial authorities(1822-1925), the Federal financial administration (1849-2003) and the Federal tax administration: war sacrifice and war tax (1915-1991). The Federal tax administration: management (1886-1991) fonds contain a few dossiers on the taxation of war profits. The Financial commissions and financial delegation of the Federal Assembly (1903-1992) and the Minutes of the Federal Council are also of significance.
Social and economic interventionist state
The Federal Administration grew significantly in order to cope with the tasks of a wartime economy. The state gained greater power over the economy. New authorities such as the Department for industrial wartime economy (1904-1932), the Federal Welfare Office (1912-1926) and the Federal Bread Authority (1917-1918) came into being. The Swiss Department of Commerce became the Federal Department of Economic Affairs. The number of staff employed in general federal administration grew from a good 8,000 in 1913 to more than 12,000 towards the end of the war.
The importance of the federal state increased as a result of the war. The federal state began to intervene in economic cycles and endeavoured to introduce social measures to benefit the impoverished populace. Thus, the war was a trigger for the subsequent development of the social and economic interventionist state. The Federal Council, however, did not react to the challenges of a wartime economy with a comprehensive economic and social policy. Measures at federal level remained piecemeal and were often introduced when it was too late. Food rationing, for instance, was not introduced until 1917. The Federation adopted a particularly reserved approach to social policy, leaving the responsibility in this area with the cantons.
Various fonds contain documents on the wartime economy, including the Federal Grain Administration (1906-1992), Secretariat of the Federal Department of the Economy: Sub-registry for the wartime economy of the First World War (1904-1932), the judicial system (1798-1985) and the General Secretary of the Federal Department of the Economy (1887-1967).
"Social Issue" and national general strike
The Federal Council's half-hearted economic policy enabled certain areas of the economy to achieve significant financial profits. By contrast, a large portion of the populace suffered under the crisis-laden national supply of essential goods. The unequal distribution of burden affected first and foremost the working classes.
At the start of the war, the workers' movement had agreed to a truce with the conservative parties. Their hopes for state social welfare and national solidarity, however, remained unfulfilled. Political exclusion and a decline in living conditions led to a radicalisation of the workers' movement. The first food riots in towns and cities took place in 1916 and involved a significant number of women. The oppositional workers' movement stood vis-à-vis the middle classes and farming communities that were governed by bourgeois nationalistic and reactionary convictions. The situation escalated in the autumn of 1918. The Federal Council deployed the army against the national strike called by the working classes. Troops on patrol in Grenchen shot dead three striking workers. The Olten Committee for Action around the social democrat and politician Robert Grimm that had called the general strike capitulated unconditionally on 14 November.
Documents on the general strike of 1918 and on the deployment of troops can be found in both the National Defence (1600-1960) and the police authority (1713-1975) fonds. A collection of the most important printed matter and documents pertaining to the general strike are also on file there. The proceedings of the Federal Council and Parliament from the years 1914-1918 and the private archive of General Ulrich Wille (1896-1925) and Major General and later Chief of General Staff Emil Sonderegger (1888-1975), who was in command of the troops deployed in Zurich in 1918, are also of importance. The viewpoint of the working classes is documented in the fonds of social democrat and politician Robert Grimm (1893-2000).
Tips for further research
- Federal Gazette: The Federal Council's main lines of policy. Of particular interest are the accountability reports submitted to the General Assembly (e.g.: Bericht des Bundesrates an die Bundesversammlung über den Bericht des Generals Ulrich Wille über den Aktivdienst 1914/1918 dated 6 June 1922.)
- Government publications: Proceedings of the Federal Assembly, proceedings of the Federal Council, annual reports of the Federal Council (on the activities of the Federal Council and its departments), the state account and estimate of cost (available online) and a repertory and overview of the negotiations of the Federal Assembly.
- Historical lexicon of Switzerland with articles on, among others, the First World War (ger), the national general strike (ger), the social issue (ger) and the Federal Administration (ger).
- State archives of the cantons (ger): Extensive material (on social history, the local implementation of the Federal Council's martial enactments, etc.)
- Swiss social archive: Numerous fonds on the history of the workers' movement and its unionised and political organisations.
- Archive on the history of the Swiss Women's Movement: Social history of the First World War
Publications of the Federal Archives