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Switzerland during the First World War

27.08.2014 – Barbara Engel

While our nation was not directly involved in the First World War with millions of dead and wounded, the events that took place between 1914 and 1918 – also referred to as the seminal catastrophe of the 20th century – nevertheless left deep scars behind. In the recently published book entitled “Insel der unsicheren Geborgenheit” (Island of Uncertain Security), Georg Kreis, an historian from Basel, traces developments during this period. “The black cloud that floated menacingly for years in the political skies” has released a deluge, wrote the Federal Council in a dispatch on 2 August 1914. In a response to the outbreak of war, two days later Switzerland declared to the warring powers that it would not shift from its position of complete neutrality under any circumstances. At the same time, the contentious, German-friendly Ulrich Wille was appointed general and 220,000 men were mobilised to defend the borders. Divisions opened up within the nation itself – the German-speaking Swiss sympathised with the Central Powers led by the German Reich, while the French-speaking Swiss leaned towards the Entente led by France and Great Britain. The war being waged around the country drove inflation up, supply problems emerged, the people lost confidence and a real test of society took place: between 250,000 and 400,000 workers took part in the general strike. The army was deployed against them. However, Georg Kreis’ book, engagingly written as usual, does not just focus on these largely familiar events. He also presents the results of more recent research. For example, the reasons behind the “complete neutrality” which – in view of the significant level of economic interdependence even then - was actually impossible. Kreis also examines the ethically dubious but lucrative trade with the warring nations and reveals how xenophobic the mood was within national borders. This book is an insightful overview of the war years in Switzerland that is well worth reading.  

Barbara Engel

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