World War 1 & Switzerland in 1914. The first cars rattled over dusty roads, crackling telephones connected people, trams weaved through booming cities – at the start of 1914, Switzerland was dynamic and on the up. But being surrounded by war brought fear and uncertainty to the landlocked, neutral country.
One hundred years ago, Switzerland was among the most highly industrialised countries in Europe in terms of per capita production. With 1% of the continent’s population – 3,828,431 inhabitants (less than half the current figure) – it was responsible for 3% of the continent’s exports.
Mobilisation of the Swiss army began on August 2 with Swiss neutrality declared a day later. All Swiss men of military age (20-48) were conscripted. These events in Switzerland coincided with Germany’s declaration of war on Russia and France in the first three days of August. Newspapers from the French-speaking part of the country – which were generally pro-Allied Powers, unlike their German-speaking counterparts – deplored the “massacre which was brewing”, but they also rallied round the need to defend the country, with patriotic accents of varying intensity.
The socialist press followed suit, but also denounced the “wonderful diversion” which forced European workers to kill one another instead of marching “to attack capitalism”. On September 19, the Bulletin Démographique Suisse recorded an increase in the number of marriages in the last weeks before the start of the war.
Second only to the fear of invasion was the fear of starvation. The Swiss economy was based on importing raw materials and exporting manufactured goods. It depended to a large extent on other countries for food and raw materials – with German coal making up a sizeable chunk of its energy supply. What’s more, three-quarters of its cereal was brought in from overseas and Switzerland had no direct access to the sea. Its main communications route, the Rhine, was controlled by Germany.
In the first month of the war, the Swiss had cereal reserves sufficient for two months; there were no plans for long-term provision. People started panic buying and cantonal authorities introduced strict measures: stock-piling was banned, with serious cases being punishable.
In October, the watch industry reported a drop in orders, with one British seller refusing to deal with a Neuchâtel company unless it could prove that it had no German staff or funds. In La Chaux-de-Fonds, the centre of Swiss watch-making, unemployment forced the authorities to come to the rescue of thousands of people. Chocolate orders, on the other hand, continued to flow in from Britain, Germany and France, although Swiss manufacturers were concerned about supplies of raw cacao and sugar.
Bern’s Toblerone had come on the market in 1908 and in August 1914 took out an advert in newspapers reassuring customers it was business as usual.
info from swissinfo.ch