Switzerland commemorates the First World War both as a neutral country and as one that was also manifoldly and intimately entwined with the warring parties and warfare. Although Switzerland suffered no casualties, a rich culture of war commemoration and memorials nevertheless emerged in the wake of the First World War. Only recently, however, has the historical culture of Switzerland during the war attracted scholarly attention. This interest ensues largely from transposing and applying a transnational research perspective. Completely new for Switzerland, this perspective focuses on the effects of the global war and on the country’s relations with the belligerent powers. This approach to how Swiss society engaged with the country’s history during the First World War has only rarely been adopted, because so far merely little social and scholarly awareness of the explosive nature of dealing with one’s history and historiography has developed. And yet exploring Switzerland’s First World War narratives reveals how historico-political approaches to war-related topics, events, and causalities are used to justify the prevailing power structures and steering processes, and how the narratives that have emerged and been passed on are produced as self-evident and hence no longer even require legitimation.

This article first divides First World War commemoration and narration into various periods. Consisting of various phases, this process began immediately after 1918 and has endured to the present day. It then analyses the interactions and dependencies between historical culture and historical studies. Third, it presents various group-specific narrative traditions before considering concrete examples of the prevailing historico-political usages. Finally, the article proposes several fields for future research.


A glance at some of the pioneering analyses[1] published so far offers first insights into how Swiss society’s approach to “Switzerland in the First World War” has evolved since 1918. It reveals how historico-cultural actors took up this subject and with which intentions. This focus also highlights the different social contexts within which the historico-cultural discourse on Switzerland in the First World War was embedded. Thus, it is possible to delineate a periodisation of this theme and its evolution.

Commemorating the First World War has performed different functions at different times in Switzerland. And yet instead of standing side by side, these functions refer to one another. It is possible to identify a first period of relative openness. This period was shaped by very direct reference to the events experienced. Correspondingly, experiences varied enormously depending on social background, because the different social classes, geographical regions, genders, and even professions remembered the war in different ways. It was experienced in part even as segregating, and remembered accordingly. This phase began directly after the end of the war and lasted until the beginning of the 1930s. Despite narrative plurality and openness in the bourgeois milieu, narratives already geared toward national defence and a hierarchised social order began emerging; these narratives later established themselves as dominant. At the same time, however, contrasting, critical, and divergent commemorative narratives also existed, not only among labour organisations and the political Left, but also among the Catholic-conservative milieu of Central Switzerland, and in culturally diverse French-speaking Switzerland. Thus, reconstructing the diversity of co-existing narratives presents a significant challenge. Reconstruction, however, is very fruitful: with the benefit of hindsight, it not only reveals the dominance of the later hegemonic bourgeois interpretation but also provides insight into everyday war experience.

The bourgeois interpretation became dominant in the second phase. During the “Geistige Landesverteidigung,” which started at the beginning of the 1930s, the openness of the narrative space disappeared. In its place appeared a simplified, constrained, and strongly historico-political war narrative. The driving forces behind this narrative were the centrist parties, the cantonal officers’ associations, and the “Schweizerische Vaterländische Verband,” which was founded in 1919 by an alliance of militias during the national strike.[2] To achieve this dominance, a few clichés about the First World War serving the historico-political agenda were assembled, and the narrative about the war years was focused on the Second World War and on the subsequent Cold War. This narrative superimposition and compression in the interests of specific political goals lasted until the 1960s. Both narrative strategies bear witness to the stable balance of power at the time. Faced with the external political threat of fascism, a domestic “truce” was concluded. This stability also brought forth a discourse based on this threat scenario and its extension into the Cold War Period. The acceptance of the simple war narrative not only buried alternative transgenerational traditions, but it also strongly shaped historical studies. Still to be investigated is how far other memories, which did not fit into the dominant master narrative, were handed down in Switzerland’s different language regions and in specific milieus.

In the third phase, from the 1970s, these traditions became visible and tangible. The patriotic consensus about historical culture broke apart and was extended by contradicting narratives. The best-known example is a book about General Ulrich Wille (1848-1925) entitled Die Welt als Wille und Wahn. Elemente zur Naturgeschichte eines Clans. Written by Swiss journalist and historian Niklaus Meienberg, it attracted broad attention — unlike many other historical works.[3] Accordingly, the powerfully established discourse obviously remained credible and durable.

In the current fourth phase, a “hype” surrounding the war and its commemoration has emerged. Evident amongst both interested sections of the general public and historians, this hype relates to the still unanswered political question of Switzerland’s position within a transnational narrative about the First World War. The fact that this concerns not just the First World War, but also Switzerland’s position in a Europe that is growing together, makes this question highly topical. It also shows how urgently we need an open narrative about the history of Europe within which not only the warring powers but also all European societies have their place.

History culture – History studies

Until at least the 1970s, the hegemonic narrative about the history of Switzerland in the First World War followed traditional patterns of transmission. It was strongly influenced by Bernese historian Jacob Ruchti’s early pro-government and pro-German account.[4] This narrative was closely bound up with the concept of the “Geistige Landesverteidigung.” This perspective shines through in the heading “Switzerland during the First World War.” Transgenerational tradition focused strongly on neutrality and hence on a position on the side-lines. This, so the narrative, contributed to the country being spared from the war and its disastrous consequences. The fact that historical studies long adhered to this historico-cultural narrative becomes evident in four different ways.

Firstly, the hegemonic narrative underpinned historico-cultural interpretations with a scholarly perspective. It largely neglected alternative interpretations and almost never questioned possible blanks such as regional differences between experiences along the national borders as opposed to those inside the country. This happened although the Historisch-Biographisches Lexikon der Schweiz had formulated an astonishing array of broad questions for further research already at an early stage (the encyclopedia appeared in 1934; its French edition had appeared as early as 1926).[5]

Secondly, the hegemonic narrative very rarely drew on the findings of research exploring fields tabooed or mythologised. Such research includes early studies into the economic entanglements of the politically neutral state and into the loss of foreign trade autonomy.[6] A further example is an analysis of documents and newspaper articles about the “‘Röschtigraben’ Myth.”[7] This study revealed that the intense journalistic interest in cultural belonging could be interpreted as a process of reaching agreement about the German- and French-speaking communities, which both belonged to Switzerland as a nation. Moreover, this study established that the sense of cultural belonging in the different language regions was manifoldly overlaid by political positions, in that the voices critical of the army and the government, who identified the “pro-German sentiments” amongst the German-speaking elites, the military leadership, and the government, criticised and attacked the authoritarian ideas and the lacking understanding of democracy rife at the time.[8]

Thirdly, the reception of other studies was highly selective. Barely more than fragments were incorporated into the general narrative. The most prominent example is a study on the 1918 “Landesstreik.”[9] Its main findings, that the national strike had neither intended to incite a revolution nor that it had ever posed a real threat, were noted and integrated into the national narrative. In contrast, it did not prompt closer investigation of how the deeply anti-Leftist and anti-unionist attitude arose in the middle classes, and how this stance contributed significantly to generating social tensions in the early 20th century. Nor was the prevailing interpretation of the bourgeois politics of confrontation in the 1920s and 1930s as a direct response to the Left threatening a revolution ever questioned. Just as alternative interpretations were never included.[10] Nor have primarily local studies on local militias undertaken in the meantime changed this.[11]

Lastly, the inclusion of international research findings is barely recognisable. Non-Swiss literature remains mostly unconsidered. Equally, comparative perspectives – adopted in studies on other neutral states or in international studies providing an external perspective on neutral Switzerland – are largely absent. Overall, the history of Switzerland seems shaped by a strict division between “general history” and “Swiss history.”

The gradual shift in Swiss historiography after the 1960s, towards a critical questioning of the very deeply mythologised “History of Switzerland,” initially centered on the founding myths of the old Swiss Confederation. What followed was a long and intense debate on the notion of the history of Switzerland in the Second World War. This demythologisation cleared an analytical space that enabled research into the country’s history culture to also identify the instrumentalization of the First World War by the “Geistige Landesverteidigung” movement.[12]

It was not until the second decade of the 21st century, and influenced favourably by worldwide commemorations, that historical research has taken an interest in aspects of the history of Switzerland in the First World War. On the one hand, current research raises questions that follow state-of-the-art perspectives in the discipline. On the other hand, research is also clearly aligned with the current need for social and political orientation in the face of globalisation and transnationalisation. These questions, amongst others, include the problems of securing democratic structures, the processes within Swiss society that were accelerated by the war, negotiating the terms of political participation, and the scope of humanitarian diplomacy in militarised power relationships. It remains to be seen whether presenting the findings of these studies will tip the balance of the hitherto prevailing historico-cultural interpretation of the history of Switzerland in the First World War toward narratives firmly rooted in historical studies. In the meantime, however, while these traditions may no longer be uncontested, they remain effective. Their continued resonance can be explained by such narratives resting on very strong group-specific commemorative traditions on the one hand, and by their historico-political adjustment since the end of the war to shape and underpin Swiss society on the other.

Group-Specific Commemoration and Tradition

In Switzerland, as elsewhere, the difficult living conditions and the often very decisive incursions into how people were free to shape their own lives during the war made it necessary to classify the war years into individual and group-specific life narratives, even if no dramatic and tragic destruction occurred on a scale experienced in the countries at war. These group-specific memories and traditions have so far seldom been the subject of historical research, and thus only their rudiments are known. Initial findings exist on the troops, the workers, and the bourgeois women’s movement.

Troops spent months to years in everyday military routine. The most enduring experience from this time was mostly a sense of camaraderie and an often very tense relationship with superior officers. Many men experienced this period in their life as lacking meaning. Material mementoes, photo albums, and individual photographs are the expressions of a commemorative culture that very soon evolved into a group-specific tradition and continued at least until the Second World War, in some cases until the present.[13] This soldierly commemoration functioned mostly within former military units. However, it was swiftly overshadowed and shaped by the traditions of officers and officers’ associations, and hence by an increasingly official commemoration of the army’s achievements.

After the end of the war, the workers looked back on troubled times. For the industrial and urban sections of the working population, the war years marked a period of increasing deprivation, of a harsher battle for economic survival, and of ongoing industrial disputes. International proletarian solidarity, which had pacifist tendencies, had collapsed when the war erupted, as highlighted by the “nationalisation” of the workers’ movement. The “Landesstreik” at the end of the war had plainly revealed the limitations of the workers’ political and unionist powers, even though the revolutionary developments abroad had filled some workers with optimism. It remains to be established how far the profound unease amongst the organised workers with regard to their strategy and political power also manifested itself in a contradictory integration of the war years into their own history.

After the war years, the bourgeois women’s rights movement looked back on its achievements with a certain degree of satisfaction: it had served the national cause, and had worked hard to support the soldiers and to maintain food supplies among an increasingly impoverished population. The movement’s voluntary work had thus substituted the barely existent state benefits.[14] Very soon, however, it realised that its significant contribution was not being rewarded as expected with the introduction of women’s suffrage. Instead, women were unmistakably reminded of their status as disenfranchised citizens and were pushed back into their traditional, gendered role as housewives and mothers. With the “Geistige Landesverteidigung,” the women’s movement fell back on its established identity and began interpreting its efforts during the First World War as the expression of selfless care and motherliness. The contribution made by Swiss women, who had demanded recognition for their work, was soon forgotten even in the women’s movement. Similarly to the workers’ movement, it integrated its history into the hegemonic narrative.

Instrumentalisation and Historico-Political Appropriation

Since 1918, the First World War has been discussed and narrated in diverse contexts. This narration occurred predominantly under conditions seeking to harness the war to specific purposes and interests. While these changed over the course of the 20th century, some factors remained constant. From this perspective, the events of the First World War in Switzerland provided material for historico-political interpretations, and for interpretations of history, directed at the respective present.

Several protagonists were involved in employing the history of Switzerland in the First World War. Their historico-political interpretation took effect not only on the national-political level but also in the cantons and in civil society organisations and associations.[15] Their narratives were profoundly compelling, which explains their broad reach and why they even attained hegemonic status. Other narratives also existed alongside the dominant one — for instance, in social groups, in political milieus, or among minorities. However, these interpretations also referred to the dominant national narrative. A glance at these uses reveals a specific directedness, standardisation, and indeed constriction of war “commemoration.” Thus, this use not just purposefully blinded out experiences and narratives, but it also deliberately sought to achieve the envisaged or preferred standardisation of Swiss society in a specific period. The First World War was as such doubly functionalised for historico-political purposes already from 1918, but even more so as part of the “Geistige Landesverteidigung,” whose impact lasted until the 1960s. On the one hand, the First World War, as a history of conflict, represented a negative foil against which the Swiss state and the army could present itself as capable of learning from the past by not repeating the errors made. At the same time, state and military activities were described — quite paradoxically — as the very factor responsible for ensuring that Switzerland was spared from the horrific war. The driving forces behind the historico-political use of the First World War were the social and military elites, for instance, the officers’ associations.

Thus, the First World War — after a phase of contradiction and conflicting narratives — was purposefully amalgamated with the imminent threat, and subsequent reality, of the Second World War. An ideal-type example of this fusion occurs in “Füsilier Wipf” (1938), a feature film set in the First World War in which, however, the soldiers’ uniforms change midway from the grey-blue uniforms of the “Aktivdienst” (active service) of the First World War to the plain grey uniforms of the Second World War. During the war, and also afterwards, this superimposition was so dominant and so powerful that until recently the First World War was considered a “forgotten period” in Switzerland.

Two examples suggest just how strongly the “commemoration” of the First World War was in the interwar period, during the Second World War, and in a restrained post-war society: first, the films about First World War society produced by the “Geistige Landesverteidigung” movement; second, the memorials erected after the First World War.

The films “Füsilier Wipf” and “Gilberte de Courgenay” were made in 1938 and 1941, thus under the spell of the Second World War. They were unmistakable envoys of the “Geistige Landesverteidigung,” a government culture programme that also included a state film funding board without direct financial support.[16] Whereas both films tell stories set during the First World War, they convey messages evidently concerning Switzerland during the Second World War and the Cold War intended to provide audiences with guidance during these periods. They present likeable characters — above all their eponymous protagonists — and project these as exemplary, gender-differentiated models of national behaviour for Swiss citizens. Further, they paint an idealistic picture of the conditions prevailing in the military and society in First World War Switzerland.

The programmatic objectives were not beholden to a scientific approach, but to the ideals of the “Geistige Landesverteidigung.” Both films presented an able-bodied farming community bound together by a common destiny; a community prepared to defend itself, led by men and morally supported by women. Its principal characteristics were a lack of egotistical desires, a very natural sense of community, and an absolute will to preserve national self-determination. Both films underpinned the creation of a national self-image. As a mythical idealisation of an able-bodied and cohesive peasant and Alpine democracy, this self-image refuted as inherently un-Swiss not only any critical questions and any diverging outlooks and opinions, but also urban life, women’s emancipatory life-plans, and men’s alternative lifestyles.

On the other hand, this conscious historico-political construction becomes apparent in the brief period (1919 to the mid-1920s) during which memorials were built.[17] These memorials were erected mostly “in memory” of the soldiers who served their country and of the servicemen who had died during the war. They were characterised largely by diffuse commemoration, because their design closely followed that of the international war memorials erected by the belligerent nations in memory of the dead. By contrast, the Swiss counterparts of these memorials commemorate those who died in accidents or from influenza. The ways in which such memorials are used plainly reveal that every society employs the past for its present needs. Despite regional differences, the circumstances under which the memorials were built are very similar: in most cases, civilian-military associations, such as officers’ associations or the Schweizerische Vaterländische Verband, not only provided the impetus and ideas for memorial-building, but also mostly secured the funding for such edifices through their social networks. The memorial inaugurations in Aarau in 1919, in Geneva in 1921, in Zurich in 1922, in Liestal in 1923, and in Col-des-Rangiers in 1924 were celebrated as military and patriotic festivities, at which the speakers took up strong positions against social democracy and the workers’ movement.[18]

Over time, however, considerable differences regarding the use of these memorials emerged: for example, the memorial in Les Rangiers[19] was symbolically charged and politicised by the Jura conflict. This soldier memorial became a symbol of the Bernese domination of the Jura: toppled twice as part of separatist movements afforded it an “anti-use” of sorts. The Aarau memorial, in contrast, was moved from the central “Holzmarkt” (timber market) in the town centre to the rear section of the municipal cemetery and replaced by a new memorial also commemorating the soldiers of the Second World War. This is a classic example of the First World War being subsumed into the Second World War. In Liestal, in contrast, the memorial underwent a process of militarisation, as manifest in its design: in the 1930s, alterations were made to the memorial to enforce its message — oriented toward the present and the future — concerning the Swiss army.[20] Finally, the Forch memorial near Zurich reflects how new political groups and organisations from the right-wing spectrum upheld a historico-political tradition well into the 1970s. James Schwarzenbach used the memorial in 1973 as the site of a controversial, nationalistic celebration of the Swiss National Day (1 August) organised by the “Republikanischer Bewegung” (Republican Movement) and the “Nationale Aktion gegen die Überfremdung” (National Campaign Against Foreign Infiltration); in 1979, Christoph Blocher launched the National Council campaign of the cantonal section of the Swiss People’s Party at the Forch memorial in front of an audience of more than 2,000 people.

While the latest research has revealed the contours of the historico-political uses of the First War World until well into the 1960s, the narratives and superimpositions occurring since the upheaval of the 1970s still remain largely unresearched. A perspective inspired by transnational questions concerning commemoration and about the narratives thereby generated gives rise to many other questions yet to be studied.

Conclusion and Research Questions

One of the first questions is whether and how the dominant historico-political use of the First World War also manifested itself in other media and forms. Thus, fiction, children’s literature, history textbooks, or school charts need not necessarily contain similarly homogenised war narratives.

Another related question is how far, as more research is undertaken, not only simple regional specifics,[21] but particularly also regional language and denominational differences[22] will appear as these narratives are handed down. Initial evidence can be found in the cantonal histories written in the past few years.[23] Identifying contradictions to the dominant historico-political interpretation is as important as distinguishing group- and class-specific narrative traditions; these run counter to the strong narrative, which obviously not always remained completely unquestioned.

Finally, a comparative perspective can help to explore how Switzerland’s commemorative tradition and politics of history compare with other non-combatant nations on the one hand, and with the belligerent nations on the other. Clearly, the insights into the history of a small country cannot simply be merged into the picture of Europe’s politics of history gained from a comparative perspective. Instead, specific details emerge. Whereas these pertain to the overall picture, they also alter the overall sense of how this war has remained present since 1918. Further research will be required to place the history of Switzerland in the First World War not only within Europe, but also within a global context.

Konrad Kuhn, Universität Basel

Béatrice Ziegler, Pädagogische Hochschule Fachhochschule Nordwestschweiz and University of Zurich

Section Editors: Roman Rossfeld; Daniel Marc Segesser