Already for some time, historians all over the world have claimed that the fragmentation and variety of studies on the First World War have reached a level that “no single person today can master…” and that “this universe of publications is expanding rapidly, with no end in sight”.[1] Looking at the historiography of Switzerland during the First World War, such a statement may seem odd, as up until 2014 this war had often been labelled “Der vergessene Krieg”, the forgotten war.[2] As Maartje Abbenhuis has, however, convincingly argued, a history of total war[3] would not be complete without a history of the involvement of neutral countries.[4] Therefore, it is important also to include a discussion of the historiography on Switzerland in the First World War in such a history, something which has so far not often been done.[5] This is what this contribution tries to do by identifying different phases of historiographical output on Switzerland in the First World War that can be described as waves of analysis and remembrance, or as generations of historical writing.[6]

A First Wave or a First Generation: Writing About the War from Memory and on the Basis of Publicly Available Sources, 1914 to Early 1930s

From 1914 onwards the idea that it was necessary to think about the memory of this great or world war mattered to individuals as much as to governments and the military.[7] Although not at war, Switzerland only slightly differed from other countries in this regard, and even then only by degree. On the one hand the government and the military were eager to give their account of the developments.[8] On the other hand, individuals published their own literary accounts or recollections, amongst them many teachers at secondary or high school level.[9] Together with the Politisches Jahrbuch der Schweizerischen Eidgenossenschaft, published until 1917 by Carl Hilty (1833-1909) and his successors,[10] official publications, publicly available sources, and the memory of persons involved formed the first basis on which many in academic research based their accounts of Switzerland’s role during the First World War. Even in 2014, Georg Kreis still used many of these sources for his overview.[11]

In 1917, German diplomats approached the Bernese secondary school teacher Jacob Ruchti (1878-?) and asked him if he was prepared to publish a study on Switzerland in the war as part of a sponsored series on the position of neutral countries in the war.[12] Ruchti agreed and until 1920, with the support of his academic teachers Gustav Tobler (1855-1921) and Philipp Woker (1848-1924), both professors of history at the University of Bern, he prepared a first draft manuscript which, however, took another ten years to be published in two volumes.[13] Although often primarily attributed to its headline author, Jacob Ruchti,[14] the book – in a manner similar to the Carnegie Economic and Social History of the World War[15] – was a product of teamwork mainly by a group of contemporary representatives from different fields, most of whom came from the canton of Bern. It was based on publicly available sources as well as personal recollections and presented a bourgeois perspective on the war.[16] If one compares it with the volumes on the Netherlands within the Carnegie Economic and Social History of the World War[17] it becomes clear that there were many similarities. The studies on the two countries both concentrated on issues of neutrality, agriculture and food supply, public finances, prices and wages, and the cost of living. Ruchti, however, added chapters on interior and foreign policy, linguistic and regional divides, the military, humanitarianism, moments of crisis such as the Oberstenaffäre or the Hoffmann-Grimm Affair, as well as on poetry, music and painting,[18] while the series on the Netherlands included a small volume on the effect of the war on the colonies.[19] Ruchti’s study only contained a few paragraphs on commerce and the manufacturing industries as well as on demographic aspects, in all probability because Julius Wyler (1891-1959) and Traugott Geering (1859-1932) – sponsored by the government – published major studies on these issues in a series on the Swiss economy during the war.[20] That Ruchti did not include issues such as the tourism industry, the impact of the war on the railways or the Swiss banking system was probably due to the fact that the government-sponsored series, in which the studies of Wyler and Geering were published, originally planned to issue volumes on these aspects as well.[21] These volumes, however, never materialized. It is very likely that Ruchti’s volumes – maybe together with the series sponsored by the government – were the “semi-official history of Switzerland at present under preparation”, which “excludes it from this survey [i.e. the Carnegie Economic and Social History of the World War]”[22] mentioned by James Shotwell (1874-1965), the general editor of the Carnegie series. While Geering’s work together with Ruchti’s became formative, that of Wyler and others such as Friedrich Bek on trade relations with Italy,[23] Gustav Frey (1898-1983) on the supply of raw materials,[24] Josef Käppeli (1872-1942) and Max Riesen (1887-1957) on food supply,[25] Max Obrecht (1894-1965) on clearing houses for overseas imports,[26] Rudolf Pfenninger (1902-1987) on trade,[27] Eduard Scheurmann (1897-?) on milk supply,[28] or Heinrich Sieveking (1871-1945) on the Swiss economy during the war in general[29] existed without having a large scale impact on Swiss historiography of the First World War.

From the 1930s onwards academic research almost stopped, while individual aspects of stories such as ”Füsilier Wipf” or ”Gilberte de Courgenay” became part of a collective movement to strengthen national cohesion under the heading Geistige Landesverteidigung.[30] It therefore doesn’t come as a surprise that the article on the First World War in the Historisch-Biographisches Lexikon der Schweiz mainly concentrated on political, military and economic aspects.[31] This was a reflection of the development of research in the 1920s. While issues of supply had dominated in early studies, commerce and industry as well as political aspects and the role of the military became more dominant over time. However, what is also interesting about the article in the Historisch-Biographisches Lexikon der Schweiz – mainly written by French-speaking colonel Fernand Feyler (1863-1931) – is that Ruchti’s work is not mentioned at all, which was due to the fact that the text was completed for the French version published in 1926, but – as it was not amended for the German version – may also be seen as a sign that French-speaking Swiss still did not trust a man who was seen as being too pro-German.[32]

A Second Wave or a Second Generation: From a Focus on Neutrality, Anti-communism and the Military to an Analysis of Social and Economic Conflict in the 1960s and 1970s

In contrast to other countries, Switzerland did not participate in the “European War on Documents” of the interwar period.[33] After the Second World War, however, the country felt the need to justify its policy during that war.[34] In this context, the issue of neutrality became the central focal point. It therefore comes as no surprise that Edgar Bonjour (1898-1991) mainly focused on political, military and humanitarian aspects when dealing with the First World War in volume 2 of his multi-volume history of Swiss neutrality.[35] In this he did not differ much from the focus that Ruchti had taken. The same is true for a publication by Hans Rudolf Kurz (1915-1990) of documents on the military border occupation of the years 1914 to 1918,[36] as well as for various biographies on military leaders published between 1957 and 1975.[37] In 1965, furthermore, with the support of the local government of Zimmerwald, and his political friend and professor of history Walther Hofer (1920-2013), Peter Sager (1925-2006), the head of the Schweizerisches Ostinstitut in Bern, organised a seven day public conference to keep control of the memory of the 1915/1916 conferences in Zimmerwald and Kiental and make it clear that communism was still a major danger.[38]

However, the fact that social and economic history began to dominate the general historiographical trends in the 1960s and 1970s had an impact on the ways in which Swiss historiography dealt with the years 1914 to 1918 as well.[39] The study of social classes, social movements as well as social and economic conflict moved to the centre of research activities. In the case of Switzerland this meant that the Landesstreik, the national general strike of 1918 with its causes and consequences became the major focus. The seminal study in this context was Willi Gautschi’s (1920-2004) Der Landesstreik 1918, published in 1968,[40] which the author followed up with an edition of sources and a volume on Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) in Switzerland.[41] Gautschi challenged the traditional bourgeois view that had been dominant since the end of the First World War, that the Landesstreik was the product of an attempt at revolution by mainly foreign Bolshevik agents. He argued that it was rather the culmination of a long-term conflict between (organised) workers and a bourgeoisie which had seen a boost as a consequence of worsening living conditions during the war. The men of the Oltener Aktionskomitee had not been self-centred muddlers, but men who had tried their best to improve the situation of disadvantaged people. In Switzerland, however, Gautschi concluded, the idea of class struggle was not destined to flourish.[42] Taking different foci, several other authors confirmed Gautschi’s findings in the following years.[43] Furthermore, these years also saw the publication of several biographies on leading actors of the time.[44]

The general trend towards social and economic history produced two further studies by Heinz Ochsenbein and Pierre Luciri on the methods with which belligerents tried to gain control over Swiss trade,[45] and another by Hans-Ulrich Jost which analysed the impact of the radical left in German-speaking Switzerland.[46] A comparison of several general studies on Swiss history published in the 1970s and 1980s shows social and economic factors had become much more important in the historiography on Switzerland during the First World War.[47] Slowly a social and economic perspective began to supersede the traditional narrative with its focus on anti-communist politics, the military and neutrality, although the latter never completely disappeared.

Stamped out Paths and Innovative Moments: A Very Diverging Third Wave or Third Generation in the 1990s and Early 2000s

While from the late 1980s and early 1990s the general trend in historiography on the First World War began to move from social via everyday history towards a paradigm of cultural history,[48] the studies that were published on the topic in Switzerland took a more diverging direction. The issues of neutrality and the military remained an important focus. This was not least a response to a provocation of historian and publicist Niklaus Meienberg (1940-1993), who, in 1987, had published his book Die Welt als Wille und Wahn, in which he wondered to what extent aristocratic airs were compatible with Swiss democracy.[49] Although Meienberg’s handling of the sources was more than dubious, he was able to gain control over the public memory of Ulrich Wille (1848-1925) for some time. Academics reacted rather hesitantly to Meienberg’s book and it finally took more than fifteen years before Hans Rudolf Fuhrer and Paul Meinrad Strässle published an academic study on the controversial figure of Wille.[50] This study was, however, not the first one on a Swiss military leader of the First World War. In 1999 René Zeller had published a study on Emil Sonderegger (1868-1934), the commanding officer in Zurich during the national general strike, and in 2000 Daniel Sprecher had published an even more comprehensive study on the chief of the general staff during the war, Theophil Sprecher von Bernegg (1850-1927).[51] In the same period Max Mittler (1924-2004) presented his study on Switzerland’s neutrality during the First World War, in which he came to the conclusion that it had always been a challenge for the country to uphold its neutrality and that during the war such a policy had even become a challenge for the national cohesion of the country.[52] At around the same time, Hans Rudolf Fuhrer published a comprehensive study on the Swiss army during the First World War and also incorporated some of the findings from earlier studies by Hans Rapold (1920-2018) and Rudolf Jaun on the Swiss general staff and the military generally.[53]

Economic, social and cultural history studies were, however, also (still) present in the 1990s and early 2000s. In 2005 Nicole Billeter published an innovative study on the outlook of writers in exile regarding the war, in which she showed that exile in Switzerland did not necessarily mean freedom of speech and action. Many writers became targets of the propaganda of their own country as well as of opposite side. She also showed how diverse the points of view of exiled writers were.[54] Migration issues were another topic that several authors such as Gérald and Silvia Arlettaz, Thomas Bürgisser, Bettina Durrer, Uriel Gast and Roland Gysin took up.[55] In his general history on Switzerland, François Walter upheld the importance of a social and economic perspective on the war, but he also emphasized the importance of the cultural divide between the different language groups in the country.[56] In 2006 Christian Koller stressed the importance of looking at Switzerland’s memory of the First World War, as it had been a central element of memory politics during the Geistige Landesverteidigung in the 1930s and 1940s. Looking at the war from below – something that academic research had not done at that time – political and military authorities tried to create national cohesion, which did not tolerate undesirable elements within the collective memory of the country.[57] In 2008, finally, Roman Rossfeld and Tobias Straumann published a seminal study on different industrial segments. They built on Geering’s study from 1928 and extended its findings considerably. Most importantly they defined five crucial periods in Switzerland’s history of the First World War: 1) the crisis at the beginning of the war in 1914, 2) a boom phase in 1915-1916, 3) a collapse after 1916 as a consequence of the intensification of economic warfare by the belligerents with serious consequences for the country, 4) the immediate aftermath of the war with a quick recovery of exports, but also rising prices, and 5) the crisis after the war in the years 1921-1923 with major inflation and high costs for restructuring the economy.[58]

Thanks to the Centenary: Switzerland’s Historiography Goes Transnational in a Fourth Wave or a Fourth Generation, 2010 to the Present

In 2011 Konrad Kuhn and Béatrice Ziegler published an article in the journal Traverse, in which they regretted that Ruchti’s narrative of the war, focusing on linguistic divides, neutrality and the importance of the army, had still remained dominant, while regional, everyday, comparative, cultural and gender history had so far not received the attention they deserved. They therefore called for a renewed effort in looking at sources at a regional and local level, in broadening the perspectives in research, in re-evaluating existing sources as well as literature and putting the Swiss experience into a comparative perspective.[59] To some extent the two preached to the converted, as two research projects underway at the time show.[60] After a 2013 panel at the Schweizerische Geschichtstage in Fribourg,[61] several articles were published in the same year in the Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Geschichte.[62] All of them followed what Jay Winter has called the “transnational generation” of First World War scholarship, which is shaped by a global outlook and a tendency to write about more than just the fields that had been common so far.[63] In 2014, Georg Kreis published an overview on the existing research at the time, showing how far Switzerland wanted to stay apart from the war, while the country was at the same time closely integrated into the European and global network and dependent on other countries, many of whom were or became belligerents in the years 1914 to 1918.[64] Also in 2014, Roman Rossfeld, Thomas Buomberger and Patrick Kury published a highly illustrated book with an extensive bibliography to accompany an exhibition visited by about 100,000 people,[65] and Jakob Tanner explicitly called for a transnational history of Switzerland in the First World War.[66] Again in 2014, Switzerland gained a separate section in 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, which has since made it possible to present the results of the existing research on the country, often published in German and/or French, in the English language.[67]

The following years saw a large wave of new publications, many of them dealing in a transnational perspective with topics that had so far been under-researched such as: propaganda,[68] migration,[69] military justice,[70] the Vollmachtenregime,[71] Swiss humanitarianism[72], gender issues,[73] the impact of the war on Switzerland’s role in a more multilateral world,[74] and the Spanish flu.[75] There were also some studies in military history that broke with the national contraction of the past and tried to integrate Switzerland’s military experience into a larger European and partially global context.[76] Furthermore, several authors published studies on developments in Switzerland’s regions.[77] Social and economic issues were also a topic which saw renewed attention,[78] and in parts tried to link their research to the new field of the environmental history of the First World War,[79] which in turn saw some interesting and partially interdisciplinary studies dealing with natural phenomena and living conditions in the war in the alps in a transnational perspective.[80]

Some studies made it their aim to explicitly link Swiss experiences with the world. A very good example is the study by Bernard Degen and Julia Richers on the conferences in Zimmerwald and Kiental, to which they gave the revealing subtitle “Global history in the village”.[81] In the same year, Roman Rossfeld published a seminal article in which he linked economic developments in Switzerland to those in other countries and showed that Swiss companies produced munitions for all belligerents, while at the same time the military leadership in the country was desperately trying to obtain such goods for its own armed forces. With this article, Rossfeld not only showed that transnational interdependencies existed in the case of Switzerland, he put into perspective the traditional view of Switzerland as a country devoted to humanitarian diplomacy.[82] In a similar manner, Daniel Marc Segesser published a series of articles on Switzerland’s interdependency with the world,[83] and, in 2021, together with Wolfgang Weber and Sacha Zala, issued a collection of sources which tries to link the Vorarlberg question to ongoing international debates on the issue of self-determination.[84] Together with Daniel Krämer and Christian Pfister, he also edited a volume on the importance of conflicts over food, energy and resources in Switzerland during the war, which extends the existing research on the social and economic impact of the war by putting it into a transnational perspective and linking it to aspects that had so far been neglected like climate, weather and agriculture.[85]

Towards the end of the centenary, one of the topics that had been part of the old narrative mentioned by Kuhn and Ziegler, the Landesstreik, again became an object of interest. This time, however, the perspective was different. A research project took on the issues of gender, memory and emotional history linked to the Landesstreik.[86] Its researchers integrated their initial findings into the comprehensive edited volume that Roman Rossfeld, Christian Koller and Brigitte Studer published in 2018, again with a substantial bibliography. The focus of this book went, however, beyond the scope of the research project and included issues such as social misery and distribution conflicts, political inclusion and exclusion, class and gender, regional differences, and narratives and memory.[87] In the same year the journal Traverse published a special issue on the topic, which linked the Landesstreik to a broader history of strikes in Switzerland and focused more on aspects that were not so much in the focus of the study published by Rossfeld, Koller and Studer, such as the development of historiography and the Franco- or Italophone parts of the country.[88] Further studies with a strong regional focus on the Landesstreik have been carried out by Jean-Claude Rennwald and Adrian Zimmermann, as well as Julien Steiner.[89] Still, older narratives focusing on the importance of political motives have not completely disappeared, as an article by Rudolf Jaun and Tobias Straumann shows.[90] What is certainly important in this context is to keep in mind that the Landesstreik needs to be considered simultaneously in the context of the end of the war in other countries and in the context of the history of strikes in Switzerland generally.[91]


For a long time the historiography of Switzerland’s involvement in the First World War was dominated by a narrative developed during and in the first decade after the war. Linguistic divides, neutrality and the role of the army, which had allegedly protected the country during and in the immediate aftermath of the war during the Landesstreik: these were the central aspects of the narrative cultivated by bourgeois-dominated authorities, academics and teachers, who based their contributions on publicly available sources and the memories of persons involved. After the Second World War the issues of neutrality, anti-communism and the importance of the army continued to dominate, until a new generation of research shaped by a general trend towards economic and social history began to challenge this, not least thanks to the access to archival sources. While, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the general trend in historiography on the First World War began to move from social via everyday history towards a paradigm of cultural history, the development in Switzerland took a more divergent turn. Neutrality and the army remained important topics, but new aspects such as writers in exile, migration and the memory of the war emerged. Nevertheless, it was only with the arrival of the centenary that the idea of the forgotten war was finally overcome. The fourth wave of research, which emerged during the centenary, was largely shaped by a generation of historians that took a more transnational perspective.

Daniel Marc Segesser, Universität Bern

Section Editor: Roman Rossfeld