Switzerland in the First World War: Transnational Perspectives on a Small State in Total War

The start of the First World War on 1 August 1914 marked the end of the “long 19th century”. The following four years of war triggered the lasting transformation of modern, capitalist industrial societies and political systems; tendencies which had emerged in the decades around the turn of the century took hold and established themselves. Unlike the many other countries which suffered millions of casualties, Switzerland was not drawn into the conflict and succeeded in holding on to the concept of integral neutrality for the entire duration of the war. Nonetheless, in view of the many and diverse exchange processes that took place between Switzerland and the belligerent countries, the war also had a decisive impact on the Swiss nation. Although no armed conflict ever took place within the Swiss borders, the “battles of material” and totalisation of the war abroad led in Switzerland to the impoverishment of wide sections of the population and increasingly rapid social polarization and disintegration, culminating in the general strike in 1918. Despite the fact that the impact of the war continued to affect and shape Swiss politics, business and culture for decades to come and played a decisive role in the country’s further development, the history of Switzerland in the First World War has never been studied in detail. This Sinergia project – consisting of three sub-projects comprising two dissertations each – focuses on how experiences and expectations changed dynamically during the war; it examines the diverse exchange and interaction processes between Switzerland and the belligerent countries and explores what scope for action a small, neutral country actually had. Based on a transnational perspective, these issues will be analysed in three, closely connected research projects: (A) the significance of “enemy aliens”, migration and the mobilization of people and goods in the war; (B) the impact of the war on political decision-making processes, democratic institutions and the (increasingly limited) political participation; and (C) the relationship between brutalisation, militarization and humanitarian diplomacy, which played an important role with regard to the country’s neutrality, which was regularly called into question. The aim of this research project is to make a fundamental contribution to a transnational, cultural-historical history of the First World War as well as providing a comprehensive contribution to filling one of the most neglected, yet exceptionally rich research fields in the history of Switzerland in the 20th century. The focus on the integration of political, economic, legal and social aspects in the individual sub-projects, combined with a transnational comparative perspective, gives this project a unique standing in the context of international research. The timing for the submission of this project is excellent: the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War will be marked in 2014, which will ensure that the project and its scientific findings can be seamlessly integrated in international research as well as serving to facilitate interaction and exchange with other research projects, thus strengthening and highlighting the transnational aspect of this project.