Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

World War I Caused a General Strike in Switzerland

Memorial for Soldiers of the Zurich Canton Who
Died During Their World War One Service

Prewar (1901–1913)

The turn of the 20th century for Switzerland was an era of sustained and rapid economic growth. The value of exports doubled between 1887 and 1912. A third of the population derived an income, either directly or indirectly, from foreign trade. Per capita, Switzerland was the world’s leading exporter of machinery and, for a time, was even the top export nation, outstripping the United Kingdom and Germany.

The textile industry (textiles and clothing) was by the far the largest employer in Switzerland. In 1900 almost half of all industrial workers were employed in this sector.  However, many Swiss continued to emigrate. Between 1900 and 1910, 50,000 people left their homeland. Yet, Switzerland remained a country of net migration due to the influx of foreigners, most of whom found work in the construction industry. At the outbreak of the First World War foreign migrants accounted for almost 15 percent of Switzerland's population, the highest in Europe.

The First World War (1914–1918)

Swiss Soldiers Guarding the Umrail Pass During the War

During both World War I and World War II, Switzerland maintained armed neutrality, and was not invaded by its neighbors, in part because of its topography, much of which is mountainous. Consequently, it was of considerable interest to belligerent states as the scene for diplomacy, espionage, and commerce, as well as being a safe haven for refugees. As a small neutral state, Switzerland was spared the ravages of war during the First World War, although its army, led by General Ulrich Wille, was mobilized. According to the Historical Dictionary of Switzerland, around 3,000 Swiss soldiers died during active service due to illness or accidents. More than half (1,800) died at the end of 1918, killed by the Spanish flu epidemic.

Tensions simmered between German-speaking and French-speaking Switzerland because the former tended to sympathize with the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary, and the latter with the French, British and their allies. Swiss politicians and military personnel severely tested national cohesion by disregarding the principle of neutrality and negotiating with Germany and Austria-Hungary.  There was also mounting social unrest. During the war, men were conscripted to guard the Swiss borders for hundreds of days at a time. They received only meager pay and were not compensated for the income they lost during their compulsory military service. The price of food and rent doubled due to supply shortages. Since the state printed money to cover the costs of mobilization, inflation rose, slashing the value of people’s savings.

The National Strike (1918)

Swiss Troops Guarding the BKW Energy Company
During the Strike

The economic hardship created by the war had a profound impact on workers. In November 1918 the situation reached boiling point in Switzerland, Germany and elsewhere.  for labor organizations it made sense to consider strike as a means to apply political pressure. The Oltener Aktionskomitee (OAK) repeatedly sent the federal government demands underpinned with strike threats. In contrast to the early war years, the federal government now had to respond at least in part to working-class issues.

In autumn 1918, the collapse of the old order and rise of the labour movement in Germany and Austria were impossible to ignore and right-wing circles increasingly feared a similar development in Switzerland. Some saw the strike of Zurich bank employees (from 30 September/1 October 1918), which the radical Zurich workers’ union supported with a local general strike, as a rehearsal for the revolution. Others—like General Ulrich Wille—wanted to teach the protesting workers a lesson, if possible before the foreseeable demobilization of the army. Troops demonstratively marched into Zurich on 7 November.

At its twentieth meeting on 6 November, the OAK had yet no idea about the forthcoming events and dealt with routine business. It met on short notice for a special meeting on 7 November given the general outrage that the deployment of troops had caused among organized labor. After extensive debates and aiming to keep hold of events and channel the protest movement, it called for a work stoppage in 19 industrial centers.

The protest strike of 9 November, the Saturday which saw the collapse of the German Empire, ran without incidents. In Zurich, the workers’ union decided to continue the movement until the state of siege was lifted. On Sunday, 10 November, demonstrators and the military clashed violently on Münsterplatz, which fueled the conflict. The OAK was faced with a choice between associating itself with the Zurich approach or the loss of its influence. Ultimately, it called for an unlimited general strike for Tuesday 12 November.

Soldiers and Protesters in Zurich During the Strike

A national general strike for 12 November 1918 was called, in which over 250,000 workers took part. The Federal Council sent in a large troop contingent to quash the protest. The number of direct victims was low (four fatalities). However, Spanish flu claimed the lives of 3,000 soldiers involved in the operation. Most of these men came from rural areas and this is one reason why relations between workers and farmers remained strained for a long time.

Some of the protestors’ demands were quickly met, such as the election of the National Council by proportional representation and the establishment of a 48-hour work week. However, it would be many years before other demands, such as women’s suffrage and an old-age pension scheme, were answered.

Sources: The Swiss Department of Federal Affairs; Encyclopedia 1914–1918.

1 comment:

  1. Always interesting to read of events in neutral countries during the war.