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Belligerents and Participants
in World War One:
The Swiss Confederation (Switzerland)  pt1


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The Swiss Cantons had been thrown into such turmoil by the Napoleonic Wars that the Congress of Vienna not only reestablished their independence as a confederation in 1815, they guarantied their permanent neutrality through international law to stabilize the region. Switzerland’s long held neutral status too often gives the impression of an unarmed nation but this is far from true. The Swiss have always realized that their neutrality is only as secure as their ability to defend it; and so they have remained militarily prepared and vigilant. The invasion of Belgium at the outbreak of the Great War clearly demonstrated that neutrality offered no real protection and that Switzerland faced real danger. Both military and political steps were necessary to discourage invasion.

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The military tradition was an important part of Swiss identity, and it is reflected in the many military postcards produced before World War One. Though Switzerland did not maintain a large standing army, they had a vast system of reservists that could be counted on to fill the ranks whenever necessary. Soldiers are often depicted on Swiss prewar postcards being called up for or out on maneuvers. Henri Schlumpf of Winterhur was a prolific early publisher of such cards in chromolithography.

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While it is easy to distinguish early Gruss aus cards depicting Swiss troops out on maneuver from those printed during World War One, this difference becomes less clear for postcards printed just before the conflict. Swiss troops out in high mountainous terrain is a long standing favorite topic for photographers, and their images were turned into postcards for years. While it is not possible to make a clear determination without a postmark, most cards produced before the War seem to be black & white collotypes, and most printed during the War were in color. This is opposite to the trend in most other nations, so this observation may be flawed.




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Though Switzerland remained neutral throughout the Great War, the conflict put great strains on this small landlocked nation. Surrounded by warring parties, its neutrality was not guaranteed but had to be upheld by their own military vigilance. They began mobilizing their army in August of 1914 as soon as the war broke out. The French offensive against Mulhausen in the Provence of Loraine caused the Swiss to move troops right up to their border. There they entrenched to prevent the French and Germans from using Swiss roads in order to gain their enemy’s flank. A more heavily fortified line with concrete bunkers was then built behind the first. Most Swiss troops were posted to the Canton of Jura, which bordered the end of the German-French trench line. Reservists only began to be sent home when it seemed that the neighboring belligerents would respect Swiss neutrality.

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Many postcards were produced showing Swiss soldiers guarding their frontiers, but most of these are presented through symbolism and high forms of allegory. A few rare cards do show troops entrenching but even these tend to be artist drawn. This is a huge departure from the prewar years when photo-based military postcards abounded. It is thus doubtful to think that this shift in presentation had to do with public taste. There was most likely the same amount of censorship put into place as found in waring nations.

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The opening of the trans-Alpine Gottard railway in the 1880’s provided an important transit link between northern and southern Europe, but it also made Switzerland a more inviting target for invasion in times of war. This caused the Swiss government to implement a more comprehensive defensive system (The Swiss National Redoubt) to counter these new threats. Existing fortifications in the high mountain regions were modernized and tied to a newly constructed system of defenses. A number of positions were strengthened further by adding concrete and gun turrets to older works. Three major fortress complexes would be formed at the choke points of St. Maurice, St. Gotthard, and Sargans to guard the industrialized and populated heart of Switzerland. By World War One they provided a major deterrent to invasion. Many of these odd looking hybrids became popular subjects for ordinary view-cards.

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Even though Switzerland was internationally recognized as a neutral nation, this did not stop them like other neutral nations from receiving its fair share of diplomatic suitors in order to persuade them to take sides in the Great War. Its army, made up mostly of reservists, was not sought after as a prize as much as its geography. Completely surrounded by belligerent nations, whose battle fronts had stalemated into trench warfare, the ability to move troops through Switzerland was seen as a way of breaking the deadlock. Many Swiss postcards picture political cartoons that represent this unwanted attention from the waring nations.

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As reservists began being deployed to Switzerland’s borders in large numbers, publishers began increasing their output of postcards to meet the demand of all those who would now need to wright home. Most of these emphasized patriotic messages but some treated the deployment almost as if it were a holiday. It is difficult to know if this type of presentation was out of naivety or an attempt to relieve the worries of those left behind at home. It must be remembered that when the War started, most had no inkling of the proportions it would grow to. In later years as tours of service grew burdensome, postcards placed more emphasis on duty.

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Many Swiss postcards of this period involve mobilization and deployment to the frontiers. While these types of cards tend to focus on the disruption of family life, they also promote the sense of duty. Some publishers drew on past events to enhance this patriotic call to duty. They are reminders that past generations were also called upon to defend Switzerland and the confederation is evidence of their service and success. Important military victories were a prime subjects for these cards, but so were heroes like William Tell. This type of propaganda worked because it was based on a reoccurring story that they still resonated through myth.

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In 1915 the French began preparing for an offensive against Germany through Switzerland known as Plan H. The Swiss got wind of it and reinforced their border across from Belfort but the offensive never materialized. Heavy fighting however erupted in March between the French and the Germans for control over the heights of Hartmannswillerkopf, which threatened to spill over the Swiss border.

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In the summer of 1914 it looked as if antiwar Socialists could hold the peace, but they were swept aside by the tide of nationalism that rushed the world to war. Once there was no quick victory they would attempt to regain the initiative toward peace. The First International Socialist Conference met in the Swiss town of Zimmerwald in September 1915 that was mostly composed of delegates from neutral nations. Leon Trotsky would mediate differences between the exiled leader of the radical socialist Bolshevik Party, Vladmir Lenin, and the socialist Mensheviks led by Julius Martov. In the end a manifesto was released stating that the Great War was a result of capitalist imperialism, and that Socialists worldwide needed to unite to turn this struggle into an international workers revolution. While there were no immediate results, delegates such as Lenin, Trotsky, and Karl Liebknecht who would later found the Spartacist movement with Rosa Luxembourg, all would have great impact on the War.

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Pro-German sentiment within the military eventually led two Swiss-German colonels of the general staff to pass decoded Russian diplomatic dispatches onto military attachés of the Central Powers. When this violation of neutrality was discovered in December 1915, a public scandal known as the Colonels Affair arose. General Wille, heading the Swiss Army was already a controversial figure by suggesting Switzerland join the Central Powers back in July. He now took little action but this only caused more public outrage. Allied pressure finally led to a trial, but the two colonels were acquitted and were only suspended from active duty. The affair however inadvertently brought about more cooperation with the allies, which began to shift Swiss leanings away from Germany by mid-1916.

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By 1916 talks began with France regarding mutual cooperation in the case of a German invasion. Even so the Swiss were forced to mobilize once more at the end of 1916 in fear of a French offensive that never came. Swiss postcards of this time begin to call for peace; some even fantasizing about the signing of a treaty. While these cards may have been inspired by actual events since there were real efforts being made to negotiate an end the War, it is doubtful that ordinary publishers would have been privy to these talks. The details expressed in these cards are probably just born of war weariness.

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Although the images that appeared on Swiss postcards during the Great War were artistically conservative even when incorporating some modernist graphic elements, Switzerland experienced the most radicle shake up of the arts. In February 1916, in the midst of the Battle of Verdun, the German poet and musician Hugo Ball opened the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich to act as a focal point for cutting edge art reacting to the War. This work could not be described as military art or even pro or anti war as much as anti-patriotic. They wanted to expose the absurdity of a society that was supposedly saving culture by dehumanizing it through unprecedented violence. Always controversial, their work often stirred up violent confrontations wit veterans. They published their first magazine, DADA in 1917. While the movement was initially more literary oriented, they quickly began attracting visual artists. They revived the art of collage into what they coined photo-montage. While the War was the main impetus to the establishment of the anti-art Dada movement, they would have their greatest influence on art in the postwar years as their ideas grew more complex.

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After Italy entered the war, Swiss troops began being deployed on their southern border. While no offensive was ever launched against Switzerland by either Italy or Austria-Hungary, there were at least a thousand minor incursions across its borders. These mostly occurred in difficult mountainous terrain where it was not always easy to determine where the border actually was. It may also be assumed that as long as there was no opposition, troops went where ever they though they might find the greatest advantage over their enemy regardless of borderlines.

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While Swiss troops could patrol or even be stationed out in rugged terrain, it was still impossible to prevent incursions by airplanes. Pilots could not always tell what piece of anonymous ground they were over, and they also knew there was little to stop them if they violated Switzerland’s air space. The high visibility of planes often made them the only aspect of actual combat that the Swiss saw. This generated interest in the subject, and the theme was then captured on Swiss postcards.

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Switzerland’s neutrality attracted large numbers of refuges to cross its borders. This was often pictured on postcards by the representation of real incidents as well as allegories of the Swiss as protectors. At the beginning of the War, the International Committee of the Red Cross encouraged the Swiss government to sign an agreement with the belligerent nations stipulating that prisoners of war who were too seriously injured to continue in military service could be repatriated through Switzerland. The first repatriations were made in March 1915. By January of 1916 Switzerland began accepting less seriously wounded POWs but these soldiers were interned in camps. Such humanitarian policies can also be viewed in political terms. The Swiss government clearly saw that France and Germany would be less likely to invade if they were more useful as a neutral neighbor.

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The agreements made to repatriate wounded soldiers served an internal political agenda, they were constructed solely on the basis of humanitarian needs. Despite this neutral approach by Swiss officials, particular regions possessed strong emotional ties to each of the belligerents dependent on whether they spoke French or German. Many Swiss postcards were published showing wounded French soldiers arriving in Switzerland being met by cheering crowds that treated them like heroes. They are often so celebratory that they can easily be mistaken for a patriotic French cards. While these types of cards were made for unofficial propaganda, they do represent a true spirit of events. Many Swiss came out to meet these trains carrying internees, not just to cheer but as volunteers offering aid.

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While life in a Swiss internment camp was not as harsh as a soldier might find in a prisoner of war camp, there seems to have been an effort made by Swiss publishers to present this situation in an even more palatable light. While internees are often portrayed in great comfort, possibly to relieve the anxieties of loved ones back home, most were actually housed in resort hotels that were suffering from the end of tourism. Since these establishments were paid, it greatly helped failing regional economies to the point that they lobbied the government against building barracks. Internees were usually distributed to districts where the same language was spoken, and less security was required in this friendly atmosphere. These wounded soldiers are also usually referred to as heroes. While this might just be part of the typical patriotic spin, it seems that it is being emphasized so to not give the impression that these men are shirking their duty; enjoying the good life in Switzerland while their comrades are suffering in the trenches.

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Swiss neutrality was often depicted as a lighthouse to humanity, an island in a sea of war. The relief it offered to refugees also made it a haven for radicals of various nations who faced uncertain futures in their home counties during wartime. Dissent was often repressed during peacetime and was not tolerated at all during war. Czech and Lithuanian national councils were established in Switzerland during the war. Many others who took refuge here were Bolsheviks, most notably Vladimir Lenin who arrived from Austria when the war broke out. With German help he would leave for Petrograd after the abdication of Czar Nicholas II to organize what became the October Revolution that took Russia out of the war. By 1918 the Swiss had grown suspicious of all Russians and most crossing its borders for any reason were treated much more harshly than other internees.

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Embargoes, food shortages, and reservists serving without their peacetime salaries led to a continual decline in the Swiss economy during the War. The presence of many foreign radicals in Switzerland helped stir labor unrest and by November 1918 a general strike was called. With a revolution in neighboring Germany, Swiss officials feared that a domestic Bolshevik revolution might arise and they began to mobilized loyal forces around them. Complicating matters was the Spanish Flu, which hit particularly hard at the same time. Public gatherings were banned as a health precaution but it also tempered organized opposition. The Swiss government also began giving in to striking worker’s demands but the country would become more divided just as the Great War ended.




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The ethnic makeup of Switzerland was diverse, which caused much tension between regions that tended to side with one belligerent or another. About 73 percent of the population was German speaking and had strong links to Germany. This was evident in the new Swiss Federal Council of which only one of its seven members was French speaking. Even many in the Swiss army had been trained in Germany. This led to governmental and military bias favoring Germany, and whenever this was noticeably expressed, the French and Italian regions protested. A large number of Swiss would leave the country to join the French Foreign Legion. These divisions were not well represented on Swiss propaganda postcards, which were primarily produced to unite the nation. They often emphasized past triumphs over foreign invaders. Newspapers that challenged Swiss neutrality are known to have been censored, so this might have caused self-censorship by postcards publishers as well.

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Swiss cards also promoted national unity by contrasting a peaceful Switzerland with the alternative of horrors occurring just over its borders. Things might be hard but they could be a lot worse. This theme was very important in subduing the unrest caused by food shortages, long deployments, and the great financial hardships that came with it.

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There is a fair amount of debate concerning the origins of the name Bern, Switzerland’s capital. Some believe it was named after the Italian city of Verona who there Germans referred to as Bern, while others trace the name’s origin to the Celtic Berna, meaning cleft. There is also the legend of Berchtold V, Duke of Zahringen, the founder of the city who vowed to name it after the first animal of prey he caught up with, which was a bear. In any case, a bear has sat on the city’s coat of arms since the 1220’s. While bears have a long history as heraldic symbols, they seem to have entered popular culture as a symbol for the Swiss themselves, which is very evident on early postcards. This tradition was commonly understood during the Great War where black bears can be found on patriotic cards.

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Helvetia, the female personification of the Swiss Confederation, is frequently used by publishers on postcards. She usually appears larger than life size wearing a flowing gown and breastplate with a wreath (symbol of confederation) crowning her braided hair. While other nations are also personified by female warriors, Helvetia lacks the typical sword, brandishing the square Swiss flag or a shield emblazoned with the same markings. Her role seems to be that of protector and guide; standing over soldiers guarding Switzerland’s border or directing refugees to safety.

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To honor Henry Dunaunt who organized the 1864 Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field in Geneva, a symbol based on the reversal of the Swiss flag was adopted to offer protection for medical and religious personnel attending to wounded and sick soldiers. We now know it as the symbol of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

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Sitting between the Allied nations of France and Italy, and the Central Powers of Austria and Germany; Switzerland’s neutrality would surly been violated had its army not been able to defend its mountainous terrain. All sides used this central location to exchange wounded prisoners, correspondence, and even essential war materials to keep the conflict going. Despite the advantage that neutrality provided all sides, no one respected this position. Each of the belligerents felt that they were fighting for a just cause, and refusal to join them meant they were secretly aiding the enemy. In some ways Switzerland made up for their lack of military participation through the efforts of the Red Cross, but even they became suspect because of the organizations strict neutral stance. They could only carry out their mission by treating those in need as members of humanity, not nations, which required obedience to the signed conventions. Their unwillingness to take sides caused constant hostility.

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Just as in the other waring nations, Swiss publishers produced regimental cards for military units to use while serving on the frontiers. They often show their troops in action though the enemy is never in sight. By having them fighting phantoms, the cards could not offend any of the belligerents, and they thus conformed to the official policy of neutrality. Switzerland’s printing industry was well developed before the War, and they continued to print many of their cards in high quality lithography.

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It was easy to identify soldiers in regard to their nationality when Germans wore spiked helmets and the French marched into battle in red trousers, but as the War progressed most armies opted for less conspicuous uniforms. While troops could still be identified on the field, it made things more difficult for postcard publishers, especially when artists simplified details and matched colors to compositional needs rather than reality. This problem is found most often on Swiss cards because their troops are often displayed in situations as if they were one of the belligerents in the War.

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It was customary for individual soldiers to have their photograph taken before going off to war, and sometimes whole units of men that were usually recruited from the same town also had group shots taken. These were often left behind with family or fiends as mementos. This tradition was no less relevant to troops in neutral nations that were called up for service. The separation between a soldier and his loved ones was just as great; and even if not deployed in combat, the potential for danger and death was always an unspoken truth.




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