«Alas! Do you think, that the Great Powers will fight each other because of this local question?» This was the reply the Undersecretary of State of the German Foreign ministry, Arthur Zimmermann, gave the Swiss envoy Alfred de Claparède on July 20, 1914 to the question of an eventual outbreak of the war (DDS, vol. 6, doc. 3, dodis.ch/43278, original in German). Only eight days later, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. In a chain reaction the conflict expanded within a couple of days over all Europe. The assassination in Sarajevo of the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, Franz-Ferdinand, had provoked the outbreak of World War I.
The centenary of the outbreak of the war
Until now, the first series of the «Diplomatic Documents of Switzerland» covering the years from 1848 to 1945 has only been available as printed volumes and in retro-digitalised form. From now on, the transcribed and annotated documents from the older DDS volumes are being systematically integrated into the Database Dodis. On the occasion of the centenary of the outbreak of World War I volume 6 covering the time from June 28, 1914 until November 11, 1918 has been tagged by themes, people and geographical names and made available on dodis.ch/1914-1918. The documents originating from the Swiss Government (Federal Council), the military, the administration and the legations, but also from private sources are accessible online as pdf and provide insights into Switzerland’s external relations during World War I. The vast range of topics covered by the 470 documents is summarised in the following outline.
In order to secure the boarders the Federal Council ordered the mobilisation of the armed forces already on July 31, 1914 (doc. 11, dodis.ch/43286). Interestingly, the military command regarded the Italian irredentism as the greatest danger to Switzerland’s territorial integrity during the first year of the war (doc. 30, dodis.ch/43305). When Italy entered the war in May 1915 the general chief of staff Theophil Sprecher von Bernegg considered the situation to be more dangerous than in August 1914 (doc. 121, dodis.ch/43396). The clearer the stalemate on the Western front, the more acute became the fear that the warring parties would seek a decisive victory by going through Switzerland (doc. 168, dodis.ch/43443; doc. 169, dodis.ch/43444 and doc. 252, dodis.ch/43527).
«Our stocks of food stuffs are almost exhausted...»
Soon, the geographic position of Switzerland was noticeable economically. Questions of commerce and supply were to be of the highest priority for the four years to come. The British trade embargo (doc. 59, dodis.ch/43334 and doc. 62, dodis.ch/43337) and later the total German submarine warfare caused a shortage in supplies in Switzerland (doc. 270, dodis.ch/43545). «Our stocks of food stuffs are almost exhausted» wrote William Rappart, Professor at Geneva University, to his friend, an US diplomat: «Our daily rations are far below those of the belligerent countries» (doc. 379, dodis.ch/43654).
The policy of neutrality on parole
Several factors repeatedly forced the Federal Council to defend Swiss neutrality abroad. Incidents, such as the affair of the colonels (doc. 166, dodis.ch/43441) or the Hoffmann-Grimm-Affair (doc. 326, dodis.ch/43601), caused resentments by the belligerent governments. Concerns about their adversaries’ plans (to march through Switzerland) provoked the Entente-powers to formulate some reservations about the recognition of Switzerland’s neutrality – against which the Federal Council protested explicitly (doc. 364, dodis.ch/43638; doc. 365, dodis.ch/43535 and doc. 367, dodis.ch/43642).
A spectre is haunting...
The last year of the war passed under the impression of the October Revolution in Russia (doc. 355, dodis.ch/43630) and the intensified social conflicts in Switzerland. Reports on the Bolshevik’s atrocities (doc. 456, dodis.ch/43731) in combination with the agitative activities of a Soviet mission in Bern (doc. 462, dodis.ch/43737) increased the fears of the administration – not only in Switzerland. The Entente-powers informed the Swiss envoy in Rome, Georges Wagnière, that they were ready to intervene in Switzerland’s internal matters in case of revolutionary troubles (doc. 464, dodis.ch/43739). When the countrywide general strike broke out on November 11, 1918, the Federal Council felt compelled to pre-emptively protest against any interference (doc. 470, dodis.ch/43745).
Hub for humanitarian activities
Time and again Switzerland distinguished itself in the humanitarian field. In 1914 the repatriation of interned civilians from enemy countries to their home countries was organised with the aid of Switzerland (doc. 51, dodis.ch/43326). Moreover, the Federal Council mediated the exchange of severely wounded prisoners of war between France and Germany (doc. 82, dodis.ch/43357 and doc. 86, dodis.ch/43361). From 1916 onwards, sick an less severely wounded prisoners of war were interned on Swiss soil to recuperate (doc. 120, dodis.ch/43395 and doc. 209, dodis.ch/43484). Additionally, the Swiss government discussed in great detail the question of the Society of Nations as the future organisation for peace-keeping amongst the states (doc. 432, dodis.ch/43707).