Economic Dependance

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Switzerland's Economic Dependence
during World War II

A small but industrialized country
with virtually no raw materials

Switzerland's industry always depended to an extraordinary extent on exporting machinery, watches, chemicals and pharmaceutics. The high population density, hard conditions for agriculture especially in the alpine region and a scarcity on raw materials are responsible for a notorious deficit in food production. This has resulted in a strongly unfavourable balance of trade during all of the 20th century. Switzerland had "exported" soldiers (mercenary troops) until 1792 (French Revolution) and many Swiss citizens emigrated to North or South America during the 19th century. During the 1930's one third of the Swiss population earned their living from the export of machines, electrical devices, watches and clocks. The chemical industry, had been least affected by the economic crisis - but it set off over 90% of its production on foreign markets. But even that was not sufficient for an even balance of trade - except for one year, 1945, when Europe lay in ruins and machines from Switzerland were urgently needed for economic rehabilitation. During the 20th century tourism, transport services and financial services (banking and insurance) had to provide for a favourable balance of payments. During World War II imports fell from 30 % of the net national product (average value at the end of the 1920's and again during the 1950's) to 9 %, exports from 25% to 9% and tourism to almost zero. (Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland - World War II, final report, p. 55-58)

Switzerland Surrounded by Fascist Nations

Map of Central Europe, post war borders  

As Switzerland never had colonies nor direct access to the sea, and as it shares its three major languages with the neighbours Germany, Austria, France and Italy, these have always been the most important partners of trade and financial relations. During World War II Switzerland was completely surrounded by Germany (including Austria from 1938 to 1945), Germany's ally Italy and by France (partly occupied by German troops from Summer 1940, partly controlled by the Vichy-based regime collaborating with Germany after the French surrender in 1940).

Any Swiss import or export to other trade partners was under German control! Switzerland had to choose between keeping up it's trade and financial relations with it's neighbours on a normal pre-war level OR complete surrender and collaboration. There was absolutely no chance for a third way.

Switzerland, unlike Austria, chose as much independence as possible for a small country under the conditions dictated by the great powers.

Rationing and "cultivation battle"

During the war food was scarce, the authorities aimed at a fair distribution with rationing. Each person was allowed to buy only a certain quantity of food and goods of daily use per month, monthly rationing stamps were delivered to control this. However one may doubt, whether all regulations were just in detail - a complete lunch in the restaurant was delivered for example against two bread stamps, a kilogram (two pounds) of bread against ten stamps. Many farmers were not very disciplined, too.Food was often given from the farms directly to relatives and good acquaintance circumventing the rationing system.

Very many articles of daily use were rationed:
  • Sugar, pasta, leguminous plants, rice, wheat and corn semolina, flour, oats and barley products, butter, edible fats, food oils (starting from October 30th 1939)
  • Textiles, shoes, soap, detergent (starting from December 1st 1940)
  • Coffee, tea, cocoa (starting from May 31st 1941)
  • Cheese (starting from August 31st 1941)
  • Eggs and products based on eggs (starting from December 3rd 1941)
  • Fresh milk (starting from January 1st 1942: adults 5dl [1 pint] per day, children 7 dl [13/8 pint] per day; (starting from November 1st 1942)
  • Meat (starting from March 1942)
  • Honey, jam, preserved fruits (starting from May 4th 1942)
  • Chocolate (starting from June 1943)

Note that alpine agriculture is specialized in producing milk, cheese and meat, since grass is about the only thing that can be grown in the higher alpine regions. Meat was not affordable as everyday product for the lower classes, however. This explains, why meat was rationed only relatively late in 1942. On the other hand, some basic products like rice can't be cultivated in Switzerland at all, while wheat, corn, fat and oil must be imported to a high proportion. This explains, why these products were among the first to be rationed.

The bread ration amounted to only 225 g (8 ounces)/day (from October 1942 - February 1944), to 250 g (8.8 ounces)/day (after 1 March 1944, however under admixture of potato flour). Bakers had to store bread 24 hours after baking, later even 48 hours - thus the appetite should be throttled in natural way. Potato bread went sour not too long after this period. The slogan: "old bread is not hard - no bread is hard" is still remebered by elder persons.

Also many products of rubber were not any longer available. Bicycle tires were made e.g. of cork. On tractors special devices were added to produce gas by burning wood, which served as fuel replacement for the diesel engine. Gasoline for cars was only available if a absolutely necessary, as for medical service. . The rationing could be waived completely only on July, 1st1948, thus more than three years after end of war.

Already in April 1939 the Swiss parliament approved a resolution for the increase of agricultural production. Friedrich Traugott Wahlen planned the so-called "cultivation battle" as a chief civil servant in the Swiss Federal Office for War Nourishing. Every green area that seemed to be usable was cultivated according to the " Wahlen Plan" with bread grain, vegetables or potatoes. The cultivated area almost tripled till the end of war, the self-sufficiency degree rose from 52 % in 1939 to 59 % (compared to pre-war consumption), which meant 80 % considering the scarcer rations during war . Still, 20 % of food had to be imported. Raw materials like metals, rubber, coal and all sorts of fuel etc. had to be imported almost completely because there are no significant deposits in Switzerland.

Literature and links on Switzerland's History in World War II:

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