War-Rifts in Switzerland

By Florence V. Keys

[The New Republic; March 20, 1915]

Two Voices are there, one is of the Sea,
One of the Mountains, each a mighty Voice!

So sang Wordsworth in 1807. His sonnet sprang into mind at the speech of an old peasant whom I met on a mountain road the day after the Swiss army had left for the frontier. He stopped for a moment to denounce fiercely "these kings and emperors who shoot down the rest of us—nous autres;" and then he went toiling on, an old, old man, hardly able to drag the heavy scythe to the deserted fields which he, and only such as he, were left to harvest. At dawn that morning the horses requisitioned from the whole countryside had passed in droves along the road down to the transport station at Clarens. When the hollow echoing of their hoofs and the cries of the drivers had died in the lower distances, with sunrise there spread through field and pasture and vineyard the silence of desolation. Only the mountains, their white suffused with rose against the awakening blue, thrilled the scene with the eloquence of a sovereign protest, and of warning, presageful of the terrific strain to which the very sinews of the Swiss Confederation were to be subjected by the convulsion of one-half the globe in the grip of two mighty opposites.

When the bolt of war fell, it surprised Switzerland at the height of her tourist season, and on the eve of the anniversary of the founding of the Confederation. Instantly the order to mobilize sped over the wires to the remotest village and hamlet, and was answered as by a single bound to the frontier on the part of a nation where every valid man is a soldier. There followed the proclamation of the Federal Council to its "dear and faithful Confederates," solemnly affirming the common fidelity to the national traditions, the firm adherence "to the line of conduct chosen by the free decision of our Swiss people," and the observance, conformably to international treaties, of an absolute neutrality. "The Federal Assembly and the Federal Council are resolved to employ their entire forces and to make every sacrifice for the maintenance of our independence and the defense of our neutrality. Behind its authorities the whole Swiss people stands firm and resolute. To our army now belongs the noble task of protecting the country against every attack and of repelling the aggressor, whoever he maybe."

The full significance of these words is not confined to the fact that on the Swiss border press three formidable belligerent nations, and a fourth likely at any moment to enter the lists. They seem to anticipate and repulse a graver menace within the Confederation itself. Of the some three and a half million inhabitants, more than two-thirds are of German stock and language, the remainder, French and Italian. Hitherto a common preference for a democratic policy has permitted these diverse elements to combine without friction in a single ardent patriotism. On a sudden they have found themselves precipitated into a passionate conflict of racial and political sympathies. The wave of racial individualism which two years before had broken through the dams opposed to it in the Balkans by the concert of' powers, had rolled up to and surmounted the Alps. Behind that wall, unobserved in the general upheaval, a spiritual drama is being enacted wherein two races, two cultures, are pitted by their essential differences against the binding force of an ancient and honorable union.

Undoubtedly all Switzerland, without regard to language or race, watched with consternation the German armies pouring into Belgium, while German officers were turning out the authorities at the frontier of Luxembourg and taking over the railway and telegraph lines. At that moment the thought of every Swiss was of what might be happening within his own borders had they happened to lie across the path of a military objective. But when the first shock, was over, the French cantons observed with growing bitterness that their German confederates met with reserve and even silence acts that denied the principles to which the Swiss owe not alone their constitution but their existence as a nation. Instantly long smouldering animosities, strengthened of late years by the history of parties, broke into open recrimination that threatened the spiritual solidarity of the Confederation.

Backed only by the superb silence of France, the full, splendor of whose tradition and ideal were revealed as if for the first time to the men of today, the literary and intellectual prestige of the French side confronted the numerical and economic superiority of the German cantons. The inequality was aggravated by the practical identification of the German element with the army. General Wille, who commands the national defense, is by marriage connected with the family of Bismarck, and his son is godson to the German Emperor. The charges that were to be heard of late, that the spirit of a military caste was beginning to infect the citizen army, have been repeated loudly and vehemently on public platforms and in the French Swiss press during the past months. Present conditions, it has been said, are made to favor unduly the pretensions of the army officer to a prestige that has no place in a free democracy. Violent irritation has been occasioned by the procedure of the censorship, which is controlled by the military authority. It has been accused of exercising this control mainly in the interest of one side, and of showing disproportioned concern for the sensibilities of certain personages; why should a number of the Paris Illustration be confiscated, and abusive German cartoons go unchallenged? Again, its slowness in suppressing illicit forms of German press propaganda, such as newspapers financed and directed from Berlin and assuming titles that represented them as organs of national Swiss opinion, provoked the indignant protest of the French Swiss press, which denounced with eloquence the impudent moral violation of Swiss neutrality by the hydra-headed German propaganda. The unwarranted arrests by police, under military order of honorable French residents in Swiss towns on the German border created an unfavorable impression when compared with the number of German spies actually found guilty on Swiss territory. Exasperated further by the unexampled tragedy of violated Belgium, which was brought, home by the actual spectacle of the wretched victims to whom all French Switzerland instantly extended an eager hospitality, the French element for the first time in the history of the republic felt itself isolated as the representative of generous sympathies and of the old proud tradition of personal freedom and national independence.

It is no exaggeration to say that Switzerland is to-day passing through the most tragic hour of her experience. The sundering of the ancient spiritual bond, deepened and strengthened by so many past perils confronted by a unanimous Swiss nation, is a possibility that the finest spirits on both sides contemplate with anguish. And already they have risen to meet the danger. On the French side they have pled nobly for the maintenance of the dignity of the Swiss, for the lifting of the whole question above personal and racial passions to the plane of truth and justice. They have warned against indulging in animosities that will serve no cause but that of the agents interested in sowing dissension. And from the German Swiss majority single voices—such as that of the poet Spitelef—-have been raised to assert the spiritual unity which commits the whole Confederation irrevocably to a single ideal, to a single line of action. There has been an appeal to the noble and simple traditions of the past, to the ancient Landesgemeinde, which united the mountain peasants centuries ago—as it still does in the forest cantons—to take wise counsel for the common weal under the open May sky. A spiritual Landesgemeinde, it was suggested, should at this solemn hour convoke all noble spirits in the interests of the purest patriotism. And thus the tradition of a democracy of free men has been potent in blending into harmony the finest elements of two races made not to destroy but to complete each other. To both must be ascribed the influences that are seeking to formulate out of the welter of conflicting forces a principle of unity upon which a national Swiss sentiment may repose.

While the peril is not yet over, the people as a whole has responded. Although the avowedly reactionary elements among the German Swiss may have been carried away by the first spectacular military successes of the empire, the plain man, who keeps a corner of the "canny" peasant in his composition, did not go so far. He loves his mountains and his vernacular, with reserve but with passion. And it was the accredited spokesmen of Pan-Germanism itself who were most adept at cooling the ardors of consanguinity. Farcical "incidents" supervened which discredited certain lofty pretensions, to the shrewd humor of the Swiss. He heard his artists Hodler and Jaques-Dalcroze assailed by a storm of abusive ira Germanica for expressing their convictions, as artists, on the destruction of art treasures. But above all, the promulgation of the theory that small states have only a dubious right to exist, and the contemptuous epithet of "parasite" flung indiscriminately at small nations, sensibly moderated the exaggerated enthusiasms and emphasized the divergent ideals. The French Swiss press seized the moment to underline the contrast of traditional policy with the utterances of the statesmen and political philosophers of England. To the German sneer that it was to England's interest to fight for Belgium's neutrality they retorted that so much the more might she be relied on to maintain in future the integrity of small peoples. It was not the purely hypothetical Russian "peril," nor yet the English "peril"—with which, as one journalist remarked, every Swiss has so long been familiar in the luggage-stacked second-class carriages of the Swiss railways—that the Confederation needed to be protected from; another "peril" was present in the invasion of commerce and industry, of the artistic and mental life of the Swiss nation, turning her to forgetfulness of her ancient faiths and laming her will for united heroic action.

While the national solidarity continues slowly to affirm itself, there remains one point bitterly resented by those who care above all for the honor of Switzerland. It is her failure to protest officially against the violation of Belgium and Luxembourg. They are not content that Switzerland support without a murmur the enormous burden of this war, which is posting her a million francs a day for the upkeep of her army, at the same time that it has paralyzed practically her entire industry; they, are not content that she has proved toward refugee and interned and prisoner of war her generosity, her skill, her abnegation. They remember that Geneva offered security and a spiritual kingdom to the fugitive Calvin; that she gave birth to Rousseau and hospitality to Voltaire. Today they miss the Mountains' "mighty Voice." "Who," exclaims Maurice Millioud, "who will utter the great resounding cry, who will make live again in the present the heroism of our past, who will kindle again the pride of our souls and give back to our thought its virile firmness? Confederates! We have to safeguard our title to nobility. Our immediate interest to-day is disinterestedness. History has willed that Switzerland should be a moral force. She must continue to be it more and more, or she will perish."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —


A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury