Swiss, both young and old, often forget how quickly their country has changed over the past 50-odd years, and just how backward many parts were, both in the way of life and public attitudes, at the end of World War II.
As a child during the late 1950s and early 60s, I travelled every summer with my family back to Switzerland from North America to vacation in the Alps. For me, typical Swiss country sounds were the tinkling of distant cowbells, the persistent gunfire from nearby shooting ranges as local militiamen did their requisite target practice, and, most romantic of all, the cracking of whips accompanied by shrill whistles as lone cow herders, who spent entire summers in the mountains, moved their cattle across the high meadows.
Today, the cowbells still ring across the valleys and the gunfire characterizes a typical Swiss Sunday morning, but the cracking of whips is gone. Farming practices have changed, and few Swiss are willing to spend their lives tending cows. Even the shepherds and their dogs have gone. The sheep are now left to their own devices, providing tempting prey for intrusive wolves from Italy and France now beginning to re-inhabit the Swiss Alps. Swiss “shepherds” today are weekend farmers, who cannot be bothered to keep sheepdogs, and then complain when their flocks are attacked.
The reason why I mention all this is because of an excellent BBC radio and TV report by Kavita Puri to be broadcastat the beginning of November. It is a shocking story about the children of poor Swiss families who were forcibly removed or kidnapped by the authorities, usually by the police, and then forced to work as slave labour on Swiss farms. The Swiss had done the same with the Yéniche, the country’s indigenous gypsies. For a society that has progressed so far to become one of the world’s most advanced with the highest standard of living, this shameful past is indeed astounding.
And yet, it is all within very recent memory. Thousands of former slaves, now middle-aged or older, who had to spend their youths forcibly cleaning farm yards or tending cows, often suffering physical abuse at the hands of their “foster” parents, are now in the process of suing the Swiss government for compensation for their lost childhoods. Surprisingly, none seem determined to bring individuals still alive responsible for their kidnappings to justice. After all, this is precisely what Argentina did earlier this week by incarcerating a group of former military officials who stole the newborn babies and young children of political dissidents.
While slavery and human trafficking remain alive and well in many parts of the world, Switzerland is not the only western country to have allowed such practices to take place in recent memory. The Australian government, for example, removed or kidnapped aborigine children from their families as a matter of policy, primarily for racist reasons from the early 20th century until the 1970s for relocation elsewhere. Following years of hedging, the Canberra government finally conceded in 1999 that this was illegal obliging the Prime Minister to apologise publicly to his country’s “stolen generation.”
Similarly in Ireland, from 1922 to 1996, 10,000 women and teenage girls, referred to as “laundry slaves”, were sent to Catholic-run workhouses often as punishment for homelessness or truancy. There, against their will, they were forced to provide free, unpaid labour. Both the Irish government and Catholic Church have now apologised, and have paid out over 45 million Euros in compensation. In Britain, more than 130,000 poor and orphaned children were forcibly sent to Australia without their parents, many to work on farms. The practice was only finally banned in 1967.
While both Swiss radio and television have explored this issue, the BBC report maintains that hundreds of thousands of young Swiss were forcibly removed from their families since the 1850s to work on farms, a practice that continued well into the 20th century. It only really petered out in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when farms became more mechanized and no longer needed child labour. David Gogniat, a Swiss now seeking compensation, was only eight when they came to take him away, and he still does not know why. “There was a loud knock on the door. There were two policemen,” he told the BBC. “I heard them shouting and realised something was wrong. I looked out and saw that my mother had pushed the policemen down the stairs. She then came back in and slammed the door. The next day three policemen came. One held my mother and the other took me with them.”
Known as “contract children,” or Verdingskinder, they were considered cheap labour, albeit under the United Nation’s definition this constituted nothing less than slavery. The children, who often went hungry, were not allowed to return to their families, even if their parents requested; those who escaped were brought back by the police. As another interviewee noted: “It was like a kind of punishment. Being poor was not recognized as a social problem. It was an individual failure.”
Similar attitudes were often displayed during the 1960s and 70s toward “Gastarbeiter,” foreign workers from Italy, Portugal, France and Spain, who were brought in to do the jobs the Swiss did not want to do or to make up seasonal short-falls. They were also kicked out when no longer needed. Many, too, could only bring in their families years later, when Swiss social norms accepted that one could not treat human beings in this manner. One concern today is a distinct disdain for foreigners that is beginning to re-emerge among those Swiss who oppose immigration.
Switzerland’s child slavery legacy, however, is only one aspect of a society that, at the time, represented sharp contrasts between town and country. It also helps to remember that post-1945 Switzerland was still a relatively poor country, particularly in the back valleys of the Alps where life had a distinct 19th century air.
What saved many Swiss was moving to the towns or emigrating to Canada, the United States and Latin America. The other saviour was tourism. As the winter sports industry began to boom, many a small farmer in the Valais or Bernese Alps, who had previously been forced to give up their children, suddenly found themselves increasingly wealthy with the selling off of their land for the building of new ski resorts. Some even bought farms in Quebec, tilling the land in the summer, but returning to Switzerland in the winter to run their businesses.
So when skiing this winter or sitting in the sun on a chalet deck, or hiking in Switzerland’s pristine postcard highlands next summer, it might be worth recalling that a lot of this came at a cost. And it’s not that long ago.
Edward Girardet, Managing editor. firstname.lastname@example.org