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100 years ago When Switzerland went on strike

With war raging in neighbouring countries, and Spanish flu, revolutions and poverty - it is hard to imagine what life was like in Switzerland during the 1918 General Strike. This gallery provides a photographic snapshot of the period. 

At first glance a photograph might seem like definite proof of a factual event or time. But photography is always subject to cultural influences, prior information and expectations. 

Historical photographs are particularly challenging. Dates, names and information can be missing and hard to track down. For this 1918 General strike gallery, we gathered information from different archives and experts. 

If you look at the first picture, for example, we see fourteen children, most of whom are carrying buckets. They are wearing dark stockings, so it could be cold. The buildings and wall made of large stone blocks on the right suggest an urban environment. And the mischievous smiling boy in the middle sets a cheerful tone. 

Commentary by Zurich photographer and social researcher Roland Gretler (1937-2018), who created a photo archive on the labour movement (Gretler's Panopticon on Social History), provides us with information about the children's lives. In a special edition of the Swiss "Wochenzeitung" of 5 November 1998, Gretler writes that he received the 1917 photograph in an envelope with the inscription “Tante Emilie” (Aunt Emilie). 

But he was unable to find out much about Aunt Emilie, apart from that as a committed socialist she distributed soup to the poor children in Zurich. Gretler points out that soldiers were paid CHF0.80 a day at the time, without being compensated for loss of wages. 

It’s now clear why such a photo appears in information about the general strike. While industrialists made huge profits selling ammunition to the warring parties, at the end of the First World War 700,000 people in Switzerland were dependent on public support like cheaper food taxes.

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