Foreign policy in the young federal state: Linking neutrality and humanitarian activity

mw. In the first decades after the founding of the federal state, practically the entire structure of Swiss foreign policy developed out of the demands of the time, built primarily by diplomat Johann Konrad Kern (1808–1888) and Federal Councillor Numa Droz (1844–1899).
The first real test for neutral Switzerland was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71: “In 1871, one can say, the specific form of federal foreign policy emerged: the combination of neutrality and humanitarian activity; for the first time set as an objective by the Federal Council, it was immediately translated into foreign policy action”. (Widmer p. 130) Johann Konrad Kern, from Thurgau, who was an ambassador in Paris for a long time (1857 to 1883), shouldered these tasks in 1870/71 (Widmer, pp. 96):

  • Declaration of neutrality: For the first time since the recognition of Swiss neutrality in 1815, Switzerland had to demand the recognition of its declaration of neutrality in a war between two neighbouring states, which it succeeded in doing (Widmer, p.134).
  • Good offices: First assumption of foreign interests (protecting power mandate): The Swiss embassy in Paris was entrusted with the protection of its compatriots by the Kingdom of Bavaria and the Grand Duchy of Baden in 1871 (cf. Widmer, p. 98). Kern fulfilled this task with great commitment: he stood by hundreds of southern Germans who wanted to leave Paris, and he protested from the point of view of international law that Germans who remained there were deprived of their rights: “War would be waged […] between states and not on the backs of private individuals”. He was supported in this by the American and Russian ambassadors who represented the North German Confederation and the Kingdom of Württemberg, respectively: “His resolute appearance did not remain without impression. Certainly, most of the protests went unheard in the riot of battle. But from time to time he achieved something with his démarche. And that is more than one may expect in war […].” (Widmer, p. 133)
  • Attempt at peace mediation: In this matter, Kern’s advance was quickly stifled by Bismarck. Paul Widmer comments: “The good offices of a small state fail more often in international conflicts than they succeed […]”. (Widmer, p. 98) Nevertheless, their offer always opens up an opportunity.
  • ICRC and First Geneva Red Cross Convention: Henry Dunant’s “A Memory of Solferino” shook up the world and also the Swiss. The “First Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field”, which was adopted by sixteen states in 1864 and extended in 1868, “offered flank protection secured under international law in order to venture into a territory that had previously been in the taboo zone of the internal affairs of another state”. (Widmer, p. 131) In 1870, Kern attempted – with little success – to achieve their observance vis-à-vis Germany and France, but he himself acted accordingly with the backing of the federal council.
  • Further humanitarian activity: While most foreign ambassadors left Paris in 1870, Kern insisted on staying as long as possible. He organised the distribution of food parcels from Switzerland to the 18,000 Swiss in enclosed Paris and took care of the evacuation of the civilian population from Strasbourg. For the wounded and sick from the war, he founded a hospital, which his wife took special care of (Widmer, pp. 130 and 132).
  • Internment of the Bourbaki-Army: On 1 February 1871, General Charles-Denis Bourbaki asked for admission to Switzerland for his troops of the French Eastern Army, exhausted from cold and hunger and cut off from supplies. “This event was not only a milestone in the history of Swiss neutrality policy, but also an important step in the development of the Red Cross movement”. (Swiss Red Cross SRC)1

Humanitarian compassion from the Swiss population

“The Franco-German War had also awakened those Swiss who thought they were in the slipstream of international events. The gusty wind that blew across the border not only caused concern for independence and neutrality, it also triggered an astonishing humanitarian compassion. The Swiss looked beyond the border, they helped the victims of the war, and humanitarian engagement became an important part of their foreign policy identity.” (Widmer, p. 141)    •

1    “The internment of the French Bourbaki-Army in Switzerland”. Swiss Red Cross SRC (geschichte.redcross)