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Members' research

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Cédric Cotter

Humanitarian Action and Neutrality in Switzerland during the First World War

I have been working since 2012 on a PhD project focusing on the relationship between neutrality and humanitarian action in Switzerland during the Great War. My problematic is built around the questioning of two identity and mythical elements of Switzerland: Were the charitable actions initiated by Switzerland disinterested? How was neutrality experienced by the Swiss population? These questions guided me for the setting up of a problematic. The aim of this dissertation is to propose a political and a cultural history of two transnational concepts: neutrality and humanitarian action.
Thus, I will initially focus on the International Committee of the Red Cross ( ICRC) and highlight its unique situation: an international vocation but solely composed of Swiss citizens, keeper of a movement attacked by nationalism, caught in the crossfire and critics of the belligerents, etc. To what extent did the ICRC use its Swiss identity to justify and legitimize its activities? Did it highlight its neutrality and impartiality? Finally, unlike the national societies of the Red Cross, was this institution able to conduct a neutral and impartial action?
The second part will be devoted to the use of humanitarian action as a tool of domestic policy. What were the relations between the ICRC and the Swiss Confederation? Did the Swiss government foster the activities of the ICRC and of other charity organizations? What was directly made by the Confederation for the victims of the war? But, more importantly, I will try to determine why Switzerland invested so much in humanitarian action. Compassion was not the only driver of this commitment. My hypothesis is that humanitarian aid was an important tool to mobilize the population and that it permitted to divert attention from the internal difficulties (social problems, food supply, etc.) by emphasizing the misery of the others. In addition, the charitable activities of Switzerland were a good way to promote national cohesion, especially in a time of differentiated sympathies to the belligerents, by uniting the population efforts towards the same goal.
In a third part, I will analyze the use of neutrality as a foreign policy tool. How did Switzerland use its charitable activities to justify neutrality? Was humanitarian action helpful for the Swiss diplomacy? Lastly, two chapters will be devoted to the study of humanitarian action as a transnational phenomenon and to the study of humanitarian competition. Indeed, Switzerland was obviously not the only state to initiate such actions. I will analyze the transnational aspects of humanitarian action and put into perspective both the different processes of mobilization related to it and its use for political purpose. The study of the Danish, Swedish, Dutch and American cases should permit to better understand this phenomenon and, where appropriate, highlight the peculiarities of the Swiss case.
This research is limited by its breadth and by the difficulty to find appropriate literature. It is not possible for me to deeply investigate in the sources for certain neutral countries (Sweden, Denmark, Holland) due to linguistic barriers. Unfortunately, there are only few studies in English, German or French to overcome this difficulty. On the contrary, the humanitarian action is now better known in Switzerland (where another dissertation on a close subject is still in progress) and in the USA (where several publications have recently been issued).
By focusing on both the political and cultural aspects of humanitarian action, this study should provide a useful contribution to the historiography of this interesting matter. But above all, this project is characterized by the prominence given to the transnational aspects of the subject.
This research is part of a broader “Sinergia” project held by the Swiss National Foundation for Scientific Research and involving the universities of Zurich , Luzern, Bern and Geneva. The aim of this research group is to contribute, through 6 dissertations, to a transnational and cultural history of the First World War and to partially fill a historiographical vacuum in one of the richest areas of the Swiss contemporary history.