In January 1920, Jacob Lorenz – board member of the ‘Swiss Alliance for Internal Colonization and Industrial Farming’2 (SVIL) – confidently declared that this alliance could become a ‘social central office, an organization for the realization of social peace.’3

To understand Lorenz’s statement it is necessary to take the experiences of the First World War into consideration. Even though Switzerland was not militarily involved, it was nevertheless facing a time of social and political turmoil due to a food crisis, especially in the years 1917–1918. This period of turmoil was triggered by a food crisis in 1917–1918 that played a key role in the formation of the SVIL. Its founder and chairman Hans Bernhard described internal colonization as a series of measures aimed at increasing food availability and housing.4

Although internal colonization played a considerable role with regard to the ‘battle for cultivation’5 in the Second World War, few historical studies have examined internal colonization in Switzerland as a whole.6 The aim of this article is to take a step in this direction and throw some light on the Swiss version of internal colonization in the interwar years and place it within the European and historical context. This project, which in itself was of a technical nature, inspired a whole range of people at a time that was characterized by a fundamental shift in values and by ideological confusion.7 A restructuring of modern society seemed to be within reach. Hence it is possible to find correlations between the project of internal colonization and the politico-utopian experiments of the interwar years. The liberal city planner, Ebenezer Howard, dreamt of reforming spatial planning and of establishing garden cities, integrating all the positive aspects of rural and urban areas.8 Familiar ideas can be found in the anarchist thinking of Peter Kropotkin9 and the pre-fascist ideals of Othmar Spann.10 Representing very different positions in the political spectrum, the ideas of these thinkers overlapped in many aspects that are crucial in the project of internal colonization.

But before looking at these aspects in this article, it is first necessary to say a few words about the origins of internal colonization in Switzerland. If there had been no experience of food shortages during the First World War, it is questionable whether internal colonization would ever have been an issue in Switzerland. It therefore seems important to bear in mind the agricultural structure around 1900 and the food situation during the First World War as the horizon of experience. The second part provides an introduction to the Swiss Alliance for Inner Colonization and Industrial Farming (SVIL) and its founding, and looks in more detail at its tasks and projects. The third part discusses further agents in Swiss internal colonization, the historical context, and analyzes the ideology underpinning it.

Agricultural Structure Around 1900 and the Experience of War

Although Switzerland is often perceived as being exotic among European nations, in economic and social respects it developed very similarly to its central European neighbours. In the late nineteenth century, the economy in Switzerland became industrialized, which led to rapid socio-economic change. In 1888, 37% of the workforce was still employed in agriculture, whereas by 1910, the figure was only 26%.11 The total population of Switzerland increased from 2.7 million in 1870 to 3.9 million in 1914. Although a demographic balance between the death and birth rates was reached in the interwar years, and the increase in population stabilized at a low level,12 the supposed imbalance between the increase in population and decreasing agricultural activity awoke Malthusian fears among the population in terms of food supplies and availability, because in parallel to industrialization, agriculture was being integrated into a globally interdependent trade system.

As a result of improved mobility, trading and economic structures underwent a fundamental change: the global trade system developed during the nineteenth century forced Swiss farmers to specialize their production in meat and milk, while other foods, fertilizers, and fodder could be imported very cheaply from Eastern Europe and from overseas due to improved traffic infrastructures.13 This development resulted not only in high dependency on other countries and the geographical restructuring of the land, but led to the loss of knowledge in regard to traditional food production. It was particularly with regard to the supply of cereals that Switzerland surrendered itself unheedingly to being dependent on the global market. Between 1850 and 1910, the import of cereals increased five-fold, while the area under cultivation decreased by more than half.14 As long as this global trading system functioned smoothly, Swiss agriculture benefited from the export of lucrative milk and meat products and the import of cheap cereals from Hungary, Russia and later from Argentina and the USA. However, as early as the end of the nineteenth century, there were already critical voices from the agricultural sector demanding that domestic cereal production be maintained and increased in order to ensure national supplies.15

However, no measures to promote cereal growing directly were demanded. Instead, fiscal measures in customs policy for cereals were to lead to the resumption of cereal production in Switzerland. The possibility of cultivating fallow land and hence of obtaining a greater area for growing crops was not yet at the forefront of political discussions, although a lot of moorland and marshland had already been drained following the major watercourse realignments in the second half of the nineteenth century.16 It was the First World War and the experience of food shortages which led to a change of views and which demonstrated to those responsible for the Swiss wartime economy the necessity of sufficient agricultural production.

In neutral Switzerland, the main problems caused by the war were of an economic nature. As it was part of the entente, in fighting the war, to weaken the central powers by means of an economic blockade,17 Switzerland – trapped between the fighting powers – too was confronted with considerable restrictions on trade from both sides. It was only possible to mitigate this supply crisis on the basis of a complex system of exchange with the states involved in the war.18 However, when in 1916 and 1917 global weather fluctuations19 had a huge negative impact on crop yields, the fragile exchange system collapsed and Switzerland too had to face a shortage crisis in the food market. The continuous price increases of all the important everyday items created social unrest, which was manifested in spontaneous hunger riots and finally, a general strike in 1918.20 Early on, the government had recognized that, owing to the price increases in the food market, there was tension between the rural population and urban workers, but because of the escalating events in 1916 and 1917, the administration felt unable to get a grip on the numerous problems during the war. Together with private trade associations, the government tried to get on top of the situation and from autumn 1916, began to focus more on agricultural production.

As the food crisis became more urgent and it became evident that even the agricultural producers were struggling to provide enough food, in January 1918 the Federal Council empowered the cantonal authorities to lease uncultivated land compulsorily. The notification stated, that:

… it is not a question of burdening the already overworked agricultural sector with ever more obligations on a unilateral basis. Rather, it is necessary to place all the resources and forces of our country that are in some way dispensable and usable at the service of food production …

The first section of the decision orders the obligation to cultivate land. In so doing, the main emphasis was on cultivating those field crops that provided food directly, because they could supply more nutrients, acre for acre, than those that could only be used for human consumption once they had been processed into milk or meat.21 This governmental call encouraged all the individual actors, who had already begun to cultivate unused land, to organize themselves on a larger scale in food production in order to unburden traditional agriculture. All capable workforces and tools had to be brought into agricultural service. Furthermore, the call aimed to change which crops were grown, because traditional farming focused on the production of meat and milk. The government realized that this tradition must be changed in order to produce crops that delivered calories directly, not through the nutrition of animals.

The Swiss Alliance for Internal Colonization and Industrial Farming (SVIL)

The shortages during the war can be considered as the real catalyst of the internal colonization project. The Federal Council’s call to increase the domestic production of foodstuffs led to private initiatives by industrialists, who wanted to construct workers’ settlements in the economic centres of Zurich, Basel and Bern. Convinced by Ebenezer Howard’s idea of unifying urban and rural spaces in terms of food production, in 1918 the agricultural geographer Hans Bernhard founded the ‘Swiss Alliance for Internal Colonization and Industrial Farming’ (SVIL).22 The initial aim of the SVIL was to unify the country’s industrial forces and to participate in the production of foodstuffs, as demanded by the Federation in the Cultivation Order. However, Bernhard soon recognized that SVIL’s aim should not just be to multiply foodstuffs, but that the organization should deal generally with the issue of modern settlement policy. Bernhard launched the concept of internal colonization for Switzerland.

In our country, internal colonization had not yet been spoken of for long. ... Then the Great War arrived. It taught us a great deal. ... It brought the recognition that if a country does not want to be exposed to supply shortages, it would do well to keep the number of food producers in line with the number of food consumers.23

This is not a new insight and has been the fundamental principle of food policy since the early modern age. But Bernhard did not restrict his criticism to noting that in recent decades, the farming workforce had suffered huge losses, even though the total population of the country had grown. He referred to the ‘thoughtless stringing together of dwellings’24 in modern industrial centres, which made it impossible for people to have a relationship with ‘the nourishing soil’.25 City dwellers were increasingly becoming strangers to the processes of traditional food production. Bernhard hoped to be able to avoid this situation by means of a new settlement policy and the rationalization of agriculture based on the principles of industry. Hence already one year after it was founded, the term internal colonization was added to the Alliance’s name.26 The Statutes were also changed to include the new task of the systematic promotion of Swiss internal colonization by the ‘Swiss Alliance for Industrial Farming and Internal Colonization’.27 In 1920 the board of the SVIL decided to change the name again to ‘Swiss Alliance for Internal Colonization and Industrial Farming’28 to communicate its special focus.29

For Bernhard, the aim of internal colonization was ‘to create space for growing food and for living for a greater number of people in our country, and in a better way than was previously the case.’30 This over-arching aim was common to all the internal colonization projects. However, in many countries where large areas of farmland were owned, another aim was also to create sites for small farmers in place of the major landowners. As Switzerland had hardly any major land owners at the beginning of the twentieth century, this was not an option for the Swiss variation of internal colonization.31 As in Italy32 or the Netherlands,33 efforts were made to make new land available by means of hydraulic engineering and to prepare former wasteland for settlement or agricultural use.34 The straightening of watercourses and soil improvements that had already been completed at the close of the nineteenth century had created land that was just waiting to be cultivated. The SVIL made it its business to make wasteland available, set up nurseries in urban areas and create new settlements for professional farmers.35 These measures were also intended to combat the rural exodus and create a new relationship between city dwellers and farmland.

The SVIL differentiated between two types of settlement project: first of all, industrial settlements in the form of small housing estates were planned in the vicinity of industrial areas. These small housing estates were to be linked to the industrial areas by train lines so that workers could live away from their place of work, but work locally. In addition, these small housing estates were designed to provide enough space to produce food on a part-time basis. The concept of ‘additive autarchy’,36 or in other words, partial self-sufficiency, in addition to paid work, was at the forefront of the spatial planning of these small housing estates. Secondly, professional farming settlements were planned in rural areas. The main purpose of these settlements was to expand the area available for agriculture, and also to make it possible for farmers who had lost their land as a result of damming to resettle. The first specific small housing estate projects with showcase character were carried out in the 1920s by the chocolate manufacturer Tobler37 in Bern-Bümpliz and by the industrial Sulzer family in Zurich-Winterthur.38 Much larger agricultural settlement projects were planned in the Linthebene region in eastern Switzerland and in the Magadinoebene region in Ticino.39 One hundred new geometrically arranged agricultural businesses were to be started here. However, for reasons of cost, neither project got beyond the planning stage. Because although from 1925 the Federation subsidized the SVIL with annual contributions of 20,000 Swiss francs for soil improvements, the SVIL did not have sufficient financial resources to carry out these projects.40 The Federation abstained from larger subsidy contributions and sometimes took part in individual SVIL projects indirectly via the Cantons.41

Despite this very loose bond between the Federation and SVIL, in 1919 the Federal Department of Economic Affairs commissioned SVIL to prepare a report on issues concerning internal colonization. As a result, Hans Bernhard drafted a settlement act providing for the targeted promotion of settlement projects and the preparation of a Federal settlement plan by a central body for internal colonization.42 In a parliamentary initiative, the Federal Council was invited to examine the settlement act on 19 October 1921. The measures called for went too far for the liberally inclined Federal Council, as carrying out the settlement projects would sometimes encroach too much onto the private law affairs of the landowners.43 In terms of financial support for the settlement projects, the Federation wished to retain the existing form. However, as the Federal Council’s rejection of the settlement act took six years, Hans Bernhard himself had in the meantime begun to develop a land register for internal colonization, indicating land that was suitable for soil improvement and cultivation. By 1935, the Cantons of Basel-Land, Basel-Stadt, Zurich, Ticino, Schaffhausen and the Aargauer Jura had been included.44 In this veritable heyday of Swiss internal colonization, no more settlement projects were carried out. However, the land register plan that had been initiated turned out to be very useful in the context of the battle for cultivation during the Second World War.45

As early as 1936, the Federation again grew more interested in internal colonization as possible unemployment welfare because of another reform of social policy during the global economic crisis. This interest on the part of the state continued until, from 1938 in the context of the wartime economic policy, state farming plans for the whole of Switzerland were developed and made into projects under Swiss politician and agronomist Traugott Wahlen.46 This ‘battle for cultivation’ project can be conceived as the state phase of Swiss internal colonization. After the Second World War, food security was no longer at the core of the tasks, but the SVIL remained in business. The new task of the SVIL was to resettle farmers on cultivated land that lost their properties because of the huge national road constructions after 1950.

Other Actors in the Field of Internal Colonization and their Ideological Motives

The SVIL was the most important actor in the area of internal colonization in Switzerland, but it was not the only one. Other groupings responded to the Federal Council’s call to place all resources at the service of agrarian cultivation and in 1917 and 1918 started to experiment with different forms of subsistence food production.

One of the groups that began to experiment with food production was the ‘Swiss Union for co-ops’ (VSK). This consumer co-operative started off as a retail business co-operative with the objective of providing consumers with cheap goods. In 1914, a few months before the beginning of the war, they began to produce several goods themselves. Two years later, in 1916, Bernhard Jaeggi, the president of the Federal board of VSK and member of the National Council for the Social Democratic Party, initiated the idea of buying farms to expand the business and to gain better control over the price development in agriculture.47 Jaeggi was one of the Social Democrats who gained an analytic view in the field of food production. When the conflict with regard to price increases in the food market began to escalate between farmers and workers, Jaeggi, unlike his party members, showed understanding for the situation of agriculture, which was confronted with increasing production costs. As a result of internal party conflicts, Jaeggi left the party and from this time on, took part in the internal colonization project.

In October 1918, the VSK initiated the founding of the ‘Swiss Vegetable Growing Cooperative’ (SGG). The aim of this organization was to produce directly usable calories in the form of vegetables, using only newly obtained land.48 In order to implement this aim, the SGG worked closely with the SVIL and immediately after the war, was able to carry out several projects in the vicinity of the city of Basel. The Cooperative’s intention was to encourage members to take part in the projects. The idea of additive autarchy was also strongly enshrined in the SGG. In this way, members of the Cooperative who worked in SGG fields were to be paid partly with money and partly with the products harvested in the fields.49 At weekends especially, many workers from the towns and to some extent farmers from smallholdings visited the SGG fields with their whole families. The SGG therefore fulfilled a pedagogical role, as it was able to convey to children from towns the relationship to agrarian food production. The fact that city dwellers came into contact with nature and food production was seen as an important value. Furthermore, the director of the SGG, Hans Keller, criticized the agricultural policy that relied on international interdependencies and called for more national sovereignty regarding food security.50 The area of internal colonization embodied a conservative, romantic attempt to reconnect modern town dwellers with the roots of nature by means of a political, national concept of autarchy. In addition, the SGG eliminated the rigid, socio-economic divisions in the agricultural and service sectors and at a time when consumers and food producers were confronting each other as a result of price increases, brought them closer together.51

The ‘family garden’ associations in urban areas also moved towards the concept of integrating the functions of agriculture into everyday town life. In 1916, the Zurich Family Garden Association (FGA), founded in 1914 as a way of combating unemployment, established itself as the de facto contact point for city dwellers who intended to produce their own food in order to be able to escape price rises in the marketplace. The FGA was particularly pleased with the brisk growth in industrialized areas.52 The SVIL also welcomed this movement and supported family gardeners primarily with seeds and advice on urban growing, particularly in and around Zurich. In terms of the production yield, the activities of family gardeners were probably a drop in the ocean, which was why the SVIL focussed its attention on more ambitious projects. From a psychological point of view though, working in the ‘family gardens’ should not be underestimated, as it removed city consumers’ powerlessness and gave them the feeling of being able to arrange their everyday lives again themselves. The movement also received a lot of support from the anti-alcohol movement, which hoped that there would be positive health benefits as a result of increased leisure time activities in gardens, rather than in pubs.53

On Lake Zurich, an anarchist commune also came into being, which experimented with alternative social models in line with the teachings of Peter Kropotkin and Gustav Landauer.54 The inhabitants of the former stewardship of Herrliberg tried to set up a commune outside of civil constraints on the basis of subsistence economics. Unfortunately, Hans Bernhard’s reaction to this project was not recorded. However, what is interesting is that the inhabitants of the former stewardship welcomed the efforts towards internal colonization undertaken by the SVIL, as the industrials were trying to establish a new food policy that involved the proletarian workers in the discussion.55

It appears that what was common to these efforts were considerations which made an attempt to break down former groupings and barriers. The SVIL intended to bring together urban and rural spaces and to integrate city dwellers into agricultural activities. The SGG eliminated the boundaries between consumers and producers. In addition, the smaller individual projects of the ‘family gardens’ and anarchist communes were also endeavouring to achieve the sustainable reorganization of modern agricultural production.

Following a Third Way56 between production and consumption was supposed to remove the social, political and economic contradictions of the modern age and make possible life in an organically harmonized society. This was the core of the utopian momentum of internal colonization, which seemed to characterize the Zeitgeist of the interwar period. Fascism, particularly its Austro-fascist version, adopted this notion of the cooperative Third Way and made it a significant feature of its Corporative State ideology.57 In Switzerland, the internal colonization project experienced a revival at the end of the 1930s. In the economic downturn of the global economic crisis, it was hoped that the internal colonization projects would have a positive effect on unemployment. In addition, targeted domestic cultivation was to provide a pillar of national defence. Economic planners remembered all too well the social unrest at the end of the First World War. In the event of a future war, this was to be avoided at all costs. Based on the land registry developed by Hans Bernhard, in 1938 the state initiated the planning of future cultivation. The aim of this cultivation was to make food policy a matter for the entire population. Internal colonization provided the opportunity to unify workers and farmers in the task of national defence.

The internal colonization project towards the end of the 1930s must therefore be understood as a possibility of creating a Third Way in many ways: between urban and rural spaces, but also between workers, farmers and industrialists, in order to mitigate the danger of social conflicts and socialist uprisings. This shows that more independent food production was not the only target of industrial colonization, there was also a strong ideological perspective at the core of the project. Because in the course of national defence, the myth was activated of seeing the Swiss as a farming people, fraternally sharing the soil and, strengthened by healthy work, ready to send any aggressor packing, and this myth served to fuel their identity. A similar move towards an agrarian folk myth could also be found in many other European countries at that time and should be understood as a search for meaning by societies which, in the spirit of the times, were still meandering between agrarian and industrial-modern worlds. Thanks to its integrating nature, internal colonization, which tried to connect urban and rural spaces, can be interpreted as a bold attempt to bring these two worlds together.


There are three distinct phases of internal colonization in Switzerland. During the first phase (1918–1938), the focus was on obtaining new farmland and reforming settlements. This first phase was shaped primarily by the SVIL. In the second phase (1938–1945), the remit of internal colonization was nationalized and restricted to the production of food and was ideologically reinforced in the context of a national defence strategy. This second phase was mostly shaped by the state. In the third phase (from 1945) after the Second World War, the SVIL regained control and restricted itself to creating significant settlement plans for agriculture in order to amalgamate it into an increasingly industrialized environment.58 Integrated into the ideological and historical horizon of Europe, Switzerland’s internal colonization can be seen as a project which, initially, was politically open, but which was subsequently nationally appropriated and ultimately brought into the service of integrating agriculture into an industrialized economy.