Visual History of the World




From Prehistoric to Romanesque  Art
Gothic Art
Renaissance  Art
Baroque and Rococo Art
The Art of Asia
Neoclassicism, Romanticism  Art
Art Styles in 19th century
Art of the 20th century
Artists that Changed the World
Design and Posters
Classical Music
Literature and Philosophy

Visual History of the World
First Empires
The Ancient World
The Middle Ages
The Early Modern Period
The Modern Era
The World Wars and Interwar Period
The Contemporary World

Dictionary of Art and Artists


The World Wars and Interwar Period 



The first half of the 20th century saw the world entangled in two global wars, conducted with an unprecedented brutality. The First World War developed from a purely European affair into a conflict involving the colonies and the United States. It altered Europe's political landscape and shifted the power balance worldwide. In World War II, the nations of Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa were drawn into the conflict through the aggressive policies of an ambitious Nazi Germany. The war was conducted with the most up-to-date weapons technology and cost the lives of more than 55 million people. The Holocaust, the systematic annihilation of the European Jews, represented an unparalleled moral catastrophe for modern civilization.


Pablo Picasso "Weeping Woman", 1937




Switzerland: Island of Stability 



Switzerland, a parliamentary federal republic since 1848, remained neutral during both world wars despite its position in the center of the European continent. Neither the economic problems of World War I nor its encirclement by the Axis powers in World War II was able to fundamentally endanger the democratic tradition of Switzerland. However, in order to avoid occupation by Hitler's Germany, Switzerland followed a controversial policy of compromise with the Nazis, despite official neutrality, as a result of which it was viewed with skepticism by the Allied powers.


Strict Neutrality in the First World War

Switzerland's perpetual neutrality, as guaranteed at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, remained intact during World War I. Despite economic and social difficulties, the traditional democracy remained stable.


Even in the 19th century, Switzerland played an exceptional role in Europe. As an independent nation since the late Middle Ages, except fora short time after 1798 when it had been under French control, and without expansionist aspirations, it had long been a venue for international negotiations. The Congress of Vienna had granted the Swiss, in the interest of all of Europe, permanent neutrality, and World War I did not alter this. The small nation did not interfere with the Great Powers' war aims and had no raw materials essential to war.

During the war, the Swiss army was provisionally mobilized but never saw action. However, the populace suffered due to a war-related economic crisis, causing the introduction of a war tax. As imports were difficult, attempts were made to strengthen the Swiss economy.

The cultivation of grain was promoted, and the 2 Swiss railway became the first to use electric instead of coal-burning, steam-driven engines.

2 Swiss railway line

The growing poverty of the people brought about a leftist-oriented revolt in 1916. However, the great general strike of 1918 was less an attempt at revolution than a call for social change; the strike was ended by military force, but state social reforms worked to relieve the tension.

The liberal democratic tradition of the 3 federal republic, which had existed since 1848, withstood the postwar turmoil unaffected.

The Treaty of Versailles unconditionally reaffirmed the neutrality of the Swiss, and 5 Geneva was chosen as the headquarters for the 4 League of Nations initiated by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson; Switzerland joined in 1920.

Later, the threat of the Axis powers to Switzerland's strict neutrality in World War II would present a greater challenge than that of World War I.

3 The Swiss Houses of Parliament in Bern

5 The League of Nations complex in Geneva

4 Meeting of the League of Nations in Geneva,




Liechtenstein coat of arms

The tiny principality of Liechtenstein, situated between Austria and Switzerland, has been sovereign since 1806.

Following the economic crisis in the wake of World War I, Liechtenstein leaned economically and politically on Switzerland.

Like its neighbor, it too remained neutral during the Nazi period.
To this day, the princes of Liechtenstein have more rights than any of the other European monarchs.

Vaduz Castle, Liechtenstein




The Nazi Threat

In the 1930s, liberal and neutral Switzerland became the first retreat for German refugees. At the height of World War II, the Swiss were able to maintain their independence only through accommodation of Nazi Germany, although this was limited.


Although economic problems had been increasing in Switzerland since 1927, the influence of emerging front movements that had close ties to the Nazis in the 1930s remained marginal and was unable to shake the parliamentary federal republic. Once the Nazis took power in Germany, many refugees sought refuge in neighboring Switzerland, though often only as an intermediary station. "The boat is full" was a slogan often used to limit immigration; by the end of World War II, more than 20,000 Jews had been turned back at the border.

The latent external threat surrounding the Swiss caused them to move closer together and united them domestically. Switzerland was released in 1938 from its obligations to take part in League of Nations sanctions.

The Swiss National Exhibition in 1939, actually an agricultural and industrial show, turned into a demonstration of independence, freedom, and willingness to 8 defend these ideals.

The military mobilization 7 during World War II was primarily symbolic.

Switzerland remained 9 unoccupied and provided humanitarian services. However, Federal Council member Marcel Pilet-Golaz implemented a highly controversial policy of compromise with the Axis powers—in principle the enemy—that was financially advantageous for the Swiss.

1 Swiss soldiers protect the border,

8 Protecting the Swiss border, 1939

7 Gas masks are fitted and
sold in a pharmacy, 1938

9 Swiss soldiers in a peaceful
meeting with German soldiers
at the Swiss border, 1939

The 10 Saint Gotthard Pass railroad tunnel between Italy and Germany was at the disposal of military transports, and restrictions were placed on the freedom of the press in 1939.

The economy profited from the increased export and delivery of weapons to the German Reich.

After 1945, lucrative gold and foreign currency transactions also gave a negative edge to Swiss neutrality.

, 11 Gold that the Germans had plundered—especially Jewish property confiscated by the Nazis—was deposited in Swiss banks.

The voluntary economic collaboration resulted in a short-term international isolation of Switzerland after the war.

10 Advertising poster for the
Saint Gotthard Pass railroad, 1924

6 Gold ingot of
the German

11 Gold ingots in a bank safe, 1941



The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

US poster, 1914,
recruiting for  the Red Cross

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a neutral
medical and aid organization for the casualties of war, was a Swiss
idea, proposed by Swiss businessman Jean-Henri Dunant and
founded in 1863.

It was the beginning of the growth of a worldwide
movement that developed over the course of the 20th century into an
aid organization that transcends cultures and nations.

The Red Cross was active on all fronts in both world wars and allowed the wounded to recover as patients in neutral Switzerland and provided them with free medical attention.

The ICRC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1917 and in 1944.

Japanese Red Cross
first aid attendants in France, 1914




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