Swiss history: The country was once so poor, people had to go abroad to survive

Swiss history: The country was once so poor, people had to go abroad to survive
Mountain and rural regions were most affected by emigration. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP
It may be hard to believe, but there was a time when tens of thousands of Switzerland’s citizens emigrated to escape a life of poverty.

Switzerland, today one of the world's wealthiest nations, wasn’t always so affluent.

In centuries past, a large portion of the population in this landlocked, mountainous country with no natural resources, struggled to survive. This was especially true of rural areas, where people remained poverty-stricken well into the 19th century.

Even as urban dwellers started to benefit from the economy-transforming industrialisation, those living in the countryside or in Alpine regions suffered from widespread famine, prompting many of them to seek their fortunes overseas — primarily in South and North America.

Immigrants from certain cantons went on to establish ‘colonies’ in their new countries of residence, such as Novo Friburgo in Brazil and New Glarus in the Unites States.

Many of those who did not go abroad moved from rural areas to the cities, where they continued to live in precarious conditions.

According to an official government document, “Anyone who was not a citizen of a commune was homeless and lived on the margins of the community or was left to wander the country as a vagrant”. 

So how did Switzerland morph from a poor nation to an affluent one it is today? And how did it become a country of immigrants rather than emigrants?

Its rags-to-riches story has roots in the economic boom of the late 19th century, which would continue into the 20th century — and beyond.

In the 1950s, Switzerland shifted from industrial to a service economy; its financial sector started to flourish by offering confidential — and not always totally legal — services and protection to the wealthy. (However, new laws have been enacted in past years, making Swiss financial institutions more transparent and compliant with international regulations).

But its success story goes far beyond banking.

Other industries, such as pharmaceutical, watchmaking, and tourism, have been growing and boosting the economy.

And let’s not forget direct democracy and political stability, both of which have contributed greatly to transitioning Switzerland from a pauper nation to a very prosperous one.


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  1. My name is Tom Ramstack from Milwaukee, WI, USA. I am a 67 year old retired Special Education Teacher from our area with a love for local history. Our family emigrated from Bavaria and settled in town of Brookfield (1844). I am in the process of writing a local history of our town which included more than 40 families from Canton Thurgau as well as well as Canton Bern during early 1850’s. I have little knowledge of conditios in Switzerland at that time which caused so many to leave. I am hoping someone might lead me in a direction so that I might learn more about the real conditions. in 2019 I publshed a book entitled “Looking into Our Grandparents Immigrant Eyes” available on…focued on the number of western European families who found their way to southeastern Wisconsin during mid-19th Century. The conditioms were ripe for Wisconsin.. negative quality of life throughout western Europe and Wisconsin calling out for immigrants in all languages as we were hungry to move from territorial status to statehood (self-goverenment). You might find the book to be interesting. I am not in it for commercial profit. Amazon takes 90% of all retail sales. I simply enjoy learning and sharing historical knowledge with others. Sorry, I got so “long-winded”. Have a wonderful day!!! Best Regards, Tom R., Milwaukee

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