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

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.

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

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.

READ MORE: Why is Switzerland so expensive?

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.

Member comments

  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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REVEALED: Are these the ‘best’ places to live in Switzerland?

German-speaking cities dominate the list in a new quality of life in Switzerland study - here are the best places to live in the Alpine country.

REVEALED: Are these the 'best' places to live in Switzerland?

Zurich, Geneva, Basel are all beautiful cities with plenty of offers for their residents, but which would top the list of the best place to live in Switzerland? Turn out, none of them.

A new quality of life study commissioned by the daily newspaper Handelszeitung looked into several criteria to determine the best places in the country. The Gemeinderatings 2022 evaluated 944 municipalities with more than 2,000 inhabitants to make the ranking.

READ ALSO: Health, prices, and safety: Is Switzerland a good country to retire in?

Among the criteria to determine how attractive each area is, they looked into taxation issues, how safe the cities are, how many jobs are available, the quality of the real estate market (both when buying and renting properties) and the level of support for elderly residents.

Additionally, Handelszeitung looked into matters such as the availability of leisure offers, access to public transportation, and sustainability factors as well.

These are the top ten places to live in Switzerland:

  1. Cham, Canton Zug
  2. Zug, Canton Zug
  3. Risch, Canton Zug
  4. Altendorf, Canton Schwyz
  5. Walchwil, Canton Zug
  6. Meggen, Canton Lucerne
  7. Meilen, Canton Zurich
  8. Hergiswil, Canton Nidwalden
  9. Hünenberg, Canton Zug
  10. Baar, Canton Zug

German-speaking Switzerland dominates the list

The best city, Cham, did exceptionally well in the criteria of taxes (reaching the fifth spot) and real estate (11th in the ranking for this criteria). The neighbouring city of Zug secured second place, followed by Risch, all in the same canton.

Switzerland’s French or Italian-speaking areas have certainly not fared well, and all the country’s top ten cities are in German-speaking cantons. Moreover, Canton Zug gets an impressive number of six towns (and the top 3) in the best 10.

READ ALSO: MAP: The best cantons for business in Switzerland

The first French-speaking city in Switzerland to show up in the ranking comes only in 63rd place: Pregny-Chambésy, in the canton of Geneva. Then, Saint-Sulpice (VD) follows in 69th place, Carouge (GE) in 73rd, and Lutry (VD) in 95th).

Italian-speaking Switzerland does even worse: it only appears in 90th place with Collina d’Oro.