Only a couple of days ago, on 10 September 2010, Switzerland’s justice minister, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf issued an official apology on behalf of the Swiss government to thousands of her fellow citizens, as the small Alpine republic was once again shaken by a confrontation with its not so distant, not so clean past.
The reason for the admission of guilt was the long-awaited acknowledgment of government atrocities committed between 1942 and 1981, when thousands of men and women across the country were imprisoned without trial, in line with a policy then called ‘administrative detention’. This procedure was aimed primarily at young men and women, usually teenagers, who were judged by their parents and/or communities to be socially ‘difficult’. Official reasons for the incarceration often included ‘depraved lifestyle’, ‘licentiousness’ or ‘alcoholism’.
Many cases involved unmarried girls who got pregnant, and were then shunned by their embarrassed families only to end up being forced to give up their babies for adoption. Some young women – deemed to have ‘loose morals’ – were even forcibly sterilized by command of the authorities.
At the same time, thousands of young men, most of them unskilled day laborers, were imprisoned and forced to work without pay. All these men, women and children had, however, never committed a crime and had therefore also never faced trial. They never had access to any form of legal support and were never given the possibility to appeal. They were completely innocent – even according to the laws of the day.
Yet, this was not the first distressing episode in Switzerland’s recent history. There was also the case of the so-called ‘Verdingkinder’ (discarded children.) Until the 1950s, it was common practice for impoverished Swiss families to give or sell their children away to farmers, where many were made to suffer, both physically and emotionally. Some children were not fed properly, others were beaten, and several were sexually abused – all with the help and blessing of the Swiss authorities.
In addition, the horrific story of the Swiss gypsy people, known as the Jenisch, exposed Nazi-style policies carried out behind closed doors from 1926 onwards – extending well into the 1970s. It began when the Swiss government approved a project set up by the children’s charity ‘Pro Juventute’, intended to eliminate vagrancy. Entitled ‘Kinder der Landstrasse’ (Children of the Road), it effectively sanctioned child abduction. As a result, more than 600 Jenisch newborns and infants were forcibly taken from their parents without warning and carted off to orphanages run by Pro Juventute.
All these atrocities expose the sad reality of a society wishing to punish those who disobey the social rules of the time. The tens of thousands of mostly young victims did not fit into the moral ideas of sexuality, working attitude or way of living of a narrow-minded, paternalistic social order. Deep historical research into these developments is now called for, the results of which need to be taught in Swiss schools, and included in Swiss history books. And above all, the victims of these appalling crimes must be compensated adequately, both monetarily and morally. Switzerland can no longer hide its secrets in the foggy haze of collective forgetfulness.