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April 18, 2015
The monthly journal for independent thought, ethical standards and moral responsibility The international journal for independent thought, ethical standards, moral responsibility,
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Current Concerns  >  2008  >  No 15/16, 2008  >  Mastering the Crisis – in Fairness and Solidarity [printversion]

Mastering the Crisis – in Fairness and Solidarity

About the actuality of the film “F. T. Wahlen und die Anbauschlacht” (Friedrich Traugott Wahlen and the Cropping Battle)

by Amedea Raff*

Facing the worldwide financial crisis and a risky global economic policy, the vital question of national food supply is taking the centre stage. Historical situations are never just the same, but nevertheless and to a certain extent, the current situation in Switzerland has similarities with the one before and during World War II. We are surrounded by a superpower, which is more or less distinctly involved in the war politics of other great powers. Today, we are relying on imported goods, to a considerable degree, as well. Increasing unemployment is imminent, tax revenues may decrease, and the question arises, how public life and the population’s food supply can be maintained.

In times of the insecurity, we benefit from a look back into history and can learn from it. Apart from important information about the past, the film “Friedrich Traugott Wahlen und die ‘Anbauschlacht’” offers both many moving original shootings about the development and implementation of the Wahlen Plan and impressive personal reports of contemporary witnesses. The credit of  having created a source of moving pictures for future generations and thus retaining the memory of F.T. Wahlen in three films with shootings and interviews with contemporary witnesses belongs to the “Association for the Memory of Federal Counselor Professor Dr Friedrich Traugott Wahlen and the Cropping Plan”.

… more than securing food supplies

This first film succeeds in what the President of the association, Professor Ernst Wüthrich, describes as its intention in the indroduction: “On the one hand we want to make a contribution to a better understanding of the Swiss history. Seen from a historic point of view, it is not long since many fathers did their military service at the border during World War II. And they did not know, whether the conflict would go off with a bang or whether they would return home alive. And the mothers had to get along on their own with their children at home. And neither did they know whether their husbands would return home, my mother told me. And perhaps you remember something like that as well, a narrative of parents or grandparents. Added to the fear of war was the specific fear of famine. Then Swiss men and women braced up to help themselves. The cropping plan was more than securing the food supply. It also meant mental national defense, and it led to such a countrywide solidarity as we have never experienced it since then. Therefore, our second goal was to portray this remarkable piece of Swiss history, the cropping plan, the cropping work, in a documentary film. So we asked older people, who participated in this cropping work. These empiric reports of still living contemporary witnesses are thus saved on the film. Many people of good will were behind the cropping work. Nevertheless, it required a leader personality, who strategically reflected this great plan and who conveyed this idea – which was regarded as crazy then – to politicians and convince the whole country.
Therefore, one further goal was to characterize this extraordinary Swiss personality, Friedrich Traugott Wahlen […]. We also wanted to communicate his ideas. They include moral values, which can bring you forward in life – moral values, which come off badly in today’s fast moving and noisy times. It is about practical altruism, solidarity with the weak – or a high degree of self-responsibility, respect of nature and of what is behind it. […] A documentary film is not an entertaining movie, of course.  However, the history of our parents and grandparents is visualized to you. It is a true story which concerns us, today. During the shootings we realized that it is worthwhile to listen to our elders.”
At the beginning of the film, the spectator is put into the situation of Switzerland during World War II. The war going on all around our country, we see tanks, weapons, rubble and frightened people – a girl, who is desperately looking for her parents. And in the middle of it all there is a small country, which is relying on imported goods to an amount of 60%. It is dependent on the favor of foreign countries, and a total emergency in food supplies is imminent. In this situation, the Swiss Federal Council asks F. T. Wahlen to work out a countrywide plan for securing the food supplies.

An extraordinary personality

But who is this man, whose name will go down in history in connection with the cropping work? The film helps the viewer to understand the life and outstanding personality of Friedrich Traugott Wahlen. Wahlen was born on 10 April 1899 in a small village in Emmental/Switzerland, where his father worked as a teacher. Wahlen will later write about his childhood: “At the turn of the century a Gotthelfian kind of life (hard farming life) prevailed in the small village of Gmeis. I consider it a gift, that I was born in a place away from crowds and traffic, where a child may experience the joy of regarding the beauty of nature and where the child’s curiosity in flora and fauna is aroused.”1
So it is not surprising that the boy Fritz is attracted by agriculture at a very early stage and wants to be a farmer. First, he attends the agricultural school of Rütti near Berne, then he studies agronomics and graduates with a doctorate at the age of 23. As an agronomist engineer of the ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute for Technology), he takes the lead of an agricultural research station in Canada, where he works for five years. In 1929, at the age of thirty, he is assigned director of the Swiss Federal Agricultural Laboratory in Zurich-Oerlikon and fifteen years later he is offered a chair as professor for agronomy and crop science at the ETH Zurich. Besides his vocational activity Wahlen offers his services to the Swiss Federal Office for Nourishment in War, where he managed  the development and implementation of the cropping plan until the end of the war. Even after the war Wahlen’s vocational work still has beneficial effects. As director and later deputy general manager of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), he makes use of his profound knowledge and rich experience for the common weal.

… exclusively bound to his conscience

Walen’s remarkable personality is also expressed in his political work. In his early years he is – as a Bernese (!) – elected to the Zurich Council of States (Zürcher Ständerat) and after the war, in 1958, he becomes a member of the Swiss Federal Council, in direct election. In his inaugural speech he says: “Mr. President, dear State Counselors and Federal Counselors. Deeply moved, I would like to thank you for the great honor that you bestowed upon me, my municipality and my canton Berne. Through the election you expressed your confidence, which I consider the highest and gravest obligation of my life. I can not bear it alone. I count, however, on the assistance of God, who held his protective hand over our country as long as anyone can remember. I also feel strengthened by the fact that I enter the Federal Council without any obligation. I am under no obligation but of my conscience, the well-being of the Swiss people and the basic values of the occidental civilization. Thus, Mr. President, I would like to express my acceptance of the election.”
With the same heartfelt ethos, with which Wahlen accepted his task as a member of the Federal Council, he developed the Cropping Plan before and during World War II. He succeeded in explaining his plan to the people of his country and to the Federal Council and to win all of them over for his idea. And this smoothed the way to implement the “largest agricultural project of all times” in Switzerland, for it could only be realized if the whole country voluntarily co-operated. In his crucial speech on 15 November 1940 in Zurich, Wahlen was able to convince the people of his idea. The moment to go public was fortunate. “France was defeated, and Switzerland was surrounded by a single war party. So many Swiss men and women began to realize the danger of an imminent famine. The speech attracted wide interest in the public. People became aware of their serious situation and felt that something extraordinary had to happen.”

Determination to  independence and freedom

In the preface of his book about F.T. Wahlen, “Dem Gewissen verpflichtet” (Bound to conscience), the editor Alfred A. Häsler writes about this significant speech: “This speech, loaded with a lot of statistic and scientific research  material ignited the vital spark in the listeners, who had at first been very critical about the idea, then it spread among the whole population.  It set off a primary wave, which even took in the hesitating Federal Council. This movement cannot just be explained by the people’s concern about their alimentation. Similar to general Guisan’s Rütli Rapport on the homeland’s military defense, Wahlen’s speech was of great importance for the independence and self-assertion of our people. One man had not only expressed what the people were worried about, he had also shown them a practical way out. In him the people had recognized a steersman of exemplary integrity, on whom they henceforth would bestow absolute confidence and undivided sympathy. They were never disappointed.”
In the film we see and hear a short sequence of the speech, in which Wahlen emphatically expresses his determination not to give up freedom for a piece of bread. It was this spirit – the will to be independent and free that had developed in the course of centuries  – which was incited in the people and which became the basis for the implementation of Wahlen’s plan. Today it is about time to revive this spirit or – where it got lost – to plant it again so that it becomes possible do the right thing in the current situation.

A great common task

What did the Cropping plan look like in detail? In his considerations, Wahlen assumed the worst case scenario, a total cut-off from all imports. About this, he said in his speech – and his statements seem strangely up-to-date: “What does this assumption mean? Just that we have to get acquainted with the idea of complete food self-sufficiency. […] Thus, the idea of autarky which we, being a strongly export-oriented country, had dismissed so far, becomes a vital necessity. This leads to the following postulations:
1. An extremely chary and broad management of all stocks, reserves and raw materials with the goal of extending their usage over as long a period as possible.
2. The optimal usage of all available sources of raw materials in the country, including those scarcely or insufficiently used. This includes the usage of waste and scrap materials as well as the usage of substitute materials.
3. A tightly organized usage of all material means of production, precisely where they are of greatest national economic use.
4. A tightly organized usage of manpower, primarily for food production, including an uncompromising cutback in all but the vital branches of work.”
The film brings these programmatic postulations to life. Many contemporary witnesses report impressively about their contribution to the great task. For example Hermann Bieri, now 95, at the time head of the group of Swiss experts searching the whole country for possibilities to attain more land for agriculture. In an interview he explains why Switzerland needed more arable land for potatoes, vegetables and grains. “For example, when a farmer converts grass into milk in his stable and uses his milk for the feeding of calves, this yields veal, veal calories. To feed one person on calories of veal, it takes a large area of meadows and pasture. And if this same ground (depending on the region this is about 0.3 ha or 0.8 acre) is used for planting potatoes or vegetables or other field fruits, you can feed five or ten persons on this acreage. Of course it depends on the quality of the soil. […] So, how do we find ways of cultivating more food? Obviously, one would have to look to all farms in Switzerland. This, of course, is impossible – there are more than 200,000 of them. But one could look at all communities. Who can do that? There is a person assigned head of the agriculture in each community and the canton sends the representative of the canton’s agriculture administration, and they get together.”

From field inspections to a land register map

Even today, he remembers vividly the exertions of the time. Equipped with the same briefcase and the same drilling stick as 60 years ago he demonstrates - in the film - the method of taking soil probes and finding out which crop it is best suited for. The way Hermann Bieri – and other contemporary witnesses – takes the soil into his hand to show it to the viewers demonstrates his esteem for the fertile soil as the fundament of our sustenance. What a contrast to today’s thoughtless wasting of good agricultural land! “60 years ago, I travelled with this briefcase under my arm, after the experts, to oversee their work, i.e. whether they were working consistently, whether they applied equal standards. I also had my own drilling stick with me and took soil samples – to assess the soil by myself. We have a wonderful soil for agriculture, here. This is fertile “Härd”. You can grow everything here: sugar beets or grains for bread – but it also yields good grass. This soil is the bedrock of the alimentation of our whole Swiss people.”
The Swiss agricultural experts who assessed all 3000 communities together with the communal heads of agriculture were provided with a map on a scale of 1:25,000. First they divided the communities into land sections; then they walked over each of the fields to assess the soil. Result of this work was a so-called Land Inventory Brochure. All these inventory brochures together gave an overview of the country’s total of agricultural land and, hence, a basis for working out the Wahlen Plan. Next they could think about which crop could be grown on which fields. In these considerations, the altitude, the topography and the nature of the field played an important role.
In the film, Professor Ernst K. Keller, F. T. Wahlen’s successor at the ETH, explains the impact of the various landscapes on agriculture. “We have very different landscapes, and it is understandable that they require different methods to increase the crop. The terrain, the soil and the climate play a decisive role. If we go back to the hilly Emmental with its fertile soil, especially suitable for robust grains like spelt and potatoes, sloping fields which sometimes require the usage of a “rope plough” and almost make the potatoes roll downhill. Then there is the “Mittelland”, for example, near Erlach, with varied alternation of crops and good soil. The same is true for the Zurich region with its grain farming – but you cannot call it a genuine breadbasket. The Luzern region, situated higher and receiving more rain, is greener, but with fewer fields. Finally, the St. Gallen region and in the Appenzell cantons, in higher places with a lot of rain and fertile soil, they are the typically green regions, well suited for pasture and grassland. In these very variable landscapes, the additional cropping work was performed. And, of course, the lowlands made it easier to till additional acreage than the hilly pre-Alps. All this had to be considered in planning the additional cropping.”

Breaking up land that had never been ploughed before

The surplus cropping plan required a profound change in Swiss agriculture. To achieve the goal of doubling the arable land, additional efforts had to be taken. This meant to plough land that had never been ploughed before. On the one hand, pastures had to be ploughed up to an altitude of 2000 meters. On the other hand, also “new land” was ploughed, as suggested by F. T. Wahlen. This is land that had to be reclaimed for farming by drainage, melioration or deforestation. In films from the period we can see how arduous it was to plough on a steep slope, to clear woodland or to work marshland. But we also see the determination and sobriety of the people performing this hard work. They do not show any trace of distaste with their tough work, but rather pride. Pride of what has been achieved resounds from the words of Hans Oehen, a farmer in central Switzerland. Oehen reports how F. T. Wahlen had demonstrated in the Linth plain how to convert marshland into fertile land. “Well, I expanded this method, in order to demonstrate to the neighbours how to gain arable land in the Rotmatt region for the Wahlen Plan. In 1939, I transformed 50% of pasture to acreage up there. To achieve 50%, I had to cut down many trees. The neighbours did not understand, what I was doing, but it was necessary in order to implement the Wahlen Plan. Down there you see the Gotthard Autobahn, next to it you see a large industrial area. All that was marshland in 1939. When I drove down there, in 1939, on my way from Meierskappel, I thought: ‘Gosh, we could create some genuine plowland down here for the Wahlen Plan.’ Now you can see what nice mould this marshland has produced.”

Supporting the transformation

The implementation of the cropping plan was difficult for various reasons. Switzerland being mostly grassland, farming had traditionally been dairy farming for decades, in many regions –in the hilly and mountainous regions even for centuries. Thus, many farmers had neither the infrastructure nor the experience for the cultivation of the land. This is why the transition to arable farming demanded enormous efforts, particularly by the farmers in the traditional dairy farming regions. Hans Gujer, former forage cropping expert: “In dairy farms agricultural equipment was missing, of course. Ploughs, harrows, sowing machines; neither were there any horses to pull the machines. The farmers – above all their wives – started to use cows for the pulling. Their barns weren’t big enough to store the fruit and potatoes. So the farmers had to buy machines and to build [more barns]. And additionally, there was the risk of the new plants, this cropping business in which they had no experience. This is why counselling and training was essential and had to be organized.”
As early as in his Zurich speech, Wahlen had stressed the importance of training the consultants  as well as the farmers themselves. He had proposed to train the communal heads of agriculture in the agricultural schools during the winter months. In their endeavour to convince people, Wahlen and his colleagues had to have the necessary tact and sure feeling for the farmers’ situation regarding these transition problems. They were always making contact and explained the necessity of the respective measures to the farmers and their wives. Walter Schmid, consultant at the time, reports how difficult working as an adviser could be – for comprehensible reasons: “As fruit growing consultant, I instructed the people to look for the least productive trees. And then I had to tell them that they might be pulled out, which would hardly be a loss. So I did not have a good reputation when going to these farmers as a young man. They would say: ‘Is this guy who comes to tell us what to do? Pull out trees?’ But I felt there was no other solution, I had to say that, and it was mandatory; the agricultural leaders required it and the farmer had to pull out the trees.”

Solidarity of all segments of the population

The fact that the activities for the Wahlen-Plan were supported by so many people meant a great assistance for the farmers and the nation’s determination to resist: „It was beneficial and encouraging to the farmers that a great deal was done beyond the farming, as well. Industrial plants assisted in increasing the cropping. Businesses with more than 20 employees were obliged to cultivate two acres of land per head. In 1943 4,500 companies took part in the common endeavor whereas more than 8,000 hectare of land owned by the companies were cultivated. Apprentices were often mobilized collectively to work on the fields. According to F.T. Wahlen, families who owned a piece of land, were to work the soil and provide themselves with vegetables. No piece of land must go uncultivated. The ground of many public squares was broken, e.g. a potato field was created in front of the Bundeshaus in Bern. Similar things happened in other towns and many communities. The political authorities set a good example. Not to forget the private initiative, the voluntary work of many fellow citizens who took an active part in this “Anbauwerk”. [...] A special kind of solidarity for the farmers was the so-called farm service. Adolescents, students and apprentices were obliged to be available for three weeks per year. They were deployed where ever they were needed. Sometimes they worked in groups. Here, for example, are some young blokes working on an alp which had to be cleared from stones before potatoes could have planted.“
Emilie Lieberherr, former member of the Zurich city council, about the farm service: „Personally, I have positive memories about the farm service. As we were no farmers in our family, I had never done farm work properly, before. Neither had I any relatives who were farmers. Suddenly, I was mobilized by the Canton Zurich – it was organized by the Canton – I had to go to Bachs in the Zürcher Unterland – not far from here - and do farm service for this family.“ What a benefit it would be for today’s youths, if they would do such farm service!

Contemporary witnesses report

The co-operation of the whole population is reported on in the film by contemporary witnesses. Especially the farmers’ wives stories are impressive and take the audience back into the past, into that particular historical situation.
The seriousness and naturalness with which the women are talking about the former situation is striking. Rosalie Wisler-Flückiger depicts the events of 1 September 1939, the day of the mobilization: „There were two completely different sights: In the morning, it was a peaceful and quiet spring day; and in the afternoon you could armed forces everywhere in the streets. And everything was sort of gloomy; a heavy-hearted silence prevailed. Everybody was afraid.“  Liseli Spychiger-Flückiger reports: „At our home my elder brother and the milker were in the military service and we simply had to try and accomplish the work, ourselves. I had never mowed a pasture, I had never milked a cow, but all the other work had to be done as well. In winter my sister and I did all the threshing and prepared the crops for further processing. We loaded it, drove it away and handed it over. We also had to work in the forest assisting the lumbering. At that time they (the soldiers) had hardly any vacation.“ Kläri Gerber-Gugelmann describes how the farm obtained assistance by the soldiers’ billeting: „Luckily, soldiers were accommodated in our house in the evening of 2 September, 40 men were billeted on the barn and 10 on the haystack, the horses were put on the barn floor, the officers were sitting in the best room, the train-soldiers (those on horseback) in the dining-room and the room left to us was the kitchen. All other rooms and beds had been occupied by the officers. However, it was a great help when the captain asked my mother what jobs had to be done and how many men did she require. He simply told them off for the field work and I was allowed to take part.“

Social equality by means of rationing

The Wahlen Plan did not only contain the cultivation of more vegetable, potatoes and corn – foodstuffs which require a large acreage - but it also included the just distribution of scarce food products. Therefore in spring 1942 meat became rationed, milk in autumn and other food as well later.
«Not merely the rich or those who can pay high prices for nourishment and are able to hoard groceries should have enough to eat.” The problem was solved when every household and individual were allocated food vouchers. With these vouchers people could buy a certain amount of food. By doing this the optimum of a balanced mixture of food and beverage products could be achieved. »
With regard to the rationing issue the film shoes how people seriously and peacefully exchanged their vouchers for food.
Marta Rettenmund reports: «There was very little meat. I just remember, that we had a sausage once a week. And in the meantime we had no meat.  Cheese, low-fat cheese, not Emmentaler. That’s the way it was.»
Due to the Wahlen Plan nobody had to go hungry in Switzerland. A study, which investigated the health condition of the Swiss people after the Second World War shows, that the people were even healthier than today.
One can say that by realizing  this cropping plan the challenging goal was achieved: «Compared to the pre war period the area under cultivation  could be doubled. It became possible to increase the production of all nutritionally important foodstuffs to a considerable degree:  corn, potatoes and vegetable. Most important was the doubling of the potato production. The degree of self-sustenance was ameliorated from year to year.
The degree of self-sustenance of 52%  in  pre-war time rose to 73% in 1944. Fortunately the consumption of potatoes, fruit and vegetable never had to be limited during the war, which means it needn’t be rationed. Due to the Wahlen Plan and the enormous effort of the farmer families the sustenance of the country’s population was safeguarded and the danger of famine averted.

Today’s Food Situation

The attentive contemporary may wonder what the nutritional situation is like for the population, today. Prof.Dr.Pius Hättenschwiler from Fribourg University states: “ In the short run food security is probably better than ever before. On the one hand because it is embedded into the solid frame of our country’s economic sustenance, and on the other hand  because we can use the most modern means of planning, information and communication to maintain our food basis. If I say in the short run I am talking about six months. Within this time we would be almost able to maintain the current standard of nutrition. After this time we would probably need to tighten the belt a little, but we would not be starving. We really calculate and rely on the logistic potential, the current agriculture still has. We have to be aware of the fact that this can only be achieved if agriculture does not shrink unduly. And we know the trend. The pressure from world trade gurus is enormous and short-term considerations have become a habit everywhere. I hope that this film will contribute to a better understanding of the longer-term perspective of sustainable nutrition based on our agriculture.”
It is up to everybody to comprehend and support the significance of agriculture for the entire population.

Self-sufficiency- a word of pride

Finally, with the words of Professor Dr. Ernst K. Keller the achievements of the cropping plan at large shall be appreciated and our thanks expressed to the generation of that time for their admirable accomplishments: “We could see the significance of the cropping plan and at the end of the war one wondered whether the goal had been reached? Fritz Traugott Wahlen answered: “Its immediate goal has been reached, which is to keep it up in hard times.” Then we heard that the whole population was taking part. It was both the agrarian population and the non-agrarian population. We must not forget the internees and many others who were helping. And all participants were a little proud that they had been able to take part and so the word went: “Self-sufficiency- a word of pride.’ All measures which promoted participation of the population were at the same time promoting the will to resist and this way our spiritual defence. And therefore one could say: Spiritual defence is as important as military defence. Moreover, solidarity between various sections of the population was promoted to a very extraordinarily high degree. Suddenly people got along much better than before, which again stimulated their will to resist and their spiritual defence. Ant that is why General Henry Guisan one day received the corporal officer Fritz Traugott Wahlen as the ‘General of the Cropping Work’. This was a very generous and beautiful appreciation of Fritz Traugott Wahlen, and finally we would like to express our thanks to the whole team, to everybody who took part, the generation of those days for their help.” •

1 If not mentioned otherwise, quotations in the text are comments, delivered by the speakers in the film.
*  Psychologist lic. phil., vocational schoolteacher, farmer, graduated agriculturalist


Figures and Facts on the Wahlen Plan

• Goal: Extension of the acreage from 217,222 ha to half a million hectare; (before: acreage 19%, meadowland 81%;  afterwards: acreage 46%, meadowland 54%)
• In 1943 more than 150,000 hectare meadowland had been cultivated
• 1945: the last step of the extended crops cultivation; by 1946 the acreage had been more than doubbled (60,000 ha more than originally planned)
• Companies with more than twenty employees were obliged to cultivate 2 are per head
• In 1943 4,500 companies co-operated and cultivated 8,000 ha land
• Half a million small farmers and workers of 12,000 industrial companies worked another 20.000 ha
• Besides the rearrangement of production, the Wahlen Plan also required a switch of alimentation: 2,700 calories per head per day
• 1944: the potato production was doubbled (in 1940 there were 91,000 railway wagons with 10 tons each, in 1944 there were 182,000 wagons)
• Information of the farmers’ newspaper (1999/4): The potato harvest was even tripled, production of bread grain doubled and vegetable yield quadrupled
• Self sustenance before the war: 52%, after the war: 73%

Source: Peter Maurer, Anbauschlacht. Landwirtschaftspolitik, Plan Wahlen, Anbauwerk 1937-1945, Zürich 1985 and wikipedia