The term eugenics was coined by Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, in 1883 and, three years later, the first recorded eugenically motivated sterilization was carried by the Swiss psychiatrist Auguste Forel on a fourteen-year-old “hysterical” girl. Whilst the term eugenics was not recorded in that instance, the same psychiatrist openly posed the question of eugenically motivated sterilizations for the “mentally deficient” since 1904. Thus, like elsewhere, eugenic ideas were widely considered since the late nineteenth century to deal with social problems and amidst an array of political perspectives as well as by a number of different professions.
Switzerland is interesting because some eugenic applications, such as sterilization, were pioneered in Switzerland. Furthermore, a number of internationally known eugenic thinkers and proponents, such as Ernst Ruedin, who was to create the infamous Nazi-German Law for the Protection of Hereditary Health (Erbgesundeheitsgesetz) of 1933, was Swiss and worked there for a number of years. Both Hans Maier and Eugen Bleuler, the psychiatrists who coined the term schizophrenia, were also Swiss and worked within a psychiatric context in which eugenic ideas were known and to some extent applied.
Contrary to other countries, Switzerland never had a national law regulating sterilization although the only Swiss canton (Switzerland is a federal state), which had a law concerning sterilization between 1928 and 1985 was the home to Auguste Forel, the canton of Vaud. This canton was the first European jurisdiction to have introduced a eugenics law. However, the number of sterilizations carried out in this canton were actually quite low – lower than in other cantons - leading some historians to argue that the law, rather than facilitating sterilization practices, actually prevented rampant usage of the measure as applications for each sterilization had to be made which was considered by a Health Board. By contrast, other cantons had no law but some psychiatric institutions and hospitals recorded annual sterilization numbers which reached up to 400 per year per institution. There all have, on the surface, the necessary consent by either the patient or their doctor and guardian. A big question for historians here is, however, that consent had been obtained coercively, as women, who were more often the target for intervention, were often presented with a choice between sterilization or referral to a workhouse, or with the threat that their poor relief would be withdrawn, or that an abortion would only be carried out if they agreed to a “voluntary” sterilization.
Psychiatrists were not the only ones, however, to be instrumental in eugenic practices (and thinking) in Switzerland. In fact, in the absence of national or even cantonal laws, and mostly only local or regional directives, most eugenic practices were carried out where several agencies and their professionals were pursuing the same aims about preventing social problems as they saw it. Thus, eugenic practices occurred mostly in Protestant cantons and cities where institutions worked together, such as the guardianship office, the police and hospitals. Most Swiss supporters distanced themselves from the German pursuit of eugenics after the international Eugenics Congress in Zurich in 1930 but that was more about a national programme than about some of the ideas themselves. Thus, eugenic practices, being administered an inter-agency network rather than supported at the political level, continued after World War II.
Eugenic measures in Switzerland covered not only sterilization, but institutionalization, guardianship, withdrawal of children and the prevention of marriage. The only national law concerned marriage restrictions as the Civil Code from 1912 specified that no “mentally deficient” person should be granted a marriage license - for which a psychiatric assessment was needed. Hence, eugenically inclined psychiatrists could exert quite an influence but they were far from being the only ones supporting eugenic measures. Often, people experienced eugenic measures when they got into the machinery of welfare, psychiatry or justice and they lived in a location receptive to eugenic ideas. The major exception were Jenitsch people (the biggest group of gypsies in Switzerland) against whom the state supported and funded a child removal program on the grounds that this was a means to extinguish Jenitsch culture eventually, which was deemed unworthy between 1926 and 1973 by Pro Juventute.
The Federal Council has since apologized (in 1986 and 1998), made provisions for more research, some reparations and is funding a Foundation for “the Future of Swiss Gypsies” which supports cultural identity. However, in 2014 a demonstrations of gypsies about the lack of site provision by the capital Bern was not only squashed but people were rounded up and numbered, revoking a uncomfortable past memory. An attempt to set up reparations for those forcibly sterilized failed in Parliament in 2004.
Gerodetti, N. (2006). From science to social technology: eugenics and politics in twentieth-century Switzerland. Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State & Society, 13(1), 59–88.
Mottier, Véronique. (2007). “Eugenics, Politics and the State: Social-Democracy and the Swiss Gardening State.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 39, no.2: 263-269.
Wecker, Regina. (2012) “ Eugenics in Switzerland before and after 1945 A Conntinuum?.” Journal of Modern European History 10, no. 4: 519-539.