Swiss are coming to terms with the legacy of ‘contract children’ seized from single mothers
Opinion: ‘Until the 1930s the allocation of many of the children to farmers in search of cheap labour was done through auction at rural hiring fairs similar to those which continued in rural Ireland, notably Donegal, into the 1930s’
‘Last year, the Swiss government apologised after decades of silence about the scope and inhumanity of the policy.’ Photograph: Getty Images
David Gogniat made the shocking discovery only when his mother died. Despite the reality that her four children had been seized from the single mother by the state and placed “for their own good” against her will in a system of forced farm labour, she had been paying their “foster families” from her own meagre resources for their upkeep. Once she had tried to “kidnap” her children back, only to see the police return them to what was slavery.
Gogniat’s story, told in a recent BBC documentary, is typical of that of many verdingkind – “contract children” – the accounts of whose hidden plights has in the last five years shocked Switzerland. Now a campaign for compensation has garnered over 100,00 signatures for a referendum on the setting-up of a reparation fund.
The practice of “fostering out” children as cheap labour on farms and in homes where they were often subjected to neglect, beatings and sexual abuse began in the 1850s and continued into the second half of the 20th century. By comparison, our own brutal institutional internment of orphans and the vulnerable children of the poor seems almost benign.
white stockThe Swiss system also had a parallel in the British “export” of more than 130,000 vulnerable children as young as three over a period of more than 100 years to Canada, New Zealand, the former Rhodesia and Australia. Notionally, to give them a better life; in practice to assist in stocking the Commonwealth with cheap white labour. Classified as orphans, although the majority were not, many children were also sent away without the knowledge of parents or relatives, and were denied details of their family. They too faced appalling conditions in large institutions or forced to work, often also on farms, for long hours and little pay.
Historians estimate hundreds of thousands went through the Swiss system, possibly as many as 5 per cent of all Swiss children. For one year alone in the 1930s, records show 30,000 were placed in foster families across the country. The practice did not die out until the 1970s.
This Swiss “welfare” policy was designed to relieve the state of the burden of caring for children. If a child was orphaned or showed anti-social tendencies, a parent was unmarried, there was fear of neglect, or the family had the misfortune to be poor, the local authorities might step in and seize them. And, alongside the verdingkinder system, adolescents deemed morally degenerate, including juvenile delinquents and unmarried mothers, were sent to detention centres or prisons; young mothers were made to put their children up for adoption.
Until the 1930s, the allocation of many of the children to farmers in search of cheap labour was done through auction at rural hiring fairs similar to those which continued in rural Ireland, notably Donegal, into the 1930s.
Instead, however, of farmers paying small amounts to impoverished parents for the indentured labour of their children for fixed periods, the Swiss children would be allocated in a bidding contest to the farmers who offered to take least from the state in child support often supplemented by the proceeds of a small legacy or a levy on the family. According to one account from 1826, “Who asked the least got the child despite its screaming and protests . . . The cheaper they had contracted the children, the better for the community.”
Disciplining the working classHistorian Ruedi Weidmann describes the system as a means of disciplining the lower classes: “Up to the 1950s there were regions in Switzerland that were really poor . The verdingkinder were taken from poor families in the cities.
“Families were deprived of custody if they didn’t live according to a middle-class family model – unmarried mothers, or divorced people, or people who weren’t able to keep their money together.”
Gogniat describes a regime of long hours of labour, separation from siblings and mother, hunger and beatings. He worked in the fields, then went to school, and then out to work again until late at night. When social workers visited, he got the day off and was brought to the family table for meals. Terrified of retribution, he was too scared to speak up about his real conditions.
Like thousands of others, he suffered too from deep social isolation from children of his age – many fellow verdingkinder would suffer mental problems and educational deprivation. Suicide rates were high.
Last year, the government apologised about the scope and inhumanity of the policy. Justice minister Simonetta Sommaruga declared “a day of confession . . . and a call against suppression and forgetting”. But compensation is another matter – it is being resisted by conservatives and farm groups. The petitioners are demanding a reparations package, managed independently, of about €415 million for the 10,000 verdingkinder estimated alive today and for others wronged by the state’s coercive measures.