It is well-known that many foreigners have placed their fortunes in Switzerland to avoid taxes in their own countries. There is something shocking or even immoral about this sort of investment in Switzerland being, in principal, exempt from tax. The State and the banks act as receivers, encouraging foreign taxpayers to avoid public charges and take refuge in the havens of Swiss banks. The symptom is particularly worrying in two ways: economically and in terms of public morale, with the Swiss Confederation (which is largely dependent on foreign capital sent to Switzerland) transforming the country into and Eldorado for fraudulent taxpayers. We should therefore demand that banks ensure they have information about the owners of the assets they manage, and move towards abolishing banking secrecy.
2These strong words come not from the American authorities nor the governing bodies of the European Union, not from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), nor even from the government of one of the many States, which for several years have been criticizing and putting all kinds of pressures on Switzerland’s fiscal practices, particularly its famous banking secrecy, on an almost daily basis. These words are much older than the reader might expect, and came not from abroad, but from a Swiss writer: Ernst Laur.
3In order to understand their importance, it is necessary to know a little about their author. In 1920, Ernst Laur had been the strong man of the Swiss Farmers’ Union (Union suisse des paysans, or USP) for around twenty years. This association, created in 1897, quickly became the dominant organization within the Swiss agricultural world. From the First World War onwards, it brought together some 3000 local societies and over 150,000 members: almost two in five farmers (Baumann 1993, 125-126). Given that in 1923 the farming population accounted for a quarter of the total population, and was full of USP members, the USP was highly influential in a country where, because of the existence of semi-direct democratic tools (the rights of referendum and popular initiative), the law was subject to frequent scrutiny by citizens. Nicknamed the “King of farmers.” Laur was therefore one of the most influential people in Swiss politics at the time. His power was increased by the fact that at the start of the twentieth century, the USP, under his leadership, had made an alliance with its business counterpart, the Swiss Union of Commerce and Industry (Union suisse du commerce et de l’industrie, or USCI). This organization, established in 1870, brought together leaders of key sectors in Swiss capitalism, and was by far the most powerful business association. Both sides saw this alliance, called the “Bourgeois Bloc” (Bürgerblock), as strategic, and therefore lasting. The basic terms of this agreement were as follows. On one side, the USP used the farmers against the rising labor movement, therefore using them to help employers. On the other side, the USCI softened its position regarding the State, becoming more favorable to agricultural interests, particularly when it came to customs duties (Baumann 1993; Humair 2004, 656-734).
4So what prompted Laur, in 1920, to so harshly attack banking secrecy and the Swiss banks, including the influential Swiss Bankers Association (SBA) which had been linked since its creation in 1912 with the “Bourgeois Bloc?” What were the results of this attack? This study attempts to answer these two questions. They may appear insignificant, but they draw our attention to two crucial issues. Firstly, they call for an understanding of a decisive moment in the long history of Swiss banking secrecy, particularly the factors which have allowed the Swiss ruling circles to maintain this secrecy through thick and thin for over a century.  On a wider scale, we need to increase our understanding of a phenomenon which plays a very important role in the history of Switzerland: the alliances made by the ruling class with other classes and/or social strata, in order to protect themselves from classes that represented a potential threat to their hegemony.
The First World War, the Swiss Financial Center, and Banking Secrecy
5Until 1914, the practice of banking secrecy (in short, the refusal of Swiss financial establishments to provide tax authorities with any information about third parties) did provoke a degree of pressure and criticism, especially from outside the country, but this remained mild. This situation changed greatly with the First World War. The global conflict created a crucial turning point in the evolution of the Swiss banks, and more generally in the financial history of the Confederation, for many reasons. The most important ones are summarized here.
6Firstly, although the Confederation did not participate directly in the armed conflict, the war required massive state expenditure, if only to finance the mobilization of all or part of the army at the frontiers for long periods of time. Although to a lesser extent than in belligerent States, the First World War caused a displacement effect in Switzerland. Public expenditure saw a long-term upwards displacement: in real terms, this meant that – excluding inflation effects – the expenditure levels of the Swiss public authorities (the Confederation, and cantonal and municipal bodies) were twice as high after the world war than they were before (Guex 1993, 183-187). Consequently, the level of fiscal pressure also rose significantly. This is shown by the fact that the share of tax (the relationship between the total tax excluding social insurance contributions collected by the Swiss public authorities and the country’s gross domestic product or GDP) rose from around 5% just before the First World War to around 8% afterwards. More importantly for the interests of this study, direct taxes (on income and capital) increased most: the global conflict effectively caused them to double. Their product represented around 3.4% of GDP from 1910 to 1913, then 6.5% from 1919 to 1922 (Steiger 1916, 148; Steiger and Higy 1934, 436; Ritzmann-Blickenstorfer 1996, Tables U.2b, U.10a, and U.15). This meant that from the start of the First World War, tax issue conflicts between the different political forces worsened significantly.
7Secondly, although Switzerland experienced financial problems, it escaped the ill-effects of the armed conflict and many economic sectors even benefited from it (Rossfeld and Straumann 2008). Consequently, the country’s financial difficulties in terms of increased expenditure, deficits, and state debt were considerably milder than those seen in most European countries. Elsewhere, pressure from the tax authorities increased much more than it did in Switzerland. Two key examples serve to illustrate this: in France, when income tax was introduced in 1914, the top marginal tax rate on the income of natural persons was set at 2%. After the war, it was over 60%, and even reached 90% in 1924 (Piketty 2001, 263-265). In Germany, a similar tax was introduced just before the global conflict. At this time, the top marginal tax rate on the capital of natural persons was 1.5%. In December 1919, when this rate had already increased significantly, the Reichstag also introduced a single levy with a top marginal rate of 65%. Moreover, in order to prevent fiscal fraud, banking secrecy toward the fiscal authorities was lifted (Respondek 1921, 88-133).
8The First World War therefore introduced a lasting gap between the levels of fiscal pressure within the Swiss Confederation and in belligerent countries. In the period just after the war, the tax share was 8% in Switzerland, compared to around 15% in France and Germany and 18% in the UK (Flora 1983, 262, and 334). A further indication of this gap, also important for this study, is the fact that whilst Switzerland’s overall effective tax rate (direct federal, cantonal, and municipal taxes combined) on the highest incomes, for married, childless taxpayers, was around 25% from 1919 to 1925, it was around 50% in France and the UK (Guex 2012).
9On top of this fiscal advantage came a third factor: during the First World War, the Swiss franc became one of the strongest currencies in the world, along with the dollar. At the end of 1919, the French franc had lost 50% of its prewar value compared to the Swiss currency, the Lira had lost 59%, and the Reichsmark had lost 91%. Even the world’s leading currency until 1914, the sterling pound, lost 18% (BNS 1944, 56-66).
10Lastly, Switzerland managed to remain neutral and stay out of the endless carnage that was the First World War. Moreover, although social and political tensions did significantly increase, the country did not suffer the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary turmoil that shook Europe following the conflict, particularly for three out of four of its neighbors: Germany, Austria, and Italy.
11On the international level, the First World War, by transforming the Confederation into a political, monetary and tax haven, made it a highly attractive destination for foreign capital, particularly for those wishing to avoid taxes in their own countries. Consequently, this capital flooded into Switzerland during and after the conflict. Although no precise figures can be given for this, everything indicates that the sums involved were huge. We will give two examples to demonstrate this.
12The first took place in 1917, when the Swiss government assessed the total sum of Swiss and foreign funds entrusted to Swiss bankers for keeping and management at 5 billion francs.  Three years later, in 1920, during a debate at Parliament, different MPs gave various estimates for the volume of foreign capital invested in Switzerland, the lowest being 6 billion Swiss francs, and the highest 40 billion Swiss francs. Most estimates, including that given by the Minister of Finance, were between 10 and 20 billion: a sum equivalent to or double the Swiss GDP at the time (11.1 billion). All speakers, including the minister, agreed that the vast majority of this money was placed in Switzerland to avoid taxes at home (Bst CN 1920, 21, 27-28, 34-35, and 124; Bst CE 1920, 386). The second example occurred in May 1920, when Switzerland’s three most important bankers addressed a report to the Minister of Finance, emphasizing “the huge rise” in the holdings of the Swiss banks and writing that:
It is well-known that a large part of this money comes from foreigners, for whom Switzerland represents a temporary refuge for their capital threatened by political storms, the appetite of the tax authorities, and the exchange rate crisis. 
14Whatever the exact sum of foreign capital arriving in Switzerland, this money undoubtedly boosted the development of Swiss financial establishments. This is clear from the fact that in real terms, the sums managed by the Swiss banks alone tripled between the start of the war and the end of the 1920s. Moreover, the total assets of the large Swiss banks, which were around 30% of those of the large German or French banks before the war, were respectively 56% and 80% of them by the end of the 1920s. In short, following a strategy for which the ground was laid at the end of the nineteenth century, the First World War gave the Swiss Confederation the chance to become a tax haven, attracting offshore and largely undeclared capital, and “allowing Switzerland to establish itself as an international financial center to rival Paris or Berlin” (Mazbouri, Guex, and Lopez 2012, 115).
15In the above conditions, it is clear that from the very start of the conflict, the question of banking secrecy became ever more important in the Swiss political debate, because it involved major issues both from a domestic point of view and also in terms of Switzerland’s international relations. This requires closer examination.
16The first serious conflict about banking secrecy broke out in December 1915. During that year, the federal authorities had been working to introduce an extraordinary war tax on income and capital, designed to fund the extremely rapid increase in military expenditure (Guex 1993, 345-356). It should be remembered that in Switzerland, direct taxes are in the hands of the cantonal States and not the central State. Although it was only collected once, this tax was therefore the first direct tax that the Confederation had seen since its creation in 1848. When the project was discussed at the National Council (the lower house in the Swiss bicameral system), socialist MP Emile Ryser emphasized that the decentralized direct tax system in Switzerland allowed massive fiscal fraud to take place, because at the time, the tax authorities in most cantons were extremely lax in determining the tax base. He also drew attention to the fact that basing collection of the war tax on cantonal evaluation procedures created massive inequalities in the treatment of taxpayers, depending on where they lived. He proposed, in the name of the socialist fraction of the National Council, to combat these problems by lifting banking secrecy for the purposes of the tax authorities and introducing the following measure into the law:
On request from the tax office, financial, commercial, and industrial establishments, as well as insurance companies, will be required to give all information that might help to ensure fair taxation of taxpayers.
18In a Chamber where the vast majority of representatives were from bourgeois parties, the socialist proposal had little impact. Aside from Ryser, only one speaker (but who belonged to the main bourgeois party of the time, the Radical Party) came forward to support it. Emil Zürcher, also a professor of penal law at the University of Zurich, justified his support by criticizing the “competition between cantons” in fiscal matters, which encouraged the complacency of cantonal authorities towards taxpayers. He stated that “the Ryser proposal presents no risks for the good citizen and the honest taxpayer, but only for those who are not honest with the tax authorities” (Bst CN 1915, 420).
19Among those opposed, only two National Councillors bothered to justify their rejection of the socialist proposal: Alfons von Streng, president of the conservative-catholic parliamentary group, and Aloïs de Meuron, liberal MP and member of the administrative board of the influential Gazette de Lausanne. In comparison to the tone adopted shortly afterwards and still used today by defenders of banking secrecy, their brief interventions seem surprisingly restrained. Thus, Alfons von Streng readily acknowledged certain benefits of the socialist proposal. He noted that “such a general inquisition among the financial establishments would at least have the advantage of meaning the same law would be used in all cantons” (Bst CN 1915, 420) and would therefore reduce the blatant inequalities between taxpayers residing in different areas. In fact, the main argument used by the two speakers was that such a measure should not be introduced as an extraordinary tax, to be collected only once. De Meuron summarized it as follows:
It seems to me that, if we wish to seriously discuss the idea of violating professional secrecy in business, we should wait for a less exceptional and less unique occasion.
21Von Streng added that “we should first test such an experiment [abolishing banking secrecy] in the cantons,” but that doing so would make taxpayers move their money to banks in another canton. He explained that:
Today, the cantonal banks already see many inhabitants of one canton placing their savings in a bank located outside of this canton for fiscal reasons, and only scrupulous protection of banking secrecy protects them against this danger [which] would severely damage the cantonal banks.
23And that was all.
24How are we to explain the brevity of the debate and the moderation shown by the defenders of banking secrecy? Firstly, the Socialists occupied only 15 of 189 seats in the National Council, particularly because of the majority electoral system used in Switzerland until 1919. Moreover, as mentioned above, their proposal only received firm support from one non-Socialist. There was therefore no doubt as to the result of the vote. The Socialist proposal was rejected by 97 voices against 19 (Bst CN 1915, 422). However, it was not only because they were sure of the outcome that the partisans of banking secrecy did not bother to intervene in greater numbers and more aggressively. Their moderation was also due to the fact that at the end of 1915, the climate of the Sacred Union that had reigned over Swiss political debate since the start of the war was still making itself felt. Perhaps even more importantly: Although Switzerland’s transformation into a tax haven and the refuge par excellence for foreign capital was underway, as seen above, it had probably not gone far enough for Swiss capitalist circles (especially their political representatives) to fully grasp its extent, or appreciate the massive advantages and benefits that it offered them. These elements undoubtedly explain the restrained attitude of partisans of banking secrecy during the 1915 debate. However, the situation would change drastically after the war.
The Political Situation in Switzerland Following the War: Socialist Danger and Tensions within the “Bourgeois Bloc”
25For the purposes of this study, it is necessary to highlight two factors which deeply marked the political situation in Switzerland following the global conflict. Firstly, the period immediately after the war was characterized by the most acute social and political tensions seen in Switzerland between the end of the nineteenth century and our times. In fact, following the rapid inflation of 1914 to 1918 (consumer prices more than doubled), the vast majority of employees, whose incomes were only partially indexed, suffered a 25% to 30% fall in their spending power. Consequently, at the end of the war, almost a fifth of the total population of the Confederation had to resort to public or private charity to survive.
26The sting of financial hardship was felt to be even more unjust because the capitalist circles fared very well, or even outstandingly, in business during the conflict. This led to growing radicalization among workers. The number of members in the main Swiss trade union, the Swiss Federation of Trade Unions (SGB), tripled from 1914 to 1918. In the October 1917 national elections, the Socialist Party managed to double its number of votes. There was an explosion in strikes, which became increasingly intransigent and made demands that went further and further beyond the purely economic. This was extremely worrying for those in power; some categories among the wage earners who had formerly been their faithful supporters were rising against them. The two-day strike by bank employees in the city of Zurich, Switzerland’s economic capital, from September 30 to October 1, 1918, saw certain particularly despised managers temporarily sequestered and showered with jibes. This was a clear sign of the increase in radicalist sentiment (König 1984, 1984, 123-140). The radicalism peaked with a three-day general strike in November 1918, which paralyzed much of Switzerland, and two local general strikes that severely affected Zurich and Basel in summer 1919.
27Immediately after the war, the Swiss ruling circles therefore found themselves in a tricky position. Although their power did not seem imminently threatened, their legitimacy had been significantly damaged in the eyes of much of the population. Also worrying was the threat of the worker movement, which they found even more alarming in the international context, and which they carefully monitored. Having triumphed in Russia in 1917, a revolutionary wave was sweeping over Europe, and was spreading westward. In these conditions, controlling and holding back socialism became crucial within the politics of the Swiss ruling class.
28The worker movement was not the only social force causing a stir: farmers were also rearing up. In this respect, we should note that Swiss peasants came out of the First World War far stronger in political terms. Firstly, through four long years of war, with blockades and counter-blockades by belligerent countries increasingly affecting food supplies in the country, Swiss agriculture proved its importance, both to large groups of the population and to those in charge of the economy, politics, and the army.
29Secondly, the strikes of 1918 and 1919 allowed peasant organizations, particularly the USP, to convincingly show the industrial and banking partners the usefulness of their alliance with the farmers within the “Bourgeois Bloc.” In fact, although the federal authorities hardly dared to mobilize troops from the urban population for fear they might fraternize with strikers, they massively and successfully called upon rural troops to occupy and control the towns.
30Finally, with the conflict, the peasantry became organized and structured. The number of USP members doubled from 1914 to 1922, when almost 75% of Swiss farmers belonged to this umbrella agricultural organization, whereas the rate of trade union membership in Switzerland immediately after the war was only around 25% (Baumann and Moser 1999, 475-477; Le Mouvement ouvrier suisse 1975, 393-394). The farmers also created their own political party, The Party of Farmers, Craftsmen and Bourgeois,  which was highly successful at the autumn 1919 federal elections, getting around 15% of votes at its first participation in a national election. Last but not least, with the legitimacy of the Swiss bourgeoisie severely declining among the employed masses, it could not hope to win without strong support from the peasantry in popular votes, which play an important role in a country offering the rights of referendum and initiative. In March 1920, the journal of a large business association thus noted that “without [the agricultural population’s] consent, it will be very difficult to put through a bill” (cited in Neidhardt 1970, 193).
31The Swiss peasantry therefore emerged from the First World War with significantly increased political and symbolic weight. However, immediately after the war, they faced two serious problems, which caused tensions with their industrial and banking partners in the “Bourgeois Bloc.”
32Firstly, the war had greatly weakened the relatively strong customs protection that they had enjoyed since the introduction of a new customs tariff in 1906. In Switzerland, duties on imports are not calculated on the value of merchandise, but its weight. Given that the prices of imported goods doubled or tripled (or even more), because of the rapid inflation in all economically developed countries during and immediately after the war, Swiss customs duties became much less of a barrier. The degree of protection measured for the whole tariff (the relationship between customs revenue and value of imports) thus fell from 4.6% in 1910 to 2.2% in 1920 (Humair 1990, 152). The great decrease in customs protectionism was also shown by the receipts of import duties, which made up 75% of the total federal State income in 1913, and only 28% in 1920 (Guex 1993, 460).
33Secondly, being heavily indebted (one of the major characteristics of Swiss agriculture), the peasants suffered terribly from the great increase in interest rates following the war. The general rate on the Swiss financial market rose from an average 3.94% between 1910 and 1913, to 5.56% in 1919, then to 7% in 1920. The cost of money for variable-rate first mortgages went from an average 4.44 % between 1910 and 1913, to 5.05 % in 1919, and to 5.45 % in 1920 (BNS 2007, 34 and 42). As long as inflation rose fast, the phenomenon gave farmers few problems, because the real interest rates were negative. This was still the case in 1919. However, the situation changed drastically in the course of 1920, with prices rising just 0.9%. In 1920, real interest rates leapt to a painful 6.10% for the general rate on long-term money, and 4.55% for mortgages.
34In such conditions, it is hardly surprising that the agricultural world and its representatives, particularly the USP, fought to renegotiate the conditions of their participation in the “Bourgeois Bloc.” The core objective was to convince industrial and banking Big business to agree to a massive rise in customs duties on agricultural products: not only an increase compensating for inflation (which they would have agreed to quite easily), but a rise going far beyond this, which would give the farmers much higher protection than that already offered by the 1906 tariff. In short, the aim was to push, if not force, the central circles of Swiss capitalism to accept (despite their free trade leanings) a sufficient increase in agricultural protectionism to “encourage the development of as large a peasant population as possible” (in the words of Ernst Laur in a widely distributed pamphlet: Laur 1918, 25). The second aim was to obtain a decrease in interest rates.
35Thus, from the second half of 1919, the USP and the representatives of the agricultural classes launched a vast dual offensive, which continued until 1921. Although the two offensives were skilfully combined to reinforce one another, I will describe them separately, in order to simplify a rather complex subject
The Threat of a Red-Green Alliance around Interest Rates
36One of the two fronts opened by agriculture (although neither the most important nor the most contentious) concerned the cost of money. In this area, the first significant peasant intervention occurred in September 1919. It was no coincidence that this was one month after the start of the offensive on the other front: that of banking secrecy. Several of their representatives at the National Council signed a postulate asking the Federal Council (the Swiss Government) to quickly adopt a series of measures improving mortgage borrowing conditions (Guex 1993, 298). A few months later, in March 1920, in the same issue of Le Paysan suisse, the USP journal in which he attacked banking secrecy as described above (again, this was no coincidence) Ernst Laur evoked the possibility of introducing a maximum interest rate into Swiss legislation (Le Paysan suisse, March 1920, 9). In August, the USP Director raised the issue again, but much more vigorously. In a long article, he threatened financial circles with the launch of a popular initiative demanding that the State set a maximum interest rate, linked with State control over export of capital, if these circles did not take the necessary measures to reduce the cost of money in Switzerland, particularly by limiting loans given abroad. He thus wrote:
It would be infinitely preferable for the capital to voluntarily stop stealing the country’s means of exploitation, because in this area, restrictive measures could go too far […] [and] it might eventually emerge worse off from a conflict. […] The financial circles would […] do well to realize that if rising interest rates cannot be stopped, the question of a maximum rate will arise, and there will be no reasoning against it. It seems better to us for these issues to be carefully examined by the authorities and for a solution to be reached in consideration of all the consequences, rather than a hasty decision via a popular initiative.
38In September 1920, Laur further intensified his intimidation technique by turning words into actions. At the time, the government was holding a very important conference bringing together a series of influential politicians, whose duties included outlining several taxes for introduction in the near future. One of the main taxes was a permanent tax collected by the State on income from movable property, called the “federal stamp duty on coupons” (Guex 1994). In order to encourage the expansion of banks and the stock market, financial circles aggressively defended the option of most foreign securities being exonerated and the small proportion of foreign securities that were subject to this stamp duty being subject to the same tax rate as Swiss securities. In contrast, the representatives of the Socialist Party demanded extensive taxation, with tax rates much higher for foreign securities than for Swiss securities. It should be noted that extensive stamp duty on foreign securities could not be introduced without extending the fiscal authorities’ powers of control. The dynamic of such an extension might be dangerous for banking secrecy (Guex 1994, 224-225). However, in order to stop the exportation of capital and thus relax the Swiss financial market and reduce interest rates, Laur struck a blow to his allies of the “Bourgeois Bloc” by supporting the Socialists during this conference. He emphasized that “the difference [in taxation] between domestic and foreign securities is a very good thing. The bigger the difference, the better” (Kanderstegerprotokoll 1920, 51). A few days later, the USP director dotted the I’s by sending a personal letter to the SBA. After having reiterated his threat to launch a popular initiative if the financial circles did not adopt the measures required to reduce interest rates, he emphasized the possible political repercussions of such an affair, stating that:
It would be a great pity if the Socialist Party were to use the issue to its advantage and appear as the savior of indebted farmers and the protector of tenants against proprietors.
40Finally, in one last effort to exert pressure, in January 1921, Laur presented a full project for a popular initiative allowing the introduction of maximum interest rates for mortgage credit (Temperli 1945, 163-164).
The Threat of a Red-Green Alliance against Banking Secrecy
41The second and main front opened by the USP and the representatives of the agricultural population concerned the question of banking secrecy. In examining this, it should first be emphasized that until the start of 1919, the USP and its representatives showed absolutely no hostility to this secrecy. In 1915, as mentioned above, the Socialist deputies had demanded the abolition of banking secrecy during the debate at the National Council on a first extraordinary war tax. They had received almost no support, particularly from the representatives of the agricultural population, and there was a massive majority rejection of their proposal.
42The issue resurfaced in 1919, when a second war tax was put in place, under pressure from the Socialists, in order to offset part of the Federal State’s high deficit. In February 1919, the socialist delegation at the National Council again attempted to introduce a measure abolishing banking secrecy on collection of this tax. Their efforts were in vain. There was no support for the attempt, and consequently almost no discussion. It was once again rejected by a massive majority (Bst CN 1919, 38 and 125).
43However, the USP suddenly changed its attitude. In August 1919, using and exploiting a diffuse hostility emerging in certain agricultural circles against banking secrecy, Ernst Laur managed to bring a request for two measures that contradicted the interests of banking circles to the Federal Chambers.  He asked for the second war tax to also be applied to foreign securities managed by the Swiss banks, and as a logical consequence of this demand, he asked that foreigners be obliged to give the federal tax authorities information on their investments. In other words, he wanted banking secrecy to be lifted. 
44Laur’s first warning shot against the partners of the “Bourgeois Bloc” was followed by a second, more serious one. In February 1920, when discussions concerning the second war tax went on at the National Council, many representatives of the agricultural world repeated these two demands, not hesitating to side with the Socialists. Firstly, on February 2, 1920, three well-known representatives of agriculture in the National Council and all members of the USP leadership, submitted a joint amendment with three of the main leaders of the Socialist faction. This amendment called for taxation of natural and legal persons who were not resident in Switzerland but who owned “securities […] deposited in Switzerland” (Bst CN 1920, 22). Similarly, several MPs with links to agriculture supported the Socialists’ proposal to introduce the following tax measure into the law: “All financial establishments must provide the tax authorities with all information and cooperate with all control measures” (Bst CN 1920, 9). One example was Bernois Friedrich Siegenthaler, a highly influential “aristocrat farmer” (Gruner 1966, 229) belonging to the leadership of both the USP and the Party of Farmers, Craftsmen and Bourgeois. After advocating the taxation of assets deposited with the Swiss banks by foreigners in the name of “the sentiment of justice and fiscal morality,” he enthusiastically advocated the abolition of banking secrecy, emphasizing that it was “an indispensable tool to allow the tax authorities to perceive the fortunes deposited with the banks, which are frequently not declared” (Bst CN 1920, 27 and 95).
45In order to make himself fully understood, Laur returned to the issue again a month later. In March 1920, he published a long and severe critique of banking secrecy, an extract of which is cited in the introduction to this article. He then referred threateningly to the debate that had recently taken place at the National Council, writing the following:
In the Chambers, the question caused a verbal joust […] during which […] Mr. Siegenthaler brilliantly [asserted] the point of view of the agricultural world. The bourgeois side reproached the farmers for agreeing with the socialists. Such reproaches are quite simply ridiculous. […] In factual matters, everyone has the right to support any proposal that seems legitimate to them, no matter which side it comes from. […] In any case, the debate about banking secrecy was a revelation: the agrarian parties are taking their own route by adopting an independent policy.
47Finally, in May 1921, still maintaining the pressure, Laur made several worrying attacks against his partners of the “Bourgeois Bloc:” after reminding them that “the fight against socialism [required] close cooperation between the bourgeoisie and farmers,” he gave the following warning:
We cannot advise you strongly enough not to pay attention to those who want to protect industry and the professions using protective duties […] whilst denying agriculture any reciprocation. This would put farmers in a state of mind which the various types of urban hack writers currently cannot imagine. It would lead to everyone fighting everyone else. We hope that before pushing farmers into such action, the urban bourgeois circles will make the effort to think about the consequences of such a serious mistake. As for us, we have full confidence in the federal authorities, and we are sure that they will proceed fairly and wisely with the revision of the [customs] tariff.
49In the same edition of Le Paysan suisse, the USP director engaged in even more explicit blackmail concerning a popular initiative just launched by the Socialist Party. This initiative demanded a unique levy on large assets, with progressive rates going from 8% to 60%, the abolition of banking secrecy, and the use of the money collected to fund social insurance (Granges 2011, 12-20). Although Laur did assert his hostility in principle to the socialist approach, calling it “pure Bolshevism,” he also stated that:
The initiative could only become dangerous if, in customs policy, the towns attempt to force the hand of the federal authorities and get them to stop supporting the principle of protecting agriculture. We have said what we think about the state of mind which such a mistake would provoke in the countryside. On top of this, the farmers might support the socialist initiative out of spite.
51For the partners of agriculture within the “Bourgeois Bloc,” big industry and banks, and more generally for the Swiss business circles and the ruling class, the situation created from the end of 1919 by the various USP actions described above had the potential to be extremely damaging. Firstly, these actions came right at a time when, because of political and monetary upheaval in Europe, foreign capital was starting to flood faster into Swiss financial establishments. Promising prospects therefore developed for these financial establishments. Taxing these funds, or even worse, lifting banking secrecy and passing the names of their owners to the Swiss tax authorities, therefore meaning that these names might somehow become known to the tax authorities in the countries of origin, would probably have made the Swiss refuge less attractive and slowed the inflow of such capital.
52Secondly, until now, the socialist initiatives against banking secrecy had been in an extreme minority. The support of the USP meant they might obtain wide support and even triumph in the Federal Parliament.  This is in part what happened when the National Council considered socialist-agrarian proposals in March 1920. Although the demand to abolish banking secrecy was rejected, its result can be considered a success, because it was approved by 59 members, and therefore by far more than just the Socialists, with only 104 votes against. Above all, the proposal to apply a second war tax to foreign securities deposited in Swiss banks won a slight majority at the Council. Moreover, the Lower Chamber adopted a postulate from a Councilor also belonging to the USP leadership, who by asking the “Federal Council […] to examine whether the banks and in general all those who manage others’ assets should be obliged to provide information to the tax authorities” (Bst CN 1920, 111), maintained the threat of a new socialist-agrarian attempt to abolish banking secrecy (Bst CN 1920, 39 and 135-136).
53Finally, the ruling circles had a third and much more general reason to worry. In their dual offensive, the USP and the agricultural representatives did not just use empty words: they acted. They made good on their word by joining forces with the Socialists on the questions of limiting interest rates and banking secrecy. This gave additional weight (as publicly expressed by Laur in March 1920) to the threat of them abandoning the “Bourgeois Bloc” which had existed since the start of the twentieth century, in order to make temporary agreements with the Socialists. This perspective alone was enough to alarm the Swiss ruling class, because during this period, containing and rolling back socialism with the help of the peasantry became the cornerstone of their politics, and they stood little chance of winning any referendum votes without the support of the agricultural population. Even more serious was the fact that such temporary agreements might create a dynamic with unpredictable results, but which contained the seeds of a concept that haunted the Swiss big business at the end of the nineteenth century: the possibility of a lasting red-green alliance.
A Done Deal: The Farmers Reunite with the Bourgeoisie
54In these circumstances, the representatives of capitalist circles entered a furious parliamentary battle to convince the MPs who were sensitive to agricultural interests to refuse the socialist-agrarian amendments regarding the abolition of banking secrecy and the taxing of foreign-owned securities. The combat at the National Council was so bitter that it lasted two whole days, and 28 National Councilors (one in seven) participated.
55Those opposed to abolishing banking secrecy essentially used two types of arguments, which can be summarized by the interventions of the Head of the Department of Finance, Jean-Marie Musy, who was very close to the banking circles (Sebastiani 2004, 133-136). In December 1919, he had just been elected to the government. His first speech as a minister before parliament was therefore symbolically devoted to defending banking secrecy.
56The first set of arguments attempted to ease the conscience of those with moral doubts about banking secrecy and tax fraud, including that committed by foreign holders of capital in Switzerland. On this subject, Musy stated that “I have the thankless task of defending people who owe tax, so that they can to some extent continue avoiding it” and conceded that through banking secrecy “we are in some ways […] the accomplices of tax evasion to the detriment of other countries” (Bst CE 1920, 130 and Bst CN 1920, 34). Nevertheless, he then immediately dismissed any responsibility or possibility of intervention in this domain on the part of the federal authorities: “When it [banking secrecy] is abolished in all European banks, I will agree for the same to happen here to the specified extent,” he stated, “but we cannot do it before.” In fact, he claimed, such a move would lead to “capital leaving Switzerland” for other tax havens, because “experience has long shown that the laws of the economy are far more powerful than those of parliaments.” He emphasized that only conventions “at international level” would be effective, and that in the meantime, the Swiss authorities were powerless. All that remained was for him to present himself as an enthusiastic partisan of such conventions, by saying that:
One day, I hope, the Society of Nations […] will take measures that will make tax evasion very difficult, if not impossible.
58Here, we must make a short digression to highlight the hypocrisy of this discourse. Historian Christophe Farquet shows that as the Swiss Minister of Finance was making these assertions in February 1920, the German government was in fact approaching the federal authorities, with the aim of “beginning negotiations on a double taxation convention also including measures to assist sharing of fiscal information” (Farquet 2007, 59). Yet Musy, with the approval of the Federal Council, refused to consider it. When, some time later, Musy was faced with measures coming this time from the Society of Nations to introduce international fiscal agreements, he once again refused to cooperate, still with the support of his governmental colleagues. Moreover, he even devised a sophisticated strategy to foil these initiatives (Farquet 2009; Farquet 2012, 104-106). In this affair, the language of the Federal Council (obviously kept secret) differed greatly from that publicly used by the Minister of Finance in 1920: “The importance of banking activity in the Swiss economy,” he wrote, “requires the greatest caution in fighting tax evasion” on an international level, even if “many countries […] will severely reproach Switzerland for this attitude.” (cited in Guex 1993, 415).
59The second set of arguments developed during the parliamentary debate of early 1920, evoked many imaginary or massively exaggerated dangers. Estimating the sum of foreign investments at ten billion francs (roughly equivalent to Switzerland’s GDP at the time). Musy emphasized the many supposed benefits to people from all social strata, including wage earners, then painted an apocalyptic picture of the effects of losing them, which he claimed would turn the Swiss into “a population of shepherds.” With all the authority of the Minister of Finance, but without offering the slightest proof, he asserted that the current discussion of the socialist-agrarian proposals had already resulted in “hundreds of millions being lost to other countries.” He predicted that if the assembly accepted these proposals, “within ten days, it will not be hundreds of millions that we lose, but several billion” (Bst CN 1920, 33, 35, and 123).
60Nevertheless, these speeches were far from enough to make the USP and the representatives of the agricultural population stop rebelling. Action was required. Consequently, during the course of 1920, the ruling circles adopted a series of increasingly effective measures concerning interest rates, in order to relax the Swiss financial market (Guex 1993, 303-314). The key measure was taken by the banking circles themselves, who temporarily limited their investments outside of Switzerland. Thus on September 24, 1920, after much hesitation, the SBA decided to send a circular to the Swiss banks, asking them to restrict loans and credit given abroad. The President of the Association explained that “we must try to do all we can to prevent […] export of capital,” because otherwise,
“Professor Laur and the representatives of agriculture, who are already complaining about capital leaving the country and the rising interest rates, will have a reason to keep accusing us.” 
62Although there were other contributing factors, these different measures yielded a victory: from the winter of 1920 to 1921, the long-term cost of money began to fall. The overall level fell from the 7.00% in 1920 to 6.10% in 1921, and 4.80 % in 1922. Interest rates on mortgages went from 5.45 % in 1920 to 5.50 % in 1921, and 5.15 % in 1922 (BNS 2007, 34 and 42).
63It was in the domain of customs duties that the governing circles made major concessions to the peasantry. The first step was made (not by coincidence) in February 1920, when there was fierce parliamentary debate on the second war tax. The Federal Council dictated a draft decree immediately increasing import duties on a series of products, particularly agricultural products (Humair 1990, 94-100). The increase remained relatively small, and affected only a fairly limited number of goods. The real turning point occurred during the second half of 1920, when the Vorort (the management of the Swiss Union of Commerce and Industry) and the SBA gave the go-ahead. The Vorort, through the voice of its president, declared on August 30, 1920 that “in the future too, customs duties will have to be a major source of revenue for the Confederation: in truth, by far the most essential lasting resource” (Kanderstegerprotokoll 1920, 15). Three weeks later, at the SBA General Assembly, the president of the largest Swiss bank at the time asserted that:
Mister Laur […] with 100,000 peasants behind him, will pursue his idea and will not do things by halves; he wants to ask the main effort from customs, almost all the effort from customs. 
65Thus, the Assembly adopted a resolution asking that “an increase in customs tariffs should contribute largely to covering budgetary deficit.” In November 1920, the General Director of Crédit Suisse was even more explicit about the deal about to emerge. Within the SBA Committee, having stated that “we must shear the sheep, but gently” and that “we know the banks are not popular,” he explained to his colleagues that this made it necessary to support Laur and the USP in fiscal matters, but that:
If we support the peasants, we should ask for something in return, and tell them we expect them not to support the initiative launched by the Socialists in favor of a wealth tax. 
67With the USCI and SBA veto raised, the Federal Council began revising the customs tariff. In December 1920, they elected a small commission, in which the key men were Alfred Frey (President of the Vorort) and Ernst Laur. This commission worked so quickly that, already on June 8, 1921, the government introduced the new tariff by emergency procedure (exempting it from the right of referendum). It came into force from July 1. The authorities called it “provisional,” but it remained in force until 1959. It almost doubled the level of protectionism for Swiss production compared to pre-war levels (from 4.6% in 1910 to 8.3% in 1922) (Humair 1990, 143-150 and 152). From 1922, customs revenue was once again dominant within the income of the Federal State (Guex 1993, 460). The USP itself recognized that the tariff introduced in June 1921 “considerably increase[ed] customs protection for the peasantry” (USP 1922, 14). In the mid-1920s, import duties on many agricultural products, such as butter, cows, pigs, fruit, and vegetables, were much higher in Switzerland than in France or Italy (Humair 1990, 143-150 and 152). They main conclusion of the study on this new tariff was therefore clear: “The Swiss customs tariff […] has become far more protectionist with the introduction of the 1921 tariff,” making Switzerland “one of the most protectionist countries, particularly in terms of agricultural protectionism” (Humair 1990, 364).
68The massive concessions to the USP and to the representatives of agriculture quickly brought them back into line, showing the “purely tactical” (Mani 1928, 167) nature of the whole operation led by Laur.  In June 1920, at a second debate at the National Council, the MPs connected to the peasant population basically stopped defending the socialist-agrarian proposal to apply a second war tax to foreign securities deposited in Swiss banks. The proposal was therefore definitively rejected (Bst CN 1920, 380-388). In January 1921, these deputies, who just two months before had still been fighting alongside the Socialists in the debate on the stamp duty on coupons, in favor of taxing the revenues of foreign securities both extensively and more heavily, dropped the first demand. In June 1921, a few days after the new customs tariff was decreed, they abruptly dropped the second (Guex 1994, 228). In other words, the “Bourgeois Bloc” was reunited.
69Tensions did, of course, resurface during the 1920s (after all, this alliance could only be contentious, because the interests of the different partners were too different), but until, and even during, the crisis of the 1930s, they did not become more intense than they were immediately after the war. Above all, the USP and the agricultural representatives never again seriously questioned banking secrecy. In fact, they faithfully defended and even energetically advocated it. Thus, in the autumn of 1922, during the campaign leading up to the popular vote on the Socialist party popular initiative demanding a single levy on large fortunes, the agricultural organizations, led by the USP, widely and aggressively opposed it. Laur wrote a widely-distributed pamphlet, particularly condemning the possible abolition of banking secrecy, in which he accused the socialist approach of all possible sins, writing for example that:
The initiative […] is on the same moral level as the persecutions in the Middle Ages against the Jews. It is even worse, because in many cases, it would affect people who have become wealthy by working and saving. Whereas the persecutions of the past were often a reaction against usurers, this initiative is a first step towards abolishing ownership.
71However, it was particularly because he had allowed the socialist leaders to glimpse support for their initiative that they had launched the project (Granges 2011, 40-47). Thus, the USP director undoubtedly deserved the “excellent strategist” label given to him by Cédric Humair, one of the historians who knows most about him. It may even be justifiable to describe him as a “Machiavelli” (Humair 1992, 226 and 228). Given that he used his tactical skill in a highly industrialized country which was becoming a banking power, his ingenuity may well have gone beyond the “village Machiavellianism” (Bugnard 1983) that was so frequent in Swiss political life. In any case, it was in part thanks to the mobilization of the USP and the agricultural population that the socialist initiative was rejected by almost nine in ten voters, with a participation rate of nearly 90%. Such a phenomenon is unique in Swiss modern history from 1874 to the present day. Although the project only applied to large fortunes, it should be emphasized that the most bitter refusal was seen in agrarian regions, sometimes reaching 100%. The Socialist Party would find it had to recover from this catastrophic result, and for a very long time, it would only dare to broach the issue of abolishing banking secrecy with extreme caution.
72The class alliance between the industrial and banking bourgeoisie and the peasantry, renewed by the agreement at the start of the 1920s and analyzed above, had a series of lasting consequences which profoundly affected the social, economic, political, and cultural evolution of Switzerland in the twentieth century. I wish to focus on two of these.
73The introduction of a higher level of customs protectionism firstly meant that for a long time, the peasantry remained fairly large in Switzerland. Whereas the agricultural population (those making a living entirely or partially from agriculture) fell by 17% in absolute terms from 1888 to 1920, it increased slightly (by 1%) from 1920 to 1941. In relative terms, the evolution is even more striking: In 1888, this group made up 40% of the total population, whereas in 1920, it made up 25% (a 38% decrease). However, in 1941, this proportion was still 25% (Ritzmann-Blickenstorfer 1996, Tables B.1a and F.8a). The social weight of the peasantry did not begin to fall again until after the Second World War, and it remained substantial into the 1980s.
74Because of its large size, its function as a bulwark against socialism within the “Bourgeois Bloc,” and the increased legitimacy arising from its role in providing for the country during the Second World War, the peasantry remained highly influential in politics until very late in the century. This influence can be seen for example in the amount that the Federal State spent on supporting agriculture. This rose from 2.3% of the Confederation’s total spending in 1920 to 7.2% in 1930, 11,6 % in 1960, then 9.4 % in 1970 (Baumann and Moser 1999, 480). It is highly significant that, until the mid-1960s, the federal authorities did not clearly devote more expenditure to social protection (contributions to social insurance, building of homes, etc.) than it did to supporting agriculture (Ritzmann-Blickenstorfer 1996, Table U16). It can therefore be considered that, in line with the deal made at the very start of the 1920s, the Swiss governing circles protected their hegemony (at least until the last third of the twentieth century) by financially supporting agriculture rather than investing in developing the Social State. This goes some way towards explaining the relative weakness of the Social State to this day.
75The second consequence of the reconsolidation of the “Bourgeois Bloc” described above is that banking secrecy became strongly protected on the “domestic front.” Although there were still several socialist attempts to question it, these no longer received support from farmers and their representatives, and were fairly easily defeated (Pasquier 2009). In turn, the weakness of the domestic opposition made it easier to implement the strategy based around the position of the Swiss financial institutions as chosen refuges for international assets of those seeking to escape tax authorities, political problems, and monetary difficulties, because the governing circles only had to fight attacks and pressure from outside and not inside. This quickly proved to be a winning strategy, as described by the president of the governing board of the Swiss National Bank in 1930, when he emphasized the “growing importance of Switzerland as an international financial center, and its simultaneous and increasingly clear transformation into a rentier state” (Bachmann 1930, 30).
76Aside from the factors described above, it is useful to briefly examine two further points. In a fairly recent study, Werner Baumann and Peter Moser called the view that agriculture and its representatives (particularly the USP) were highly influential in Swiss politics throughout the twentieth century a “myth” (Baumann and Moser 2000, 158). Despite my considerable respect for the remarkable work of these two specialists on the Swiss peasantry, I believe that the above analysis shows their interpretation to be debatable.
77In an even more recent publication, Robert U. Vogler, senior political analyst at banking giant UBS at the time he wrote the text, harshly criticizes me by referring to the transcription of a conference that I gave, some time previously, on the history of banking secrecy in the twentieth century. In this conference, I affirmed in passing both the existence of the deal analyzed above, and that this agreement was based on the support given to farmers, particularly in the form of state subsidies, in return for the peasantry’s support of banking secrecy. Vogler writes that “this statement is not based on any proof” (Vogler 2005, 28). I hope that the above analysis will serve to disprove this judgment. In this context, it seems useful to conclude with the words of the director of one of the big Swiss banks of the time, A. Brandenburg, before his SBA peers in 1929, encouraging the public powers to continue their significant financial aid to agriculture:
Although subsidies are economically damaging, they can sometimes be justified from a political or social point of view. Here, for example, it is clear that there is a general advantage to giving the required financial aid to the peasants, to whom our country at least partially owes its political stability, which is intimately linked to its credit abroad and the confidence in its banks. The aid in some ways pays them for this security service. 
The question of secrecy as a primary social phenomenon was initially examined by Georg Simmel (1991).
“Message du Conseil fédéral concernant la promulgation d’une loi d’exécution de l’article 41 bis de la Constitution fédérale (loi fédérale sur les droits de timbre),” May 16, 1917, Feuille fédérale (Federal journal) 1917, vol. III, 90.
Federal archives in Berne, EVD 20/115, Report by Julius Frey, Alfred Sarasin, and Léopold Dubois to the Head of the Federal Department of Finance and Customs, Jean-Marie Musy, May 31, 1920.
The precursor to the party now (inappropriately) named the Centre Democratic Union (Union Démocratique du Centre), which in the last twenty years has become the main bourgeois party in Switzerland, by situating itself very far to the political right.
USP Archives in Berne, 111-06/295, Protokoll der Sitzung des Vorstandes, August 3, 1919.
USP Archives in Berne, 45-03/501, Request, signed Ernst Laur, to the Commissions of the Federal Chambers in charge of examining the federal decree concerning the federal war tax, August 15, 1919.
After the First World War, the Socialists occupied 41 seats in the National Council, and the Party of Farmers, Craftsmen and Bourgeois had 29 mandates. However, this last figure is a poor reflection of the parliamentary influence of agriculture. To give a better idea of its scale, the agricultural club of the federal assembly had around 100 members at the time, out of the 233 parliamentary MPs (Mani 1928, 19).
SBA Archives in Basel, Protokoll der 35. Sitzung des Ausschusses, September 24, 1920, 4.
SBA Archives in Basel, Protokoll der siebten Generalversammlung, September 25, 1920, 16.
SBA Archives in Basel, Protokoll der 36. Sitzung des Auschusses, November 16, 1920, 9.
Certain leaders of the Socialist Party, like National Councilor Ernst Nobs, were fully aware of the tactical dimension of the sudden opposition to banking secrecy by the agricultural representatives (see Bst CN 1920, 99).
SBA Archives in Basel, Procès-verbal de la 16e Assemblée générale de l’ASB, September 7 1929, 36.