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On happiness in Switzerland?

Andrea Althaus has examined female work migration in the Swiss Confederacy based on recounted life stories

Freiburg, Jun 08, 2017

Thousands of young women from Germany and Austria migrated to Switzerland throughout the course of the 20th century. They left home in order to work in private households, restaurants and hotels as maids, waitresses, buffet workers or cooks. "Girl, go to Switzerland and find happiness!" is what they used to say. In her dissertation released at the beginning of May 2017, the University of Freiburg historian Dr. Andrea Althaus examined the life stories of 79 women who went to Switzerland in search of work between 1920 and 1965. Based on interviews in which they told their life stories as well as written memoirs, Althaus illustrates the reasons behind the women's decision to emigrate, what they remember about their time there and how the Swiss projected their fear onto them about foreign infiltration due to their country of origin. The dissertation's first examiner was the Freiburg historian Prof. Dr. Sylvia Paletschek.

Private households and the hospitality industry were the center point of the analysis, as there was a shortage of "service personnel" in Switzerland at the time that enabled a high level of work migration. "Many of the women came from agriculture or blue collar households and fewer from the bourgeois class," says Althaus. From a geographic perspective, the women came from all over Germany and Austria to Switzerland. At the same time, personal relationships helped solidify migration. "It is referred to as self-generating migration or chain migration. A broad migrant network developed over time. Nearly every single young woman knew someone who had left for Switzerland. It made it easier to leave in the first place," explains Althaus.

During the course of her research, Althaus discovered that the women used their migration to Switzerland as a way to emancipate themselves. "It wasn't just the appealing notion of good food, high wages and idyllic landscapes that motivated the women to go to Switzerland. Many of them wanted to leave to escape the strictness of their parents' household or dissatisfying work in the factory," says Althaus. Finding a Swiss husband and thereby obtaining a Swiss passport didn't play a significant role in their motivation, even though the mainly anti-German public discourse about the foreign infiltration may have led people to believe otherwise. "A particularly interesting insight is the fact that the women have very positive memories about their time in Switzerland. Some even called it 'the most beautiful or best time' of their lives."

Andrea Althaus received the Bertha Ottenstein Prize from the University of Freiburg for her research on May 31, 2017. The University prize recognizes exceptional achievements in the area of women's studies and gender research. The exhibit "Mädchen, geh' in die Schweiz und mach dein Glück" ("Girl, go to Switzerland and find happiness") in the Dreiländermuseum Lörrach will run until October 1, 2017 and shows the results of Andreas Althaus' study.

Original publication:
Althaus, A. (2017): Vom Glück in der Schweiz? Weibliche Arbeitsmigration aus Deutschland und Österreich (1920-1965). Frankfurt am Main. (On Happiness in Switzerland? Female work migration from Germany and Austria (1920-1965). Frankfurt am Main.)

Andrea Althaus