There have been children’s ski camps in Switzerland since the 1940s.
There have been children’s ski camps in Switzerland since the 1940s. Musée national suisse / ASL

From toughening up to having fun

There have been children’s ski camps in Switzerland since 1940. The origins of these camps go back to World War II, and there were serious reasons for them: the camps were intended to prepare young people for a winter campaign.

Andrej Abplanalp

Andrej Abplanalp

Historian and communications chief of the Swiss National Museum.

Like homework and school grades, children’s ski camp is part of any Swiss childhood. Admittedly, homework is no longer so strictly required, and opinion has been divided on grades in recent years. Anyway, we still have the children’s ski camps; we are a skiing nation, after all. The beginnings of these winter camps go back to the 1940s, and the motives for their establishment were mainly economic and political, not sporting. While World War II kept Europe on tenterhooks, in Switzerland people’s thoughts were turning to how the absence of winter tourists from abroad could be mitigated. The answer was simple: replace them with Swiss holidaymakers.

The Federal Council’s holiday plea

In addition to economic considerations, there was also a patriotic slant to the strategy. The government hoped that engaging in winter sports would strengthen the nation’s defensive forces. The first ski camp, catering to 500 boys, took place in Pontresina in 1940-41. In the mountains, the boys were to build up their stamina and forge bonds of camaraderie. Federal Councillor Enrico Celio had made a start on the ‘mountain offensive’ in July 1940. The transport minister called on the general public to go on holiday. His plea ‘Take a vacation! Create jobs!’ was intended on the one hand to bolster the domestic tourism industry, and on the other to prepare the Swiss people for a difficult future. Besides, raw materials such as petrol and coal were scarce and many companies weren’t able to operate at 100% output. Holidays were just the ticket for some sections of the workforce.
Federal Councillor Enrico Celio called on the general public to go on holiday.
Federal Councillor Enrico Celio called on the general public to go on holiday. ETH Bibliothek Zurich, Image Archive

The ski fanatic General

However, it took more than just a ‘minister of holidays’ on the Federal Council; in particular, there was also a ‘skiing-mad’ General. For Henri Guisan, skiing and winter sports were emblematic of the Confederation’s power of resistance. The General declared snow sports the ideal activity to fuel up physical and moral strength for national defence. Skiing was also a perfect fit with the Swiss Army’s redoubt tactics, and quickly became part of the Spiritual national defence. Guisan anticipated a ‘winter war’ like the one Finland had fought against the Soviet Union between November 1939 and March 1940. During those months, the Finns put up a formidable resistance against the mighty enemy from the East, and were a shining example for the Swiss. With skiers and reindeer, they kept the Soviet tanks at bay for many months. Colonel Franz Nager had been sent to the north by the Swiss Army as an observer and was able to see the winter war at close range. The Swiss were particularly interested in the Finns’ tactics and equipment.
Expedition in the snow during the first children’s ski camp in Pontresina, 1941.
Expedition in the snow during the first children’s ski camp in Pontresina, 1941. Keystone/Photopress-Archiv/Fred Eberhard
Portrait of Henri Guisan, photographed in the 1930s.
Portrait of Henri Guisan, photographed in the 1930s. Musée national suisse
The collaboration between the army and the tourism industry culminated in a huge wave of winter sports propaganda. And this advertising was successful. The Swiss began to develop a real taste for winter holidays, and almost made up for the lack of foreign tourists. This was the actual hour of birth of Switzerland as a nation of skiers. But in the 1940s, today’s fun in the snow was still a long way off. The camps had a very serious purpose, and were more about toughening up than having fun on the slopes. For General Guisan, they were part of the preparations for a possible winter campaign.
Swiss soldiers’ skiing lessons in the Diavolezza area, 1940. Swiss Army
It wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that fun came to the piste, in tandem with the ‘demilitarisation’ of skiing and the rising income of the post-war generations. The children’s ski camps, which are still running now in the 21st century, have remained. And, of course, the ‘ski soldiers’ who serve in the mountain troops of the modern Swiss Army are still around as well.
Guard soldiers on patrol, 1944.
Guard soldiers on patrol, 1944. Swiss Army

Further posts

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