Swiss Neutrality

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Switzerland's Neutrality

Did Switzerland prolong World War II?

International Law on Neutrality

In 1920 all major nations confirmed, that Switzerland's neutrality towards warfaring nations as fixed on the 1815 Vienna Conference on post-Napoleon international relations would still be respected. According to the V. and XIII. Hague convention concerning the rights and obligations of neutral states in land and naval warfare of 1907, neutrality includes some central contingencies like the internment of foreign troops, the prohibition of their passage or the prohibition of national supplies of war material to warfaring nations. Important ranges remained however excluded, in particular the whole private foreign trade, also the private trade with war material.

Switzerland had asked for international confirmation of it's neutrality in 1920 before becoming a member of the League of Nations (the predecessor to the United Nations Organization). During the 1920's and the 1930's Switzerland expressed its readiness to take part in economic sanctions if officially imposed by the League of Nations. In 1938 however, the League of Nation council relieved Switzerland formally from the obligation to participate in sanctions.

Letter and Spirit of Neutrality

Though neutral Switzerland adhered to the mandatory international rules during World War 2, while the warfaring nations violated even these (neither Germany nor the Allies respected Swiss air space, Allied aircraft even dropped about 70 bombs on Switzerland), it is evident that being neutral would call for a spirit of neutrality that was offended by important Swiss actors.

Switzerland's national bank, private Swiss bankers and private manufacturers of war material exploited in fact every loophole in the regulations for their business with Nazi Germany. This was evidently not the notion of neutrality and so Swiss Federal Councillor [member of government] Max Petitpierre (in office 1945-1951) had to admit as early as 1947:

These credits and the deliveries of war material and other products [...] contributed to the war efforts of one of the belligerents. Not only had we abandonded integral neutrality, but - even worse - in so doing, we were as a rule deviating from the very notion of neutrality.
(Max Petitpierre, speech given at a conference of Swiss diplomates, in: Swiss Diplomatic Documents (SDD) vol. 17, nr. 26, p. 87, quoted after Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland - World War II, final report, p. 519)
So there are in fact two problems:
  • If small nations like Switzerland really want to be neutral, they must adhere not only to the letter but as well to the spirit of neutrality. Switzerland has passed stricter internal legislation on the export of war material and does take part in United Nations' peace keeping missions meanwhile.

  • In every major conflict of the 20th century the great powers were not willing to respect international rules like neutrality or the Geneva Conventions, if this would have had severe consequences for their military strategy. But rules must be obeyed by everybody or they cease to be respected altogether. This is true for nations as well as for individuals. The continuing efforts of the USA to exclude its troops from the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice are not an encouraging sign for the 21st century.

Did Switzerland prolong the war?

While the closing of the Swiss borders to refugees got much attention in Switzerland itself during the war, in the 1960's and recently again, U.S. interest seems to be focused on looted assets, gold and especially on war prolongation.

Findings of the International Commission of Experts

The accusation levelled at Switzerland that it contributed to the prolongation of the war and thus the suffering associated with it, was a highly emotional one. It was raised during the war ... and again in the preface to the Eizenstat Report of 1997. The theory which maintains that the services, exports, and loans provided by Switzerland influenced the course of the war to a significant degree could not be substantiated. This has less to do with a general «insignificance» of Swiss exports and financial centre services than with the enormous economic dimension of this war and the multifarious factors which determined the war economy and the unfolding of events on the front. Strategic bombardment, the battle tactics of the military protagonists, communications systems, and the propaganda war are all important factors on which Switzerland was unable to have any impact, or at least no direct, relevant impact. Thus neither the arms supplies nor the financing of strategic raw materials had any demonstrable effect on the duration of the war. The Commission found no evidence pointing in this direction. In some areas the presumed effects of the support given to Germany were in fact refuted. Thus Swiss ball-bearing manufacturers were keen suppliers, but in no way they could compensate for the shortages caused by Allied bombing. Nor can one draw the conclusion that the war would have ended earlier without Switzerland, given the reserves remaining in the German economy and Germany's resolve to fight to the bitter end. That is not to say that access to Swiss currency and the generous loans granted for certains areas of Germany's war economy were of no significance. ... Germany's Clodius Memorandum in June 1943 stated that the deliveries of war material from Switzerland represented only 0.5% of German production.
(Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland - World War II, final report, p. 518, bold and small print by M. Jud, the figure 0.5% is given according to the German version of the report, p. 543)
To understand these conclusions it might be important to consider that
  • Switzerland is a very small country (only 4 million inhabitants during World War II), and so is it's production capacity - despite of the excellence of its industry in some fields that might give false expression of its quantitative importance.
  • The quantities of war material used in World War II by Germany as well as by the Allies were enormous.
  • The whole production capacity of continental Europe, an area having more than 50 times the population of Switzerland was under German control until 1944.
  • Switzerland does not have deposits of raw materials.
  • The determination to fight until one or the other side would win this war was even more uncompromising with Germany's party and military leaders than with the British. So though the Second World War was a gigantic battle of material, Germany's leaders would not have surrendered due to small restrictions in arms supply.

Assessment of an Unsuspicious Expert

"Of all the neutrals Switzerland has the greatest right to distinction. She has been the sole international force linking the hideously-sundered nations and ourselves. What does it matter whether she has been able to give us the commercial advantages we desire or has given too many to the Germans, to keep herself alive? She has been a democratic State, standing for freedom in self defence among her mountains, and in thought, in spite of race, largely on our side."
Winston Churchill (1874 - 1965), British wartime Prime Minister

Stuart Eizenstat is not willing to accept the truth

When Stuart Eizenstat published his book Imperfect Justice (with a tasteless cover showing a Swiss flag of which the white cross had been replaced by gold bars forming a Nazi swastika), Professor Jean-François Bergier, president of the Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland - World War II, that delivered a detailed study on Switzerland's role in World War II, got quite angry. In an interview to the Swiss popular newspaper Blick he stated:

«Obviously he has understood nothing at all - despite all [historical research that has been done and published]. In an interview he even repeats the reproach of war prolongation from his first report of the year 1997. Eizenstat says today: "That is still correct actually, it was however undiplomatic." As is well known, our commission has not found anything supporting his thesis. ... Our work obviously is not at all relevant to him. Perhaps it went into another direction than he had expected.»
(Prof. Bergier in Swiss newspaper Blick, December 12th, 2002, p. 3, translated from German)

Literature and links on Switzerland's role in World War II:

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