Switzerland's Role

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History of Switzerland

Switzerland's Role
in World War II

Adolf Hitler's National Socialist Party was a German and Austrian movement. An overwhelming majority of the Swiss population was strongly opposed to Nazism from the 1930's. This clear public opinion was not only relevant for the morale of the Swiss Army during the Second world war, it did most probably also have a direct effect of dissuasion against Nazi plans for annexation.

Nazism and Switzerland

Antisemitism, the Ideology of National Socialism in Germany and its Consequences

The events of the 1930's and 1940's cannot be understood without having a look at the history of the Jews in Europe and the reasons why they were discriminated for approximately 2000 years again and again. See
Antisemitismus (in German language, not yet translated)

For the understanding of the 2nd World War also from a specifically Swiss point of view it is important to understand the ideology that the Swiss population rejected with an almost religious fervour: How were the ideology of Nazism and the methods of the National Socialist Party (National-Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter-Partei, NSDAP) in Germany and of its leader Adolf Hitler opposed to Switzerland's tradition? See
Nationalsozialismus (in German language, not yet translated)

Conservative Concepts of Leadership vs. Nazism

Of course, an overwhelming majority is never 100% and Adolf Hitler found a few admirers also in Switzerland, but they never gained more than one out of 231 parliamentary mandates in Swiss elections. This very small minority got a lot of attention not only during the 1930's but also by historians since.

It is important, however, to realize that people all over the world were much more inclined to follow any leaders and authorities before the end of World War II than they do today. In fact, the atrocities committed by the Nazis (holocaust!), by the communist regime in the Soviet Union (Stalin!) and by Japanese troops in China and Corea opened the eyes of many. As Europe was more directly affected than America, Europeans today tend to be far more critical against any kind of leadership than Americans would do (Example: Because Hitler had himself called "Der Führer" [= the leader] Swiss, German and Austrian media showed a strong reluctance to use this word after the Second World War, while the english word "leader" is still very common in U.S. television reports on politics).

There are some historians denouncing many Swiss politicians of the 1930's as being "Fascists" or at least of sympathizing with Fascism. I think, this is in most cases not really correct. There is no doubt, that a strong majority of politicians, intellectuals and ordinary people did favour authority, law and order - but this did not include support for Adolf Hitler's ideology and atrocities like genocide or the elimination of mentally handicapped people. There is a German figure of speech saying that "comparisons always go lame", but I still would say that the political convictions of these Swiss pre-war politicians were much closer to those of today's representatives of the Republican Party in the U.S.A. than to the ideology of National Socialism.

In particular two members of the Swiss Government during the 1930's and 1940's, Philipp Etter (Catholic Conservative Party) and Marcel Pilet Golaz (Radical Party) as well as the commander of the Swiss Army in Wold War II, General Henri Guisan, repeatedly pleaded for more authoritarian guidance and less influence from parties and parliament. To be precise, it took them some time to recognize the difference between their own conservative concepts of public affairs and Fascism. Philipp Etter was the author of the basic document concerning "spiritual national defense" against Nazism in 1938 (details see below). General Guisan had expressed in 1934 his admiration for the Italian dictator Mussolini, which "knew to tame all forces of the nation". The general's perception matured, however, while he fulfilled his task and he soon developed a good relationship even with representatives of the leftist Social Democratic Party. During the war, general Guisan became the central integration figure in wartime and embodied the Swiss determination to resist Hitler. (Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland - World War II, final report, p. 69, 79)

  General Henri Guisan, commander of the Swiss Army in World War II
General Henri Guisan
commander of the Swiss Army in World War II (monument, Avenches)

Initially it seemed to some people that Hitler would bring about order to Germany and would be a bulwark against communism. Some investors felt reassured. Only "from 1934 onwards, but certainly by the time of the racist Nuremberg laws of 1935, the totalitarian nature of the Third Reich, which was brutally persecuting minorities, was becoming painfully clear. It became apparent that the political culture of Switzerland, which relied on a federal state structure and evinced a strong democratic tradition, was irreconcilable with the Nazi regime." (Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland - World War II, final report, p. 496)

"Spiritual defense" in Switzerland

The term "Geistige Landesverteidigung" [spiritual national defense] stands for the strong and widespread political will of the Swiss population to defend Switzerlands independence and democratic constitution against the Nazis. This common goal united entrepreneurs and socialists that had waged bitter conflicts during all of the 1920's. It was Switzerland's answer to Nazi propaganda warfare.

From Socialism to Social Democracy

Just like in Germany only the socialists were strongly opposed to Hitler's ideas from the earliest beginnings in the 1920's. But then both socialists and employers still saw their relations more in terms of class struggle than in terms of social partnership. Many citizens feared, that Switzerland could face a similar development as the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin if they would elect the Social Democrats or even the Communist Party.

When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, the Swiss Social Democratic Party and the trade unions sought alliance to the Radical Party and to liberal employers against Nazism, which resulted in a social partnership ("Friedensabkommen") between the metal and electrical industry workers' unions and their employers in 1937. The employers respected the unions as real partners for the first time, agreed to solve certain problems on the level of employers' association and unions (instead of individual contracts) and even accepted an arbitral body, while the unions renounced on any strikes. The external threat had helped to smoothe the path to communication.

World War I had caused serious social problems: workers called to the military service earned no wages for several months. To solve this problem, a public insurance was introduced in 1940 that would pay 80% of the former wages to soldiers. The financing principle of this insurance worked well and was later adopted for social security introduced in 1948. New taxes on property and high incomes were raised to finance the increased defence expenditure. So liberals and conservatives made several concessions to socialist demands while the Social Democratic Party agreed to support national defense.

The Swiss people didn't want to get involved in radical political experiments, and they distrusted the right-wing extremist Frontists (sympathising with the Nazis) even more strongly than the communists. Switzerland's Social Democrats became less radical in the course of the 1930's and were able to increase the number of votes gained in parliamentary elections from 25.9% (1939) to 28.6% (1943). Together with losses of the so far predominant Radical Party this meant, that the Social Democrats became the strongest of four big political parties in Switzerland. Members of parliament felt, that it would be better not to ignore this and so they elected for the first time a member of the Social Democratic Party into the Federal Council [government] in December 1943. The 1943 government consisted of 3 members of the Radical Party, 2 members of the Catholic Conservative Party, 1 member of the Farmer's and Small Businessmen's Party and 1 Social Democrat.

Official Neutrality and Pro-Allied Mood

In the course of the 1930'er years the Nazi regime brought the German and Austrian press into line so that Swiss media remained the only German-language platform for public criticism on the Nazi ideology. Socialist and liberal Swiss newspapers and Switzerland's National Public Radio (founded 1931, transmitter upgrade for european coverage 1937) did their best to unmask Adolf Hitler and his inhuman political programme. They were a strong counterpoint to Goebbels' propaganda on Germany's broadcasts. During World War II Switzerland's national public radio (www.swissinfo.org) and the British Broadcasting Corporation (www.bbcnews.com) built up a reputation for independent information and they have kept up their professional standards since.

For geographical and cultural reasons Germany was always the most important trade partner to Switzerland. As most other countries, Switzerland was still in an economic recession at this time while Germany boomed due to Hitler's industrial initiatives. So Switzerland's economic dependancy on its large neighbour Germany was even bigger than in normal times. This is the reason, why the Swiss government took some censorship measures focusing on external trade matters. Despite this, the most important and in particular the successful newspapers came out with a clear demarcation against the Nazi regime. (Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland - World War II, final report, p. 80)

Together with the relatively free press (despite censorship) there were also satirists attacking the Nazis: Die Pfeffermühle [the pepper mill] with the German political refugees Therese Giehse and Erika Mann preferred quiet tones in their performances in Zurich starting as early as 1933, yet the message directed against Adolf Hitler was quite clearly understood. There were numerous disturbances of the appearances by small Nazi friendly groups. The Swiss Cabaret Cornichon [french: pickled cucumber] offered programs with concise allusions on Nazism starting from 1934 in Zurich and other Swiss citites. Several plays written by the German writer Bert Brecht (Galileo Galilei, Der gute Mensch von Sezuan) had their first performance at the theatre of Zurich, directed by emigrant Leonard Steckel (1933 -1953 in Switzerland). Many other German and Austrian emigrants were granted asylum in Switzerland.

Not only emigrants and Swiss intellectuals but also the majority of the Swiss population were critical of Nazism. This was publicly expressed by increased interest in national Swiss monuments (against Nazi dreams of an all-German empire) and especially for the national exhibition of 1939 in Zurich where the public showed an almost religious fervor to defend Switzerland's independence and democracy against Nazism. "According to contemporary reports of the mood at the time, the Swiss people had never really identified with any one of the warring parties; however, they were always pro-British due to a marked and profound aversion to both National Socialism and, to a great extent, to a powerful Germany, and also, surprisingly, increasingly pro-Russian as early as 1942." (Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland - World War II, final report, p. 81)

Economic dependency

A small but industrialized country with virtually no raw materials

Switzerland's industry always depended to an extraordinary extent on exporting machinery, watches, chemicals and pharmaceutics. The high population density, hard conditions for agriculture especially in the alpine region and a scarcity on raw materials are responsible for a notorious deficit in food production and a notorious trade deficit. During the 20th century tourism, transport services and financial services (banking and insurance) had to provide for a favourable balance of payments. During World War II imports fell from 30 % of the net national product (average value at the end of the 1920's and again during the 1950's) to 9 %, exports from 25% to 9% and tourism to almost zero. (Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland - World War II, final report, p. 55-58)

Switzerland Surrounded by Fascist Nations

Switzerland's neighbours Germany, Austria, France and Italy have always been it's most important trade partners. During World War II Switzerland was completely surrounded by Germany (including Austria from 1938 to 1945), it's ally Italy and by France (partly occupied by German troops from Summer 1940, partly controlled by the Vichy-based regime collaborating with Germany after the french surrender in 1940). Any Swiss import or export to other trade partners was under German control!

  Map of Central Europe, post war borders

Switzerland had to choose between keeping up it's trade and financial relations with it's neighbours on a normal pre-war level OR complete surrender and collaboration. There was absolutely no chance for a third way.

Switzerland, unlike Austria, chose as much independence as possible for a small country under the conditions dictated by the great powers.

Rationing and "cultivation battle"

During the war food was scarce, the authorities aimed at a fair distribution with rationing. Each person was allowed to buy only a certain quantity of food and goods of daily use per month, monthly rationing stamps were delivered to control this. Very many articles of daily use were rationed: sugar, pasta, rice, wheat, corn, butter, fats, oils, textiles, shoes, soap, coffee, tea, cocoa, cheese, eggs, milk, meat, honey, jam, chocolate, gasoline The rationing could be waived completely only more than three years after end of war.

Already in April 1939 the Swiss parliament approved a resolution for the increase of agricultural production. Every green area that seemed to be usable was cultivated in the so-called "cultivation battle" according to the Wahlen Plan with bread grain, vegetables or potatoes. The cultivated area almost tripled till the end of war, the self-sufficiency degree rose from 52 % in 1939 to 59 % (compared to pre-war consumption), which meant 80 % considering the scarcer rations during war . Still, 20 % of food and almost all raw materials had to be imported because there are no significant deposits in Switzerland.
Details on rationing of food and the cultivation battle

Why did Hitler not attack Switzerland?

During World War II, Switzerland was not actually attacked. Occasional incidents were absolutely insignificant in view of the dimensions of the Second World War. Incidents proceeded more frequently from British and American bombers than from Germany or Italy. Nevertheless German troops were regarded as a really serious threat. Unlike for other nations (for example Sweden), this threat was real, insofar as Hitler did have plans to incorporate all German-speaking regions into his empire (including 70% of Switzerland) and to integrate the rest of Switzerland (french and italian speaking areas) into France and Italy respectively. (see Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland - World War II, final report, p. 87)

The plans for the attack were ready in the drawers of the German army. (final report, p. 84) German broadcast propaganda went "Die Schweiz, das kleine Stachelschwein, nehmen wir auf dem Rückweg ein" ["We'll take Switzerland, the small porcupine, on our way back home!"] (quoted after oral family tradition, consistent with lots of independent other oral sources published in the internet). - and this was taken quite seriously. Nevertheless the attack was never carried out. Why this?

 Switzerland, World War II
Antitank-Obstacle in Switzerland, World War II
  • Switzerland demonstrated military readiness with the general mobilization in 1939 and border occupation by 430,000 troops (20 % of the employed persons). However, their equipment was not very up to date. Eugen Bircher, a Swiss colonel at the time, probably made a correct assessment of the situation when saying that the Germans would have been able to advance towards the Swiss capital Berne with a single tank regiment easily. (Edgar Bonjour, Neutralität, Bd. IV, 1970, p. 379 quoted after Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland - World War II, final report, German edition, p. 92. Note that the english edition of the final report, p. 89f does not give the important adverb "easily")
    This assessment was shared (but not declared publicly) by a broad majority of leading Swiss Army officers. As a consequence Switzerland's commander in chief General Henri Guisan developped his famous "Reduit Concept" in summer 1940, according to which the Swiss Army would have retreated into the alps relatively soon if attacked, but would have kept up resistance based on some sort of guerilla tactics from there.
    Consequently the term "Grenzbesetzung" [occupation of the borders] was replaced by "Aktivdienst" [active (military) service, the term "active" was meant as a counterpoint to 3-week military repetition courses that Swiss soldiers have to attend annually.] After the (international) debate on Switzerland's refugee politics and looted jewish assets in the 1990's there is now a new (internal) debate about the Reduit Concept among members of the so-called Aktivdienstgeneration [generation of people that were called to active military service]. It seems, that they are becoming aware only today, how soon General Guisan would have retreated Swiss troops from the borders into the Reduit, trying to prevent useless bloodshed on terrain, where the aggressor could use his tanks and aircraft, but leaving the majority of the population under occupation. The main strategy, however, was deterrence rather than fighting - and this worked out better than a sober external observer would have estimated. Of course, General Guisan did not communicate his detailed plans publicly in 1940 ...

  • Integrating the German speaking regions (74%) of Switzerland into the Third Reich - as Adolf Hitler did with Austria in 1938 and planned with Switzerland - would have led to civil disobedience and massive "internal" criticism within the Reich, thereby absorbing too many forces of secret police and armed forces and it might even have strengthened the internal resistance in Germany against the Nazi regime. The Swiss concept of Spiritual Defense also had a deterring effect insofar as due to this movement the Swiss population was not at all "demoralized and ready for capitulation", as Adolf Hitler tried to get his victims by massive propaganda.

  • Switzerland's alpine railways were of central importance for transports between Germany and Italy . In case of an attack on Switzerland, the Swiss Army would have destroyed important bridges and tunnels, and would have paralyzed the connection for years. The Swiss compromise offer to Germany and Italy was, that Switzerland would allow transports between Germany and Italy in sealed box cars without checking the contents - in exchange for the supply of vital raw materials and goods. This obviously was more attractive to Germany than a destroyed railway line. On the other hand, exporting industry products (chemicals, pharmceutics, machinery and electrical equipment) was far more vital for Switzerland as a small country than importing was for Germany and Italy - big nations having together 25 times the Swiss population and being able to use industrial resources all over occupied Europe.

  • Some historians say, that financial services, especially buying gold from Germany in exchange for convertible currency (Germany's national currency was no longer accepted as a means of payment in the international markets) was also an important factor. The Independent Commission of Experts showed that the Chairman of the Swiss National Bank (SNB) did not use this argument during the Second World War. "It was only after the war ... that the SNB directors claimed that their gold transactions and positive relations with Germany had prevented Germany from seriously considering the option of military operations against Switzerland. ... One might just as well claim that with its «business as usual» approach, the SNB had effectively prevented Switzerland from using the convertibility of its currency as a trump card in the economic negotiations with Germany, thus neutralising the dissuasive potential." (Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland - World War II, final report, p. 247f)

The defense of Switzerland was thus based only on three columns (army, Spiritual Defense and alpine transit), but all of them were quite weak. So it was ever more important to combine them in a most effective way. The international debate on Switzerland's role in World War II has split public opinion into two camps: Swiss traditionalists defend the glorious role of the Swiss Army while leftist critics point to anything that has been done wrong according to moral standards. A sober look at the real balance of power between Germany and Austria vs. tiny Switzerland and the fact that France and Great Britain were not able to prevent Germany from occupying France in 1940 shows that Switzerland's Army (even backed up by Spiritual Defense) had absolutely no chance to withstand an attack and defend its borders.

Therefore an attempt to rely on military deterrence alone would inevitably have ended in being defeated - and thus practically all Swiss citizens of Jewish origin as well as some 100,000 military and some 60,000 civilian refugees admitted by Switzerland would have faced deportation to the concentration and death camps of the Nazis.

I estimate that alpine transportation was the key "joker" of Switzerland. Jokers have no effect, however, if not played out. An alpine transit railway with severe restrictions for use would have been of limited interest for Nazi Germany just as a destroyed one, and it would not have served as an argument to prevent a Nazi attack on Switzerland. Under acute threat it was obviously very difficult to estimate, how many concessions would convince Adolf Hitler to renounce on an attack. Given the weak negotiating position thus no other choice remained for Switzerland than to permit rather too many of the often criticized transports than too few.

Accusations against Switzerland concerning it's role in World War II

  • Train transports:

    Transports of goods through Switzerland as such were based on normal pre- and post-war relations. Germany and Italy were heavily engaged in the construction of the Gotthard railway line in the 19th century and passage was based on the German-Italian-Swiss treaty of 1909, which regulated traffic until the end of the war. Transport of soldiers and weapons were officially forbidden. The Nazis used the Brenner pass in Austria for the majority of military transports to Italy. A BBC television report of 1997 presented an eye-witness saying she had seen a train carrying Jews to extermination camps at Zurich station in November 1943.
    more The Train. Were Jews transported through Switzerland to Nazi death camps?
    (Documentation and open questions by PBS Public Broadcasting Service, USA)

    The Bergier Commission found no evidence for such transports. Of 43 trains that could be tracked down, 39 went via Austria (Brenner, Tarvisio), one via France (Ventimiglia - Nice) «and there is nothing to suggest that the other three passed through Switzerland. It is highly unlikely that such an unusual type of transport would have gone unnoticed by the railway workers and customs officials, the military and the station police. Moreover, such a train would certainly have avoided Zurich central station. ... On the other hand, it is possible that the train could have been carrying people back from the concentration camps; these return transports started in 1944» (and some repatriation trains went through Switzerland officially, organized by the Red Cross). (Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland - World War II, final report, p. 226)

  • Refugee Politics

    During the Second World War, millions of people were deported by the Nazis from Germany and from the occupied territories in Europe to concentration camps in eastern Europe and murdered there (Holocaust).
    Swiss diplomates were involved in the creation of the «J»-stamp to mark the passports of German Jews, a discriminating measure that made escaping more difficult.
    Switzerland did accomodate some 55,000 civilian refugees, but approximately 20'000 - 25'000 refugees were rejected at the border, which meant sure death for most of them. The Swiss authorities even refused normal diplomatic protection for Swiss citizens of Jewish faith in Germany and occupied countries.
    more Switzerland's Refugee Politics during World War II

  • Looted Assets:

    The Nazi regime in Germany forced many of their victims to sign orders for the transfer of their accounts and other assets with Swiss banks and insurance companies to German banks, where they would be confiscated. Swiss banks did not doubt these orders. This way they made it unnecessarily easy for the Nazis to loote their victims' assets.

  • Gold Transactions:

    During World War II the Swiss National Bank (SNB) bought gold worth 1,212,600 million Swiss Francs from the German Reichsbank, which was far more than the gold reserves of the Reichsbank had amounted to before the war. Buying and selling gold was quite a normal thing for a national bank at this time because gold was the very base of the international currency system. In the same period, SNB also bought even more gold (worth 2,243,900 Swiss Francs) from the USA. The problem was, that much of the gold sold by the German Reichbank was either stolen from national banks in occupied countries, especially Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, and other gold was stolen from people the Nazis had murdered.
    Switzerland's Federal Government granted generous credits to Germany and Italy under the terms of the clearing agreements and offered them financial privileges.
    Swiss art-dealers were involved in disreputable trade with stolen objects of art.

  • Dormant Accounts

    Some of the victims of holocaust had accounts in Switzerland, but under these tragic circumstances surviving heirs were not easily able to know whether there was any account at all and exactly with which bank institute in Switzerland. After the war, Swiss bankers generally declared account of people that did not reply to letters or send letters to the bank with exact reference to the account number as "dormant accounts". This fact alone is a standard procedure not worth commenting. The problem is, that bankers were not very cooperative with surviving heirs that tried to find the accounts of their relatives. Only in the debate about Switzerland and World War II after 1995, they were willing to publish a list of dormant accounts and to cooperate.

  • Forced labour

    Subsidiaries of Swiss companies employed about 11,000 forced labourers in Germany and occupied countries. (Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland - World War II, final report, p. 311-320)

  • Did Switzerland prolong the War?

    «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. (Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland - World War II, final report, p. 518)
    more Switzerland's neutrality under question


«Historians are not judges. A historical commission is not a court of law. It is therefore not a question of indicting individuals, groups or entire countries for their actions, or, indeed, exonorating them. But it is important to focus on the question of responsibility.
A democratic state does not stand in isolation Its citizens, legislators, administrators, and decision-makers therefore occupy a position of dual responsibility, i.e., to their own country and to the international community. In the period with which we are dealing, this dual obligation was not met.»
(Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland - World War II, final report, p. 521)

The international community as a whole and its representatives have failed to establish a stable order after World War I, to perceive the absolutely ruthless character of Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Party in Germany and to take effective measures to stop him in time and last but not least when they should have accomodated Jews, Roma, Sinti and Jenisch people as refugees. Switzerland was not really an exception. As a small country surrounded by Hitler's troops, Switzerland was not free to choose what might have been right from an idealistic point of view; it accomodated even more refugees than other nations with fewer problems did; but it could and should have done more. Looking back we should however not fail to notice that extraordinary things cannot easily be foreseen. The international community did learn from World War II and from the Holocaust insofar as the international law was amended with
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and
The Fourth Geneva Convention

Our generation is obliged to learn from the past and to keep a sharp eye on any attempts to undermine democracy by propagating authoritarian ideologies. Special vigilance is necessary against all sorts of pretensions on "leadership" (by single nations, parties, econonomic associations etc.), against all attempts to undermine the separation of democratic powers between people, parliament, government and courts. "Checks and balances" between different groups in society and between the nations are fundamental - and the only means to prevent the concentration and the abuse of power. Switzerland's special political system of "Direct Democracy" with frequent referendums is one, but not the only instrument for doing so. Still more important than the mere existence of democratic instruments is their vigilant use by "ordinary citizens".

Literature and links on Switzerland's History / World War II:

Literature and links on History of World War II:

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