The Swiss and the Nazis by Stephen P. Halbrook

Take a look at an atlas of Europe during the Second World War, and one anomaly stands out – Switzerland. From the German Anschluss with Austria in 1938 until Hitlers final downfall in 1945, the Swiss stood virtually surrounded. They were, in fact, the only country bordering the Third Reich to escape invasion. How did this happen? Stephen Halbrook has used original Swiss Documents, interviews and a wide breadth of research to attempt to answer why Switzerland escaped the Nazi onslaught.

Politically Switzerland was in a difficult dilemma. Bordering Germany, she could not afford to provoke her more powerful neighbour. Ethnically also, Switzerland is a loose confederation of different roots, and Swiss people speak French, German and Italian – a complex mix indeed in 1940. Economically, the Swiss depended on trade with Germany to survive. Intriguingly, the Oerlikon weapons company managed to trade with both Germany and the Allies at the same time.

In terms of public opinion, it seems that the hearts of most Swiss – politicians, generals and public – were tacitly with the allies. None the less, the Swiss leadership cannily realised that if they showed too much support for the Allies the Wehrmacht would roll across the border like a shot. Yet the Swiss media were allowed considerable latitude in lampooning and satirising the Nazis, something that the Germans frequently complained about, but to no avail. Crucially, the Swiss media also criticised communism as strongly. The constant being being that the Swiss seemed to oppose totalitarianism in all its forms.

Contrary to the popular perception that Switzerland is a peaceful, eternally neutral country, the Swiss have long had a martial heritage. The Swiss confederation of cantons was in fact founded by war, as the Swiss people sought to defend their right to neutrality. Swiss soldiers became highly sought after in the middle ages as mercenaries. The Vatican’s Swiss Guard are a prime example of this.

As war approached in 1939, from a young age virtually every young Swiss man had spent years practicing rifle shooting, and most owned weapons. Most had also spent time serving with the part-time army. Not for nothing was the Wehrmacht wary of the fighting potential of the Swiss – one report feared ‘a sniper behind every tree’. On several occasions Hitler ordered an invasion to be planned, but on each occasion the planning staffs concluded that the invasion would be far too costly for the gains that would be achieved.

Geographically Switzerland was also in a strong position. Much of the country is composed of the Alps, providing an ideal location for a ‘national redoubt’, where the German tanks, aircraft and paratroops would have been next to useless. A German marching song of the time referred to Switzerland as a’porcupine’. A more accurate description might have been that of a hedgehog.

Compare the Swiss experience with that of another country that was initially neutral. Holland stood in the way of the German invasion of France and Belgium, and also prevented control of the North Sea coast. The border with Germany was flat and wide open, and the Dutch armed forces were minimal, poorly equipped and lacked a martial culture such as in Switzerland.

I enjoyed this book immensely, and found it very interesting. Perhaps I might have liked to have read a little about the allied escape lines that ran through the country, with Prisoners feeling captivity to Switzerland and then being fed on home.

The Swiss and the Nazis is published by Casemate



Filed under Book of the Week, Uncategorized, World War Two

32 responses to “The Swiss and the Nazis by Stephen P. Halbrook

  1. John Erickson

    Switzerland has an interesting companion in its’ WW2 neutrality – Sweden. And for a couple of the same reasons. First, Sweden did TRY to play true neutral, although their pro-Allied lean was more noticeable than Switzerland’s. Second and third were the terrain and martial heritage. Both of these, just as strongly as the Swiss’, kept the Germans out. And remember, for all the hoopla about German invincibility, they were notoriously weak in mountain gear. Most of their weaponry was either borrowed from civilian gear, regular Army gear, or cobbled together items dating back to early WW1. They WERE well trained and VERY able fighters, but there was no support or enthusiasm for the Gebirgjaeger in the ranks of the German High Command. A lucky thing for both the neutrals, and later, the Allies as well! I would love to see a book about the Scandinavian countries, contrasting Norway’s occupation by Germany, Sweden’s neutrality, and Finland’s swing from pro-Nazi anti-Soviet to occupied Soviet territory. Then again, what do you expect from a guy with the surname “Erickson”? 😉

  2. x

    The Dutch don’t have a martial heritage? Really? 😉

    Up the coast a bit from Portsmouth around the corner is a little place called Chatham……….

    It is now one all in the X vs JD game of forget important chunks of military history.

    • James Daly

      I know what you mean X, the Dutch have got a great seafaring heritage – Camper Down, Beachy Head, etc. But when I think of the words ‘Dutch Army’, I’m left with a bit of a void up top…

    • John Erickson

      (Blink, blink) But, like, how can that be important? I mean, that stuff happened, like, 110 years before REAL history started, fer sure. You Europeans are, like, WAY too hung up on old stuff. Besides, we TOTALLY saved all y’alls butts in 2 world wars! :p
      Thanks for the heads-up on that, X. That’s not a really heavily covered piece of European history over here. (Like ANY of European history is covered over here!)

      • x

        You must never fall for the American History Myth.

        There was a US of A along time before there was a Germany or an Italy. The US has had the same system of government while France is on political system number whatever. As is Spain. Greece was still a part of Turkey in 1776 etc. etc. and so on. And before Independence your history is our history.

      • John Erickson

        (Gasp!) Blasphemy! The only British over here prior to 1776 were the evil oppressors of our great American forefathers! How DARE you suggest Britain and America have ANYTHING in common? We don’t even speak the same language!:D
        France ain’t so bad with governments. Don’t you know the Internet sensation known as Chat Roulette was inspired by post-WW2 Italian governments? And with all due respect to your learned-ness, I don’t think Washington or Adams were supported by PACs that drop millions of dollars to get their support. (OK, we’ll call it the same government, just with VASTLY improved cash flow.) And don’t worry, I learned to avoid the American History Myth (“If it ain’t American History, it’s a Myth!”) decades ago. Made a LOT of History teachers mad (and then WILDLY uncomfortable) when I’d refute Myth-history (like WW2 started 07-Dec-41). The odd part, was no matter how peeved the teacher was, I never got less than an A – almost as if they didn’t want to push the issue (unlike my 10th grade Social Studies teacher, who just let ME teach the WW2 section!). Lotsa fun!

  3. x

    During the Revolution a party of Red Coats were searching a village. They came to one house, knocked on the door, and the owner refused to let them in,

    “An Englishman’s home is his castle,” floated the reply from behind the door.

    The Revolution was a Civil War. In 1775 there was no difference between Scotsmen, Irishmen, Englishmen, or Americans they were all British.

    Would you feel happier if I came over and burned something down?

    • James Daly

      ‘Would you feel happier if I came over and burned something down?’

      Careful, you’ll have Mel Gibson to answer to…

    • John Erickson

      Oh sure. And I suppose the next thing you’ll tell me is you Brits trashed DC in 1812. (Oh, wait, um…) No, wait. OK, the next thing you’re gonna tell me is your precious little Monty held all the GOOD German units outside Caen, and made the Normandy breakout possible! (Oops.. dang..) Oh, foo on you! 😛
      Seriously, try telling Americans the “Revolutionary War” was actually a Civil War. Jeez, you’d think you just insulted their mother or something! And then there is the much-celebrated American victory over the British at New Orleans in 1814 – never, EVER mention the minor detail that the war had been over for 2 years! And of course, the US Army carried you pathetic Brits all the way across Europe in 1944! (And now you know why Social Studies teachers in high school learned to dread having me in their class!)
      And if anybody’s gonna burn down anything, it’s me. Remember, I’m the one who’s an honourary Coldstream Guardsman, so it would be my duty. 😉 (The idea I might rid America of some of its’ hated and hateful politicians is just frosting on the cake!) 😀

    • John Erickson

      But this is just more of your British propaganda! Why should a good, patriotic American pay attention to the lunatic ramblings of a Limey?!? :p
      Okay, X, I give up. You’re giving me a headache trying to think like an American! 😉 I’ve spent too many years learning REAL facts to try to go back to that pseudo-historic nonsense! (Dude, I had a couple HUNDRED different American re-enacting groups to join. Why the heck do you think I did German, British, Canadian, and Polish? I like my history WITHOUT an over-painting of American propaganda!) 😀

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