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