Switzerland during the World Wars

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During both World War I and World War II, Switzerland managed to keep a stance of armed neutrality, and was not involved militarily. However, precisely because of its neutral status, Switzerland was of considerable interest to all parties involved, as the scene for diplomacy, espionage, commerce, and as a safe haven for refugees.

World War I

Alliances in Europe in 1915. Switzerland (yellow) found itself surrounded by members of opposing alliances
Swiss officers' barracks in the Umbrail Pass during World War I

Switzerland maintained a state of armed neutrality during the First World War. However, with two of the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) and two of the Entente Powers (France and Italy) all sharing borders and populations with Switzerland, neutrality proved difficult. From December 1914 until the spring of 1918 Swiss troops deployed in the Jura along the French border over concern that the trench war might spill into Switzerland. Of lesser concern was the Italian border, but troops were also stationed in the Unterengadin region of Graubünden.[1] While the German-speaking majority in Switzerland generally favored the Central Powers, the French- and, later, Italian-speaking populations sided with the Entente Powers, which would cause conflict in 1918. However, the country managed to keep out of the war. During the war Switzerland was blockaded by the Allies and therefore suffered some difficulties. However, because Switzerland was centrally located, neutral, and generally undamaged, the war allowed the growth of the Swiss banking industry.[1] For the same reasons, Switzerland became a haven for refugees and revolutionaries.

Following the organisation of the army in 1907 and military expansion in 1911, the Swiss Army consisted of about 250,000 men with an additional 200,000 in supporting roles.[2] Both European alliance-systems took the size of the Swiss military into account in the years prior to 1914, especially in the Schlieffen Plan.

Following the declarations of war in late July 1914, on August 1, 1914 Switzerland mobilized its army; by August 7 the newly appointed general Ulrich Wille had about 220,000 men under his command. By August 11 Wille had deployed much of the army along the Jura border with France, with smaller units deployed along the eastern and southern borders. This remained unchanged until May 1915 when Italy entered the war on the Entente side, at which point troops were deployed to the Unterengadin valley, Val Müstair and along the southern border.

Replica of a balloon observer of the Swiss Army in World War I

Once it became clear that the Allies and the Central Powers would respect Swiss neutrality, the number of troops deployed began to drop. After September 1914, some soldiers were released to return to their farms and to vital industries. By November 1916 the Swiss had only 38,000 men in the army. This number increased during the winter of 1916–17 to over 100,000 as a result of a proposed French attack that would have crossed Switzerland. When this attack failed to occur the army began to shrink again. Because of widespread workers' strikes, at the end of the war the Swiss army had shrunk to only 12,500 men.[3]

During the war "belligerents" crossed the Swiss borders about 1,000 times,[3] with some of these incidents occurring around the Dreisprachen Piz or Three Languages Peak (near the Stelvio Pass; the languages being Italian, Romansh and German). Switzerland had an outpost and a hotel (which was destroyed as it was used by the Austrians) on the peak. During the war, fierce battles were fought in the ice and snow of the area, with gun fire even crossing into Swiss areas at times. The three nations made an agreement not to fire over Swiss territory which jutted out between Austria (to the north) and Italy (to the south). Instead they could fire down the pass, as Swiss territory was around the peak.

During the fighting, Switzerland became a haven for many politicians, artists, pacifists, and thinkers.[4] Bern, Zürich, and Geneva became centers of debate and discussion. In Zürich two very different anti-war groups would bring lasting changes to the world, the Bolsheviks and the Dadaists.

Plaque on Lenin's house at Spiegelgasse 14 in Zürich

The Bolsheviks, a faction of Russian socialists, centered around Vladimir Lenin. Following the outbreak of the war, Lenin was stunned when the large Social Democratic parties of Europe (at that time predominantly Marxist in orientation) supported their various respective countries' war efforts. Lenin (against the war in his belief that the peasants and workers were fighting the battle of the bourgeoisie for them) adopted the stance that what he described as an "imperialist war" ought to be turned into a civil war between the classes. He left Austria for neutral Switzerland in 1914 following the outbreak of the war and remained active in Switzerland until 1917. Following the 1917 February Revolution in Russia and the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II he left Switzerland on the sealed train to Petrograd, where he would shortly lead the 1917 October Revolution in Russia.

Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich, as it appeared in 2006

While the Dada art movement was also an anti-war organization, Dadaists used art to oppose all wars. The founders of the movement had left Germany and Romania to escape the destruction of the war. At the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich they put on performances expressing their disgust with the war and with the interests that inspired it. By some accounts Dada coalesced on October 6, 1916 at the cabaret. The artists used abstraction to fight against the social, political, and cultural ideas of that time that they believed had caused the war. Dadaists viewed abstraction as the result of a lack of planning and of logical thought-processes.[5] When World War I ended in 1918, most of the Zürich Dadaists returned to their home countries, and some began Dada activities in other cities.

In 1917 Switzerland's neutrality came into question when the Grimm–Hoffmann Affair erupted. Robert Grimm, a Swiss socialist politician, travelled to Russia as an activist to negotiate a separate peace between Russia and Germany, in order to end the war on the Eastern Front in the interests of socialism and pacifism. Misrepresenting himself as a diplomat and an actual representative of the Swiss government, he made progress but had to admit to fraud and return home when the Allies found out about the proposed peace deal. Neutrality was restored by the resignation of Arthur Hoffmann, the Swiss Federal Councillor who had supported Grimm but had not consulted his colleagues on the initiative.

During the war Switzerland accepted 68,000 British, French and German wounded prisoners of war for recovery in mountain resorts. The wounded were transferred from prisoner of war camps unable to cope with the number of wounded and sat out the war in Switzerland. The transfer was agreed between the warring powers and organised by the Red Cross.[6]

Interwar period

One potential result of World War I was an expansion of Switzerland itself during the Interwar period. In a referendum held in the Austrian state of Vorarlberg on May 11, 1920 over 80% of those voting supported a proposal that the state join the Swiss Confederation. However, this was prevented by the opposition of the Austrian Government, the Allies, Swiss liberals, the Swiss-Italians and the Swiss-French.[7]

However Liechtenstein managed to exclude itself from Austria in 1918 and signed a monetary and customs union with Switzerland that effectively guaranteed its independence. In 1920, Switzerland joined the League of Nations.

In 1934 the Swiss Banking Act was passed. This allowed for anonymous numbered bank accounts, in part to allow Germans (including Jews) to hide or protect their assets from seizure by the newly established "Third Reich".

In 1936 Wilhelm Gustloff was assassinated at Davos; he was the head of the Nazi Party's "Auslands-Organisation" in Switzerland. The Swiss government refused to extradite the alleged assassin David Frankfurter to Germany. Frankfurter was sentenced to 18 years in prison but was pardoned in 1946.

As European tension grew in the 1930s, the Swiss began to rethink their political and military situation. The Social Democratic party abandoned their revolutionary and anti-military stances, and soon the country began to rearm for war.[8] BGB Federal Councillor Rudolf Minger, predicting war would come in 1939, led the rebuilding of the Swiss Army. Starting in 1936, he secured a larger defence budget and started a war bond system. The army was restructured into smaller, better equipped divisions and boot camp for conscripts was extended to 3 months of instruction. In 1937 a war economy cell was established. Households were encouraged to keep a two-month supply of food and basic necessities.[8] In 1938 Foreign Minister Giuseppe Motta withdrew Switzerland from the League of Nations, returning the country to its traditional form of neutrality.

Actions were also taken to prove Switzerland's independent national identity and unique culture from the surrounding Fascist powers. This policy was known as Geistige Landesverteidigung, or "spiritual national defence." In 1937, the government opened the Museum of Federal Charters. Increased use of Swiss German coincided with a national referendum that made Romansh a national language in 1938, a move designed to counter Benito Mussolini's attempts to incite Italian nationalism in the southern Ticino and Grigioni cantons.[8] In December of that year in a government address, Catholic Conservative Councillor Philipp Etter urged a defence of Swiss culture.Geistige Landesverteidigung subsequently exploded, being featured on stamps, in children's books, and through official publications.[8]

World War II

Switzerland was surrounded by territory controlled by the Axis Powers from 1940 to 1944.

At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Switzerland immediately began to mobilize for a possible invasion. The transition into wartime was smooth and caused less controversy than in 1914. The entire country was fully mobilized in only three days.[9] Parliament quickly selected the 61-year-old career soldier Henri Guisan to be General. By 3 September 430,000 men of combat troops and 200,000 men of mandatory support services and 10,000 women of the female support service had been mobilized, though most of these were sent home during the ensuing Phoney War.[8]

Swiss border patrol in the Alps during World War II

Over the course of the war, detailed invasion plans were drawn up by the German military command,[10] such as Operation Tannenbaum, but Switzerland was never attacked. Switzerland was able to remain independent through a combination of military deterrence, economic concessions to Germany, and good fortune as larger events during the war delayed an invasion. Attempts by Switzerland's small Nazi party to effect an Anschluss with Germany failed miserably, largely as a result of Switzerland's strong sense of national identity and long tradition of direct democracy and civil liberties. The Swiss press vigorously criticized the Third Reich, often infuriating its leadership. In turn, Berlin denounced Switzerland as a medieval remnant and its people renegade Germans. Under General Henri Guisan's central command, the military of Switzerland was mobilized to defend the country from possible foreign intrusion. The Swiss military strategy was changed from one of static defence at the borders, to a strategy of organized long-term attrition and withdrawal to strong, well-stockpiled positions high in the Alps known as the National Redoubt. This controversial strategy was essentially one of deterrence. The idea was to cause huge losses to German forces and render the cost of invading too high. During an invasion, the Swiss Army would cede control of the economic heartland and population centres, but retain control of crucial rail links and passes in the National Redoubt.

Switzerland was an important base for espionage by both sides in the conflict and often mediated communications between the Axis and Allied powers by serving as a protecting power. In 1942, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was established in Bern. Through the efforts of Allen Dulles, the first relevant US intelligence service in Western Europe was created. During the allied invasion of Italy, the OSS in Switzerland guided tactical efforts for the take-over of Salerno and the islands of Corsica and Sardinia.[11]

Despite the prevailing public and political attitudes in Switzerland, some higher-ranking officers within the Swiss Army had pro-Nazi sympathies: notably Colonel Arthur Fonjallaz and Colonel Eugen Bircher, who led the Schweizerischer Vaterländischer Verband. In Letters with Suzanne (French: Lettres à Suzanne, Lausanne, Switzerland, 1949), the Swiss journalist Léon Savary retrospectively denounced in this sense "the occult influence of Hitlerism on the Swiss people during the Second World War, which they were not conscious of being under".[12]

Nazi Violations

Nazi Germany repeatedly violated Swiss airspace. During the Invasion of France, German aircraft violated Swiss airspace at least 197 times.[13] In several air incidents, the Swiss shot down 11 Luftwaffe planes between May 10, 1940 and June 17, 1940.[13] Germany protested diplomatically on June 5, 1940, and with a second note on June 19, 1940 which contained clear threats. Hitler was especially furious when he saw that German equipment was used to shoot down German pilots. He said they would respond "in another manner".[13] On June 20, 1940, the Swiss air force was ordered to stop intercepting planes violating Swiss airspace. Swiss fighters began instead to force intruding aircraft to land at Swiss airfields. Anti-aircraft units still operated. Later, Hitler and Hermann Göring sent saboteurs to destroy Swiss airfields. However, the sabotage team was captured by the Swiss army before it could cause any damage.[14] Skirmishes between German and Swiss troops took place in the northern border of Switzerland throughout the war.

Allied Bombings and Violations

From 1943 Switzerland stopped American and British aircraft, mainly bombers, overflying Switzerland during World War II: six times by Swiss air force fighters and nine by flak cannons, and 36 airmen were killed. On October 1, 1943 the first American bomber was shot near Bad Ragaz: Only three men survived. The officers were interned in Davos, and the airmen in Adelboden. The representative of the US military intelligence in Bern, US military attaché Barnwell Legge, instructed the soldiers not to flee, but the majority of the soldiers thought it was a diplomatic joke.[15][16][17] Allied aircraft also intruded on Swiss airspace during the war, mostly damaged Allied bombers returning from raids over Italy and Germany whose crews preferred internment by the Swiss to becoming prisoners of war. Over a hundred Allied aircraft and their crews were interned. They were subsequently put up in various ski resorts that had been emptied from lack of tourists due to the war and held until it ended.[18] At least 940 American airmen attempted to escape into France after the invasion of Normandy, but Swiss authorities intercepted 183 internees. Over 160 of these airmen were incarcerated in a prison camp called Wauwilermoos, which was located near Lucerne and commanded by André Béguin, a pro-Nazi Swiss officer. The American internees remained in Wauwilermoos until November 1944, when the U.S. State Department lodged protests against the Swiss government and secured their release.[19] The American military attaché in Bern warned Marcel Pilet-Golaz, Swiss foreign minister in 1944, that "the mistreatment inflicted on US aviators could lead to 'navigation errors' during bombing raids over Germany."[20]

Switzerland, surrounded by Axis-controlled territory, also suffered from Allied bombings during the war; most notably from the accidental bombing of Schaffhausen by American planes on April 1, 1944. It was mistaken for Ludwigshafen am Rhein, a German town 284 kilometres away. 40 people were killed and over 50 buildings destroyed, among them a group of small factories producing anti-aircraft shells, ball-bearings, and Bf-109 parts for Germany.[18][21][22][23]

The bombing limited much of the leniency the Swiss had shown toward Allied airspace violations. Eventually, the problem became so bad that they declared a zero-tolerance policy for violation by either Axis or Allied aircraft and authorized attacks on American aircraft.[24] Victims of these mistaken bombings were not limited to Swiss civilians, however, but included the often confused American aircrews, shot down by the Swiss fighters as well as several Swiss fighters shot down by American airmen. In February 1945, 18 civilians were killed by Allied bombs dropped over Stein am Rhein, Vals, and Rafz. Arguably the most notorious incident[25] came on March 4, 1945, when both Basel and Zurich were accidentally bombed by Allied aircraft. The attack on Basel's railway station led to the destruction of a passenger train, but no casualties were reported. However, a B-24 Liberator dropped its bomb load over Zürich, destroying two buildings and killing five civilians. The aircraft's crew believed that they were attacking Freiburg in Germany.[22] As John Helmreich points out, the pilot and navigator, in choosing a target of opportunity, "...missed the marshalling yard they were aiming for, missed the city they were aiming for, and even missed the country they were aiming for."

The Swiss, although somewhat skeptical, reacted by treating these violations of their neutrality as "accidents". The United States was warned that single aircraft would be forced down, and their crews would still be allowed to seek refuge, while bomber formations in violation of airspace would be intercepted. While American politicians and diplomats tried to minimize the political damage caused by these incidents, others took a more hostile view. Some senior commanders argued that, as Switzerland was "full of German sympathizers", it deserved to be bombed.[26] General Henry H. Arnold, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces, even suggested that it was the Germans themselves who were flying captured Allied planes over Switzerland in an attempt to gain a propaganda victory.[27]


As a neutral state bordering Germany, Switzerland was easy to reach for refugees from the Nazis. However, Switzerland's refugee laws, especially with respect to Jews fleeing Germany, were strict and have caused controversy since the end of World War II. From 1933 until 1944 asylum for refugees could only be granted to those who were under personal threat owing to their political activities only;[28] it did not include those who were under threat due to race, religion or ethnicity. On the basis of this definition, Switzerland granted asylum to only 644 people between 1933 and 1945; of these, 252 cases were admitted during the war.[28] All other refugees were admitted by the individual cantons and were granted different permits, including a "tolerance permit" that allowed them to live in the canton but not to work. Over the course of the war, Switzerland interned 300,000 refugees.[29] Of these, 104,000 were foreign troops interned according to the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers outlined in the Hague Conventions. The rest were foreign civilians and were either interned or granted tolerance or residence permits by the cantonal authorities. Refugees were not allowed to hold jobs. Of the refugees, 60,000 were civilians escaping persecution by the Nazis. Of these, 26,000 to 27,000 were Jews.[28] Between 10,000 and 24,000 Jewish civilian refugees were refused entry.[28] Although Switzerland harboured more Jewish refugees than any other country, these refugees were refused entry on the grounds of already dwindling supplies. Of those refused entry, a Swiss government representative said, "Our little lifeboat is full." At the beginning of the war, Switzerland had a Jewish population of between 18,000[30] and 28,000[13][31] and a total population of about 4 million. By the end of the war, there were over 115,000 refuge-seeking people of all categories in Switzerland, representing the maximum number of refugees at any one time.[28]

Switzerland also acted as a refuge for Allied prisoners of war who escaped, including those from Oflag IV-C (Colditz).[32]

Financial relationships with Nazi Germany

Switzerland's trade was blockaded by both the Allies and by the Axis. Each side openly exerted pressure on Switzerland not to trade with the other. Economic cooperation and extension of credit to the Third Reich varied according to the perceived likelihood of invasion, and the availability of other trading partners. Concessions reached their zenith after a crucial rail link through Vichy France was severed in 1942, leaving Switzerland completely surrounded by the Axis. Switzerland relied on trade for half of its food and essentially all of its fuel, but controlled vital trans-alpine rail tunnels between Germany and Italy. Switzerland's most important exports during the war were precision machine tools, watches, jewel bearings (used in bomb sights), electricity, and dairy products. Until 1936, the Swiss franc was the only remaining major freely convertible currency in the world,[33] and both the Allies and the Germans sold large amounts of gold to the Swiss National Bank. Between 1940 and 1945, the German Reichsbank sold 1.3 billion francs worth of gold to Swiss Banks in exchange for Swiss francs and other foreign currency, which were used to buy strategically important raw materials like tungsten and oil from neutral countries.[28] Hundreds of millions of francs worth of this gold was monetary gold plundered from the central banks of occupied countries. A total of 581,000 francs' worth of "Melmer" gold taken from Holocaust victims in eastern Europe was sold to Swiss banks.[28] In total, trade between Germany and Switzerland contributed about 0.5% to the German war effort and did not significantly lengthen the war.[28]

Swiss National Bank gold transactions from September 1, 1939 to June 30, 1945
(in CHF millions)[28]
Great Britain668.60668.6
Federal Mint42.545.8−3.3

In the 1990s, controversy over a class-action lawsuit brought in Brooklyn, New York, over Jewish assets in Holocaust-era bank accounts prompted the Swiss government to commission the most recent and authoritative study of Switzerland's interaction with the Nazi regime. The final report by this independent panel of international scholars, known as the Bergier Commission,[28] was issued in 2002.

Swiss exports of arms, ammunition, and fuses (thousands of CHF) 1940–1944[28]

Under pressure from the Allies, in December 1943 quotas were imposed on the importation and exportation of certain goods and foodstuffs and in October 1944 the sale of munitions were halted. However the transit of goods by railway between Germany, Italy and occupied France continued. North-South transit trade across Switzerland increased from 2.5 million tons prior to the war to nearly 6 million tons per year. No troops or "war goods" were supposed to be transshipped. Switzerland was concerned that Germany would cease the supply of the coal it required if it blocked coal shipments to Italy while the Allies, despite some plans to do so, took no action as they were concerned to maintain good relations with Switzerland.[34] Between 1939 and 1945 Germany exported 10,267,000 tons of coal to Switzerland. In 1943 these imports supplied 41% of Swiss energy requirements. In the same period Switzerland sold electric power to Germany equivalent to 6,077,000 tons of coal.[35]

See also

Notes and references

  1. 1 2 World War I-Introduction in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
  2. World War I – Preparation in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
  3. 1 2 World War I – 1914 to 1918 in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
  4. Culture during World War I in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
  5. "Introduction".
  6. "Switzerland's forgotten role in saving World War One lives". bbc.com. BBC. May 30, 2016. Retrieved May 30, 2016.
  7. – Centre d'études et de documentation sur la démocratie directe
  8. 1 2 3 4 5 Church, Clive H.; Head, Randolph C. (2013), "The shocks of war, 1914–1950", A Concise History of Switzerland, Cambridge Concise Histories, New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 209–223, ISBN 978-0-521-14382-0
  9. Rudolf Jaun (September 2, 2014). "Mobilmachung der Armee von 1939: "Überall Menschen, Pferde, Aufregung"". Neue Zürcher Zeitung NZZ (in German). Zurich, Switzerland. Retrieved 2016-08-18.
  10. "Let's Swallow Switzerland" by Klaus Urner (Lexington Books, 2002).
  11. Bruce L. Brager (2006). The Office of Strategic Services. MilitaryHistoryOnline.com. Retrieved January 17, 2016.
  12. Chevallaz, Georges André (2001). The challenge of neutrality: diplomacy and the defense of Switzerland. Lexington Books.
  13. 1 2 3 4 The Neutrals by Time Life (Time Life Books, 1995) states 25,000
  14. Essential Militaria, Nicholas Hobbes, 2005
  15. Franz Kasperski (September 7, 2015). "Abgeschossen von der neutralen Schweiz" (in German). Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen SRF. Retrieved 2015-10-23.
  16. "Forced Landing". climage.ch. Retrieved 2015-10-23.
  17. "Gedenkstein für Internierten-Straflager" (in German). Schweiz aktuell. October 23, 2015. Retrieved 2015-10-23.
  18. 1 2 The Diplomacy of Apology: U.S. Bombings of Switzerland during World War II
  19. Dwight S. Mears, "The Catch-22 Effect: The Lasting Stigma of Wartime Cowardice in the U.S. Army Air Forces," The Journal of Military History 77 (July 2013): 1037–43.
  20. Olivier Grivat (February 11, 2013). "POW medal recognises US aviators' suffering". swissinfo. Retrieved 2015-10-23.
  21. Schaffhausen im Zweiten Weltkrieg
  22. 1 2 US-Bomben auf Schweizer Kantone
  23. Military Agency Records
  24. Regan, Geoffrey. Blue on Blue – A History of Friendly Fire. Avin Books, New York, 1995.
  25. Halbrook, Stephen (2003). Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality in World War II. Da Capo Press. p. 224. ISBN 0-306-81325-4.
  26. Prince, Cathryn (2003). Shot from the sky : American POWs in Switzerland. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press. p. 179. ISBN 1-55750-433-4.
  27. Petersen, Neal (1996). From Hitler's Doorstep: the Wartime Intelligence Reports of Allen Dulles, 1942–1945. University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State Press. p. 398. ISBN 0-271-01485-7.
  28. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Bergier, Jean-Francois; W. Bartoszewski; S. Friedländer; H. James; H. Junz; G. Kreis; S. Milton; J. Picard; J. Tanner; D. Thürer; J. Voyame (2002). Final Report of the Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland – Second World War (PDF). Zürich: Pendo Verlag GmbH. p. 107. ISBN 3-85842-603-2.
  29. Asylum in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
  30. Switzerland from the Shoah Resource Foundation accessed February 4, 2009
  31. Second World War-Refugees in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland. states 28,000
  32. Reid, Pat The Colditz Story, The Latter Days at Colditz
  33. Helmreich, Dr. Jonathan E. (Summer 2000). "The Diplomacy of Apology: U.S. Bombings of Switzerland during World War II". Aerospace Power Journal.
  34. Golson, p.294

Further reading

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