Reasonable Doubts: Neither Nationalist nor Socialist

How the Swiss kept their freedom in World War II


An "island of liberty and harmony in a sea of dictatorship and discord" and "a citadel of peace through stormy centuries," to quote a 1938 New York Times analysis; "it is a land of hard work and frugal habits, of justice and cleanness and tolerance, of the very essence of live-and-let-live"–and, not incidentally, the bulwark of free market capitalism in Europe. To say that Switzerland enjoyed a favorable reputation in America until recently would be to understate matters. Today, after a relentless and astonishingly one-sided media campaign, there is scarcely a horror tale about the Swiss too extreme or absurd to be picked up in the press.

The assault began with widely circulated allegations–the truth is less clear-cut than news reports have made it sound–that Swiss banks swallowed great sums deposited in private accounts by victims of the Holocaust. (At press time, Swiss banks had reached a tentative agreement to settle those allegations, and avert threatened sanctions, by paying more than $1 billion.) Picking up its own momentum, the indictment soon expanded into a depiction of the Swiss as a nation of heartless profiteers, "Hitler's silent partners," working to advance the Nazi cause without being shot at. In June the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center made worldwide headlines by issuing a report claiming that pro-Nazi activity "thoroughly saturated the core of Swiss society." Teenagers now grow up hearing that the Swiss spent World War II rooting for the Axis powers.

Now Stephen Halbrook, an attorney and well-known Second Amendment expert (he's the author of 1984's That Every Man Be Armed), has taken a much-needed look at the Swiss wartime record in a new book titled Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality in World War II. The book not only provides a starting point for all future discussions of Switzerland's military role in the war but also makes an interesting contribution to the literature on both federalism and gun rights. According to Halbrook, Switzerland's traditions of extreme decentralization and of an armed populace played a key role in preserving its freedom in an hour of peril.

As Halbrook reminds us, the American Founders often cited Switzerland as an example of the kind of nation they hoped to build on these shores. They admired its survival for centuries as a democracy amid tyrannies of every kind, following its birth in 1291 as the result of a peasant revolt in the remote fastnesses of the Alps. In 1774, during an unsuccessful attempt to urge Quebec to join the colonists' cause, the Continental Congress pointed to the Swiss federalist model, in which an unassuming central government let diverse cantons go their own way, with religious differences set aside: "Their union is composed of Roman Catholic and Protestant States, living in the utmost concord and peace with one another and thereby enabled, ever since they bravely vindicated their freedom, to defy and defeat every tyrant that has invaded them." Said Patrick Henry: "Let us follow their example, and be happy."

Switzerland virtually invented the policy of "armed neutrality": It started no wars and sought no empire, but defended itself with ferocity when attacked. This policy committed it to staying out of other nations' quarrels and trading with all belligerents to the extent permitted by circumstance. The rise of modern nationalism, with its presumption that national boundaries should reflect commonalities of language and lineage, posed a direct challenge to the reasons for Switzerland's existence. Only historical accident, it seemed to nationalist thinkers, separated Swiss Germans (the majority) from the mass of Germans. By the same logic Swiss French clearly belonged with their fellow French-speakers and Swiss Italians with Italy. By the late 1930s, Nazi cartographers were provocatively including German-speaking Swiss cantons in their maps of Grossdeutschland. The Swiss Federal Council replied as follows: "We reject the concept of race or common descent as the basis of a state and as the factor determining political frontiers." The Swiss "national idea," said the council, rests instead on a "spiritual decision" to commit to certain values, of which the most important, it added pointedly, were federalism, democracy, and "respect for the dignity of the individual."

Anti-Semitism, rife in much of Europe, found Helvetic soil far less friendly. In 1941 Contemporary Jewish Record, a publication of the American Jewish Committee, observed, "There is no anti-Jewish movement in Switzerland worthy of such designation." "Anti-Semitism is simply intolerance," declared an official 1943 pamphlet issued by the Swiss Army, terming it a form of "foreign propaganda" that "tears at the roots of our democratic way of thinking." Swiss authorities prosecuted and suppressed numerous Nazi-front organizations, arresting or deporting their leaders, who were often German nationals living in Switzerland. The "bulk of news reporting in [Swiss] broadcasting and the press is anti-German," lamented one high Nazi official. "Germany has no good press in Switzerland."

Dependent on coal from Germany, Switzerland went on trading with the Germans long after Hitler's evil had become apparent–as did the United States until Pearl Harbor. Much to the scandal of today's retroactive moralists, Switzerland also traded extensively in gold with both Axis and Allies. That led to some strange results, since in many cases the two sides were aware that, once the role of the Swiss as middlemen was stripped out, they were in effect trading with each other.

Matters worsened when France fell in 1940 and Switzerland found itself entirely surrounded by the Axis, which exercised veto power on its exports and imports. Today's revisionists presumably blame the Swiss for not launching a futile attack on the surrounding Axis, or–what is much the same thing–pompously proclaiming sanctions against it. Yet the Allies had ample reason to be glad of Swiss neutrality, which provided many advantages for them–especially given the alternative of simply letting the Axis occupy and plunder the Swiss economy, as it had done with so many small countries'. Switzerland never let the Germans use its roads or rails for military transport, which deprived Hitler of natural logistic routes for his Italian campaign. Luftwaffe planes intruding on Swiss air space could expect dogfights, and more than a dozen were downed.

The Nazis developed a full ideological critique of Swiss obstinacy. Nazi theorist Ewald Banse accused the German Swiss of "calculating materialism" and "unlimited self-reliance" and said their aloofness from their fellow ethnic Germans arose from a "belief, doubtless justified in the Middle Ages but long since obsolete, that liberty and equality–those most sacred of human possessions–are at stake." Hitler himself denounced the Swiss repeatedly as "despicable and wretched," "misbegotten," "renegades," "repugnant," and "a pimple on the face of Europe" which "cannot be allowed to continue." (Stalin couldn't stand them either.) The Führer despised their purely defensive military philosophy: "An army whose only goal is to secure peace" is craven, he said. "In addition to all the other characteristics of the Swiss that Hitler disliked," Halbrook adds, "he hated them because of their free market capitalism, which he associated with Judaism." The ever-abusive Völkischer Beobachter resorted to the epithet Berg-Semiten: mountain Jews.

Again and again, Hitler ordered his generals to draw up plans to invade Switzerland–but never followed through. Why didn't he? One reason was that military crises elsewhere kept intervening. But another was Switzerland's convincing, if purely defensive, military posture. German troops referred to Switzerland as a porcupine (Stachelschwein); the Swiss air force consisted of 250 planes, none of them bombers. The most famous element of Swiss defense were the sabotage plans: At the moment of German invasion, the Simplon and St. Gotthard tunnels would be blown up, as well as all bridges over the Rhine, power stations, and air fields. Avalanches and landslides would be set off to block armor and infantry movement.

Another key deterrent factor, Halbrook suggests, was Switzerland's tradition of a popular army–"the people in arms." At one point an astonishing 20 percent of the Swiss population was under arms, a figure unheard of in a modern country officially at peace–or even most countries at war. Every Swiss home had a rifle. Sharpshooting was and is the national sport; each weekend the hills are alive with the sound of gunfire, with fathers delighting in instructing their kids in proper technique. Swiss youths were trained to shoot at 300 meters, Germans at 100. German generals had to consider the example of the Finns, another small nation of skiers and riflemen who had recently held off a Russian invasion far more tenaciously than outsiders expected.

Finally, Swiss defensive preparations drew strength from an unrivaled display of the spirit of resistance. Soldiers were ordered to hold their positions to the last cartridge and then fight on with bayonets. Secret munitions caches were distributed through the countryside, and the populace was trained in how to organize partisan warfare. Unlike any other country in Europe, Halbrook says, Switzerland proclaimed that any reports that the federal council or army high command had agreed to surrender were to be ignored as inventions of enemy propaganda. This remarkable policy tied the leadership's own hands for the sake of maximum deterrent effect, and was thinkable only in a nation where a long tradition of decentralization had distributed the spirit of initiative far and wide. By way of contrast, "Hitler was able to conquer much of Europe by bluffing the central authority of various countries into capitulation," as when the Belgian king surrendered at a point where many of his countrymen would have preferred to fight on. "Switzerland was the only country in Europe that had no political leader with the authority to surrender the people to the Nazis."

Halbrook's is not the only voice being raised to correct recent misreporting. When the Wiesenthal Center's report came out in June, Switzerland's own Jewish community dismissed it as outrageous and ridden with errors. The Basel-based Jüdische Rundschau criticized its "exaggerations and falsifications," while the head of the Swiss Confederation of Hebrew Congregations found the report "one-sided and exaggerated." "The Swiss Nazis were weak in numbers," pointed out Zurich's Israelitisches Wochenblatt. "In the parliament in Bern they had exactly one seat for four years." Most embarrassingly, Simon Wiesenthal himself, the famed Nazi hunter after whom the center was named, disavowed the report as biased and inaccurate.

The book doesn't take up the controversy over wartime bank deposits, which deserves its own book (and column). And no one would deny that there are serious dark spots on the Swiss wartime record, including the actions of a wartime justice minister who tilted refugee-acceptance policy away from fleeing German Jews, and some defeatist pronouncements by the (fortunately, mostly ceremonial) Swiss federal president.

But the more balanced view remains Winston Churchill's. "I put this down for the record," wrote Churchill to Anthony Eden in a December 1944 memo reprinted in Triumph and Tragedy. "Of all the neutrals Switzerland has the greatest right to distinction….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-defense among her mountains, and in thought, in spite of race, largely on our side."