How did the Swiss stand their ground against the Nazis?

Published: Sep 20, 2022
Updated: Mar 14, 2023

I’m currently re-reading Stephen Halbrook’s interesting book, The Swiss and the Nazis: How the Alpine Republic Survived in the Shadow of the Third Reich.

I have a mini-goal to write a review for GoodReads on this – once I get some more free time!

The book tells the story of how the Swiss, surrounded by Axis powers (Germany, Italy) or Axis-dominated countries (France) planned their opposition to potential Nazi invasion. They weren’t under any misconception that they might beat Germany; they did however intend to extract a severe price. In a worst-case scenario, they would fall back to the réduit and continue to fight occupiers.

This was a whole-of-society effort: blind persons used their heightened sense of hearing to detect aircraft before others could; boy scouts were given rifles and secret missions; women and children manned farms and factories when able-bodied men were called up to service.

The idea that every able-bodied man in Switzerland is required to serve in the the military [1] and keeps his service weapon at home is well-known today, as it was during World War II. But perhaps more to the point, long before the war, marksmanship competitions were a national pastime and part of mountain culture. The Germans were right to fear and dread a nation full of potential snipers.

Even so, Hitler ordered invasion plans to be drawn up against the protests of some of his senior officers.

One of the things that makes this book unique are the oral histories: we learn the thoughts, attitudes, and daily struggles as Swiss speak candidly about what they experienced. Even small anecdotes contribute to the picture: such as the rhymes and songs mocking Hitler.

We read about the struggle to find adequate shelter, collecting fir cones to burn for heat, and how everyone strove to supplement meager food rations – for example, by raising rabbits.

If you’ve ever read World War II oral histories, you know how illuminating first-person accounts are and how, once read, they stick in one’s memory forever.

There’s also considerable detail in the book about the taking in of over 295,000 refugees. This is a candid account which includes expressed doubts and competing policy arguments made at the outset.

Another thing that stands out is the original (and meticulous) research and information on espionage.

The author makes the case that underlying the nation’s survival was a determination and unity of purpose fueled by a shared Swiss identity.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

Switzerland was--and remains--a harmonious model of ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity with deep traditions of democracy, local autonomy and individual rights. During the wartime years, when Switzerland, surrounded by Axis armies and economically isolated, continued to function as a free and open society, she maintained her peace only through a tough-minded armed neutrality--being fully and seriously prepared for war. And she skillfully used diplomacy and negotiation to maintain herself against large and powerful enemies.

The Swiss did not make distinctions among their citizens on the basis of race, language, or religion. They embodied the hard-won values of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the European Enlightenment--tolerance, equality before the law, and individual human rights.

The Swiss aversion to centralized authority derived in part from their mountain culture and the enduring legacy of the Reformation doctrines of Calvin and Zwingli. This proved to be a powerful bulwark against the Führer principle just as, in more recent times, the Swiss rejected integration into the sprawling bureaucracies of the European Union. Referenda, local control and democratic consensus are core values in Switzerland. Indeed, the Swiss are more opposed to statism than the parliamentary democracies Hitler sought to destroy.

It would be a mistake to equate neutrality--or at least Swiss armed neutrality--with lack of willpower. To the Swiss, strict armed neutrality meant that they would not participate in external wars. They would fight only defensively and only if attacked. They were not--and are not--pacifists, and during World War II held their ground hunkered down in bunkers and mountain passes with the enemy in their sights should he have dared to attack.

Because she energetically prepared for a Nazi invasion, Switzerland did not suffer the cruel fate of neutrals that were quickly overrun by the Wehrmacht. At the peak of its mobilization, the Swiss Confederation mustered an astonishing 850,000 men under arms--out of a population of only 4.2 million! That was the highest per-capita mobilization of any country in the world. By contrast, for example, Denmark had a population of 3.8 million, and in 1939 shrunk her tiny force from 36,000 to 14,000 troops. When Nazi Germany attacked in April 1940, the King of Denmark surrendered an hour later with virtually no resistance. Thereafter the workers and factories were saddled with Nazi war production. When orders came for the deportation of Jews in 1943, the Danes were able to rescue most, but not all, of Denmark's 8,000 Jews by putting them on boats to Sweden.

There was never any need to rescue or hide Switzerland's Jews. The Swiss openly protected their Jewish compatriots, and armed them just as they did virtually every citizen--with both rifles and a determination to fight. Moreover, unlike the occupied European countries, Switzerland rescued many thousands of refugees fleeing from those countries--indeed, far more proportionately than any unoccupied country, including the United States.

1. My understanding is that today, Swiss men can opt--in certain circumstances--to serve in the civilian service instead of the military.