"Neither Nationalist nor Socialist: How the Swiss kept their freedom in
World War II"

by Walter Olson, from Reason Magazine, October 1998

     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

     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 a well-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, under 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 nation's 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 that "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 leadership, who were often
German nationals resident 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 indeed
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

     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 many 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", "a pimple on
the face of Europe" which "cannot be allowed to continue".  (Stalin
couldn't stand them either.)

     The Fuehrer 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
Voelkischer Beobachter resorted to the epithet "Berg-Semiten": mountain

     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 comprised 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

     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 long 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 Juedische 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 in 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

     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."

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