Switzerland had a curious position during World War Two. It was officially a neutral country, but that neutrality was not always strictly maintained. Here, Laura Kerr considers how neutral Switzerland really was and how helpful it may have been to Nazi Germany…
Switzerland. Three things come to mind: watches, chocolate, and neutrality. And for good reason. Firstly, Switzerland is home to both Rolex and Omega which can boast the titles of ‘first watch on the moon, ‘James Bond’s official watch since 1995’, and the watch of choice for both the American and British armies during World War One. However, despite its truly fascinating watch history, that is not the aspect of Switzerland that I am focusing on today.
Switzerland is the longest-standing neutral nation in the world and has not taken part in a war since 1505. Its official stance of non-involvement had been decided during The Congress of Vienna in 1815, in which major European leaders met to discuss the nature of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon.
Up until World War Two, Switzerland upheld her stance of neutrality rather admirably. But despite not engaging in combat during the war, Switzerland’s so-called ‘neutrality’ has been heavily scrutinized in recent years, with particular emphasis on border controls, banking, and trade with Nazi Germany.
Hitler’s decision not to invade
The first question that needs to be answered to fully understand Switzerland’s position during WWII, is why Hitler did not invade the country while trying to establish the Third Reich. Hitler described Switzerland as a “pimple on the face of Europe” and both its geographical location and culture would seem like a clear target for the Nazis.
A good way to summarize Hitler’s reasoning not to invade Switzerland is simply ‘risk versus reward’. At the prospect of a German invasion, the Swiss improved and invested heavily in their ‘National Redoubt’ (The Swiss National Defense Plan). Along with the tough terrain and modern machinery, this didn’t make the Swiss a particularly easy target. Not only was the risk high, but the reward also wasn’t tremendously great for Hitler either. Switzerland and Germany already had a beneficial trading partnership which helped Germany’s war effort. Additionally, the neutral but infamous Swiss banks made Switzerland useful to the Nazis.
There’s little doubt that once the Allies had been defeated, Hitler would have mobilized an attack on Switzerland (a planned invasion was named known Operation Tannenbaum). But as it was, his attention and resources were preoccupied with bigger enemies so any attacks on Switzerland had to wait.
Nevertheless, by 1940 Switzerland was completely surrounded by Axis powers and the Nazis occupied France, making it increasingly difficult to stay clear of the Second World War. It is the ways in which Switzerland allowed and in some ways, assisted, Nazi Germany which makes her “neutrality” so questionable.
After the Nazis gained power in Germany, many racial minorities attempted to flee to avoid persecution. Switzerland, a neighboring but impartial nation seemed a clear destination choice. As well as an agreement of neutrality, Switzerland had also pledged to be an asylum for any discriminated groups in Europe. They had taken in Huguenots that had fled from France in the 16th century and was an asylum for many liberals, socialists, and anarchists from all over Europe in the 19th century. However, this wasn’t exactly upheld during WWII.
In fear of angering Hitler and prompting an invasion, Swiss border regulations were tightened. They did establish internment camps that housed 200,000 refugees, of which 20,000 were Jewish. Importantly though, the Swiss government taxed the Swiss Jewish community for any Jewish refugees they allowed to enter the country.
In 1942 alone, over 30,000 Jews were denied entrance into Switzerland, leaving them under the control of the Nazis. In an infamous speech, a Swiss government official stated “our little lifeboat is full.” Although the prospect of leaving Jewish civilians to certain death under the Nazis is unthinkable, there are arguments in Switzerland’s defense. Switzerland was a small country (with a population of roughly 4 million) that was completely surrounded by Nazi troops and nations under Hitler’s control. In comparison, the USA (arguably the safest nation for fleeing Jews) repeatedly rejected Jewish refugees and only accommodated approximately 250,000 people between the years from 1939 to 1945; tiny compared to its size. Historians today estimate that the USA could have easily accommodated over 6 million refugees.
But that is not the only controversy when it comes to Swiss border control. It was the Chief of the Swiss Federal Police, Dr. Heinrich Rothmund, who proposed the idea of marking Jewish passports with a red ‘J’, and which became an important method of discrimination adopted by the Nazis. The Swiss government wanted to know and control the amount of Jews entering Switzerland but it led to a measure that made fleeing from the Nazis even harder for Jews.
Interestingly, on March 8, 1995, the Swiss government made an official apology for their involvement with the Nazi Party, in particular their role in developing the ‘J’ stamp.
To this day, Swiss banks are known for their secretive but successful policies that created one of the strongest economies in the world. They were massively important during WWII, especially to high-ranking Nazis, and became another way in which Swiss neutrality was questioned.
But why were they so important?
Until 1936, the Swiss Franc was the only remaining freely convertible currency in the world. Therefore both the Allies and Axis Powers sold large amounts of gold to the Swiss National Bank and relied heavily on its economic stability. The German national currency was no longer a means of payment in international markets which meant the Nazis relied on Swiss banks in order to buy war machinery and commodities from other countries.
But if the banks accepted the gold from both sides, then surely they are still technically neutral? Although that may be the case, it is the type of gold and the secretive way in which it was handled which has caused massive controversy in recent years. For over 581,000 Francs worth of ‘melmer’ gold taken from Holocaust victims was sold and kept by Swiss banks. Following the defeat of the Nazis, Swiss banks struggled with what to do with the gold, whose rightful owners had been killed in the awful genocide.
Prior to WWII, Switzerland had relied heavily on trade with Germany to build a strong and economically powerful nation. It was an industrialized country with virtually no raw materials, experiencing the same economic depression that was felt throughout both Europe and America. When World War Two commenced, Switzerland worried that any non-cooperation would lead to a cease in vital trade and even more significantly, an invasion. As it was completely surrounded by Nazi-controlled countries, the Swiss had two choices: cooperate with Nazi trade policies or fight against them.
Between the years 1939 and 1945, roughly 10,276,000 tons of coal were transported from Germany to Switzerland and provided 41% of Switzerland’s energy requirement. This demonstrates how the Swiss were keen to stay on good terms with Germany to continue their vital trade.
One thing Switzerland provided to the Nazis in return for important materials was access to the railway that ran through Switzerland and connected Italy and Germany. In the event of an invasion, the Swiss army planned to destroy vital tunnels and bridges, immobilizing the railway for years and making transportation between Italy and Germany nearly impossible. To uphold their neutral stand, Switzerland’s governments laid down restrictions on what could be transported over their railway. The Swiss would only allow sealed boxes to pass through without checking their contents, in exchange for raw materials and trade. Officially, the Swiss banned any transportation of people (troops) or war goods over their railway, but the extent to which this was upheld is very questionable.
So, despite its attempts, Switzerland struggled to remain truly neutral during the Second World War. In fairness, World War Two was a ‘Total War’ which made it hard to remain impartial for almost every nation. It is the type of involvement, however, that is interesting and less well known to people studying history.
The extent to which a country remains neutral during times of armed conflict goes beyond its lack of involvement in armed combat. A country can only be considered neutral if they demonstrate no bias in business, social and economic activity.
Was Switzerland neutral? Arguably not.
But the extent to which they ‘helped’ the Nazis is a much more complex matter.
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