Did the Nazis invade the Netherlands?

Why was Switzerland spared in World War II?

Part one of the series “Key moments in Swiss history”.

At the end of the war, on May 8, 1945, the Swiss commander-in-chief, General Henri Guisan, announced that the army had "saved us from misery and suffering, from war, occupation, destruction, imprisonment and deportations". At the same time he recalled the "importance of our careful preparations, our will to resist, the vigilance and the many victims". In fact, the active service generation reinterpreted their biographical experiences and their willingness to make sacrifices and defenses to achieve success, which also later made sense to the many deprivations. The butcher Hans Meister wrote: «I can tell you that the Germans made a total miscalculation [. . . ]. The effort to conquer Switzerland would have been far too great, absolutely. "

Can this readiness to fight explain why the Wehrmacht did not attack Switzerland? Would the effort really have been too great for an army that had subdued Poland and France in lightning wars and drove the British from the mainland? When France surrendered in mid-June 1940, the German armored troops were already at Pontarlier. The Swiss border was only weakly fortified there, as the troops in the north and east were mobilized to stop the Wehrmacht on the Rhine. In the western campaign against the numerically superior Allies in these areas, it had used 2,500 tanks and 3,500 aircraft, and far more than half were operational afterwards. Switzerland had over 60,000 horses, but only 24 (reconnaissance) tanks and 90 war-worthy fighters of the German Messerschmitt Me 109 type. These aircraft, delivered by the prospective enemy, shot down some German aircraft during the western campaign, which violated neutrality. However, Guisan forbade aerial combat even over its own territory so as not to provoke war with the superior enemy.

After the defeat of France, Switzerland was almost completely surrounded by the Axis powers Germany and Italy. After the fall of Paris, it took the overburdened state government ten days until Federal President Marcel Pilet-Golaz delivered the most controversial Federal Council speech of all time on June 25, 1940. He saw the “time of inner rebirth” coming, which had to take place as “adaptation to the new conditions” “outside of outdated forms”. Individual freedom, democracy, parliament, even the accountability of those in power - none of this was mentioned in the speech.

The later Federal Councilor Markus Feldmann spoke of a “pious capitulation course” of the leading members of the government: “internally authoritarian, externally servile”. The Rütli report, in which Guisan announced his withdrawal to the Reduit shortly after Pilet-Golaz's speech, had a completely different effect. But immediately the surrender of the positions on the Rhine and especially the densely populated Central Plateau was difficult to digest for most of the soldiers. It took years before new fortresses were built in the Alpine region. Guisan himself could hardly have been held back in 1940 if the Germans had used the files leaked to them, which showed that the general had made agreements with France that were contrary to neutrality.

In the summer of 1940, Switzerland would have been an easy victim of the Wehrmacht, which had also worked out appropriate plans, but had always favored the route via Belgium for the attack on France. The ideologically convinced Nazi supporters in Switzerland had always remained a small group, but there were influential right-wing bourgeois circles who wanted to use the crisis in the summer of 1940 to permanently shift the inner-federal balance. However, the “federal buffer system”, as Herbert Lüthy called it in Die Disteln of 1940, resulted in the country sticking to the status quo. That did not mean a commitment to liberal parliamentarism everywhere. But the power of the Swiss elite was based on institutional rules that fundamentally contradicted the Nazi leadership principle, their party dictatorship and völkisch blood-and-soil politics: federalism, multilingualism, corporatism of the associations.

With a powerful formula, the contemporary witness Alice Meyer stated in 1965 that the Swiss people had chosen the "resistance", whereas the willingness to "adapt" was limited to an influential but small minority. But what, so the suspicion of the 1968ers, if it was not the uncompromising will to resist of a weak army that kept the Third Reich from invading, but rather the willingness to cooperate on the part of Germany-friendly officials (such as Ambassador Hans Frölicher in Berlin) and the profitable performance of a spared production location? Because those who returned to work after the partial demobilization in 1940 worked six days a week for the Germans and on the seventh day prayed for the victory of the Allies - a "standard joke" according to Max Frisch.

The thesis of "economic integration without political participation" (Jakob Tanner) in the new Europe outraged many members of the active service generation, but it had some statistical advantages: trade agreements with the Axis powers, extensive arms deliveries from private producers such as Oerlikon-Bührle, but even from state-owned production facilities, which was just as contrary to neutrality as their state financing through the “clearing billion”, plus the efficient Alpine transit and the knowledgeable purchase of looted gold by the Swiss National Bank. Where did the legitimate efforts of an encircled country end to obtain essential goods such as coal, iron, food and seeds, and where did the lucrative business of war profiteers, who continued to trade with the murderous regime until the spring of 1945, begin?

But if Switzerland's economic willingness to serve had saved a German invasion, weren't women the real saviors of Switzerland? Because they had to step in everywhere in the economy - at least that's how Monique Pavillon saw it in 1989 - while the men remained unproductive in the reduit. The answers to the question, why Switzerland was spared, not least reflect the change in the general historiography: from the history of events in the post-war period (own military achievement) to the economic and social history of the seventies (integrated production location) to women and men Gender history of the nineties.

"The Führer described Switzerland as the most repulsive and pathetic people and states."

All of these interpretations made the calculation “without the host” by concentrating one-sidedly on what the Swiss were doing. "Der Wirt" was then called Adolf Hitler, and he was and always remained one thing: unpredictable. Would Switzerland be allowed to feel safe in the knowledge of its economic services if the SS and fascist putschists overthrew the allied right-wing conservative authoritarian government in Hungary in autumn 1944? Were the Swiss arms deliveries, which only covered German requirements in the per mille range, a sufficient guarantee? Did a regime that would rather kill millions of work slaves in concentration camps than use them purposefully obey economic logic at all?

Hitler's decisions often made the elites of the Third Reich desperate. Hitler never said why he was the only neighboring country not to conquer Switzerland. But he repeatedly expressed himself unfriendly, for example in June 1941 on the Brenner, where he met with Mussolini, who described Switzerland as an "anachronism" and wanted to annex the Italian-speaking parts of the country. «The Führer described Switzerland as the most repulsive and pathetic people and states. The Swiss are mortal enemies of the new Germany [. . .]. They were openly opposed to the Reich because they had hoped to drive better by separating from the German people's community of fate - which would have been the case for long periods of time - but now, in the light of the latest developments, they see that their reckoning is theirs was wrong. Their attitude is to a certain extent determined by the hatred of the renegades. "

The expectation that Switzerland, this "boil in Europe", would voluntarily surrender to the Third Reich sooner or later, corresponded to the missionary self-confidence of Hitler and many Nazis. A quadrilingual small state had no place in the Volkish worldview. But it was not a priority for the Nazis: since Mein Kampf their murderous revanchism was directed against France; the Slavs, and especially the Bolshevik Russians, fell victim to the conquest of "living space in the east"; and the Jews, Sinti and Roma of the "Final Solution".

Hitler's statement that the Swiss were "nothing but a failed branch of our people" was less of a threat than a reason for restraint.

The occupation policy in "Aryan" countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium or Norway, on the other hand, was geared not to scare away the masses and to provide support for the "Greater Germanic" empire in Europe. The case of Denmark is revealing. As long as the Danes integrated themselves economically into the new Europe and (until 1943) cooperated, the country was formally not an occupied territory, but sovereign and even neutral. It retained its army as well as its multi-party government, in which the weak Danish National Socialists were not involved. Parliamentary elections were held in 1943, and Hitler did not even annex Northern Schleswig, which had only fallen to Denmark in 1920. To put it somewhat flippantly, Switzerland was a Denmark in a geostrategically better position because Germany did not have to secure it militarily in order to block the British on the way to Scandinavia.

Against this background, Hitler's statement that the Swiss were “nothing but a failed branch of our people” was less a threat than a reason for reticence towards a country that “has millions of citizens of German nationality”.

With some of them, Hitler, as a still almost unknown NSDAP leader, had contact as early as the early 1920s, when he was courteously received by Ulrich Wille junior.As head of training for the army, Wille was an openly pro-German opponent of Guisan, who deposed him in 1942. That would hardly have been possible in 1940. Guisan probably used one of the leeway that opened up again and again during the war years. In the federal decentralized system, those responsible reacted in a poorly coordinated manner. The common goal was to maintain independence and not unnecessarily provoke Hitler. The fact that the “boil” - well integrated in the German economy - ultimately of little ideological and geostrategic interest was not due to the Swiss, but decisive. This does not reduce the recognition for courageous or purposeful decisions, which they made in the greatest uncertainty as well as bad ones, especially in refugee policy - especially in comparison with Denmark.

We would like to invite you on a journey through Switzerland and its history. From September 11 to 16, 2018, “NZZ Geschichte” and the renowned historian Thomas Maissen stop in a different city every day. On guided tours, walks and during discussions on the stage, you can find out why Switzerland became the way it is today.

On September 11th we will delve into the topic of “Second World War” in the Museum zu Allerheiligen in Schaffhausen. Information and tickets can be found at: nzz.ch/ontour.

We have summarized what you have read about the tour in a dossier. Here you will find all of Thomas Maissen's contributions to key moments in Swiss history as well as explanatory videos from our video team. You can also test your knowledge of Swiss history.