Target Switzerland

This is the lecture delivered by Dr. Stephen P. Halbrook at signings for his new book Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality in World War II

Americans have been known to confuse the Swiss flag--white cross, red background--with the Red Cross banner, which is the opposite. In World War II, Swiss fighter planes, painted with the Swiss flag, attempted to intercept all foreign planes in Swiss air space and to order them to land. An American pilot, asked whether he thought about firing on the fighters which instructed him to land, responded: "I would never fire on a Red Cross plane!"

Almost 1700 American pilots found refuge in Switzerland after their planes were damaged in bombing raids over Germany. However, the Nazis were not amused by Switzerland's armed neutrality. Hitler was livid that the Swiss used fighters bought from Germany to shoot down 11 German Luftwaffe planes; the saboteurs Hitler sent to blow up Swiss airfields were captured; they aroused suspicion because they were all dressed in the same odd outfits!

It is a pleasure to have Sarpedon, a first-rate military publisher, fill the void in World War II history by publishing my book on the Nazi plans to eradicate the Swiss democracy and the Swiss plans to resist to the end. Over 200 years ago, America's Founding Fathers like Patrick Henry and John Adams were inspired by the example of Switzerland--a democracy in a sea of monarchial despotism. Having devoted much of my career to American constitutional law, publishing books and arguing in the Supreme Court, I was intrigued to know how the Swiss institutions which influenced our Constitution proved their worthiness in the darkest years of European history: Hitler's Third Reich, 1933-45.

In 1940, after the rest of central Europe collapsed before the German army, Swiss Commander in Chief Henri Guisan assembled his officers at the Rütli meadow near the Lake of Lucerne. He reminded them that, at this sacred spot, in the year 1291, the Swiss Confederation was born as an alliance against despotism. Guisan admonished that the Swiss would always stand up to any invader. One has only to recall the medieval battle of Morgarten, where 1400 Swiss peasants ambushed and defeated 20,000 Austrian knights.

In World War II, the Swiss had defenses no other country had. Let's begin with the rifle in every home combined with the Alpine terrain. When the German Kaiser asked in 1912 what the quarter of a million Swiss militiamen would do if invaded by a half million German soldiers, a Swiss replied: shoot twice and go home. Switzerland also had a decentralized, direct democracy which could not be surrendered to a foreign enemy by a political elite. Some governments surrendered to Hitler without resistance based on the decision of a king or dictator; this was institutionally impossible in Switzerland. If an ordinary Swiss citizen was told that the Federal President--a relatively powerless official--had surrendered the country, the citizen might not even know the president's name, and would have held any "surrender" order in contempt.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, the Swiss feared an invasion and began military preparations like no other European nation. On Hitler's 1938 "Anchluss" or annexation of Austria, the Swiss Parliament declared that the Swiss were prepared to defend themselves "to the last drop of their blood."

When the Fuehrer attacked Poland in 1939, Swiss General Guisan ordered the citizen army to resist any attack to the last cartridge. After Denmark and Norway fell in 1940, Guisan and the Federal Council gave the order to the populace: Aggressively attack invaders; act on your own initiative; regard any surrender broadcast or announcement as enemy propaganda; resist to the end. This was published as a message to the Swiss and a warning to the Germans; surrender was impossible, even if ordered by the government, for the prior order mandated that any "surrender" be treated as an enemy lie.

When the Germany army, the Wehrmacht, attacked Belgium and Holland, it feigned preparations for attack through Switzerland. Like actors on a giant movie set, divisions moved toward the Swiss border by day, only to sneak back again by night and repeat the ruse the next day. Both the Swiss and the French were tricked into thinking that concentrations of troops were massing to attack through Switzerland and into France. Swiss border troops nervously awaited an assault each time the clock approached the hour, for the Germans were punctual in launching attacks on the hour.

When France collapsed, detailed Nazi invasion plans with names like "Case Switzerland" and "Operation Tannenbaum" were prepared for the German General Staff. They only awaited the Fuehrer's nod.

Threatened with attack from German and Italian forces from all sides, General Guisan devised the strategy of a delaying stand at the border, and a concentration of Swiss forces in the rugged and impassable Alps. This chosen place of engagement was called the Réduit national, meaning a national fort within a fort. German tanks and planes, Panzers and Luftwaffe, would be ineffective there.

A fifth of the Swiss people, 850,000 out of the 4.2 million population, was under arms and mobilized. Most men were in the citizens army, and boys and old men with rifles constituted the Home Guard. Many women served in the civil defense and the anti-aircraft defense.

Nazi invasion plans for 1941 were postponed to devote all forces to Operation Barbarossa, the attack on Russia. The Swiss would have their turn in due time. Hitler banned the play William Tell. He called the Swiss "the most despicable and wretched people, mortal enemies of the new Germany"; in the same breath he fumed that all Jews must be expelled from Europe. His plan to annihilate the Jews would have faced a special obstacle in Switzerland, where every Swiss Jew (like every other citizen) had a rifle in his home. In the heroic Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943, Jews demonstrated how genocide could be resisted with only a few pistols and rifles. Hitler boasted that he would liquidate "the rubbish of small nations" and would be "the Butcher of the Swiss." But the dictator was more comfortable with liquidating unarmed peoples and was dissuaded from invading Switzerland. There was no Holocaust on Swiss soil.

As a neutral, the Swiss represented American interests before the Axis powers, such as by inspecting German prison camps holding American POWs. When Vichy France was occupied, German soldiers with submachineguns took over the American embassy. The Swiss minister, brandishing his Swiss army knife, drove them out.

A Nazi SS invasion plan, recommended for execution in 1944, warned the German general staff that the Swiss fighting spirit was high and shooting instruction good; German loses would be heavy, and a conquered Switzerland would require a strong occupation force. D-Day put the plan on hold, but new dangers threatened Switzerland as the Allies pushed the Nazis back. In 1944, the Wehrmacht's counter-offensive in the Ardennes, leading to the Battle of the Bulge, proved that the Nazi Beast was still strong and full of surprises. The Swiss prepared for an attack from Germans retreating from Italy. The Swiss resolve remained high, for, as the US State Dept. declared, "no people in Europe are more profoundly attached to democratic principles than the Swiss."

Switzerland saved a half million refugees who came there in the war. Restrictive policies by government officials, often secret, were ignored by Swiss who helped refugees. Let it be remembered that Switzerland took in more Jewish refugees than the United States took in refugees of all kinds.

America's great journalist Walter Lippmann wrote that the Swiss proved their honor by surviving the dark days of 1940-41, they proved that diverse peoples and language groups can live peacefully together, they repudiated Nazism. "It must never be forgotten," he wrote, "how the Swiss served the cause of freedom."

In the American Revolution, a Swiss leader wrote to Benjamin Franklin calling America and Switzerland the "Sister Republics." After two centuries of mutual respect, today a media frenzy falsely depicts the Swiss as Nazi collaborators. It was the opposite. Nazi Propaganda Minister Goebbels called Switzerland "this stinking little state" and ranted that the Swiss press was "either bought or Jewish." The Swiss bashing seen in the New York Times today could use a reality check by reference to the Times issues of the war period--such as a 1939 issue with a map showing Switzerland as a possible invasion route, or a 1942 issue calling Switzerland an "Oasis of Democracy." Our new "Ugly Americanism" will never have the credibility of Winston Churchill, who observed near the end of the war: "Of all the neutrals Switzerland has the greatest right to distinction. . . . She has been a democratic State, standing for freedom in self-defence among her mountains, and in thought, in spite of race, largely on our side."

Further reading: Stephen Halbrook's letter to the editor of the New York Times Book Review, defending democratic Switzerland and its citizen militia, and their anti-Nazi policies during World War II. More from the Independence Institute on Switzerland.

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