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The Swiss and the Nazis: How the Alpine Republic Survived in the Shadow of the Third Reich

by Stephen P. Halbrook, Casemate Publishers, Havertown, Pa., 2006, $29.95.

 “It is night, and soldiers on duty hear aircraft, plot their course, and telephone the data to the antiaircraft center, where it is received by one of perhaps twenty uniformed women auxiliaries; the speed and direction of attacking aircraft are plotted on maps, and an air raid alarm sounds in the city; a soldier on watch cries ‘Alarm! Alarm!’ to rows of soldiers sleeping in haylofts; they swarm to antiaircraft guns; gigantic spotlights search the skies; an aircraft is spotted! The observation and aiming instruments appear highly sophisticated. Fire! Shot after shot explodes around the attacking aircraft.” So Stephen Halbrook, in this in-depth introduction to Switzerland’s maintenance of its independence in World War II, summarizes one of the numerous newsreels produced for home consumption during the conflict.

This reader-friendly book follows on Halbrook’s earlier prize-winning Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality in World War II (1998), which was well received and has been translated into German, French, Italian and Polish. While the earlier book opened a new chapter in the Swiss wartime story, this sequel enters into their daily life during those tense times. Halbrook has interviewed scores of Swiss who lived through the period and scoured the archives for official data. His book also does much to redress the ignorance about the Swiss contribution to the war and its response to the refugee problems that challenged its borders.

In his opening chapters, Halbrook looks at courageous coverage of the war in the Swiss press as well as reaction to German aggression in other venues—including cabarets. Swiss wags called Germans Sauswabe (Swabian in Swiss German is almost a homonym with Schabe, meaning cockroach) and Saunazis (Sau is pig). The Swiss public openly parodied the Nazi totalitarian system and proudly emphasized their tradition of armed neutrality, which had kept the country free and independent since 1291. The parodies resulted in difficulties with the Germans, who pressured the Swiss to tone down the insults.

The list of Swiss citizens on the Nazi hit list increased daily, particularly due to Nazi collaborators and Fifth Columnists, who were carefully watched by the government and by Swiss citizens and occasionally prosecuted for treason. The Swiss officially compromised with Nazi demands, but the attacks continued to anger Adolf Hitler and his henchmen, who planned invasion strategies to absorb Switzerland into the Reich. Halbrook examines in detail Swiss and German military preparations as well as diplomatic actions in the continuing dance to offset German intentions.

Halbrook carefully presents the important role of two leading military figures central to the tiny republic’s defense. General Henri Guisan, commander in chief of the Swiss armed forces, was characterized by German intelligence as “Intelligent, very cautious. Behind his overt correctness stands his sympathy with the Western Powers.” Of corps commander Herbert Constan, former head of the Swiss military shooting school and the highest-level Jewish officer, German intelligence noted that he was “Very capable. Non Aryan. Enemy of Germany.”

In Switzerland every male had to pass a shooting skills test in high school and maintain a state-supplied serviceable weapon in readiness for any mobilization. Hence the national militia was able to call on some 850,000 crack shots to supplement the professional military that guarded the borders, and Halbrook walks the defense lines, recounting the experiences of those who served in the mountain fortifications. The Swiss air force shot down 11 German planes during the war; at the same time its airmen escorted crippled Allied planes to safe landings— and internment for the duration. Swiss strategy in the event of a German invasion was to absorb the first blow and to use its rugged topography to exact an increasing price for every foot of ground in German blood. Then the army would retreat to a well-fortified Reduit in the Alps, which would have been nearly impossible or at least too costly for the Wehrmacht to conquer. The Swiss example may have influenced Hitler’s plan to establish a final redoubt of his own in Bavaria, manned by his Hitlerjugend.

The fourth and final section of the book deals with the contribution of Swiss intelligence. The author details the career of Allen Dulles as the American pointman in the spook war of Central Europe, and the Swiss role in the surrender of the German army in northern Italy at the end of the war. Despite the American bombing of Schaffhausen, site of the Lorelei rock made famous by Heinrich Heine’s ode Ich weiss nicht was solles bedeuten, the Swiss cooperated with the Allies to as great an extent as their armed neutrality allowed, and perhaps a bit more.

The popular notion of Switzerland’s role in the Holocaust is based on the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Swiss banks and the “Lifeboat is Full” syndrome. The first official book based on access to ICRC archives was Jean-Claude Favez’s Une mission impossible? Le CICR, les deportations et les camps de concentration Nazis (Lausanne, 1988), which tried to deal with the ambiguous ICRC’s role during the Holocaust. The scandal of the Swiss banks has been the subject of a recent conference of interested nations held in Washington, while the politics of Swiss borders and refugee pressures on the little besieged republic has been generally criticized for not accepting more Jews. The Swiss have already published official inquiries into these subjects, but Halbrook adds further detail and critically reassesses the official findings.

Halbrook devotes one chapter to the question of Swiss attitudes toward its own Jews. The Swiss diplomat Heinrich Rothmund, who negotiated the German-Swiss Protocol of September 29, 1938, “emphasized vigorously [the Nazi demand that Swiss passports of Jews be stamped with a “J”] that an agreement would be unacceptable if it made a distinction between Swiss Aryans and Swiss non-Aryans…Switzerland treated Swiss Jews as full citizens…we did not practice anti-Semitism and would prevent it from arising.” The bottom line, as Halbrook argues, is that none of the 19,429 Jews in Switzerland in 1941 (a little over half of them Swiss citizens), nor the nearly 30,000 Jewish refugees from surrounding countries nor the total of 106,470 refugees (including 46,470 military fugitives, mostly French and Polish) were sacrificed to the Nazi bloodlust.

Halbrook has painted an informative picture of Switzerland’s wartime experience with a broad brush. He has opened new vistas and challenged long-standing attitudes critical toward a small republic (about 4,000,000 people divided among multilingual autonomous cantons) threatened by the Axis for five years. This exciting read is a paean to the “Porcupine,” as the Swiss identified themselves.


Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.