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DESPITE SWITZERLAND’S official policy of neutrality, with absolutely no interference from inside or outside its borders, the Swiss government secretly encouraged its bankers to solve practically all of Adolf Hitler’ s gigantic financial problems. In addition, its engineers were urged to surreptitiously furnish the Nazis with nearly unlimited quantities of highly sophisticated war materiel and hydroelectric power, and also endow the Germans with secure rail systems to support their far-flung southern military operations. This enormous deception continued on an ever-increasing scale for most of the war. The fact that it was kept secret from the Allies and the Swiss people defied almost astronomical odds.

The Swiss players in this monstrous delusion must be credited with surgically competent execution. Nevertheless, they required a generous supply of luck in the form of two circumstances— both of which were essential to the success of the fraud. If either of those factors had not been present at all times, the Swiss conspiracy with Hitler would have been compromised and the Allies would have been the beneficiaries. One factor was the virtual dictator who represented the Swiss government, and the other was a veil of secrecy that enveloped the entire operation. At the core of both of these anomalies was the wartime organization— or lack of it— of the Swiss ruling body. The Swiss parliament was divided into two bodies: the National Council, whose members were elected on the basis of population, not unlike the U.S. House of Representatives; and the Council of States, which represented the individual cantons (states) in a manner similar to the U.S. Senate.

Every four years the two governing bodies elected the executive branch, a seven-member committee called the Federal Council. Each councilor was a cabinet minister directing one of the seven departments of the federal administration: Justice and Police, Economics, Defense, Post and Railroads, Finances, Interior and Foreign Affairs. Members of this cabinet were able to remain councilors as long as they pleased— one, Guisseppi Motta, remained in his cabinet post for 20 years. Each year one councilor carried the title of president, but had no greater powers than his colleagues. During his term he remained the head of his particular ministry. At no time was the president— or anyone else— actually the head of state. Cabinet crises and votes of censure were unknown, and neither a parliamentary vote nor a referendum could cause the government to resign.

Soon after the forcible annexation of Austria in March 1938 and the turbulent dismemberment of Czechoslovakia a year later— both events underscored by Hitler’s warlike ravings— the Swiss people and their government became increasingly distrustful of the Fiihrer’s motives toward Switzerland. Mindful of the Nazi plan for a “Thousand Year Reich” that included an unwilling Switzerland, a very nervous Swiss parliament waited for Hitler to drop the other shoe.

It was common knowledge  that the German dictator had his eyes on France. The only question in the minds of Swiss military strategists was whether the German armies would invade their western neighbor by outflanking its vaunted Maginot Line from the north or in the south via Switzerland.

The Swiss government decided that if the Nazis elected to drive southward in their invasion of France ,many extremely expeditious high level decisions would have to be made. To tighten security and facilitate the critically important political and military decisions that they perceived as inevitable, the parliament, on August 30, 1939, granted the Federal Council plenary powers. As Swiss historian William Luck put it, the council had “full and unlimited authority to run the country.” In a national radio broadcast the Swiss people were advised that “the government would no longer be able to explain and justify their decisions to the public.” The Swiss voter’s unwavering trust in the government was crucial.

Procedurally, this set the stage for the Federal Council to make binding policy, treaties and trade agreements at its discretion. In the most sensitive and important cases the council claimed the right to keep its actions secret, effectively insulating its actions from the voters it ostensibly represented.

Unfortunately for the Allies, practically all of the important decisions of the Swiss Federal Council were made in favor of the Nazis. After Rudolf Minger, the pro-Allies defense councilor, resigned in late 1940, the councilors were divided between those who were pro-Nazi and those who believed that the Germans would undoubtedly win the war. Until April 1945, the Federal Council held that the best policy was appeasing the Nazis as a means of improving Switzerland’s postwar situation within the framework of Hitler’s “ New Europe.”

Swiss diplomats working abroad defended their actions by continually insisting that future allocation of Swiss military support would reflect battlefield developments. Their actual support to the Germans, however, continued to increase until long after the Nazi war machine began its inevitable slide into defeat. As Dean Acheson, the U.S. wartime undersecretary of state, put it, “The Swiss surrendered — only a month before General [Alfred] Jodi did.”

Equally unfortunate for the Allies was the fact that Switzerland’s foreign affairs councilor, Marcel Pilet-Golaz, was pro-Nazi. From January 1940 until November 1944, Pilet-Golaz completely dominated Swiss foreign policy to the point where he was a virtual dictator regarding external affairs.

According to historian Urs Schwarz, Pilet-Golaz was a man of great intelligence who was also very vain. The foreign affairs councilor believed that he was the only Swiss official who could deal with Hitler. A domineering individual, he was completely satisfied with his own views and had no interest in receiving input from others. He even disdained any contact with General Henri Guisan, the commander in chief of the Swiss armed forces, calling him a peasant.

When the previous foreign affairs minister, who was also acting president, died in January 1940, Pilet-Golaz was simultaneously elected to both offices that same month. Pilet-Golaz then was able to push through a deviation from the customary practice of changing the presidency every year. He held the titular title until November 10, 1944, when the council once again broke with tradition and forced him to resign. During this entire period, nearly five years, the president never changed his pro-Nazi stance.

Pilet-Golaz’s initial political goals were to convince the Swiss people that integration with Nazi-dominated Europe was inevitable. In an effort to promote this point of view he addressed the Swiss nation over a national radio hookup on June 25, 1940. Only two members of parliament saw the speech beforehand and then only minutes prior to delivery.

Pilet-Golaz’s speech was received with great joy in Germany, and the pro-German organizations in Switzerland also applauded. The overall Swiss reaction, however, was negative, and that was the councilor’s last attempt to publicly declare his pro-Nazi views.

He then turned his efforts to modifying existing trade treaties with Germany— in Hitler’s favor. These treaties were handled within the Federal Council in utmost secrecy. An exception was made in early 1941, when the Swiss deliberately leaked the contents of a draft treaty to the British ambassador in order to gauge the strength of the expected opposition.

In what was to prove one of the strangest nonmoves of the entire war, the British Foreign Office declined to protest. Certain British officials of lesser rank did object but only after the treaties were enacted. The United States was officially neutral at this time and not privy to any “ leaks” regarding the contents of the proposed trade treaties.

The first of these secret trade agreements was concluded on August 9, 1940. Although the arrangement made concessions to the Nazis, it continued to allow the practice of sending mail packages to Great Britain and its silent partner, the United States. (Mail packages had been a valuable means of shipping microdies and other microsized precision military components.)

The second and last treaty enacted with Germany was signed on July 18, 1941. This one was much more far-reaching. Under it the Swiss government agreed to discontinue sending any precision components of war materiel to Great Britain or its allies. This treaty also went further and agreed to furnish the financing for this one-sided affair.

This move was a terrible blow to Great Britain, since it depended heavily on products that Switzerland had a monopoly on, particularly some tooling and microsized precision items. Unfortunately for Britain and then the United States (after December 7, 1941), they had failed to acquire and stock critical military items for which the Swiss were the sole source. Despite the obvious inequities, the Allies continued very limited trade with Switzerland — imports included watches, shoes, embroidered fabrics and straw hats, among other everyday items.

The Swiss Federal Council had secretly set these wheels in motion before the Battle of Britain and Pearl Harbor, which allowed it to finance and furnish large amounts of urgently needed precision war materiel to the Nazis. In addition, huge consignments of hydroelectric power and rail traffic were protected by Switzerland’s roof of neutrality.

Hitler received everything he needed from his neutral friend except troops, and he had been able to acquire the entire Swiss wartime capability without the loss of single German soldier. Because of the highly unorthodox structure of the wartime Swiss government, most of the country’s citizens were not even aware of their leaders’ complicity with Hitler.

The total scope of the Swiss support of the Nazi military program was known only by certain officers of the Swiss manufacturing concerns, who had to be told the destination of their products. They were sworn to secrecy. In addition, these officials were usually stockholders in the firms, and most of them enjoyed the enormous profits accumulated from their Nazi customers.

A few of these key Swiss officials were anti-Nazi and willingly cooperated with Allied efforts to mitigate the harmful effects of the Swiss-German treaties. On the whole, however, Switzerland should be remembered not as the most prominent neutral country in Europe during the war, but as Hitler’s forgotten ally.


Originally published in the August 2004 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.