Switzerland without a constitutional army in the next war?

Indispensable lessons from the Second World War

by Gotthard Frick*, Bottmingen

In the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” of 30 July 2021, there is a detailed report on an interesting, but in military terms only symbolic, resistance action against the German occupiers of Norway during the Second World War.1 What is hardly known today is that almost all European states declaring themselves neutral at the time were immediately subjugated by force to their war interests by Nazi Germany, Italy, but also by the Allies, provided they did not have strong armies that could have prevented this. Many capitulated within days.
  In terms of topography and location, Norway was even better suited for successful defence than Switzerland. But its pacifist Labour Party, which ruled the country, did not want to spend money on an army. The Norwegians paid with four years of war. (In 1940, Norway’s armed forces comprised 30,000 men, Switzerland’s at mobilisation on 11 May 1940 450,000 men plus 150,000 auxiliary conscripts).
  The numerous other invaded neutral countries, such as Finland, which was governed by a social-democratic-agrarian alliance, also had no armies worth mentioning. Its prime minister, Aimoo Kaarlo Cajander, had proudly proclaimed in August 1940 that he had not “wasted” any money on weapons, whereupon a powerful Soviet army invaded Finland in November 1940. The prime minister resigned immediately. Of the 200,000 Finnish soldiers (out of a population of about 3 million at the time), many were equipped only with their private firearms and clothing. With virtually no air support and heavy weapons, they successfully resisted the Soviet army on skis in white camouflage suits for almost four months in the freezing winter, supported by plenty of snow. The latter suffered catastrophic losses and had to be rebuilt by Stalin according to universal military principles – instead of according to his previous “socialist” ones – before defeating Finland. Every Finnish soldier wore a government-issued badge to recognise him as a soldier according to international agreements, even if he only wore his private clothes (as, for example, members of the Swiss local armed forces had to wear an armband with a Swiss cross for the same reason). Finland was the only country defeated by the Soviet Union that was not incorporated into the Eastern Bloc. Was the resistance so impressive to Stalin?
  Greece had also fought resolutely. That is why Churchill said after its surrender: “Hence, we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.” Why? At 3.00 a.m. on 28 October 1940, the Italian ambassador had presented the authoritarian, politically right-wing prime minister Ioannis Metaxas with an ultimatum, refusal of which would mean war. Metaxas refused (“Oxi. So it’s war then.”). At mass demonstrations that same day, Greeks chanted only “Oxi, oxi, oxi”, “no” to submission. That is why 28 October is still a Greek bank holiday today as “Oxi Day”.
  A large Italian army attacked from Albania, which had already been occupied, but was pushed back by the Greek army far into Albania and got bogged down there. Mussolini personally took over the supreme command and on 9 March 1941 attacked again with 17 divisions the 13 Greek fighting there. He failed after a few days and stopped the attack. In the meantime, Hitler had prepared a large army for the attack on the Soviet Union. But first he had to help Italy solve the Greek problem. He ordered the 12th Army, which was standing by in Bulgaria, to attack Greece from the other side, via Thessaloniki, on 6 April 1941. Since Greece had to withdraw large units from the front on the Albanian border to fight the Wehrmacht, Italy’s troops also succeeded. On 23 April 1941, after a total of six months of successful resistance, Greece had to capitulate.
  Today it is hardly common knowledge that it triggered the first catastrophic defeat for the Wehrmacht with its long resistance. Because of the unplanned deployment of the German 12th Army in Greece, which was intended for Russia, the German attack on Russia was delayed by six weeks. Thus, the Wehrmacht not only encountered additional, strong, well-trained troops (700,000 men) brought quickly from Siberia to Moscow, but was also fully immersed in the Russian winter (at -35° Celsius), for which the Wehrmacht was not prepared. It lost one million men and practically all its equipment (e.g., 2,800 out of a total of 3,400 tanks, 35,000 heavy trucks, etc.) because of the cold and enemy action. In the gun emplacements alone 100,000 men froze to death). Only with an extreme effort was Hitler able to bring the situation more or less under control.

Back to Switzerland again

All the major forces deployed in Europe at the time were considering an attack on our country, not just Germany. Like all the others, the High Command of the US forces, so powerful and experienced in war, came to a negative conclusion in 1944 when examining the attack from France through Switzerland on Germany called for by Stalin, which it communicated to the Commander-in-Chief in Europe in the following words: “The difficulties of the terrain and the recognised capabilities of the small but efficient Swiss forces in fighting on their own soil would make such a project doubtful.” (Telegram of 29 December 1944 from the US Combined Chiefs of Staff, Washington, to General Eisenhower in Versailles).
  Despite the clearly defined purpose of the Swiss army in the Federal Constitution Art. 58, i.e., to “prevent war”, we have largely crushed it. In contrast to the Second World War, today no general staff, when examining an attack on our country, will conclude that success is “doubtful”, and so we would be immediately involved at the very beginning of a quite possible major war in Europe – lying in the middle of NATO. Some time ago, at a friendly dinner in Beijing with an executive of one of the largest Chinese corporations, the latter asked the author quite abruptly: “Why has the richest country in the world abolished its army?”  •



1 Nuspliger, Niklaus. “Geheimoperation ‘Shetland-Bus’” [Secret operation “Shetland-Bus”]. In Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 30 July 2021, p. 6

(Translation Current Concerns)

*  Economist & business administrator; dipl. Sciences Po & Sorbonne, Paris

Federal Constitution Art. 58 Armed Forces

  1. Switzerland shall have armed forces. In principle, the armed forces shall be organised as a militia.
  2. The armed forces serve to prevent war and to maintain peace; they defend the country and its population. They shall support the civilian authorities in safeguarding the country against serious threats to internal security and in dealing with exceptional situations. Further duties may be provided for by law.
  3. The deployment of the armed forces is the responsibility of the Confederation.

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