Nothing new under the sun – the Swiss Discourse on Neutrality in Relation to the Second World War

by Tobias Salander

Alois Ricklin defines neutrality in the Historical Dictionary of Switzerland as follows: “Neutrality means non-participation of a state in a war of other states. What non-participation actually means according to international law is subject to the changing of times. Neutrality policy must be distinguished from neutrality law. It encompasses all measures that a neutral state in war or a permanently neutral state already in peace takes at its own discretion beyond its obligations under neutrality law in order to ensure the effectiveness and credibility of its neutrality.”1
  Ricklin underlines that Switzerland did not invent neutrality. “Examples of neutrality can already be found in the Old Testament, in Greek and Roman antiquity, in the Middle Ages and in early modern times.” And then he highlights: “But Switzerland practised it the longest in the world and contributed the most to the legal shaping of neutrality in land warfare.” And further: “Apart from the period between 1798 and 1815, Swiss neutrality can be described in retrospect as a success story. Neutrality as a maxim of foreign policy helped to secure the existence of the Confederation and to keep the country out of wars. That’s why it became a national identity marker in the minds of many Swiss.” Other countries have always had different perceptions of Swiss neutrality: “While some welcomed it as a contribution to peace, others disliked it as hypocrisy, cowardice, free riding, or greed for profit. From the Swiss point of view, it rather embodied prudent protection of interests and a legitimate policy of the small state vis-à-vis the great powers.” In the 19th century, the idea of neutrality was then extended to include Switzerland's humanitarian mission.
  Today, when the pressure on Swiss neutrality is once again immense, it is worth taking a look at the most difficult period in the history of neutrality, the Second World War. And this not from a Swiss, but from an unsuspicious, US-American perspective.
  At that time, too, and in the immediate post-war period, there was a debate about whether neutrality should be abandoned in the face of war. The fact that the USA itself remained neutral until Pearl Harbour, indeed that the large US corporations such as IBM, General Motors, Ford and Standard Oil did “business as usual” with the Nazis, indeed, in part throughout the entire war (!), was worked out not least of all by the US historian with a Jewish background, Herbert M. Reginbogin, who was all the more committed in his research for this reason. Current Concerns reported in detail on the latest attacks against Switzerland from overseas.2
Angelo Codevilla, a professor of international relations at Boston University, an officer in the US Navy, a member of the US Foreign Service, a staff member of the Senate Commission on Intelligence and a Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University – in other words, a scientist with an inside view of the US intelligence services that should open the heart not only of every left-wing Swiss anti-imperialist – aforementioned US professor Codevilla shows in one of his studies the situation in which Switzerland found itself during the Second World War; and if you consider the situation of Switzerland today, surrounded by EU and NATO members who have declared Russia to be their new mortal enemy, you will see that, depending on the intensification of the attacks against Switzerland, a situation not entirely dissimilar could arise; the fate of a small state that wants to remain independent hardly changes over decades, even over centuries, since the topography and the geostrategic position remain the same, even if the greediness can change. If it was once the Alpine crossing that incited the greed of the great powers, today it may be the water reservoir of the Gotthard massif, the healthy municipal finances, the beautiful countryside, etc., etc. But above all, the model of a polity which, built from the bottom up, preserves human dignity in a direct democratic manner like nowhere else, may be a thorn in the flesh of some great powers – their citizens might even get the idea of getting these rights themselves: a boon and hope for world peace!
  So now Codevilla on the inalterable situation of Switzerland due to its geopolitical position: “History shows that neutrals are put under pressure by either of the belligerents. In the Second World War, Switzerland found itself in the middle of two concentric blockades. The external blockade, set up by the Allies, restricted world trade to and from Switzerland for the understandable reason that the Germans wanted to force the Swiss to participate in their trade. The internal blockade set up by the Germans restricted Swiss exports to the Allied countries for the equally understandable reason that Swiss products could have helped the Allies. To increase the pressure, Germany also curbed Swiss imports of fuel and food. The result of these two blockades was that for every pound of trade goods that crossed the country’s border, Switzerland had to come to terms with both the Axis powers and the Allies through agreements. This even meant that the Axis powers and the Allies had to negotiate with each other using Swiss mediators. Each of the two parties knew the pressure that the other party was exerting on Switzerland.”3 016572/2010-11-09/
cf. Hofer, Walther; Reginbogin, Herbert R. Hitler, der Westen und die Schweiz. (Hitler, the West and Switzerland). 1936-1945. Zurich, 2001, Verlag NZZ, ISBN 3-85823-882-1
Codevilla, Angelo M. Eidgenossenschaft in Bedränginis. Die Schweiz im Zweiten Weltkrieg und moralischeer Druck heute. (The Swiss Confederation in difficulties. Switzerland in the Second World War and moral pressure today). Novalis Verlag Schaffhausen 2001. ISBN 3-907160-81-9, p. 40

No ICRC without neutrality

“Switzerland’s position in the world is characterised by perpetual armed neutrality. It is neither imposed from outside nor a mere means of self-assertion. It is an expression of the essence of Switzerland as a constitutional state, which necessarily includes the renunciation of power politics. Neutrality, which has been practised for 500 years, also legitimises Switzerland to host the International Committee of the Red Cross, to which only Swiss nationals belong and which has an international reputation like no other institution in the world.”

Wolfgang von Wartburg in the
“Aargauer Zeitung” of 5 February 1997

Churchill on Swiss neutrality in the Second World War

“Of all the neutrals, Switzerland has the greatest right to distinction. She has been the sole international force linking the hideously sundered nations and ourselves. What does it matter whether she has been able to give us the commercial advantage we desire or has given too many to the Germans, to keep herself alive? She has been a democratic state, standing for freedom in self-defense among her mountains, and in thought, in spite of race, largely on our side.”


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