Since the origins of the Swiss Confederation in 1291, it has been the duty of every male Swiss citizen to be armed and to serve in the militia. Today, that arm is an “assault rifle,” which is issued to every Swiss male and which must be kept in the home. During Germany’s Third Reich (1933-1945), that arm was a bolt-action repeating rifle, which was highly effective in the hands of Switzerland’s many sharpshooters.

Americans of the wartime generation were familiar with the fact that brave and armed little Switzerland stood up to Hitler and made him blink. As a map of Europe in 1942 shows, the Nazis had swallowed up most of everything on the continent but this tiny speck that Hitler called “a pimple on the face of Europe.” The Führer boasted that he would be “the butcher of the Swiss,” but the Wehrmacht was dissuaded by a fully armed populace in the Alpine terrain. As I point out in my forthcoming book, Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality in World War II, Switzerland’s history illustrates the will and ability of an armed citizenry to resist tyranny to the death.

The Swiss federal shooting festival, which remains the largest rifle competition in the world, was held in Luzern in June 1939. Hitler’s takeover of Austria and Czechoslovakia was complete; both countries had been surrendered by tiny political elites who guaranteed that there would be no resistance. Swiss President Philipp Etter spoke at the festival, stressing that something far more serious than sport was the purpose of their activity. His comments demonstrated the connection between national defense and the armed citizen:

There is probably no other country that, like Switzerland, gives the soldier his weapon to keep in the home. The Swiss always has his rifle at hand. It belongs to the furnishings of his home. . . . That corresponds to ancient Swiss tradition. As the citizen with his sword steps into the ring in the cantons which have the Landsgemeinde, so the Swiss soldier lives in constant companionship with his rifle. He knows what that means. With this rifle, he is liable every hour, if the country calls, to defend his hearth, his home, his family, his birthplace. The weapon is to him a pledge and sign of honor and freedom. The Swiss does not part with his rifle.

On September 1, 1939, Hitler launched World War II by attacking Poland. Within a day or two, Switzerland had about half a million militiamen mobilized out of a population of just over four million. General Henri Guisan, commander in chief of the Swiss militia, responded with Operations Order No. 2:

At the border and between the border and army position, the border troops and advance guard persistently delay the advance of the enemy. The garrisons at the border and between the border and the works and positions making up the defensive front continue resistance up to the last cartridge, even if they find themselves completely alone.

This astonishing order was the opposite of the policies of the other European countries, which either surrendered to Hitler without a fight or surrendered after a brief resistance. For example, in April 1940, Denmark’s king surrendered the country after a meeting with the Nazis and instructed his forces not to resist. Norway resisted, although —unlike Switzerland—it had no armed populace and was ill prepared for combat.

In response to the invasions of small neutral countries, Switzerland issued its “directions concerning the conduct of the soldiers not under arms in event of attack.” Intended as a warning to Germany, it was pasted on walls all over the country. It prescribed the reaction against surprise attack and against the fifth column as follows:

All soldiers and those with them are to attack with ruthlessness parachutists, airborne infantry and saboteurs. Where no officers and noncommissioned officers are present, each soldier acts under exertion of all powers of his own initiative.

This command for the individual to act on his own initiative was an ancient Swiss tradition which reflected the political and military leadership’s staunch confidence in the ordinary man. This command was possible, of course, only in a society where every man had his rifle at home.

Under no condition, the order continued, would any surrender be forthcoming, and any pretense of a surrender must be ignored:

If by radio, leaflets or other media any information is transmitted doubting the will of the Federal Council or of the Army High Command to resist an attacker, this information must be regarded as lies of enemy propaganda. Our country will resist aggression with all means in its power and to the bitter end.

Switzerland, in other words, possessed the most democratic system of national defense in Europe. The Nazis were well aware that invasion meant fighting on every inch of ground (much of it vertical), in every city and village, in every pasture and mountainside, right down to every man with a rifle. There would be no easy surrender made by a ruler, as elsewhere.

The Swiss policy of total resistance is further illustrated by the creation of the Ortswehren (local defense). It was based on the dictum that “only a total defense can oppose total war.” By allowing boys and old men to be sworn in as members of the armed forces and issuing them an armband, it permitted the entire male population to fight and still be recognized as soldiers under international law. Armed civilians not so recognized would, if captured, be treated as Franktireure (lone snipers) and shot on the spot. Ortswehr members armed themselves either with their own rifles or with rifles received from the military.

The Ortswehren consisted of former soldiers no longer required to serve, the Jungschützen (young shooters), accurate marksmen who were not capable of military service, those with emergency service duties and others who had been exempt from the military, and women in the medical service and fire brigades. By 1941, its membership totaled 127,563, one-fifth of the size of the army. Had the Germans invaded, the Ortswehren would have provided armed civilian resistance in every locality of Switzerland, no matter how populous or remote.

In May 1940, the Nazis attacked Belgium and the Netherlands. After a few days of fighting, political leaders surrendered, ordering the soldiers to lay down their arms and discontinue resistance. There was no civilian resistance, thanks in part to preexisting firearms prohibitions in those countries.

Within days, the Wehrmacht routed the French at Sedan and were expected to attack Switzerland. General Guisan issued yet another remarkable command to the militia. The latest war news, he declared, demonstrated that the French soldiers could have stopped hostile advances. Instead, defections allowed the enemy to penetrate through gaps, which quickly widened. In contrast, Guisan recalled the high duty of the soldier to resist:

Everywhere, where the order is to hold, it is the duty of conscience of each fighter, even if he depends on himself alone, to fight at his assigned position. The riflemen, if overtaken or surrounded, fight in their position until no more ammunition exists. Then cold steel is next. . . . The machine gunners, the cannoneers of heavy weapons, the artillerymen, if in the bunker or on the field, do not abandon or destroy their weapons, or allow the enemy to seize them. Then the crews fight further like riflemen. As long as a man has another cartridge or hand weapons to use, he does not yield.

Cold steel. Never surrender if any weapon is available. This was the tradition of the fierce medieval Swiss soldiers who defeated many times their numbers and spread terror in the hearts of their enemies. What would have been the fate of Europe had the countries that fell to Hitler embraced such a warrior code?

France collapsed in June 1940 after only a few weeks of fighting. Paris was taken without a shot being fired. The Nazis promptly proclaimed the death penalty for possession of firearms in France and other occupied countries.

Hitler was able to conquer much of Europe by bluffing central authorities into capitulation. In some eases, after a few meetings and threats, Nazi henchmen convinced the political leaders of an entire nation to surrender and to direct the armed forces not to resist. In other cases, the surrender would come after a brief fight, for which the armies were unprepared. There was no need to order the people not to resist, because they were unarmed.

In contrast, Switzerland hardly had a central government, and it had a militia instead of a standing army. Power was decentralized. The first unit of power was the individual and the family, with its household and its rifle. Then came the village or city, then the canton, and finally the federal parliament. It was power from the bottom up.

A 1940 Newsweek article characterized Switzerland as the world’s oldest and purest democracy where, in three cantons, government was still conducted by a show of hands in public squares at the Landsgemeinden. The militia had no officer higher than a colonel in peacetime. “Even when there is no European war on, every member of this militia army of some 500,000 keeps his gun, ammunition, and equipment at home — making the Swiss Government the only one in Europe which trusts such a large proportion of citizens with arms.”

What this meant to the Nazis was that they would have to conquer Switzerland right down to the last man. And many of these men would be sniping—from steep, hidden Alpine positions—at German troops with rifles which were accurate at long ranges. There would be no surrender.

The April 1944 issue of American Mercury included an intriguing article by Edward Byng entitled “If Switzerland is Invaded.” In that event, warned Byng, demolition would begin in seconds: “Terrific explosions [would] rend the air all along the Swiss frontiers, as if hundreds of avalanches were thundering down the mountain slopes of the land.” All bridges over the Rhine would collapse, and mines would await invaders who tried to cross by rafts or amphibious tanks. The Simplon and the St. Gotthard tunnels would be destroyed. Roads, railways, bridges, power stations, and air fields would be blown up. Camouflaged tank traps and electrified barbed-wire fences would stop many panzers and infantry.

Both World War I and Hitler’s blitzkrieg attacks demonstrated to the Swiss General Staff the need for a lightning mobilization. If the order were broadcast, every soldier on or off duty would grab his rifle and report to a nearby post. Byng continued:

Switzerland has only a citizen militia. . . . It is the pride of the country that every citizen is allowed to keep his army rifle and ammunition in his house. So orderly and ethically advanced is the population of this model country that there is rarely a case where this officially sanctioned and encouraged custom leads to violence. With her main inaccessible mountains, her passionately liberty-loving population famed for marksmanship, Switzerland is a classic background for guerrilla warfare.

The Alps were “honeycombed with bomb and gas-proof shelters. . . . pillboxes and perfectly concealed nests for snipers, advance machine gun and flame-thrower units.” Just as they had done at Morgarten in 1315, when they launched boulders down the mountainsides to crush the Austrian invaders, the Swiss could create landslides and avalanches that no infantry or armored divisions could survive. “The world’s model democracy, Switzerland, is thus on the alert, in trigger readiness to teach the Nazis a costly lesson should desperation or arrogance tempt them to attack.”

There was no holocaust on Swiss soil. Swiss Jews served in the militia side by side with their fellow citizens, and kept rifles in their homes just like everyone else. It is hard to believe that there could have been a holocaust had the Jews of Germany, Poland, and France had the same privilege. Indeed, just bare recognition of a right to keep arms would have saved lives. The heroic Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943, after all, began when Jewish resisters acquired just ten handguns.

Swiss-bashing has become fashionable in the American media in the past two years, but Senator Alfonse D’Amato, who has done more than any to stir up the frenzy, just does not have the same credibility as Winston Churchill, who wrote in December 1944:

I put this down for the record. 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 advantages 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-defence among her mountains, and in thought, in spite of race, largely on our side.