A Letter from Switzerland: Alpine Redoubt Stays Neutral

The oldest known case of a weak state declaring neutrality and trying to preserve it amidst a broader war ends tragically. The “Melian Dialogue,” as narrated by Thucydides in his History of the Peloponnesian War, is required reading for all students of world affairs. From the destruction of Melos until our time, the Athenian assertion that the law of nature mandates that the strong rule over the weak has been a constant of international relations everywhere.

This dictum, however grim, holds true in the third decade of the 21st century, regardless of the American rhetoric about a “rules-based international order,” “our common values,” etc. The fate of Melos in 416 B.C., or Belgium in 1914, indicates that a state’s capability to maintain neutrality depends on its ability to defend itself against predators or to make conquest prohibitively costly. In the Hobbesian world, in other words, a neutral nation must be able and willing to deter any likely aggressor by making the probable cost of invasion appear too high.

Neutrality has been pursued by states big and small for five centuries as a prudent strategy to safeguard their independence and to stay out of other peoples’ quarrels. It was especially in vogue during the “golden age of neutrality” (1815-1914), when European wars were limited in scope and free from the moralistic drivel regarding “just” and “unjust” wars. After 1918, however, Woodrow Wilson and other aficionados of the League of Nations condemned neutrality per se as “immoral.” They singled out Switzerland’s position as selfish because its neutrality supposedly was incompatible with their imagined model of collective security.

Switzerland’s  Helvetic Confederation consists of 26 sovereign cantons that voluntarily delegate some of their prerogatives—in foreign affairs, defense, customs and currency—to a weak federal executive. The country’s “eternal neutrality” and its obligation to defend such status were codified at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The country on principle  will not take part in any military conflict, and it has not done so for more than  200 years.

This arrangement has served Switzerland very well. It is one of the richest, safest, most stable, and best administered countries in the world—it is arguably the world’s best-run country. It is famous for its banks, pharmaceuticals, top-quality engineering, medicine, education, and service sector. Numerous international institutions and holding companies based in Switzerland further contribute to its high degree of integration into global flows and enable the country to enjoy influence disproportionate to its territory and population.

At the same time, Switzerland resists the model of European integration dictated from Brussels. As a Swiss commentator, Sibilla Bondolfi, noted two years ago in explaining why Switzerland was hesitant about the EU, from the perspective of the EU apparat, Switzerland is a difficult partner:

In 1992 she said no to the European Economic Area, and in 2021 she unilaterally broke off negotiations on a framework agreement with the EU. It always says “yes please” to economic cooperation and “no, thanks” to greater political integration, let alone membership. Brussels sees this as cherry picking… The Swiss for their part enjoy the role of freedom-loving and self-determined people who can show would-be foreign masters (and Commission presidents) the middle finger in the manner of William Tell… This attitude is supported by a clear majority of the population.

This mindset sometimes provokes outbursts of malice on the part of the Brussels machine, especially since the Swiss Federal Council broke off negotiations on the “Framework Agreement” with the EU in 2021. As a leading Swiss daily noted a year ago, lip service is paid to “the will of the people” by EU bureaucrats. In practice, however, they consider the concept problematic and believe that it should be held in check by strong political leadership. “Switzerland is straining the patience in Brussels,” and the EU is responding by using an array of economic and legal “needle pricks” to intimidate the Swiss.

Intimidation is not working. The record of over seven centuries of Swiss history may explain why it wouldn’t work; but the oligarchs in Brussels do not know history. The country’s resilience was especially evident between 1939-1945.

An enduring myth about World War II is that Germany did not violate Switzerland’s neutrality primarily because the Reich benefited from the financial transactions and trade agreements which were made possible by its neutral status. The Wehrmacht plan for the invasion of Switzerland Operation Tannenbaum, prepared in the fall of 1940, indicates otherwise. It is noteworthy that Hitler told Mussolini in June 1941 that “Switzerland possesses the most despicable and wretched people and political system.” In August 1942 he described Switzerland as “a sore on the face of Europe” which had no right to exist; he further denounced the Swiss as “a misbegotten branch of our people.” To him Switzerland was the antithesis of a racially homogeneous Reich.

There was a problem, however. According to German military planners, the conquest of Switzerland and its subsequent occupation would require up to 500,000 soldiers. Such huge resources were disproportionate to the possible benefits at a time when Germany was at war with Great Britain and was preparing to attack the USSR. This assessment was conditioned by the fact that Switzerland had a sizeable conscript army which rapidly could be boosted by well-trained reserves, and that it had invested heavily in armaments, equipment, and fortifications.

In the event of German attack the Swiss planned to abandon indefensible lowlands in the north, including all major cities and industrial centers, and to concentrate their forces in the “National Redoubt” in the Alpine massifs in the central and southern part of the country. Under the steady command of General Henri Guisan the country prepared for the worst. The final plan of July 1940 envisaged an orderly retreat to the Alps where supplies would be stocked for indefinite resistance. The Swiss would defend the High Alps along the line St. Moritz-St. Gothard-Sargans. After the retreat the army would destroy key bridges and tunnels. The gold reserves of the National Bank were transferred to the Gotthard Pass. The concept of the national redoubt was largely known to the public. It was meant to be a pillar of the Geistige Landesverteidigung (“spiritual defense”) and strengthen the morale of the nation.

Not for the first time, the facts of physical space provided the key to Switzerland’s survival. This geopolitical aspect is often missing in the conventional approach to Swiss history, which tends to interpret the country’s origins and development mainly from the perspective of its social institutions and culture. It is of paramount importance, however, that Switzerland occupies an area in the very heart of the continent, along the main north-south and east-west transportation corridors. It came into being in the zone of contact and conflict between three large linguistic and cultural regions, along the fault lines of centuries-old tension between the great European powers, and in the vicinity of the major battlefields in their history.

From its beginning the Confederation was a loose condominium, with the cantons jealously guarding their autonomy. For the sake of defending strategically important joint possessions, they nevertheless closed ranks when necessary. This was especially true regarding control over the key pass of St. Gotthard. Exclusive control over this vital connection between Germany and Italy was from the beginning considered a common proto-Swiss interest of the first order.

The determinants of space and power have always defined Switzerland’s relations with the rest of Europe and conditioned the emergence of an insular strategic culture. It is resistant to social and cultural experimentation, and it emphatically rejects any supranational source of legal and political authority. It is rooted in the founding myth of the Swiss nation, the “Oath” on the Rütli Meadow of August 1291. It was a pact made for the self-defense of the three “forest cantons” (Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden) against the arbitrariness of foreign nobility. The Bundesbrief signed at the time is considered the founding act of the Swiss state.

The mythical figure of William Tell represents the most complete symbol of Switzerland’s founding. The spirit of fierce independence that Tell symbolizes resolutely rejects the legitimacy of all foreign judges. The refusal of today’s Swiss to submit to the European Court of Justice, let alone to join the EU, harks back to Tell.

Another mythical figure, that of David, is occasionally evoked as a metaphor for Switzerland: a brave lad who stands up to a huge, arrogant stranger. The role of Goliath was assigned to different foreign actors at different times: the Habsburgs, the Holy Roman Empire, the revolutionary and then Napoleonic France, Hitler’s Germany; and, during the Cold War, the USSR. In recent years many Swiss have come to see an intimidating giant in the European Union. A clear hint was given by then-President Ueli Maurer’s speech onJuly 31, 2013, titled David und Goliath in der Staatspolitik. “We have a future as a small but free country,” Maurer said, “as long as we don’t allow ourselves to be intimidated by power and size”:

Our liberal order has made Switzerland one of the richest countries in the world. And it is precisely this order that is now incessantly under pressure from large states or transnational bodies… They want to force us to take on ever greater international obligations, which makes it more difficult for us to run our country as we deem fit. And under foreign law and foreign judges, Switzerland would lose… History shows us that since 1291 many large states have emerged and disappeared again; but little Switzerland still exists. This gives cause for confidence and optimism… Let us not allow ourselves to be forced into the same rigid armor as other states. These international norms and standards do not fit us…

The Alpine mountain massif as a permanent physical determinant, the interests of the great powers as a political variable, along with a strong tradition of local democracy, cantonal liberty, and a weak federal executive have made Switzerland an island in the heart of Europe with unique cultural and political peculiarities. True to form, despite the pressure from some of its partners to join the ranks of the “collective West” over Ukraine, Switzerland is sticking to its guns. Berne has made some concessions by joining economic sanctions against Russia, but overall neutrality remains sacrosanct.

Some NATO members, notably Germany, have expressed displeasure because neutrality makes it impossible for Switzerland to send arms and military equipment to Ukraine (cf. e.g. “Williger Helfer des Kreml”). Even though they see themselves as an integral part of the West in cultural and economic terms, a great majority of Swiss citizens remain in favor of maintaining neutrality (91 percent supported it in a May 2023 poll). It provides a strong identity trait that cannot and should not be revised due to a crisis or conflict, whatever its rights and wrongs, that does not directly concern Swiss national security.

On balance, Switzerland provides a model of morally neutral foreign policy which America needs badly, and a viable national strategy based on pragmatic interests rather than “defining values” and self-proclaimed exceptionality.

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