Target Switzerland

Review by: Dave Kopel

A slightly different version of this review was originally published in The American Enterprise magazine, Jan./Feb. 1999.

Book review of "Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality in World War II" by Dr. Stephen P. Halbrook, Published by Sarpedon Publishers, 25.00 cloth 319 pages. Buy this book from

If all you know is what you read in the papers, then you must think that Switzerland is one of the most despicable countries in the world. Switzerland, rather than joining the Allied cause, stayed neutral World War II. After the war, Swiss banks helped themselves to the deposits of holocaust victims, rather than giving the deposits to the victims’ heirs. Case closed?

Not at all, historian Stephen Halbrook shows in his new book Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality In World War II. Wrongful as was the bankers’ post-war behavior, the behavior of the Swiss people during the war was morally exemplary—superior, indeed to the conduct of most of the rest of Europe. As Winston Churchill recalled, "of all the neutrals Switzerland has the greatest right distinction... 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."

Except for Britain, France, and Canada, virtually all of the Allied nations during World War II joined the war only because the Axis declared war on them, Halbrook reminds us. Even after Pearl Harbor, the United States remained neutral in the European war, until Hitler declared war on United States a few days later.

Nazi maps showed that the Third Reich would eventually include Switzerland, just as it would include all portions of Europe with German-speaking people. While the majority of Switzerland’s population is German-speaking (the rest being French, Italian, or Romansh) the nation was virtually unanimous in hoping and praying for the defeat of Germany. Infuriated by the lack of ethnic solidarity, and by the strongly anti-Nazi stance of Switzerland’s free press, Hitler predicted that Switzerland would be “liquidated” and that he would be known as “the butcher of the Swiss.”

As Halbrook details, in every stage of the war, the Axis had powerful military reasons to invade Switzerland. Before the fall of France, the non-alpine part of Switzerland offered at inviting path to sweep into France and avoid the Maginot Line. After France fell and Italy entered the war, Switzerland offered the only convenient transport of military men and supplies between Italy and Germany. After the Allied landing in Italy, Germany's need to swiftly deploy troops into Italy became even more urgent. As the war came to conclusion in 1944-45, the Nazi leadership laid plans to make a stand in the Alps, but Switzerland stood right in the middle.

By the summer of 1940, there was only one country on Germany's borders whose free press and rights of assembly allowed the Third Reich to be publicly and lawfully denounced as the evil empire that he was. In every country on Germany's borders--except Switzerland--Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other targets of Hitler’s hate were sent to extermination camps. But there was no Holocaust on Swiss soil. Switzerland protected her own Jews, and sheltered many more refugees of all religious backgrounds. Had America sheltered refugees at the same per capita rate as Switzerland, the United States would have taken in over three million refugees. Instead America accepted hardly any.

In all the countries that Hitler conquered, the economy was plundered for use in the Nazi war machine. As a neutral, Switzerland did trade with Germany and Italy, and with the Allies. (For the Allied trade, the Swiss smuggled out precision ball bearings and other military equipment disguised in consumer products like watches.) But unlike in the countries which Hitler conquered, the only products that Hitler could get from Switzerland were what he could buy at full price.

Target Switzerland includes the maps of the evolving Germans invasion plans for "Case Switzerland." Yet although the Germans several times massed troops on the Swiss border for an invasion, the invasion never went forward. With so many reasons to invade Switzerland, why did the Nazis desist?

The Nazis could have eventually have conquered Switzerland, but at a fearful price. The Wehrmacht expected 200,000 German casualties; it would have taken a very long time to remove the Swiss military from the Alpine “Reduit” to which they planned to make a stand. And by the time the Swiss were defeated, every bridge and train track and everything else of value to the conquerors would have been destroyed.

The reason that Switzerland was too difficult to invade—in contrast to all the other nations which Hitler conquered in a matter of weeks—was the Swiss militia system. Unlike all the other nations of Europe, which relied on a standing army, Switzerland was (and still is) defended by a universal militia. Every man was trained in war, had his rifle at home, was encouraged to practice frequently, and could be mobilized almost instantly. The Swiss militiaman was under orders to fight to the last bullet, and after that, with his bayonet, and after that, with his bare hands. Rather than having to defeat an army, Hitler would have had to defeat a whole people.

Conversely, the Swiss citizen militia, with its extensive network of fortifications, had no offensive capability. The Swiss militia was not going to sweep into Berlin; modern Swiss-bashers who condemn the nation for not declaring war fail to understand that by keeping the Axis out of Switzerland, the Swiss were already doing everything they could for the Allied cause.

From the Anschluss of Austria to the Fall of France, Hitler swallowed nation after nation where cowardly ruling elites surrendered the country to the Nazis—either before the shooting began, or a few weeks afterward. But such a surrender would have been impossible in Switzerland, explains Halbrook. The Swiss governmental system was decentralized, with the separate 26 cantons, not the federal government, having the authority. The federal government did notify the Swiss people that in case of a German invasion, any claim that there had been a Swiss surrender should be disregarded as Nazi propaganda. And because the military power was in the hands of every Swiss man, the federal government would have been unable to surrender had it ever wanted to. Nothing could stop the Swiss militiamen from fighting to the very end.

America’s Founders admired Switzerland as a “Sister Republic” amidst the despotisms of Europe. The American Founders—like the Swiss—understood the moral implications of a universal militia system: a people who are trained to self-reliance and responsibility will defend their freedom to the utmost. But a people who rely on a professional standing army may not have the nerve to resist tyranny.

When, as William Shirer wrote from Berlin, the lamps of freedom were going out all over Europe, they burned brighter than ever in Switzerland, as the Swiss people maintained their democracy, their right to assemble, and their freedom of religion. And the Swiss people saved thousands and thousands of refugees from the gas chambers. A well-regulated militia really was necessary to the security of a free state.

Winston Churchill and Adolph Hitler both understood how much Switzerland damaged the Axis cause—on both a military and a moral plane. Stephen Halbrook’s excellent book—the first in English to tell Switzerland’s history during the war—is the story of how a small, isolated nation, faced with mighty enemies and gigantic dangers, can demonstrate true greatness.

Dave Kopel is Research Director of the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado, More by Kopel on Switzerland is available here.

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