Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Switzerland and Today’s Europe

There is a fantastic periodical called “Strategy & Tactics” that I recommend very highly.  The magazine contains interesting articles about various military topics from ancient Rome to the present day.  I realize that their home page is a bit sparse and I don’t even know if you can subscribe online but I sent them a check and have been receiving the issues ever since.

Within the magazine there is a unique section called “FYI”.  This section is described by the magazine as “tight, pithy articles of no more than 2,000 words on interesting, obscure or otherwise little known aspects of military history”.  In the recent issue #234 (I think they release them when they get enough content, not necessarily on a schedule) they had a fascinating article named “Switzerland in World War II”.

For those that aren’t aware – Switzerland stayed neutral through both WW I and WW II despite being adjacent to Germany and having strong pressure brought to bear to join the war effort from both the Allied and Axis sides.  The Swiss generally stayed neutral by having a strong defensive army, forbidding terrain, and an active foreign policy.  The Swiss lives saved by staying neutral were immense although impossible to estimate.

The Swiss mobilized a huge percentage of their population as soldiers in order to present a credible deterrent to Hitler’s Germany.  Up to 20% of their total population (remember, only half were men to begin with and many children or too old to serve) were called up as soldiers.  They also had a unique federal structure where the central government could not surrender “generally”, so the Germans would have to take each of the provinces one by one, fighting to the bitter end.  The horrible fates of the Belgians and the Netherlands made standing and fighting a better plan than surrendering to the Nazis.

In the end, there were several times where the Germans seriously contemplated invading Switzerland, but it never occurred.  The Swiss policy of armed neutrality saved their citizenry from occupation, murder and deportation.

The contrast between the effort that Switzerland put forth for their own defense and that of today’s Europe is staggering.  France today has 170,000 in their military, Germany has 221,000 military personnel, Britain has 114,000 soldiers.  Thus tiny Switzerland, which admittedly faced a dire threat, had twice the soldiers under arms in WW II than the combined states of Germany, France and Britain have today.


Signal-box Willie said...
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Signal-box Willie said...

Here it goes again, this myth of the strong Swiss Army. Armed neutrality certainly was one of the
reasons why Hitler did not attack Switzerland, but it was definitely not the only one.
Eugen Bircher, a Swiss colonel at the time, probably made a correct assessment of the situation when saying that the Germans would have been able to advance towards the Swiss capital Berne with a single tank regiment easily. General Henri Guisan, commander-in-chief of the Swiss Army during WW II shared this view and prepared for a guerilla war in the Swiss mountains (the so-called Reduit plan). Read this and more background info on Switzerland and WW II.

Carl from Chicago said...

I don't disagree that the Germans could have gotten to the capital. The Swiss knew this, too, and thus they split up their army and set themselves up for a protracted defensive war. In the end, the Germans certainly could have beaten the Swiss, but it would have been bloody and a diversion from their other campaigns.

The point of this post is really to just show the level of effort that the Swiss put into their defense vs. the pathetic state of the ex-WWII combatants today in Europe. It can be measured in terms of the portion of the population conscripted into the army as well as the way they set up their defenses.

None of these combatants face the kind of terror today that Hitler brought in the 1940's but on the flip side their economies and populations utterly dwarf Switzerlands' from 1939 - 1945.

If the Swiss didn't have a reasonably strong defense they probably would have become part of the Reich, the same way that Finland's bitter defense left them a free country in 1945 (if a country with a lot less territory).