I wrote this script for Frontier Media’s YouTube channel The Front in 2022. I did not write the title or thumbnail. As of November 2022, the video has gained over 210k views.


Switzerland didn’t have the luxury of distance during the Second World War. It was right in the middle of it, virtually encircled by the Axis Powers after the Fall of France. Given its geographical position and reliance on other nations for trade, it’s pretty impressive that Switzerland maintained armed neutrality throughout the conflict, despite some controversial dealings with the Nazis.

In this video, we delve into World War II Switzerland, focusing on the climate inside this landlocked nation.

Spiritual national defence

With the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1930s, the Swiss were apprehensive. Nazi doctrine and propaganda pushed for the unification of all German people, including the many Germans in Switzerland, whereas Switzerland was a multicultural nation with its own distinct identity. Of all the potential threats the nation faced, the Nazi threat stood most at odds with Swiss liberty and democracy. The Swiss’ will to defend Switzerland’s independence was defined by the term “spiritual national defence” {On-screen text: Geistige Landesverteidigung}. While a Swiss Nazi party, known as the National Movement of Switzerland, existed, and while not everyone was on board with spiritual national defence, the majority of Switzerland held anti-Nazi sentiment.

The following is from a German intelligence report from November 1939:

“90% of the population has a negative attitude towards Germany, 5% are indifferent, and at best 5% have a positive attitude. Reich German citizens are reportedly called bad names such as [“Nazi dog.”] German propaganda is showing little effect. France and England are said to be appreciated because the Swiss reportedly assume that Switzerland will retain its current size if the Western forces win, while they fear that the German-speaking part of Switzerland will be annexed by Germany if Germany wins.”

The media in Switzerland remained mostly free, with moderate censorship of things like the Sieg Heil salute. Largely, the media was critical of Hitler and the Nazis, with some sources outright mocking them, such as the musical performances of Cabaret Cornichon. Their performances included anti-German satires which became so popular that the Swiss authorities thought it would provoke a violent German reprisal.

On the other side of the coin, German propaganda depicted an insurmountable German military, equipped with massive bombers, tanks, and submarines against which the Swiss could not hope to prevail {On-screen text: GL submarining a landlocked country, though.}.

National Redoubt

Even if this were true, the Swiss still mobilized in anticipation of a German invasion. In 1939, prior to the Fall of France, a man named Henri Guisan was put in command of the Swiss military. Guisan believed that Switzerland’s greatest threat was Germany and constructed his plan of defence around this. In short, Switzerland and France would link their defensive lines and work as one to stave off the Germans.

By the 3rd of September, Guisan had mobilised 430,000 combat troops and an additional 210,000 support personnel, the latter including 10,000 to 12,000 women. At its height, some 850,000 Swiss were mobilized for war; this was an impressive number considering that Switzerland’s population sat at a little over 4.2 million during the war. {On-screen text: The Swiss mobilised 20% of their entire population.}

Of course, things changed after France raised a white flag in June 1940. With the German occupation of France, Switzerland was now encircled by the Axis. Guisan’s strategy changed. Rather than trying to halt the Germans at a defensive line, the Swiss opted for a strategy of attrition. They would resist the invaders for as long as possible, no matter the cost, and wait for the Allies to win the war.

As part of this strategy, known as the National Redoubt or Reduit, Swiss forces would retreat to the fortifications they had established in the mountainous central region of the country, where their knowledge of the terrain and home ground morale advantage would prove an especially tough cookie to crack. On top of buying themselves time, this made an invasion of Switzerland even less appealing. The cost to German manpower would be simply too high. In the words of the Swiss Parliament, the Swiss people were “without regard to tongue, confession or party prepared to defend the inviolability of their territory against any aggressor to the last drop of blood.”

This was reflected on an individual level, too. According to one Max Salm, born in 1922, “In 1940 young and old civilians were encouraged to join the Ortswehr (Local Defence).” Participating in pre-military shooting courses since they were 15, Salm’s entire college class signed up. “Our instructions were that we should always be alert for parachutists and for people behaving suspiciously,” said Salm. “We wanted to shoot as many ‘Sauschwaben’ (German pigs) as possible.”

Werner P. Auer joined the Swiss army in September 1941 and had the following to say about the situation:

“At the borders with France and Italy, the Germans had fences with bells. The Swiss would ring the bells as a prank and the Germans would come running. We did not distinguish the Germans and the Nazis — they were the same enemy. I never met anyone who would consider abandoning Switzerland. People would have disappeared into the woods and waged guerrilla warfare. The Reduit decision was not opposed and did not lead to discouragement.”

Swiss resolve did not stop Hitler from drawing up plans, though. In fact, he was more than a little pissed off. In a meeting with Mussolini, he said the following:

“Switzerland possesses the most disgusting and miserable people and political system. The Swiss are the mortal enemies of the new Germany.”

The Führer also referred to Switzerland as “a pimple on the face of Europe” and its people as “a misbegotten branch of our Volk,” with “our Volk” meaning the German people. While it never came to pass, Hitler conceived Operation Tannenbaum, a German and Italian invasion of Switzerland, straight after he’d taken France.

Trading with the enemy

Part of making an invasion of Switzerland as unappealing as possible was maintaining trade with Germany. Encircled, and lacking raw materials, Switzerland was also dependent on said trade. According to a report by the Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland – Second World War, during the war, Switzerland’s imports plummeted from 30% of their net national to 9%, while their exports fell from 25% to 9%.

To stay afloat, Switzerland kept open the railway lines connecting Germany and Italy via Switzerland; exported machinery, electricity, chemicals, pharmaceutics, and dairy products, among other things; imported an abundance of raw materials, including 10,267,000 tonnes of German coal between 1939 and 1945 {On-screen text: This coal supplied 41% of Switzerland’s energy requirements.}; and purchased massive quantities of gold from both the Germans and the Allies.

To put it in perspective, the Reichsbank sold over 1,231 to 1,922 million francs of gold to the Swiss National Bank between 1940 and 1945 {On-screen text: The sources vary; the latter was included in a report by the Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland – Second World War.}. A portion of this gold had been taken from victims of the Holocaust—hence the controversiality of the subject.

If they hadn’t done the above, they likely would have forced Hitler’s hand, and the Swiss people may have starved because the country largely depended on imports to feed its population. Rationing was implemented, but the Swiss also came up with what was known as the Wahlen Plan, an initiative to increase the country’s agricultural yield.

According to Swiss soldier Urs Schwarz:

“Football fields, parks, roadsides, railroad embankments, and the lawn in the smallest garden soon became covered with potato blossoms, bean sticks, and tomato plants and after working hours would swarm with men, women, and children feeling they were doing patriotic work.”

By 1943, Switzerland’s arable land had doubled in size. While this certainly improved Switzerland’s situation, it still needed to import 20% of its food, lest its people go hungry. Self-sufficiency was out of the question.

Refugees and the Holocaust

As an added pressure, Switzerland interned some 300,000 refugees during the war, including 60,000 civilians fleeing the Nazis, some 27,000 Jews among them. Considering Switzerland’s population size—again, around 4.2 million—this was a significant weight to take on, and the Swiss were forced to turn away many refugees, with Professor Jean-Christian Lambelet estimating the number of people who refused to be about 5,000 {On-screen text: This reference appeared in The Swiss And The Nazis: How The Alpine Republic Survived In The Shadow Of The Third Reich by Stephen P. Halbrook in the Swiss American Historical Society Review.}.

According to historian Stephen P. Halbrook, towards the end of the war, when the horrors of the Holocaust were laid bare, the Swiss granted Jewish refugees automatic entry into Switzerland and, quote, “did their best to rescue foreign Jews.”

Swiss in the SS

As we mentioned earlier, not everyone in Switzerland held anti-Nazi sentiments.

According to an article by swissinfo.ch, the History and Folklore Museum in St Gallen, Switzerland, had an exhibition in 2009 that presented information on some 2,000 Swiss who volunteered to fight alongside the Nazis. Many of these people had dual nationality. Some enlisted in the Wehrmacht, while others joined SS units such as the 6th SS Mountain Division “Nord.”

Among the volunteers was a man named Robert Prinzing, who ended up imprisoned in the Soviet Union between 1944 and 1948. When he was returned to Switzerland in the 1950s, the Swiss government didn’t punish him because he’d already spent so much time behind bars.


We haven’t covered German and Allied violations of Swiss airspace, downed airmen interned in Switzerland, and the Allied bombing of Schaffhausen in this video, but we may do so in another.

For now, we’re interested to know what you think.

After watching this video, do you think Switzerland handled itself in an ethical fashion, or should the Swiss have done things differently? What do you think would have happened if they cut off all trade with Germany or stopped the trains between Germany and Italy? And lastly, what do you think would have happened if Hitler went through with Operation Tannenbaum? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.