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How Does Switzerland Always Stay Neutral?

Swiss flag with Matterhorn in the background.
Switzerland's geographic location bordering powerful countries contributes to its military neutrality.
Some Swiss banks are believed to have assisted the Nazis in World War II.
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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
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  • Last Modified Date: 05 August 2014
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The military neutrality of Switzerland has become legendary, and it is true that the country has not been involved in any outside conflicts since 1815. This does not mean, however, that the country has been completely unbiased or objective when it comes to wartime economics. It has been accused of aiding or abetting other countries, such as Germany, while still maintaining a veneer of neutrality.

Under a number of treaty agreements, neutral countries still have certain legal and moral obligations during wartime, and Switzerland has largely succeeded in meeting those obligations, although some have questioned the country's interpretation of neutrality.

Switzerland remains militarily neutral largely because the country itself is especially vulnerable to invasion from any one of its powerful neighbors, specifically France, Italy, Austria or Germany. Political neutrality for a small country with a limited military capacity is generally preferable to a hostile takeover from a belligerent neighbor. As long as the country is officially recognized as neutral, no country can legally form plans to invade it or use it as a base of operations. A neutral country can accept refugees or political prisoners, but it is not obligated to join peacekeeping missions after the conflict ends.

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The country has not always been conflict-free, but most of its strife has been internal. Fighting between Catholic and Protestant factions during the 19th century did create major rifts in the Swiss government, but these matters were eventually defused internally. The government did not join Woodrow Wilson's proposed League of Nations until its official neutrality policy was recognized by all other members.

During World War I, Switzerland did not offer any meaningful military assistance to Germany or France, but other governments did not always respect the nation's borders or airspace. This fact did not escape the notice of the Swiss government, which made regular protests to both the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations.

The country's policies and practices during World War II, however, did raise a number of concerns about its neutrality among Allied countries. Nazi Germany did maintain an economic relationship with Switzerland throughout the entire war. Swiss bankers were distressingly willing to establish secret accounts for Nazi officers seeking safe storage of money and other valuables looted from countries overtaken by the German war machine. While Swiss diplomats also provided safe passage for victims of Nazi oppression, the government often came perilously close to appearing politically allied with Germany.

Some historians suggest that the nation's eagerness to work with Nazi Germany and their caches of money and artworks helped to prolong the war itself. The German war machine was on the losing end of the conflict militarily several times, but influxes of cash and other support from ostensibly neutral Swiss banks helped Nazi Germany regain its footing and continue fighting the war. Formal accusations of Swiss financial assistance and political empathy towards Nazi Germany have been leveled several times over the years, but to date, the country has never charged with violating its own neutrality policy.

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anon946735
Post 18

The reason Switzerland wasn't invaded during World War II is there was no strategic reason to do so. Germany had political and economic reasons not invade Switzerland. The Swiss changed their banking laws allowing anonymous bank accounts (the Nazis deposited millions in loot), and many of the Swiss were German and pro Nazi.

The Swiss had factories that made parts for German airplanes (these were "accidentally" bombed by the allies). The Swiss initially shot down several axis and allied aircraft that entered Swiss airspace, but stopped after Germany threatened invasion. The idea that the Swiss could stop an invasion by Germany during World War II is ridiculous. Switzerland was scared to death by the thought of a German invasion and did everything they could do to appease Germany. Their national hero general Guisan was nothing more than a loudmouth blowhard who never fought a single battle. The Swiss have been and always will be at the mercy of their much more powerful neighbors.

anon351397
Post 17

@anon278346: The United States officially entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941). World War II officially began September 1, 1939. So just a little over two years and three months out of a nearly six year long war is "the majority"?

anon340057
Post 16

Yep! Switzerland has an army and its only major accomplishment and use of note is to carry around a very useful multi-tool penknife!

Why does the Swiss Army bother playing war games and going on military maneuvers and exercise? I swear to God Switzerland would stay 'neutral' even in circumstances of invasion by a marauding foreign force of breathtaking evil.

fify
Post 14

@anon33151-- That's true but Switzerland is a very small country. Although conquering and keeping the mountainous areas under control might seem difficult, it's definitely doable.

And Switzerland doesn't have enough men to defend the country. Switzerland's population is about seven or eight million which is nothing compared to the population of its neighbors. Italy, France and Germany all have populations between sixty and seventy million.

So if Switzerland were to be attacked by one or more of these countries, it doesn't stand a chance. That's why it has to stay neutral.

SteamLouis
Post 13

@anon106469-- That's a good point. So maybe Switzerland's neighbors have a hand in them being neutral?

Because like you said, it's in everyone's favor to keep Switzerland safe since the politicians and the wealthy all over the world have accounts there.

discographer
Post 12

I was speaking to a friend a few days ago who has lived in Geneva, Switzerland. Her argument was that even though Switzerland appears to be neutral, it really is not.

Switzerland is definitely neutral when it comes to war and military. But when it comes to regional politics and economics, it is not at all neutral. Even though they are not officially part of the EU, they have economic agreements with the EU and do trading with them. And I think legally, they also conform to EU laws and pay taxes to the EU.

So it seems like Switzerland prides itself in being "neutral" and I'm sure that they feel more secure this way too. But realistically, they're not exactly where they would like to be with neutrality.

anon278346
Post 11

"Neutrality equals cowardice"? The US was neutral for the majority of World War II until it was personally threatened. Looking out for your own best interests -- since when is that heroic?

anon167450
Post 7

About the WW2 era: The allies were also "distressingly" willing to trade with the nazis through Switzerland for quite a while.

And Switzerland was then and is still "distressingly" and really entirely dependent on neighbours for literally about all of its economy and goods used by the population. It is that small and poor in resources. Even the bunker building and arms construction after the outbreak of World War II was mostly powered by trade. Yes, surrounded by Axis countries, that means trade with the Axis. Meanwhile internally, a rather significant amount of defeatists and right-wing nazi sympathizers would have preferred to go the way of Austria and just join Germany. Swiss citizens would have fit the profile of being part of the alleged "master race" perfectly well, after all.

Really, the trade and diplomacy was a masterpiece. That does not excuse certain things that happened during and after the war, but you should try to keep things in perspective of World War II, the surroundings, and the situation in general.

anon149929
Post 5

I think neutrality equals cowardice.

anon145375
Post 4

This article does not talk about the geographic position of Switzerland.

anon106469
Post 3

It's also the place where wartime profiteers keep their money. So why would the instigators of war want to bomb their own bank accounts?

anon33151
Post 2

It is never invaded because the Swiss have underground bunkers for all their citizens stocked with provisions for a year. In addition every male citizen is trained in using firearms and every home has weapons to resist invaders. The country is located in the Alps making it very difficult to conquer.

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