Swiss Neutrality 1870 - 1871, 1914 - 1918, 1939 - 1945

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Kim, Dong-Yoon
Term Paper, AP European History Class, July 2008

Table of Contents
I. Introduction
II. History of Swiss Neutrality
III. Neutrality during Franco-Prussian War (1870 - 1871)
IV. World War I (1914 - 1918)
IV.1 Neutrality during World War I 1914 - 1918
IV.2 Swiss Economy during World War I
IV.3 Refugees in Switzerland during World War I
V. World War II (1939 - 1945)
V.1 Neutrality during World War II 1939 - 1945
V.2 Swiss Economy during World War II
V.3 Swiss Refugee Policy during World War II
Vi. Conclusion

I. Introduction
            Switzerland, located in the heart of Europe, is a federation of twenty-three cantons with three cantons subdivided making a total of twenty-six administrative units (1). It has diverse ethnic population, and is divided into roughly four regions according to the differences in the language. Switzerland, despite these divisions, has maintained its reputation as a neutral country in times of crisis since 1815.
            Even though it borders France, Austria, Germany and Italy, Switzerland has maintained its neutrality. It existed as a neutral country during the Franco-Prussian War (1870 - 1871), World War I (1914 - 1918), and World War II (1939 - 1945).
            This paper examines Swiss neutrality in the wars mentioned above. This paper specifically focuses on the impact of neutrality on Switzerland received as a neutral country in periods specified in the topic.

II. History of Swiss Neutrality
            Neutrality has remained Switzerland's fundamental foreign policy principle. The concept of neutrality evolved over the last five centuries and was foreshadowed in the admonition of the hermit Niklaus von Flue (1417 - 1487) to the assembled delegates of the Confederacy : "Do not meddle in foreign disputes!" From 1515 to 1815, neutrality was generally observed in practice as in the Thirty Years' War, mainly in order to preserve the league of independent states that differed in language and culture. On November 20th 1815, Great Britain, France, Austria, Prussia, Russia, participants of the Congress of Vienna, formally acknowledged "the neutrality and inviolability of Switzerland and of its independence from all foreign influences" as being "in the true political interests of the whole of Europe." (2)
            The neutrality of Switzerland implies that Switzerland does not participate in conflicts between belligerents, either by complete official abstention from contacts or by dealing diplomatically and economically as impartially as possible with all involved. Neutrality, however, does not mean ideological neutrality of all individuals.

III. Neutrality during Franco-Prussia War (1870 - 1871)
            Prior to the Franco-Prussian War, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was founded by Henry Dunant and others in 1863. Although it was a private initiative, the committee quickly involved representatives of the Swiss and foreign governments in its work. An international conference held in Geneva in 1864 at the request of the ICRC drew up the first Geneva Convention, to protect wounded soldiers.
            During the Franco-Prussian war (1870 - 71), when Strasbourg was under a tight siege and constant bombardment, a private Swiss delegation persuaded the Prussians to allow them to take three convoys of old people, women and children out of the city. A few months later, in February 1871, the defeated French army of General Bourbaki was allowed to cross the Swiss border and surrender its weapons. The troops were interned throughout the country (3).

IV. World War I (1914-1918)

IV.1 Neutrality during World War I (1914 -1918)
            World War I broke out in August 1914. As it did in 1870, Switzerland proclaimed neutrality. The Swiss government, aware of Switzerland's vulnerable position, reaffirmed the country's neutrality by mobilizing some 200,000 men and by parliamentary vote appointed Ulrich Wille (1848 ? 1925) commander in chief. Switzerland deployed six divisions at the northern and western frontiers and occupied the mountain fortresses around the St. Gotthard Pass and at St. Moritz, the latter safeguarding the Maloja, Julier, and Albula passes. (4)
            The belligerents acknowledged Swiss neutrality, which however remained threatened when in 1915 the country was fully encircled by the Central Powers and its north-south transits again became strategically important. Threats of invasion remained minimal, however, because a neutral Switzerland was advantageous to belligerents, who used it extensively for their intelligence efforts. Nevertheless, the German Schlieffen-Plan foresaw German armies to circumvent the French defensive positions along the Franco-German border by marching either through Belgium (5) or Luxemburg or through Switzerland, a plan that was to violate the neutrality of the mentioned countries (6). However, partly because two-thirds of Switzerland's the frontier corresponds to the natural contours of mountain ridges and crests or is formed by lakes and rivers, Switzerland was not invaded, and its neutrality remained intact. The invasion was prevented; however, Swiss neutrality was put to peril because the sympathies were divided along the lines of the language communities among the Swiss population. Swiss neutrality was also questioned because of the Grimm-Hoffmann affair (1917). Robert Grimm, a socialist politician, traveled to Russia as an activist to negotiate a separate peace between Russia and Germany, in order to end the war on the Eastern Front in the interests of socialism and pacifism. Misrepresenting himself as a diplomat and an actual representative of the Swiss government, he made progress but was forced to admit fraud and return home when the Allies found out about the proposed peace deal. Neutrality was restored by the resignation of Arthur Hoffmann, the Swiss Federal Councilor who had supported Grimm. The scandal was short-lived, and Swiss neutrality was preserved.
            After the war, neutral position of Switzerland was reaffirmed by the Treaty of Versailles. It recognized Swiss neutrality as an important component in maintaining peace. Neutrality was further strengthened by the Declaration of London in 1920, when the Council of the League of Nations recognized that Switzerland's permanent neutrality, and the guarantee of its territorial integrity, as stated by the treaties of 1815, were justified in the interests of general peace and therefore consistent with the league¡¯s principle. According to the treaties, the confederation would not be called upon to engage in military operations or to permit the transit of foreign troops. However, Switzerland would be bound to participate in economic sanctions taken by the league against covenant-breaking nations. In May 1920 the Swiss voted for entry into the League of Nations, and the league's headquarters, at the insistence of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, was established in Geneva.

IV.2 Swiss Economy during the First World War
            Swiss neutrality during the World War I had a significant impact on the Swiss economy. Because 40 percent of all food consumed was imported, Switzerland was dependent on the neighboring countries for the maintenance of its food supply. As food was extremely scarce in the belligerent countries (neighboring countries), the money put on imports increased. Even though other sectors of the economy besides food import fared better such as machine manufacturing, watch-making, textiles, food processing, and agriculture, the overall exports suffered. The nation's revenue dropped sharply because of the expenses from mobilizing more than 200,000 soldiers to maintain their neutrality, and the expenses of accommodating the refugees multiplied. In 1913, the budget showed only a slight deficit, in 1914 expenses had reached four-times the nation¡¯s revenue, towards the end of the war, expenses were ¡®only¡¯ double the revenue (7). Because Swiss government suffered from the heavy deficit, care for the families of soldiers on active duties was neglected. Soldiers deployed on the frontier were poorly paid for their military service, they received no compensation for lost wages and when they returned home many found they had lost their jobs.
            The difficult economic conditions at the end of the war left workers with many grievances; they also felt that the voting system disenfranchised them with its inbuilt bias towards the existing parties (8). More than one quarter of a million workers took part in a general strike which started on November 11th 1918. However, because the army took over the administration of Zürich on the pretext of forestalling a coup d'?tat by workers, the strike crumbled on 13th. A general strike brought the country to a halt, and most of the workers' demands were rejected, but among the gains of the strike were the reduction of the working week to 48 hours, development of collective bargaining between workers and employers, extension of social security system, and a further step in the introduction of the proportional representation system.

IV.3 Swiss Refugee Policy during World War I
            During the wartime, Switzerland provided asylum for refugees and took initiative in securing the rights of victims of war and bringing peace. A number of Prisoner of War camps were established, in the organization of which the Red Cross were involved (9). Switzerland also provided headquarters for many of the international organizations established at the time. The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), one such example which was founded in 1915 established an International Executive Committee which chose Geneva in Switzerland as her seat. Representatives visited various governments of belligerent and non-belligerent countries, but their attempt to bring about an end to hostilities as well as peace negotiations failed. In Switzerland in 1915, Ignacy Paderewski and Henryk Sienkiewicz founded the General Committee for Aid of Polish Victims of the War, proving Switzerland's active role in attempts to bring peace. Many refugees were accepted to Switzerland. Among those refugees was Vladimir Ulyanov, also known as Lenin. Early in 1917, the German government secretly negotiated with him, granting him passage through Germany to Sweden incognito and giving him a credit of 40 million Gold Marks, thus triggering the second phase of the Russian Revolution. Switzerland had played a crucial, albeit passive role in these events. (10)
            Switzerland also provided refuge for those who opposed war. Many intellectuals and artists like Romain Rolland who was awarded Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915, Leonhard Frank, James Joyce and Herman Hesse were accepted (11). The influx of such intellectuals and artists opposed to the war spawned a cultural movement called Dada or Dadaism in Zürich. The movement primarily involved visual arts, literature (poetry, art theory), theatre, and graphic design, and concentrated its anti-war politic through a rejection of the prevailing standards in art through anti-war cultural works. Dada activities included public gathering, demonstrations, and publication of art and literary journals. Passionate coverage of art, politics, and culture filled their publication.

V. World War II (1939-1945)

V.1 Neutrality during World War II 1939 - 1945
            In 1920, Switzerland, then a member of the League of Nations, adopted "differential" neutrality by agreeing to participate in the League's economic sanctions against a specified nation. Anticipating war by 1938, however, it returned to a stance of "integral" neutrality, which it has generally maintained ever since, despite severe domestic and foreign criticism. (12)
            After the mid-1930s, when war again seemed impending, Switzerland began to modernize its army, withdrew from the League of Nations in 1938, and officially reaffirmed its commitment to unrestricted neutrality. Germany's annexation of Austria was viewed as ominous, and a 1939 national exhibition vigorously promoted Switzerland as a democratic, multicultural, and neutral nation. Because the Swiss constitution provided for the appointment of a military (rather than civilian) commander-in-chief in time of emergency, on August 30th, 1939 the Swiss Parliament elected Henri Guisan (1874 ? 1960) commander in chief, and when war broke out soon afterward, the armed forces of 850,000 (regular, auxiliary, and home guard) (13 were mobilized in the nation of some 4.2 million people (14). Labor agreements were declared mandatory, price controls instituted, the Communist and National Socialist organizations were outlawed to prevent uprising. German invasions of neutral countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands and the fall of France on 17 June 1940 signaled grave danger for Switzerland While the Swiss Foreign Office for a time pursued a course of accommodation, General Guisan proclaimed unconditional resistance to any invader, had the fortresses at Sargans and St. Maurice reinforced, and prepared the army for launching guerilla warfare from the Alps in case the Swiss Mittelland could not be held against a planned joint German and Italian invasion. This strategy was called Reduit. (15) Radio broadcasts and reviews of the week shown before feature movies all over the country countered hostile propaganda. Price controls, rationing, and public support of families of soldiers on active duty prevented the unrest experienced in World War I. Switzerland's attitude in WW II was a blend of tactical accommodation and demonstrative insistence on the country's readiness to defend itself. (16)
            Diplomatically the neutral Switzerland was most active in all phase of war by its mission as a Protecting Power, a role taken on in conformity with the 1929 Geneva Convention, of which most belligerents were official signatories. By 1943, more than a thousand people in government service were implementing mandates that Switzerland had accepted from 35 nations. The tasks involved consular protection of civilians in enemy countries, the guarding of enemy properties such as embassy grounds and combat-related duties such as care of prisoners of war and monitoring the implementation of the provisions of the Geneva Conventions. These activities were supported and complemented by the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC), a Swiss institution separate from the international Red Cross Federation. In 1944, for instance, Carl Lutz (1895 ? 1975), Switzerland's Protective Power representative in Budapest, and Fredrich Born (1903 ? 1963), delegate of the ICRC, were instrumental in saving some 80,000 Hungarian Jews (17) from deportation, instead providing them with papers either permitting them to immigrate to Palestine or to live in Hungary under the protection of the Swiss government. In Vichy, France, diplomat Walter Stucki (1888 ? 1963) under great personal danger mediated the nonviolent transfer of the town from German control to that of the French resistance. In Berlin, Ambassador Peter A. Feldscher shadowed prominent British prisoners of war and negotiated their safe return to England. (18) Repeated bombings of Switzerland by Allied planes were endured with stoic calm, stranded pilots given shelter and interned Polish soldiers repatriated at war's end.
            In 1945 the Swiss were ready to join the United Nations (UN), but when neutral nations were excluded, they rejected membership, a decision finally reversed in 2002. Until the onset of the Cold War, Switzerland's neutrality met with much foreign criticism. By 1948, the Swiss people contributed SFR (19) 250 million to the Swiss National Fund for the Relief of War Victims, the proceeds of which were distributed equally to all war-torn countries. Tens of thousands of children, invalids, and sick received medical care in Swiss institutions.

V.2 Swiss Economy during the Second World War
            At the onset of World War II, when France fell to Germany on June 17th 1940, it was now fully surrounded by the Axis powers, and its transits once again became strategically important. A massive campaign to achieve agricultural self-sufficiency was launched and needed goods were imported via a few neutral ports. Forests were cleared and pastures plowed up for grain production. Rationing was introduced and strict government control exercised over the country's economy. Because the Hague Convention permitted Switzerland to trade freely with the belligerents in times of war, including the sales of armaments, complex agreements were worked out with the Allies, who intermittently cut off much-needed supplies, and with Germany, from which indispensable coal for industry and heating was imported. Germany, which had long been a major trading partner for Switzerland, increased its share of Swiss exports in the year from 1940 to 1941. The two Axis powers which included Germany and Italy took forty-five percent of Swiss exports from 1940 to 1942. The main export items to these Axis powers were machinery, iron, steel goods, tool, appliances, vehicles, and chemicals. The trade seemed to violate the principle of neutrality in Switzerland's foreign policy; however, the trade was reciprocal. As Switzerland mounted its exports that could boost Axis powers, it also imported items like coal, petroleum products, raw materials for its factories, as well as food from Germany which contradicted the positive contribution its exports had on the Axis powers. Comparatively large amount of trade with the Axis powers were a consequence of Switzerland surrounded by the Axis powers. Trade with Allies, in particular the United States, continued but amounted to only about one third of that with Germany. Comparatively small amount of trade between the Allies and Switzerland was partly due to the fact that Switzerland was surrounded by Axis powers. When lines of communication with the Allies were restored by the United States army which reached the Swiss border in 1944, Switzerland then began to reduce its trade with Germany, but continued to permit non-military freight to cross its territory to reach northern Italy. Because normal trade was not possible for Switzerland, it was even forced to exploit some of its own mineral resources which were too small to be profitable in normal times. Trade with each of the warring side was possible because both warring sides consented to the trades. When Switzerland was having a comparatively large amount of trade with the Axis powers, Winston Churchill, British wartime Prime Minister, said

            "Of all, the neutral Switzerland has the greatest right to distinction. She has been the sole international force linking the hideously-sundered nations and ourselves. What does it matter whether she has been able to give us the commercial advantages we desire or has given too many to the Germans, to keep herself alive ? 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." (20

            During the Second World War, a campaign against so-called Entartete Kunst (21) was underway in Germany; artwork classified as such was removed from museum and auctioned off - mostly in Switzerland. As Jews were permitted to leave Germany only with a suitcase each, large amounts of confiscated Jewish property also were auctioned off, again in Switzerland. The economic transactions between Switzerland and Germany were increased partly because of the campaign.

V.3 Swiss Refugee Policy during the Second World War
            For most of the refugees during the interwar period (1919 - 1939), havens in Switzerland were a gateway for refugees, where one border-crossing alone processed 10,000 refugees from Germany between April and September 1933. (22) Under the terms of the Hague Convention, soldiers of either of the warring sides who - for whatever reason - took refuge in Switzerland, were interned and their movements strictly controlled to prevent them escaping. They were generally set to work either on farms, where they replaced the Swiss men who had been mobilized, or on building projects. In all, Switzerland accepted more than 100,000 military personnel during the war period. The first major groups were French and Polish troops who fled across the border when France fell in June 1940; others were escaped prisoners of war, deserters, or hospitalized army personnel. Switzerland took in a total of 55,000 civilians plus 67,000 frontier refugees including about 21,000 Jews. About 60,000 children spent some time in Switzerland for recuperation.
            From 1933 to 1938 the German Nazi regime introduced several measures discriminating Jews. The restrictions taken in 1938 were especially severe, so that many Jews considered leaving Germany. The Swiss authorities wanted to restrict immigration and discussed ways to do so with the Germans. Finally Germany decided to mark passports of Jews with a stamp ("J") in October 1938. Discrimination against Jews on the acceptance of foreign immigrants was controversial of the time, because it was known at the time that Swiss officials were involved in the discrimination process. In 1938, when Reichskristallnacht (23)occurred, the number of asylum-seeking Jewish refugees from Germany rose sharply. Switzerland also tightened its policy in 1938 because after the Anschluss, Austrian Jews were being transported to the Swiss border in large numbers and being pushed across. In August 1942 when Germany had just started deportation of Jews, the Swiss government announced that it was closing the borders because "refugees on the ground of race alone are not political refugees" (24), proclaiming "Das Boot ist voll" (25) . The decision provoked a wave of protest and was modified to accommodate influx of refugees.

VI. Conclusion
            Switzerland¡¯s adherence to neutrality in pursuing its foreign policy, in spite of many controversial issues related to its relationship with belligerent countries during the First and Second World War, is of notable importance. Throughout the Franco-Prussian War, World War I and World War II, Switzerland's neutral positions were stable. However, the comparison of Switzerland¡¯s position in three international wars, especially the two wars, reveals differences in Swiss foreign, domestic policy, and its neutral position.
            The differences arose from the experiences. During the World War I, Switzerland greatly suffered from inability to deal with the food shortage, and imbalance in its trade. Food shortage in its neighboring countries resulted in increased price for its imports. During the World War II, Switzerland, however, launched massive campaigns to achieve agricultural self-sufficiency, and introduced food rationing to exercise more freedom over their trade. Compensation for the deployed soldiers during the wartime also improved. During the World War I, families of soldiers on active duties were neglected, no compensation for lost wages existed, soldiers were poorly paid, and above all, soldiers found themselves unemployed when they returned. During World War II, however, public support for the families of soldiers on active duty prevented dissatisfaction among returning soldiers. These improvements brought better condition for Switzerland in maintain its neutrality.
            This paper examined Swiss neutrality of three major wars in the 19th and 20th century. Switzerland has maintained its neutrality over the period but it has also experienced modifications in its neutral positions. Some figures such as Carl Lutz mentioned in the paper have shown active role in protecting the lives of many refugees that were to be persecuted in the Axis powers. Some could say that the actions of these individuals were contradictory to Switzerland's neutrality, but their actions were in accordance with Switzerland's position as a neutral country that was to provide asylum for the persecuted. Overall, Switzerland's neutrality was not a product of hesitant and lame foreign policy; rather it was a product of active military preparedness, and strict adherence to principle of neutrality.


(1)      Encyclopedia of World History p. 648
(2)      Schelbert, Leo, Historical Dictionary of Switzerland (2007) pp. 244 - 245
(3)      Practice of neutral countries in time of war in detaining belligerent armed forces and equipment in their territories
(4)      Mountain passes
(5)      Belgium was invaded in 4 August through September 1914
(5)      Ganse, Alexander, Switzerland during World War I: 1914 - 1918 from WHKMLA
(5)      Statistical figure for Switzerland¡¯s budget is from B.R Mitchell, International Historical Statistics, Europe 1750 ? 1988, pp 84, 801, 825, quoted from Ganse, Alexander, WHKMLA
(5)      Swiss World : Political Changes
(5)      Ganse, Alexander, WHKMLA, Switzerland During World War I: 1914 - 1918
(5)      ibid.
(5)      ibid.
(5)      Schelbert, Leo, Historical Dictionary of Switzerland (pp. 224 ? 225)
(5)      Phillips, Roderick, Society, State, and Nation in Twentieth-Century Europe (p. 321)
(5)      Schelbert, Leo, Historical Dictionary of Switzerland, Introduction: Facing Global War p. Ixxvii
(5)      Heavily defended region of a country which provided a last hard spot of resistance
(5)      Swiss History: World War II , from Swiss Genealogy on the Internet
(5)      Schelbert, Leo, Historical Dictionary of Switzerland, Introduction: Facing Global War p. Ixxvii
(5)      ibid.
(5)      Swiss Franc
(5)      Winston Churchill, quoted from Swiss World : The Swiss Economy in WW II
(5)      Degenerate art, a term adopted by the Nazi regime in Germany to describe virtually all modern arts
(5)      Phillips, Roderick, Society, State, and Nation in Twentieth-Century Europe (p. 218)
(5)      in English called "Night of the Broken Glass". Pogrom in Germany on 9-10 November 1938, when, on a single night, 91 Jews were murdered and 25,000 ? 30,000 were arrested and deported to concentration camps, also called Kristallnacht
(5)      Phillips, Roderick, Society, State, and Nation in Twentieth-Century Europe (p. 321)
(5)      "The boat is full"


Note : websites quoted below were visited in June 2008.
1.      History of Switzerland : A Timeline of Switzerland¡¯s History, Geschichte Schweiz,
2.      Encyclopedia of World History, Oxford University Press (1998)
3.      Article: Grimm-Hoffmann Affair, from Wikipedia,
4.      History of Switzerland: Holocaust: Jewish Refugees in Switzerland during World War II, Geschichte Schweiz
5.      Phillips, Roderick, Society, State, and Nation in Twentieth-Century Europe, 1996
6.      Schelbert, Leo, Historical Dictionary of Switzerland (2007)
7.      Article: Switzerland during the World Wars, from Wikipedia
8.      Article: Siege of Strasbourg, from Wikipedia
9.      Swiss history : The 20th Century, from Swiss World on the Internet,
10.      Swiss history, from Swiss Genealogy on the Internet,
11.      Article: Switzerland, from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th edition, Macropaedia, volume 28, pp. 353 - 356
12.      Article: Switzerland, from Wikipedia,
13.      Article: Vienna, from Wikipedia,
14.      World History at KMLA, History of Switzerland, by Alexander Ganse,

Impressum · Datenschutz