Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Hitler and Switzerland: Why Didn't He Invade?

Hitler Wanted To Invade Switzerland, But Never Got Around To It

Swiss Army troops during World War II
Swiss Army troops during World War II.
One of the most clouded areas of World War II is the relationship between Switzerland and the Third Reich. It's not that there is misinformation so much as there is no information. You see scholarly books appear regularly which treat the role of Switzerland in World War II as if it were a study of Vikings exploring the North Atlantic. There is a cloud of mystery, obscure sources, tantalizing leads to hidden artifacts, tales of lost treasure, but little substance. The relationship seems as if it all had something somehow to do with bankers and mountains. Other than that, it seems as if historians just haven't quite gotten down to that lowest level in the archaeological pit to pin things down for good.

Let's see what we know. We'll break this down into chunks to make it manageable.

Hitler in the mountains during World War II
Hitler taking Blondi for a walk in the mountains.

What Did Hitler Think of Switzerland?

There is surprisingly little information about how Hitler viewed Switzerland. The most we have to go on are a few offhand remarks that seemed to express a mixture of contempt, annoyance, and disdain. These were not unusual feelings in Hitler, but he usually acted on them. The difference with Switzerland is that Hitler never got annoyed enough to actually invade even though it was right next door.

Trying to figure out what was in Hitler's mind about Switzerland is impossible. However, there are enough clues to at least provide a framework. Let's start from the beginning.

August Kubizek
August Kubizek.
Hitler loved the mountains. This began fairly early in his life, not long after he left home and went to the "big city" of Vienna. His friend and roommate, August Kubizek, recalled in "The Young Hitler I Knew" (1955) how Hitler would drag him on long walks in the mountains near Vienna. Apparently, Hitler would sit on bluffs near the city and fill the air with his attempts at opera, which he passionately loved. Just as someone today might be obsessed with football, Hitler loved opera, and the mountains were central to operas such as Richard Wagner's Der Ring Des Nibelungen (The Ring Of The Nibelung). This all ties into a deep affinity that Hitler held throughout his life for Germanic culture (Kultur). Later in life, he sought out the mountain town of Berchtesgaden for his hideaway, the Berghof. So... Hitler thought a lot about mountains, and Switzerland, as everyone knows, is full of them.

While Hitler and Kubizek went their separate ways in 1908 when the former began a long stint in poverty, they reunited after Hitler became chancellor in 1933. Hitler unexpectedly replied to a congratulatory note from Kubizek and they met again on 9 April 1933 in Linz. Kubizek did some minor NSDAP work which involved writing about the young Hitler, and the two last met in 1940. Hitler even sent Kubizek's mother a fruit bowl on her 80th birthday in 1944 even as the world was starting to close in on him.

I know this seems to be getting off track, but we ignore trivia from Hitler's childhood at our peril. Many of Hitler's basic impulses stemmed from his early years, such as his views of politics, races, and military strategy, He showed a strong sentimentality at odd times, such as his quirky trip to Paris shortly after conquering it, the highlight of which was a visit to the Paris Opera. Switzerland was very Germanic and encapsulated many of the most romantic aspects of Kultur, such as remote mountain passes, craggy peaks, and self-sufficient (meaning well-armed) peasants. It also didn't hurt that Switzerland reportedly was 60% of Germanic descent. Hitler had nothing against Switzerland and thus no motivation to invade or destroy it.

Emil Georg Bührle
Swiss industrialist Emil Georg Bührle, the longterm chairman and majority shareholder of the Oerlikon-Bührle AG and of German origin, was a German sympathizer.
During the 1920s, Hitler personally earned a great deal of money in Switzerland. In one famous incident in 1923, the son of Ulrich Willie, Jr., Switzerland's World War I commander-in-chief, invited Hitler into Switzerland to give a speech in Zurich. Hitler reportedly returned to Germany "with a steamer trunk stuffed with Swiss francs and American dollars." Hitler was still struggling financially at this time, so such opportunities were important to him. There also were prominent industrialists and bankers in Switzerland who helped Hitler at various times.

However, much as he might like the idea of Switzerland, Hitler did not seem to like the Swiss themselves. Tossing off one of his offhand opinions to Mussolini, Hitler opined that “Switzerland possessed the most disgusting and miserable people and political system,” in June 1941. Why, exactly, Hitler thought that is unclear.

George Elser
George Elser tried to slip across the Swiss border after his failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
Again, let's look back into Hitler's past to see if that reveals any hints. Switzerland was well known as a "haven" from Germany. This was sort of like Mexico in the 1800s when banditos would flee across the Rio Grande to escape justice. Somewhat famously, industrialist Fritz Thyssen, for instance, escaped across the border to Switzerland (and then to France) away from Hitler's clutches in August 1939 due to his opposition to Hitler's war plans. The Vichy French later turned Thyssen back over to Hitler, who had him executed. George Elser, who planted the bomb at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich on 8 November 1939 that almost killed Hitler, was caught at the Swiss border at Konstanz. It was the well-known quick escape route if the Third Reich was looking for you.

Unity Mitford with Hitler at the Berghof
Unity Mitford with Hitler at the Berghof in Berchtesgaden.
Hitler himself even used Switzerland for similar purposes. When his English girlfriend (how close they really were is a bit unclear) Unity Valkyrie Mitford shot herself in the head on 8 November 1939 due to the outbreak of war, Hitler took care of her. He paid Unity Mitford's bills for hospital treatment in Munich and visited her often. When she continued to have physical and emotional problems, he had her sent across the border to a hospital in Bern in December. There, Unity's family came to take her home to England. This showed that Hitler well understood the value of having an unthreatening outlet that was close at hand and useful for odd purposes - sort of like Mexico.

Factory workers in Switzerland in World War II
Female factory workers making gas masks in Geneva, Switzerland, during World War II. There was a good likelihood that these would be sold to the Reich.
The Union Bank of Switzerland in Bern also reportedly held accounts in which Hitler deposited the royalties from his book "Mein Kampf." Considering that it was one of the best-selling books of the 20th Century, Mein Kampf's royalties would have been enormous. Max Ammann, head of the NSDAP's publishing company, apparently opened the accounts for him. These accounts were uncovered in 1996 by investigators relying on documents dated October 1944.

Hitler's attitude toward Switzerland seemed to harden as the war went on, though. He began to call it a "pimple on the face of Europe." General Franz Halder, the Chief of Staff of the OKH (Army High Command), recalled that Hitler often complained about Switzerland:
I was constantly hearing of outbursts of Hitler's fury against Switzerland, which, given his mentality, might have led at any minute to military activities for the army.
This anger that Hitler felt toward Switzerland is never explained. But the important question is, did he ever do anything about it. The answer to that, which we'll get to below, is ... almost.

Border guards in World War II
Swiss and German border guards in 1940.

Was An Independent Switzerland Useful To Hitler

Switzerland was helpful to Hitler in a variety of ways. It helped the Reich, and there is some evidence that he valued it for more personal reasons, too. The Swiss went well out of their way to ingratiate themselves to the Third Reich. Their neutrality masked a great deal of accommodation to German objectives.

It was well known that the majority of the Swiss population sided with the Allies. However, there were at least 40 fascist and superpatriotic nationalist societies in Switzerland during World War II. These had groups in more than 150 Swiss communities. The fascistic element was quite prevalent in the German-speaking cantons. The Swiss Fatherland Association fostered ties with the Reich and also with fascist Italy. While Swiss fascists were a minority, they were very influential, especially among military and industrial leaders.

Swiss Air Force Junkers Ju 52 in World War II
One of three Junkers Ju 52 transport planes sold by Germany to Switzerland in October 1939. This was a training mission near Rapperswil, Switzerland (Swiss Aviation Museum).
This led to a great deal of trade between the fascist countries and Switzerland. The Swiss sold the Germans steel - much needed during the war - in exchange for coal and farm goods. Late in 1943, the Swiss government prepared a report on its trade relations with Germany for the British and American governments. It showed that between 15 September 1939 and 31 August 1943, Swiss exports to the Reich totaled 1.972 billion Swiss francs, while imports totaled 2.258 billion Swiss francs. This led to a net trade balance of 286 million francs, though this trade balance turned slightly negative when factoring in "invisible" items such as banking services, insurance, tourism, licensing fees, and freight charges.

Switzerland also was a useful conduit to the outside world. It could obtain rare and essential items that Germany might not. German gold wasn't very useful if it couldn't be used to buy the things Germany needed. Switzerland helped it to do that.

Switzerland also helped to support the German economy. During the war, the German Reichsbank regularly made huge gold deposits to the Swiss National Bank. These totaled 1.638 billion Swiss francs. In effect, Switzerland acted as the Reich's reserve bank. The Allies did not like all these trade dealings but could not do much about them - except for putting Swiss firms on a blacklist. This blacklist was not lifted until well after World War II had ended.

20 mm Oerlikon in World War II
"A 20 mm Oerlikon gunner onboard HMS DIDO getting a light from a pal between bombing attacks in the eastern Mediterranean." © IWM (A 9575).
The British were aware of all this trade between Switzerland and the Reich long before the Swiss admitted to it in 1943. While the Swiss as a neutral country was prohibited by international law from selling the Reich steel because it could be used for war goods, the Swiss did it anyway. The Swiss also sold finished products such as machine tools, aircraft cannons, radio parts, military trucks, freight cars, chemicals, dyes, industrial diamonds, jewel bearings (vital for bombsights), and ball bearings. They even made anti-aircraft guns and other weapons for the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine at the Oerlikon works, which was run by German sympathizer Emil Buhrle. When capturing German naval vessels, Royal Navy crews always made off with their prized Oerlikon guns, which were considered of high quality.

The Swiss also crossed the border to help the Reich's industrial plant directly. They built armaments factories inside Greater Germany. Somewhat incongruously, Dr. Max Huber, the Swiss president of the International Red Cross, owned several of these factories in southern Germany which ran on slave labor.

US Army Air Force bombed Schaffhausen in April 1944
The US Army Air Force bombed Schaffhausen in April 1944. This was ascribed to poor navigation.
Facing a stonewall of Swiss indifference to British complaints, the RAF decided to take direct action. RAF Bomber Command bombed Basel, Switzerland on 16 December 1940, killing four women. It also bombed Zurich on 22 December, killing 22 people. On 18 February 1941, the British ambassador delivered a note to the Swiss Federal Council in Bern expressing "deep regret" for these attacks and agreeing to pay for damages. However, at least the first bombing wasn't quite as accidental as the British pretended at the time. In fact, they were targeting a ball-bearing factory in Basel which was suspected of supplying the German war machine. As with many aerial attacks of the time, the navigators aimed poorly and completely missed the factory and hit a residential area instead.

Boeing B-17 in Swiss markings in World War II
Boeing B-17F-95-BO Fortress sn 5347 # 42-30233 of 95th BG 336th BS "Rhapsody in Flak" coded QW-V. This bomber landed at Altenrhein, Switzerland, due to Flak damage on 13 April 1944. The Swiss quickly changed the markings to Swiss insignia and interned the crew at Dübendorf. The bomber was returned to the United States on 17 August 1945.
Swiss help to the Reich extended far beyond trade. The Swiss ran several internment camps for Allied soldiers who wound up in Switzerland one way or another. The main camp for Americans was at Adelboden, about 30 miles northeast of Lake Geneva, where over 1000 American soldiers wound up. The guards at these camps were under orders to fire on anyone attempting to escape, and the treatment of Allied internees was comparable to that in German POW camps. There also were rumors that Swiss pilots and anti-aircraft crews fired on Allied planes, though, to be fair to the Swiss, they were firing at any airplanes that violated their airspace.

Border guards also were not friendly to Allied soldiers trying to escape from the Reich into "neutral Switzerland." Several memoirs of escaped prisoners of war recall how they felt they were free once they got across the border - only to be turned back over to the Germans by the Swiss border guards.

Border guards in World War II
German and Swiss border guards during World War II.

Did Hitler Plan to Invade Switzerland?

There is evidence that Hitler planned to invade Switzerland eventually. He sarcastically said at one point that when the time was right, he would just send in the Berlin Fire Brigade to secure the country. However, Hitler had a tendency to vow to invade a place and yet never get around to it. When Albert Kesselring, for instance, argued strongly in favor of occupying Malta during 1942, Hitler replied, "Don't worry, Field Marshal, I will get to it!" However, as with Switzerland, he never did.

The Swiss did what little they could to deter an invasion. During the 1930s, as Hitler's expansionist philosophy became an increasing threat, Swiss defense spending skyrocketed. From an already-high 15 million Swiss francs (out of a total budget of 100 million francs), it jumped to 90 million francs in 1935.

Swiss Bf 109  in World War II
A Bf 109 in Swiss markings during World War II.
The Swiss pride in national defense, which they called geistige Landesverteidigung, revolved around the efforts of the individual. Thus, Switzerland invested heavily in small arms. It manufactured 350,000 K31 rifles, which were considered superior to the standard Wehrmacht Kar98. The Swiss Air Force (yes, it did have one!) produced an upgraded model of the French Morane-Saulnier M.S.406 under license. Early in the war, the Germans actually sold the Swiss 90 Bf-109D fighters, all of which were delivered before the invasion of France. These Messerschmitts eventually wound up shooting down eleven German planes that strayed into Swiss airspace, causing some stern messages between the two capitals.

At the outbreak of war on 1 September 1939, the Swiss issued Operationsbefehl Number 1 and called a general mobilization (age of eligibility raised from age 48 to 60). The Swiss Army only had three corps, which were oriented to the east, north, and west - against Germany. It began raising a new army corps of 100,000 soldiers, which was ready by the end of the year.

Border guards in World War II
French (left) and Swiss troops on the border during World War II.
Against these four army corps, the Wehrmacht wound up in France with three army groups comprising 2 million soldiers. Until the Vichy French government was set up and took control of southern France on 10 July 1940, the Axis powers completely surrounded Switzerland. Around the time of the French surrender, Hitler became worried that Switzerland might retain its contacts with the Allies through Vichy France. So, he attempted to retain control of the area around western Switzerland anyway. Unfortunately for him and fortunately for Switzerland, he thought of it too late.

Faced with this overwhelming force, the Swiss evolved the concept of the "national redoubt" (Réduit national). This was intended to make Switzerland harder to defeat and, frankly, not worth the trouble. Hitler at first wanted to invade anyway. Immediately after the French surrender, he had Captain Otto Wilhelm von Menges in Halder's OKH draft up an invasion plan for Switzerland. This later became Operation Tannenbaum.

Border guards in World War II
A group of Wehrmacht soldiers chats with a Swiss border guard.
Called at this stage "Special Task Switzerland," the plan called for an invasion by Generaloberst Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb’s Heeresgruppe ‘C’ (HGr. C), led by Generalleutnant Wilhelm List and the 12th Army. Italian troops would invade from the south. The 12th Army would have three army corps and an independent division, the 12th Motorized Division. General Heinz Guderian also would lead his Panzergruppe Guderian toward Bern. All told, the plan envisioned 15 battle-hardened Wehrmacht divisions including a healthy sprinkling of panzer divisions, but little resistance was expected. Operational orders for the invasion were sent to Army Corps C

However, the German invasion did not take place right away despite the transfer of the 12th Army to the western border of Switzerland in early July 1940. Perhaps Hitler was convinced that Switzerland was not a threat when, on 25 June 1940, Swiss Federal Councilor Marcel Pilet-Golaz made a radio address announcing demobilization. Menge updated his invasion plan on 12 August 1940. This plan, now named "Fall Schweiz" (Case Switzerland) foresaw Wehrmacht troops invading from the north and west, eventually linking up with Italian troops advancing from the south.

Swiss Army patrol in World War II
A Swiss border patrol in the Alps during World War II.
By this point, however, the Swiss had shown their bona fides by interning about 42,000 Polish and French troops - who the Swiss could have released to participate in the defense. They also had heavily reinforced the "National Redoubt" in the Zentralraum (Central Area) with guns, troops, and supplies. The weakness of this plan was that it left the entire productive part of the country and almost the entire population at the mercy of invading troops. The National Redoubt probably could have held out for quite some time, though eventually, its troops would have been starved out.

The OKH continued updating the Menges invasion plan. A new plan was submitted on 27 August 1940 and given an operational code: Fall Grün (Case Green). This usually meant that a plan was serious. However, this was not put into effect, and the 12th Army submitted a new plan on 4 October 1940 which acquired the new name for which all the invasion plans would become known: Operation Tannenbaum. General Halder did not like this plan, however, because it required too many units (21 divisions) and had no operational subtlety. He sent it back to the 12th Army with orders to rework it to include a feint to draw out the defenders and also to reduce the size to 11 divisions.

Switzerland in World War II
A Swiss Army parade held on 1 August 1944, which was a Swiss National Holiday. In the rear is the Palace Hotel, where US officers are watching.

Why Didn't Hitler Invade Switzerland?

By late 1940, Hitler's interest in invading Switzerland had evaporated even though he believed it could be completed within a few days. There were several reasons for this, but the most convincing reasons were that Hitler had other priorities by then and the Swiss were working with the Reich to benefit it in a way that only a neutral country could, as discussed above.

The air war with Great Britain was heating up and Hitler already had OKH officers working up initial plans for the invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa). Accordingly, on 11 November 1940, the OKH announced that Operation Tannenbaum was not "urgent" and stopped updating the plans. The Swiss quietly continued expanding their own military until it numbered 800,000 troops, making invading Switzerland an increasingly expensive proposition. With Switzerland's accommodating the Reich's trade needs, the whole perceived value of invading Switzerland disappeared.

Protesters in Copenhagen, Denmark, in World War II
Denmark enjoyed an unusual amount of political freedom during the German occupation because Hitler allowed it. The Danish situation holds similarities to the Swiss one. Here, protesters of a meeting of the National Socialist Workers' Party of Denmark (DNSAP) in Copenhagen are held back by police.
While he had an expansionist philosophy, Hitler's philosophy had its limits. Once he had incorporated what he viewed as historically Geman territory into the Reich such as Czechoslovakia, he was to some extent satisfied. Hitler's dreams saw that expansion largely taking place to the east and west - not the north and south. His invasion north into Scandinavia (Operation Weserübung) was done at the request of the Kriegsmarine high command, which worked out the details, and not because it was a key part of his own personal plan. Denmark was not Hitler's objective and was only invaded as a bridge to Norway. It very well might not have been invaded at all otherwise and enjoyed unusual political freedoms. Switzerland fell into the same category as Denmark, not a place that Hitler dreamed of conquering and only potentially useful as a means of achieving something else.

Hitler also had a quirk in that he greatly admired peoples that he considered particularly warlike. Of course, he was quite selective about this and never seems to have given the Soviets any credit in this area. However, he was very respectful of captured Norwegian troops, for instance, and allowed them to return to their homes with some honor. He also greatly admired the Finns and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Spaniards. Hitler may have placed the Swiss in this class and figured there was no point defeating such a proud (and, to his way of thinking, inconsequential), people. He may have calculated that he did not need a guerilla war close to the heart of the Reich. That was one of the reasons he gave for not invading Spain.

Hitler ultimately seems to have just declared victory by claiming that much of Switzerland already was part of Germany anyway and leaving it at that. German textbooks during the Third Reich included maps of Greater Germany which included Holland, Belgium, Austria, Bohemia-Moravia, and western Poland from Danzig to Krakow. These were all accepted as having fallen under German rule. However, these maps also included the German-speaking parts of Switzerland. The Swiss authorities did not complain, but they certainly did not view parts of Switzerland as being in the Greater Reich. In a sense, Hitler got his victory over Switzerland and it didn't cost him any troops.

US GIs in Switzerland in World War II
US soldiers on the Jungfrau Mountain in Switzerland in October 1945.


As with many of Hitler's contemplated invasion plans such as the Canary Islands, Spain, and Great Britain, Operation Tannenbaum never took place. Relations between the Reich and Switzerland remained on good terms until the end of the war, much to the consternation of the Allies. This held true despite the Swiss shooting down almost a dozen Luftwaffe planes. At the end of the war, having a neutral Switzerland came in handy as a temporary haven for escaping war criminals and the site of some proposed peace initiatives (Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler, for instance, floated the idea of sending trains full of incarcerated Jews to Switzerland in exchange for certain concessions. The Swiss, however, paid for their collaboration with Hitler because it isolated them due to the Allied blacklist.

It took years after the war for completely normal political and trade relations to resume between Switzerland and the victors of World War II. There are still odd vestiges to this day of the war that distinguish Switzerland from its neighbors - including the peculiar fact that the Hitler salute (Hitlergruß) is not always illegal there (unless used for improper purposes). Switzerland always marches to the beat of its own drummer, and that enabled it to escape the worst of World War II.


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