Swiss Neutrality

Switzerland maintains a two hundred years old neutral foreign policy, which gives the country a unique status. Unlike the other pro-peace nations of Europe, the Swiss Confederation has not diverted the country’s foreign policy throughout history. This paper discusses the long-standing roots of Swiss neutrality by focusing on its history and culture.

Figure 1: The Formation of the Swiss Confederation

The tradition of neutrality, which has been going on for centuries, was established on the basis of the character of the Swedish nation. The Swiss policy of armed neutrality evolved over the centuries since the country was founded in 1291 (Wiseman, 2002, p. 57). During its early history, Switzerland often found itself involved in conflicts of divided and war-torn Europe. Due to the attacks of Habsburg dynasty, the three cantons, Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, formed an alliance called Old Swiss Confederacy to protect the territory. This alliance that marks the founding of Switzerland indicates that the motive of unification was not economic, religious or political. The external attacks led to the establishment of the country, which also reflects on contemporary Swedish understanding of non-provocative defense.


After its establishment, The Old Swiss Confederacy fought against The Burgundian State and House of Savoy. Despite the success, the burdens of these conflicts started to impose the idea of neutrality. The beginning of Switzerland's neutral existence can be traced back to the permanent peace between Switzerland and France concluded at Freiburg, November 12, 1516, since from this date Switzerland, considered as a homogeneous federal alliance, did not again take any direct part in warlike activities (Sherman, 1918, p. 241). Eventually, Swiss neutrality was formalised for the first time during the Thirty Years' War (Wiseman, 2002, p. 57). In the most general sense, the conflict was between the Holy Roman Empire and its Catholic allies and the other European powers. The Swiss Confederation remained out of war largely due to the extensive network of alliances formed by its member cantons, strengthening its defensive position. However, the country was more or less involved in the Napoleonic Wars for soil was repeatedly invaded by the Allies (Stovall, 1922, p.198), leading to the establishment of Helvetic Republic. But as a satellite of France, Switzerland suffered from the Napoleonic debacle of 1814 (Pauchard, 2020) and became a cantonal association again. After destructive results of the war, the idea of neutrality was imposed on Switzerland once again and lead to its preference of not taking sides in the wars of scattered Europe. With the Congress of Vienna of 1815, the neutrality and independence of Switzerland were recognized and guaranteed by the European countries (Stovall, 1922, p.199). Based on international law, Switzerland was held responsible for maintaining neutrality while other states accepted keeping the country's sovereignty. Since then, the country maintained its armed neutrality, including the times of WW I and WW II.

Figure 2: A French caricature of the Vienna Congress

Remaining neutral in 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 meant abstaining from participating in what the participants —a large majority of the world's population—regarded as a crusade (Vagts, 1997, p. 466). Given the challenges of remaining neutral during total war, both WW I and WW II were uneasy and gruelling periods that tested the perseverance of Switzerland. At the outbreak of WW I, the country mobilized its army as a defensive measure, causing problems in the labor market. Since Switzerland was not ready for outcomes of the war in terms of resources, it shifted the focus to economic interests rather than military. The possibility of entering war remained, however. There was a growing social turmoil due to  Tensions between German- and French-speaking Switzerland. Yet, the politicians jeopardized national unity by negotiating and making arrangements with Central Powers. Three years later, based on the assumption of the US entry into the war, the country arranged meetings with France to emphasize its relationship with France. despite the fact that the principles of neutrality were violated, Switzerland managed to maintain armed neutrality during the war.


Figure 3: Ist Selbstschutz Anti-Aircraft Air Raid Exhibition

At the outbreak of WW II, preserving neutrality became more problematic for Switzerland encircled by France, Germany, Italy and Austria. The country's geographic position was both a benefit and a drawback. The mountainous topography discouraged German attack, however, Switzerland was economically dependent. Self-sufficiency in food and continuous mobilization have been the watch-words of the Government throughout the war (J. R., 1945, p. 345). However, Switzerland was dependent on imports and exports for its existence, and at a land-locked axis-controlled territory, trade with continental Europe at the expense of overseas trade was inevitable (J. R., 1945, p. 345). Ignoring the requirements of both Axis and Allied powers to not trade with the other side, the Swiss continued by highlighting that trade discourages any attack and as a neutral country it is not responsible for blockade of goods. The trade was mostly with Germany since the Allies have never been able to offer coal, iron, and oil, (J. R., 1945, p. 346). It is estimated that the country gained 20 million Swiss francs from dealings with Germany (Cowell, 1996) while being a favored repository of capital from unstable countries, including those of the Jews (Public Broadcasting Service, n.d.).

Figure 4: Neutrality. It's about getting to the end!

Traditionalization of Swiss neutrality sets it apart from other pro-peace nations. The outcome of the Vienna Congress represents the incorporation of Switzerland as a neutral state into the custom of European society and law, providing a distinctive international personality guaranteed by the Great Powers (Dreyer & Jesse, 2014, p. 63). The failure of neutrality in Denmark, Belgium and The Netherlands during the WW II are examples that demonstrate the difference of Swiss neutrality. All of these small European countries considered themselves peaceful nations, yet, only Switzerland managed to maintain its neutrality during the war. Germany violated neutrality of Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark by directly invading these countries, leading them to take sides. Switzerland's neutrality has not brought complete immunity from physical danger either (J. R., 1945, p. 345). The country’s air space was trespassed by Germany, the UK and the US, causing serious damage and suffering from bombs (Stovall, 1922, p.197). Nevertheless, the country was not involved in the war and preferred to handle the breaches through diplomatic means. These incidents demonstrate how carefully Switzerland regarded its neutrality (Stovall, 1922, p.198) and profound effects of a two hundred years old political culture.


By setting the principles of foreign policy, Swiss culture reinforces the concept of neutrality through armed deterrence. The country’s neutrality policy does not come out of a peaceful orientation to the world, it is a preference caused by a generalized lack of trust in outsiders (Neack, 2014, p. 101). Switzerland acts accordingly before conflict-provoking conditions arrive, taking measures before an external threat arises. Swiss men between nineteen and twenty years old perform fifteen weeks of active military duty followed by reservist training periods over the two years (Neack, 2014, p. 101), other segments of the population are trained to perform such tasks as medical service, there is an impressive system of civil defense shelters against both conventional and nuclear attack, and a system of economic self-reliance has been devised, including measures to provide for food and raw materials in a conflict (Wiseman, 2002, p. 57). These strong defensive measures of a reliable country, constrain the outsiders by increasing the cost of an attack without creating security concerns among the international community. The country deals with its security dilemmas by pursuing a non-assertive, consistent, and predictable foreign policy backed by a defensive military system (Wiseman, 2002, p. 58).

Figure 5: Switzerlandball

Despite the existence of dispositions and the establishment of close relationships with various parties, Switzerland maintained its neutrality and has become an ideal model for other nations. In addition to protecting the country from the negative outcomes of the war, the principle of neutrality increased the wealth of the country by keeping various trade and investment routes open. The conditions that caused the country to endure a two hundred years old foreign policy are unique, lying down in its history and culture. With France, Germany, Austria, and Italy encircling Switzerland, and Swiss people being tied to each of these countries by language, culture, and religion, neutrality appeared to be the only way to preserve her independence (J. R., 1945, p. 344). Given the failures of other European states, it can be said that state neutrality is a tradition that is hard to possess deliberately. The status of Swiss neutrality has served to make it seen as a norm by many states in the international system, however, outside of Switzerland neutrality is far more tenuous and far less effective (Dreyer & Jesse, 2014, p. 82).



Bibliographical References

Cowell, A. (1996, December 14). Swiss acknowledge profiting from Nazi Gold. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1996/12/14/world/swiss-acknowledge-profiting-from-nazi-gold.html


Dreyer, J., & Jesse, N.G. (2014). Swiss Neutrality Examined: Model, Exception or Both? Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, 15, 60. Retrieved from https://jmss.org/article/view/58112


J. R. (1945). Switzerland’s War-Time and Post-War Policy: Problems of an Encircled Neutral. Bulletin of International News, 22(8), 343–349. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25643800


Neack, L. (2014). The new foreign policy: Complex Interactions, competing interests. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.


Pauchard, O. (2020, June 7). The day Switzerland became neutral. SWI swissinfo.ch. Retrieved from https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/congress-of-vienna_the-day-switzerland-became-neutral/41335520


Public Broadcasting Service. (n.d.). The sinister face of 'neutrality' | frontline. https://www.pbs.org. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/nazis/readings/sinister.html


Sherman, G. E. (1918). The Neutrality of Switzerland. The American Journal of International Law, 12(3), 462–474. https://doi.org/10.2307/2188235


Stovall, P. A. (1922). The neutrality of Switzerland. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/40575726?refreqid=search-gateway


Vagts, D. F. (1997). Switzerland, International Law and World War II. American Journal of International Law, 91(3), 466–475. https://doi.org/10.2307/2954183


Wiseman, G. (2002). Concepts of non-provocative defence: Ideas and practices in international security. Palgrave in association with St. Antony's College, Oxford.


Visual Sources

Figure 1: Alicia, C. (n.d.). The Formation of the Swiss Confederation. [Painting]. TimeToast. https://www.timetoast.com/timelines/the-formation


Figure 2: Akg images. (n.d.). A French caricature of the Vienna Congress. [Cartoon]. SwissInfo. https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/congress-of-vienna_the-day-switzerland-became-neutral/41335520


Figure 3: Baumberger, O. (1935). Luftschutz Ist Selbstschutz Anti-Aircraft Air Raid Exhibition. [Poster presentation]. Rue Marcellin. https://www.ruemarcellin.com/products/luftschutz-ist-selbstschutz-anti-aircraft-air-raid-exhibition


Figure 4: Hear The Boat Sing. (2018). Neutrality. It's about getting to the end! [Cartoon]. Hear The Boat Sing. https://heartheboatsing.com/2018/04/09/neutral-waters-into-eaven-from-ell/


Figure 5: Pollandball Wiki. (n.d.). Switzerlandball. [Cartoon]. Pollandball Wiki. https://www.polandballwiki.com/wiki/Switzerlandball

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Deniz Aktunç

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