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Switzerland’s complicated history with neutrality

  • By Paige Baschuk
  • 25 January 2022

Switzerland conjures up images of mountain villages full of peace-keeping citizens, but historically the Swiss have been far from pacifists and their neutrality was not necessarily their chosen path.

Switzerland’s complicated history with neutrality
The Swiss flag has come to represent peace. In fact, that is one of the reasons the International Committee of the Red Cross inverted the colors and used the design for their own flag. The ICRC is also headquartered in Switzerland.

“I’m Switzerland!”

The country has become so synonymous with neutrality over the years, that the phrase is often used in film, literature and everyday life to sidestep confrontation. But Switzerland has not always been anti-war nor peaceful, and its purpose for neutrality is as multi-faceted as its culture. Let’s take a closer look.

The origins of Swiss neutrality

“Neutrality means non-participation of a state in a war between other states,” said Dr. Patrick Kury, a historian who specializes in Swiss history at the University of Luzern.

Using that theory, Switzerland has been neutral since 1515 when it lost the Battle of Marignano and signed a peace treaty with France, according to the Swiss Federal Department of Defense. In the centuries preceding that last battle, Switzerland was often in conflict with outsiders threatening its valuable, mountain trade routes. In fact, the Old Swiss Confederacy was created in 1291 to band together the many different people living in the region to fight off intruders attempting to infiltrate trade running through the Alps.

Switzerland’s complicated history with neutrality
The Château de Chillon is situated on a major trade route; and therefore, was often at the center of battles. It served as a Swiss military fortress during the Roman era and for centuries after that.

In fact, Switzerland was actually known for its military prowess from 1460-1500, its “hero era,” during which the country defeated the armies from Hapsburgs of Germany twice, France’s Charles of Burgundy and Austria’s Emperor Maximilian I. Even in the years after signing the 1515 peace treaty, Switzerland engaged in many civil wars between Catholic and Protestant regions: The first Musso War (1524-1526), the Second Musso War (1531-1532) and the Wars of Kappel (1529-1531). During these wars, the Catholic cantons asserted that the country remain part of the Holy Roman Empire and the newly Protestant cantons tried to convert the Catholic regions by force.

It was not until two peace treaties were signed in 1648 at the Peace of Westphalia, that the continent of Europe recognized Switzerland as a “religiously neutral” nation, independent from the Holy Roman Empire and from forced Reformation.

At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Switzerland’s neutrality was confirmed on a global scale when France and Great Britain famously signed a peace treaty. While some historians argue that Switzerland wanted to sidestep the causalities and financial costs of war, others say that the country was not angling for this – and that the Congress of Vienna was forced upon them.

“Rather than being a conscious choice, neutrality was imposed on Switzerland by stronger countries that were determined to isolate France in the wake of the revolutionary wars which had rocked the continent,” said historian Olivier Meuwly in a 2015 conference. “Everyone wanted to control this territory at the foot of the Alps which ensured France was surrounded… Switzerland would become neutral and the Swiss could work it out, even if they didn’t feel neutral. There was no project for neutrality; circumstances dictated that Switzerland would be forced into neutrality by others.”

Neutrality was not a common belief or a guiding principle for Switzerland in the 19th century, it was simply a consequence of location.

In 1907, the country’s pacifism was further cemented when neutrality was incorporated into International Law. While every country in the world can choose to announce its neutrality during a conflict – like Spain and Portugal did during World War II – only nations that announce neutrality during periods of peace are considered permanently neutral. Once a country makes such a declaration, it promises to not participate in war and it is responsible for its own self-defense (which is why the Swiss military is so well-maintained).

Switzerland’s complicated history with neutrality
This photograph of Swiss volunteers was taken in Paris two weeks after World War I officially began in the summer of 1914.

Neutrality in times of war

Switzerland’s neutrality was first tested during World War I as battles raged throughout Europe and alliances were formed. In the peaceful years following the Treaty of Versailles, the newly formed League of Nations (a United Nations precursor) officially recognized Switzerland’s neutrality by establishing its headquarters in Geneva in 1920.

It was during World War II, that Switzerland’s neutrality was really tested as warfare inched closer to its borders. Switzerland asserted that there would be retaliation should it be invaded during World War II and both the Allies and Axis powers violated Swiss airspace. Switzerland shot down many German planes and interned the survivors at prisoner of war camps in Adelboden and Davos. At least 1,700 American airmen (many who sought asylum in Switzerland) were interned alongside their enemies at the camps. Archived letters home to the U.S. show that many American soldiers believed that the Swiss favored the captured Nazis over them and many managed to escape their Swiss prison camps with the help of locals and French resistance fighters.

“This notion of neutrality had become very useful to the Swiss; not only in retreat, but as a means of being available,” said historian Meuwly.

Although the country asserts it maintained its independence during WWII, the Swiss did continue to trade with Nazi Germany – a move that proved controversial after the conflict ended. Some historians say that Switzerland made at least 900 million francs between 1940 and 1944 by selling arms to Germany and Italy.

Switzerland’s complicated history with neutrality
The Swiss Border Patrol scan the Alps in 1943. During World War II, the Swiss Army grew to 800,000 men.

Neutrality in times of peace

Some political experts say modern Swiss neutrality is meaningless on a grand scale, or in the very least, it has lost its importance since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.

“What does it mean to be neutral? That can change. We can never say, we’re neutral, full stop. That means nothing in itself,” said Meuwly.

Even if it has lost its original function, the belief in neutrality is still deeply ingrained in the country’s identity, according to Professor Kury. Why is that? The country has four languages, and many different cultures and religions all residing on a small surface. The country could have easily split at a few historical crossroads but it has not, because neutrality is not only practiced outwardly, but also inwardly, Kury said.

In fact, 96% of the Swiss population says it is important to protect the country’s neutrality and 84% say they believe that neutrality cannot be separated from the state’s identity, according to a 2021 study by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Moreover, neutrality has allowed Switzerland to participate in peace-building policies and actions worldwide.

“On the basis of a modified, differentiated neutrality, Switzerland can assume a mediating function,” said Professor Kury. As the oldest neutral country in the world, Switzerland offers (literally) neutral ground to host sensitive conferences and meetings. It was a natural fit for many international institutions set up their headquarters in the country: The World Trade Organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Olympic Committee, the United Nations and more.

Switzerland’s complicated history with neutrality
The belief in Switzerland’s neutrality seems to be the glue holding the multi-lingual and multi-cultural nation together.

Switzerland is not alone

Although Switzerland did not invent neutrality, historians argue that without the evolution of its neutrality, it would not have become an official status for other nations to adopt. Currently, there are many other neutral countries, including: Costa Rica, Finland, Ireland, Japan, Lichtenstein, Malta, Sweden, Turkmenistan, the Vatican City and more.

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