anzac POW freemen in europe

Part 2 - Escape from Italian Prison Camps

Chapter 4 - Neutrality: Swiss Style

Unlike other European neutral nations, Switzerland was a small country, completely landlocked, with borders to Germany, Austria, Italy and France, all under German control for most of the war. Without raw materials and with limited agricultural production, it was dependant for survival on these combative neighbours and other trading partners, particularly fellow neutral countries. It was dependent on Germany and Austria for coal, Sweden for iron, Turkey for copper and chromite, Spain and Portugal for tungsten and mercury, food and fish products, and initially on its traditional imports, from neutral America.

The German blitzkreig soon swallowed up  other traditional European neutrals - Holland, Denmark, and Norway - who had depended on the League of Nations to protect their rights, but whose geographical access to the North Sea and the Baltic and food production, was irresistible to the German war machine. Ireland, with its uniquely strategic sea ports, particularly those accessing the Atlantic Ocean, was largely a British problem, and had little to offer the Axis powers in war material, or like Norway, with hydroelectric power.

The highly sophisticated armaments industry of Sweden, with such products as the Bofors gun and its capacious dockyards helped balance out its price of occupation in their favour. Those neutral countries, including Switzerland, who were not taken over by the Axis powers, could thank their stars that, on balance, they were more useful to Hitler as they were rather than being incorporated among his satellites. Any invasion of Switzerland by the German armies, would have resulted in the immediate demolition of the vital alpine railway tunnels, and the destruction of the very efficient Swiss railway system which was the geographical hub of the movement and distribution of strategic war material within Europe.

The Swiss army moreover, was highly trained in mountain warfare, and with their local knowledge of their terrain, would have tied down many German troops, whose deployment elsewhere was more useful to the German overall war plan.

Moreover, in the upper brackets of the Swiss Army, with the exception of General Guisan himself, and the Swiss politicians, there was a strong pro-Nazi sympathy, which lasted for the duration of the war. Nevertheless, the German High Command had meticulously prepared invasion plans of Switzerland - "Operation Boehme" in 1940 and "Operation Tannenbaum" in 1943 - neither implemented due to the political skills of General Guisan.

Not all Swiss were as pro-Allied, just as not all Italians in North Italy were anti-Fascist and anti-German. Many Europeans from many countries firmly believed in Hitler's doctrine of "Ein Herrenvolk" - witness Pierre Laval in France, Quisling in Norway, Mussert in Holland and even Mosley in England.

Of the three original wartime leaders - Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt - only Churchill consistently favoured maintaining good relations with Switzerland, despite its skewing away from Britain such vital war supplies as jewelled micro-bearings and diamond-tipped cutting tools in favour of Germany.  Stalin had no time for the Swiss, and after Roosevelt left the political scene, the new American leaders seemed content to let Churchill take care of the Swiss, while they concentrated on the increasing geo-political problems with Stalin, and the ensuing Cold War, while dealing at the same time with the war against the Japanese.

The American air raid on Schaffhausen certainly resulted in a hardening of attitude among the Swiss heirachy against the airmen of the United States (see chapter - The Alpine Airmen). The jury is still out as to whether it was a "botched" attack on the wrong side of the Rhine or a "deliberately planned" attack to destroy factories supplying micro-bearings and tools that were keeping the German war machine operating. Whatever the reasons, long after it had become apparent that Germany was going to lose the war, and all neutral countries had recognised this fact, Switzerland still maintained its balancing act of being of greater value to the Germans neutral, rather than occupied.

One of the lessons the Swiss banking system had learned from their neutrality in the first World War, was that enormous profits could be made by active trading between both sides fighting furiously in somebody else's territory, and how easily these profits could be hidden by a system of complete banking secrecy. Both Swiss industrialists, Nazis and ultra-rich foreign individuals alike, found it advantageous to secrete their wealth in a numbered account in a Swiss bank. Gold, much of it obtained from Holocaust victims, began to fill up Swiss banking vaults. It was only relatively recently that the secrecy began to unravel and the true role of its "neutrality" began to unfold. The Swiss security guard, who refused to destroy the records he was given and turned them over to external sources, may yet prove to be a true Swiss patriot rather than a Swiss criminal!

The Swiss, particularly in the German-speaking northern part of the country, were never really afraid of occuption by Germany, but they were very afraid of an occupation by the Russians. Lenin had lived in Switzerland prior to 1917 when he left to join the Bolshevik Revolutions and in turn left behind many Swiss associates dedicated to world communism.

As diplomatic relations betwen the Swiss and the Soviets deteriorated, there was a growing feeling among the population as a whole, that any system of world government dominated by Bolsheviks, would be even worse than a system dominated by Fascists. But democracy was the Swiss preferred system of Government and while by no means perfect, this was the American way. And it was also becoming increasingly obvious that it was the American way that would eventually win the Cold War and leave it as the world's only real superpower.

The task of maintaining its neutrality was, for the Swiss, a much more difficult task that that faced by its fellow neutrals. This arose basically from its locked in geographical situation and its complete surrounding by German armed forces, an unwelcome and unexpected flood of escapees and refugees which taxed its resurces of food and accomodation to the utmost, but also a pro-Nazi attitude of its Federal Council and its ability to secretly support the German war effort through witholding the truth from the Swiss population, who were intensely pro-Allied, anti-Fascist and anti-Communist.

That it was able to handle such a vast intake of strangers, and handle them so well, both from Allied and Axis military forces, as well as Gypsies, Jews, Homosexuals and all those minorities that Nazi docrines would have persecuted, is a sterling tribute to its neutrality and humanism  But it was their undamaged railway and generally efficient communications and financial systems together with their patriotic willingness and capacity to fight a war, which in the end, would save them going to war.

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