On February 18, 1936, the Federal Council ordered the immediate suppression of all Nazi organizations in Switzeriand. This measure had great popular support. Hitler's organ in Berlin, the Volkiscber Beobacbter (People's Observer), reacted: "The government at Berne has struck at German-Swiss relations in a most painful fashion." German Nazis blamed the Swiss law on Jews and leftists. . The German Foreign Minister lodged a formal protest, and the German embassy took over the task now banned by the Swiss: developing a network of agents. The Swiss Parliament sought legislation to withdraw citizenship from naturalized foreigners who failed to sever political connections in their former countries. The possibilities for fifth column activity in Switzerland would continue to be restricted by every legal means at the government's disposal.
Hitler had long been planning the reoccupation of the demilitarized Rhineland, along Germany's border with France. This took place on March 7, 1936. In reaction to the remilitarization of the Rhineland, Switzerland began construction of a line of blockhouses on her northern border and readied for a surprise attack by a motorized force along the Rhine. Swiss leaders anticipated that the coming war would involve new methods of aggression; for instance, the SSV marksmen's group advocated increased shooting skills so that as many paratroopers as possible could be shot and killed while still in the air.
Meanwhile, Americans were caught in the dilemma of whether to stay out of Europe's troubles or recognize the unique nature of the Nazi threat. On July 9, addresses were delivered in Charlottesville, Virginia, by Brigadier General John Ross Delafield of New York and Hugo E. Prager of Zurich. General Delafield warned:
It is fundamental in all fighting that he who strikes first wins, unless his opponent is prepared. Democracies seldom strike first. The case of dictatorships is very different. They can and do. They can plan and prepare for attack in secret, until the blow is about to be struck. The American people do not realize this distinction.
Prager responded that Switzerland "realized the distinction only too well, "noting that neither the Alps, " a great ally in the past, " nor the traditional, "almost sacred" neutrality of his country could any longer be relied upon under conditions of modern warfare and the prevailing state of mind in Europe. "What counts," he said, "is the certainty that a possible aggressor will encounter real obstinate resistance."
President Roosevelt, in remarks on August 14, urged that "we shun political commitment which might entangle us in foreign wars; we avoid connection with the League of Nations." While the United States and Switzerland were co-neutrals, the critical difference was that the former was large and an ocean away from Germany; the latter was small and bordered Hitler's dictatorship.
Swiss Federal President Albert Meyer urged the public to purchase subscriptions to a national defense fund, noting that the country's neutrality and independence were more endangered now than in the Great War. He added: "Our militia is the flower of our people, but armaments are necessary for our defense. As an example, Ethiopia speaks eloquently." Italy had attacked and conquered poorly armed Ethiopia in 1935 to begin an occupation that would last until 1941. Mussolini's Fascist regime in the south, in addition to Nazi Germany to the north, threatened the Swiss democracy. In response to Meyer's call, the national defense fund was oversubscribed by more than 40 percent!
Switzerland's preparations for war were analyzed by The Literary Digest in early 1937. Seeking to avoid being overrun like Belgium in 1914, the "'Isle of Peace' . . . is fortifying her frontiers to the tune of war rumbles," the article began. When the inevitable war comes, "whoever moves the opening gambit will find Switzerland no easy checkmate." A Swiss general staff member was quoted, giving a frank analysis:
When war comes, we will be unable to mobilize our entire Army. The Germans will probably destroy our strategic railroad centers, Aarau and Olten, within forty-eight hours. Hence, for our border defense, we shall have to rely strongly on the native population, and we are therefore preparing them for just such an emergency. It is utterly impossible for us to defend the city of Basel, because it is right under the guns of the new German fortress Isteiner Klotz. Our entire strategic problem boils down to this. Can we hold the line or ten days? After that, the French will have moved up and closed the gap.
Ironically, it would be the French who were defeated easily while the Swiss held out the entire war.
In March 1937 it was reported that Geneva would soon test its air raid defenses. The same newspapers which a few days before had printed Hitler's promise to respect Swiss neutrality were now filled with advertisements for items needed for the house and car during war. A new Swiss law required that all buildings and autos be prepared by April 1 for a blackout, that roofs be made safer against incendiary bombs, including the removal of combustible materials from attics, and that cellars be readied with living and emergency supplies. The League of Nations palace and the world headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross (known as the ICRC) in Geneva were included in the preparations.
An analysis of Europe's neutrals in the Christian Science Monitor in April noted:
The more one gazes at contemporary Europe, with its diplomatic rivalries, embattled nationalisms, oppressed minorities, class struggles and militant dictatorships, the more one is constrained to render homage to the success of Swiss ideals. Here is a staunchly united land comprising not merely 22 self-governing units but also inhabited by a population of diverse racial origins, speaking four distinct languages and professing two traditionally antagonistic faiths.
A Zeppelin airship flew over Swiss troops during maneuvers near Schaffhausen on the Rhine on April 28, 1937. The Swiss considered it an intentional provocation by the Germans.
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