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Fortress Switzerland

Updated on August 05, 2016
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. Why? Because we have to look to the past to prepare for the future.

Invade This!  If you think the terrain is bad, what you don't see is worse! Sanetsch pass, Valais, Switzerland
Invade This! If you think the terrain is bad, what you don't see is worse! Sanetsch pass, Valais, Switzerland | Source

Switzerland's Secret

Switzerland, the land of cuckoo clocks, fine chocolates, Alps, Swiss Army knives and banks, whose famed neutrality allowed them to sit out two world wars and a cold one. But you don't just declare yourself neutral and watch the warring hordes obediently turn aside and part like waves around an island. At best, you've bought some time while warring countries weigh the pros and cons of violating that neutrality.

So what is Switzerland's secret? How has it managed to remain neutral for almost 200 years? The Swiss implemented armed neutrality. It has been, and still is, a veritable fortress where every able-bodied male from age 19 to 30 performs military service. That and the fact that the Swiss are willing and able to destroy their infrastructure along with any enemy that comes calling.

What the Swiss want the world to think of when talking about their military (Swiss Guard at the Vatican).
What the Swiss want the world to think of when talking about their military (Swiss Guard at the Vatican). | Source
What's waiting for you while you're laughing at the Swiss Guard (Swiss Grenadier carring a Stgw 90 whilst taking part in the Swiss raid commando competition 2007.)
What's waiting for you while you're laughing at the Swiss Guard (Swiss Grenadier carring a Stgw 90 whilst taking part in the Swiss raid commando competition 2007.) | Source

Swiss Army

The Swiss Army has a small core of full-time regulars, but 220,000 soldiers can be mobilized within 72 hours. Soldiers keep their weapons in their homes, though, recently, they are no longer issued ammunition kept with their weapons. While fit males are required to perform military service from age 19 to 30, females may volunteer. There are an estimated 1.5 million males and nearly as many females aged 16 to 49 who are fit for military service. Those males not fit for the military may perform other services or pay a 3% surtax until they are 30.

Camouflaged cannons and fortifications near Furka Pass in the Gotthard region. Note the fortress embedded in the hillside in the distance.
Camouflaged cannons and fortifications near Furka Pass in the Gotthard region. Note the fortress embedded in the hillside in the distance. | Source

Bunkers and Fortifications

The Swiss military currently maintains a system of roughly 26,000 bunkers and fortifications throughout the Swiss Alps, many of them disguised in the sides of mountains. The first fortress was built in 1885 to discourage invaders from using the then-new railway route through the mountains. During World War 2, the Swiss developed their National Redoubt Plan, whereby the Army would cede the cities in the lowlands to the enemy and retreat into fortresses and bunkers in the Alps, where they would deny passage through the mountains and therefore defeat the main purpose of invading Switzerland in the first place. The Germans had plans to invade as early as 1940, but never implemented them. The Swiss' somewhat apocalyptic defense ensured that any enemy would suffer disproportionately to the possible gains of such an invasion.

Planned Demolition

Switzerland's defenses don't stop with conscription and fortresses. Swiss Army rules mandate that bridges, hillsides and tunnels must be designed so that they can be remotely destroyed in order to deny highways and railroads to the enemy. Fuses and compartments for high explosives are designed and built into bridges, roads and tunnels when they are constructed. Supposedly the explosives themselves are not in place during times of peace. Hidden artillery prevents the enemy from repairing the damage. There are at least 3,000 such points, including entire hillsides, though, undoubtedly, the figure is higher than that.

A Swiss Air Force Mirage III RS outside its mountain hanger.
A Swiss Air Force Mirage III RS outside its mountain hanger. | Source

Inside The Mountains

Mountains (especially near the German border) have been tunneled so extensively that entire divisions could fit inside. One mountain has a hydroelectric power station inside it and if a company of soldiers had to climb down the mountain, they could climb down on the inside. Hangers for the Swiss Air Force are built into mountains, right next to their runways.

Bomb Shelters

In addition to all that, Switzerland is the only country in the world that has bomb shelters enough for their entire population (actually, they have more spaces than people, with 114% coverage). While there are huge communal shelters that can hold thousands, many businesses and residents have their own shelters. These are not simply small concrete block bunkers, but real, airtight fallout shelters with thick armored doors and ventilation systems. Building a private shelter costs about $10,000. Those who choose not to build their own shelters must pay about $1,500 for each place in a communal shelter. As of 2006, there were 300,000 shelters in residences and institutions and more than 5,000 public shelters-- enough for 8.6 million people; Switzerland's population is just under 8 million.

Part of the Toblerone line near Gland (Switzerland). Each block is taller than a man.
Part of the Toblerone line near Gland (Switzerland). Each block is taller than a man. | Source
The distinctive shape of the Swiss chocolate bar Toblerone resembles Switzerland's dragonteeth anti-tank obstacles.
The distinctive shape of the Swiss chocolate bar Toblerone resembles Switzerland's dragonteeth anti-tank obstacles. | Source

Dragon's Teeth And The Villa Rose

There are lines of dragon's teeth all over Switzerland, but predominantly in border areas. Built mainly during World War 2, these are rows of 9-ton concrete blocks, each higher than a man, that were built to stop tank invasions. One such section, stretching six miles from the mountains to Lake Geneva and consisting of 2,700 blocks, has a hiking trail along its route. It is called the Toblerone Trail because the blocks resemble the famous Swiss Toblerone chocolate bar. Along the trail are 12 fortresses built in 1940. One of them was recently opened to the public who didn't even know it existed since it resembled a large pink chalet, known as the “Villa Rose”. Its armored doors and 8-foot thick walls housed hidden anti-tank cannons and other weapons. There are more than 100 similar false chalets throughout Switzerland.

The Villa Rose, former disguised Swiss fortification. Its 8.5-foot thick walls protected hidden anti-tank cannons.
The Villa Rose, former disguised Swiss fortification. Its 8.5-foot thick walls protected hidden anti-tank cannons. | Source

Times Are Changing

It is evident the Swiss take their neutrality and the defense of that neutrality extremely seriously. At the same time, pressures to change have been growing since the end of the Cold War. Businesses complain that the cost of their employees performing their military service is too much. Then there is the cost to maintain all those bunkers and fortresses and shelters. Some bunkers have indeed been sold and converted to data centers-- some of the most secure data centers in the world. Some of this softening of the Swiss “bunker mentality” was tempered by the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the U.S, but, even so, the Army was cut from 400,000 to 220,000 in 2003. One thing the Swiss have going for them is that, since their defenses have been so many and some so cleverly disguised, no enemy could be sure there wasn't a working bunker, hidden trap or explosive charge around the next bend. Opening up some disguised bunkers may seem like accepting inevitable change, or it could make others wonder what else in Switzerland isn't what it seems.

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    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      It is a very interesting term "armed neutrality". Something like - "do not touch me and I will not touch you". As to system of secret bunkers, oh, I love to read about secrets! :-)

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks much for commenting, Pavlo. Yes, and apparently the Swiss have lots of secrets!

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest

      I only wish there were a trail of Swiss chocolate Toblerones! Very interesting and well written.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thank you for commenting, aethelthryth. Yes, if only! But I doubt chocolate dragon teeth would stop tanks.

    • molometer profile image

      molometer 4 years ago

      What a fascinating read. So that's what they have been up to all this time. I have wondered how they managed to avoid just about every conflict in the last 200 years.

      Fortress Switzerland is definitely the right name for this seemingly innocent little place.

      I learned so much from this hub. Thanks for writing it.

      Voted up awesome useful and very interesting too. Sharing this one.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for all that, molometer. I learned just as much researching it. I have a whole different perspective on Switzerland now. Writing hubs has forced me to learn about a lot of different lands and cultures.

    • wba108@yahoo.com profile image

      wba108@yahoo.com 4 years ago from upstate, NY

      This is all true, my uncle was an officer in the Swiss army and I got to visit a Swiss army base as a boy. I even was able to climb inside one of their tanks. It's true, back in the 70's when I visited Switzerland there were bunkers everywhere and the country was armed to the teeth. I believe that another important defense for Switzerland was the threat of detonating their bank vaults before an enemy could take possession of them. This provided a substancial deterrent if the invading force had a lot of money in Swiss banks.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Wow, I really appreciate your comment, wba108. While I try to balance the sometimes conflicting research on the Internet, it's always great to get validation from another source. I didn't know about the bank vaults. Thanks for taking the time to read and add your insight.

    • Sanxuary 4 years ago

      This country would not last a day if anyone wanted to own it. There determination to support whoever is in charge is hardly neutral, but kept them from being invaded more then anything else. Even today they have done everything to hide the billions of dollars in blood money from murdered Jews and Nazi gold. They are a secure banking account or on shore account for Europe. Sweden and Turkey played the same card in Europe and keeping as few countries out of the war even if they supported the enemy indirectly was more important at the time.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      You are correct that the Swiss have a lot of skeletons in their closet and have a lot to answer for. Name me a country that doesn't. Regarding the Swiss caving to anyone in a day, did you read the article?

    • Sanxuary 4 years ago

      I read the article but immobile defences have not stopped a determined army since World War I. If you look up Jane’s Defence they have no armour worth much and no air force either. They could put up a fight for a while but the out come is obvious. You should see the South Korean border but its not going to stop the North Korean Army before it reaches beyond the size of Switzerland.

    • Mel Jay profile image

      Mel Jay 3 years ago from Australia

      Wow what an irony - that a country has to have such defenses so that it can remain neutral! This has given me a whole lot more to think about when it comes to the Swiss. Gone are my assumptions about picturesque villas, skiing, banking and chocolate being what the Swiss are all about...Great read, really well put together. Thanks for the information, up and interesting from me, Cheers - Mel

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks, Mel. Researching this was an eye-opener for me also. Hitler hated the Swiss, referring to them as some sort of degenerate branch of the Nordic tree. Only the Swiss' preparedness against any invaders prevented the Germans from invading. "Neutrality" is only honored as long as warring countries weigh the advantages and disadvantages of allowing that neutrality.

    • Jay Oz 2 years ago

      I worked for a swiss man, he had been a demolitions expert in their army. Sanxuary is wrong, the strategy is so destructive to invaders it simply could never be worth it. Every objective en route to victory destroyed, no prizes, a terrible price paid every single square mile for absolutely nothing. He's right about static defenses, but they aren't defending anything. They wipe out infested areas. Where are these mobile forces going in the alps when every single passage is annihilated? Where is their mobility coming from, he doesn't even make sense. You would have to carpet bomb the Country with nukes to "conquer" it, period.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
      Author

      David Hunt 2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for your interesting comment, Jay Oz. I agree with you that static defense can work-- it's not like the Swiss are standing behind a single wall. The other point Sanxuary missed is that the Germans did not take the Maginot Line by force, they went around it.

    • Ali 3 months ago

      Wow ! I did read that from start to finish .... what an amazing piece of writing and it was equally interesting too, specially the toblerone trail ...

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