To understand why Switzerland stood on the side-lines we have to go back five hundred years to 1516 when the Swiss fought, and duly lost, their last battle against the French. The ensuing peace treaty set in motion Switzerland’s state of neutrality. As part of his grand design to become emperor of all of Europe, Napoleon invaded Switzerland in 1798 and Swiss neutrality fell away.
After Napoleon’s humbling, Swiss neutrality was enshrined at the Treaty of Paris as the great powers of Europe acknowledged the country’s wish to stay out of future conflicts. Neutrality became an important part of their culture, one that the Swiss were willing to defend if they had to.
Come World War I however, Switzerland was in a tight spot as its borders abutted the main warring factions on all sides; Germany, Austria, France and Italy. To stem off any threat the Swiss mobilised their army of some 200,000 men and stationed it on the borders. Between 1914-18, the Swiss were not dragged into the war and instead the country became an island of calm for refugees, revolutionaries, artists and thinkers who sought to escape the ravages of war, including the founders of the Dada movement.
In the years following World War I, Swiss neutrality become even more enshrined by virtue of its banking system. In 1934, the Swiss created numbered bank accounts, completely anonymous by nature, that allowed patrons from abroad to hide their cash or other valuables. This would prove controversial many years later when it was discovered gold confiscated from Jews was traded to Swiss banks in exchange for foreign currency.
As World War II broke out, the Swiss once again had to bare their teeth to ensure their neutrality was respected. The country mobilised, amassing 850,000 soldiers at its peak of activity, and a ring of defences were thrown up (including the Toblerone Trail) as the threat of a Nazi invasion loomed. “Man for man, Switzerland probably has the best army in Europe today,” TIME magazine wrote and was strong enough to give the Nazi’s pause for thought.
Switzerland again became an important hub for refugees, despite controversy over their refusal to give asylum to those fleeing persecution on account of race, focusing rather on political asylum seekers. Nevertheless during the war nearly 300,000 refugees fled into the country.
Switzerland managed to stay neutral throughout two World Wars, but only by an ironic mixture of military strength and a good portion of luck. Conquering the small nation would not have been an easy feat. Instead it remained an important island for trade, peace negotiations, espionage and refugees.