The Case Of Switzerland (Part I): Defining Neutrality

Switzerland is among the most prominent neutral states in the world, while it is at the same time being important in international politics and security. It can guarantee its own national security through a policy of ‘armed neutrality’. This is not a recent phenomenon and history testifies about the role that Swiss mercenaries played in European politics in the last 500 years[1]. These men were valued for their skills and their determined mass attack in the Late Medieval times, to the point of being hired and appreciated by the European Powers and consequently taking part in many important conflicts from the 13th to the 19th century[2]. It was only in 1848 when mercenary units were banned by the Swiss Constitution (Künzi, 2011).

(Armed) Neutrality

Switzerland declared a policy of armed neutrality in the Federal Agreement of 1815 which was enhanced upon in the 1848 Constitution[3]. This policy means that Switzerland cannot join any military alliance except in cases of direct attack, nor  take part in any international conflict or allow transit to foreign forces. The ‘armed’ part of the policy provides the very particular way of Swiss neutrality and enforces the upkeep of defence capacities at a respectable level, thus making military service compulsory for male citizens. An essential part of this armed neutrality policy is the army, which is a non-career militia, and where soldiers are required to take part in trainings every year while carrying their guns even to their homes. In addition, the proliferation of sport shooting in every region of the country and regardless of gender as well as the countries’ national political culture and the idea of resisting any foreign invasion, are organic elements of the armed neutrality policy (Swissinfo, 2014; Dreyer & Dresse, 2014).

The roots of Swiss neutrality come, however, from the same times during which Swiss mercenaries were initially hired. First, the battle of Marignano in 1515 marked the end of Swiss mercenary supremacy by the hands of German mercenaries, setting the basis for the Swiss sort of ‘isolationism’ and the first neutrality policy[4]. Secondly, the Thirty Years’ War made the Congregation of the Swiss citiy of Wil to create in 1647 a federal army to secure (and implement) the earlier policy of neutrality. This early policy comes to an end when France invades the country in 1798 and makes the country a battlefield for the control of strategic passes. Swiss soldiers also took part in some campaigns of Napoleon until 1815, where Swiss soldiers fought against French troops (Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sports, 2004).

Swiss neutrality in a deeper sense, comes from the desire of keeping internal cohesion, given the fact that Switzerland has different cultures, religions and languages, and by avoiding taking part actively (and openly) in any international conflict, integrity was effectively kept (Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sports, 2004) by avoiding involvements in international conflicts and thus the disenfranchisement of parts of its population affected by them. It also serves to keep business relations with both parties, to keep the European Geopolitical balance, and to provide a space for mediation and negotiation (Panchaud, 2009).

The World Wars and the Cold War

The Swiss policy of neutrality came to an intense test one century after its proclamation in 1815. The First World War takes places but Switzerland was spared thanks to an effective deterrence – or conviction by potential attackers that an outflank manoeuvre would not be tolerated – of neutrality policy. The borders were respected although defensive fortifications were made in Hauenstein and Mount Vully to assure territorial integrity (and neutrality), along with a general mobilization after the outbreak of the war and the occupation of fortresses near the St. Gothard Pass and St. Moritz. The geography of the country’s border played their part in securing neutrality as well as the value of intelligence activities in the country (Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sports, 2004; Whitmarsh, 2014; Dong-Yoon, 2008)[5].

The Second World War was then a second test for Switzerland’s armed neutrality, and before its outbreak Switzerland had modernized the army while at the same time withdrawing from the League of Nations, an attitude reinforced by the annexation of Austria in 1938. Like 1914, a general mobilization was implemented and extremist parties were banned to prevent unrest. Sargans and St. Maurice fortresses were reinforced and plans for a guerrilla warfare were prepared should a joint German-Italian invasion take place. During this war in particular, the international institutions (like the Red Cross) played an important role in providing protection to civilians in belligerent countries, safeguarding their properties, caring for prisoners of war and even aiding some refugees escaping from the Holocaust. Stranded pilots and interned Polish soldiers were repatriated. During the war, some Allied planes bombarded the borderlines territory with no major effects and trade was implemented with some degrees throughout the war with both sides, especially as regards to armaments (Dong-Yoon, 2008; Gayer, 2013).

Switzerland’s neutrality was, however, in peril due to  German plans to invade the country in 1940. However, the deterrence provided by the armed neutrality policy, along with the possible destruction of train routes passing the Simplon and Gotthard passes and the cost that the occupation could have meant, made Germany discard any plans for invasion (Gayer, 2013).

The third and last important test for Swiss neutrality thus far was the Cold War. During this period Switzerland was closer to the West, although did not join the United Nations and the European integration process, remaining a place for diplomatic approaches and humanitarian aid provision, as well as effectively monitoring the Demarcation Line in Korea after the Korea War. The general principle was labelled “Neutrality and solidarity” (Swissinfo, 2014; Dreyer & Dresse, 2014). Nevertheless, the fears for nuclear annihilation and Soviet invasion were deeply rooted in the country, leading to the construction of bunkers and shelters from the second half of the 1960’s onwards, capable of sheltering 100% of the population. Even the Swiss Armed Forces developed (and mostly uses) bunkers for defence purposes and even to disguise its air force in underground facilities, which was very important during the mentioned period (Mariani, 2009; MigFlug, 2014).

This period was also characterized by a deepening of ties with the United States, although they later recognized the effective deterrence and strong anticommunism in the nation as enough elements for the country to defend itself, aided by the Austrian declaration of neutrality in 1955. Additionally, Soviet attempts to promote a neutralist attitude or reinforce it among the traditional neutral states, in order to undermine NATO, put Switzerland’s independence on the US agenda. Switzerland joined the Plan Marshal in 1947 and implemented agreements on restricting certain products’ export to the Soviet Union. Also, Switzerland enjoyed close military relations with both the United Kingdom and (later on) the United States through the Mutual Defence Assistance Act, to the point of establishing operational agreements with NATO should a Soviet invasion take place, bounded in secrecy. Similarly, Switzerland considered during the 1950s the option of having its own arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons (Rickli, 2004).

Despite its size and the fact that it does not have the  military power comparable the Great Powers, Switzerland has imprinted its international strategic importance, contributing to the outcome of past wars and even to the European equilibrium through its armed neutrality policy. The role of the armed neutrality after the Cold War and in the 21st century will be analyzed in the second part of this article. It will center on the question of Swiss armed neutrality as an important element to Swiss foreign policy and global geopolitics in the future. It will take into consideration the chances and challenges the country will most likely face in the foreseeable future as well as the ability of Switzerland to contribute to international politics and security.



Dong-Yoong, K. (2008). Swiss Neutrality 1870 – 1871, 1914 – 1918, 1939 – 1945. Korean Minjok Leadership Academy International Program. Retrieved from:

Dreyer, J., &. Dresse, N. G. (2014). Swiss Neutrality Examined: Model, Exception, or Both? Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, 15, 3, 60 – 83.

Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sports. (2004). Swiss Neutrality (Brochure, 4th Edition). Bern, Switzerland: Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport. Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.

Gayer, G. (2013). 8. Switzerland. Political Neutrality in Europe during World War II. (Senior Project). San Luis Obispo: California Polytechnic State University, pp. 18-21. Retrieved from:

Künzi, R. (2011). Mercenary trade paid for prosperity and prosperity. Retrieved from:

Mariani, D. (2009). Bunkers for All. Retrieved from:

MigFlug (2014). The Hidden Air Force. Retrieved from:

Panchaud, V. (2009). Neutrality of Switzerland: A brief Introduction. Western Balkans Security Observer, 15, 107-118.

Rickly, J. M. (2004). The Western Influence on Swedish and Swiss Policies of Armed Neutrality during the Early Cold War. Europe: Interactions globales – Global Interactions, 117 – 134. Geneva, Switzerland: Global Studies Institute. (2014). Armed neutrality. Retrieved from:

Whitmarsh, A. (2014). August 1914: the outbreak of the war. Switzerland and the First World War. Retrieved from:


[1] The Swiss mercenaries also contributed to shape the identity of the country and even its existence and wealth, given the importance of it as a supplier of soldiers that were, in turn, bringing money into the country. See: Künzi (2011) Mercenary trade paid for peace and prosperity. Retrieved from:

[2] 1.5 million Swiss-men took place in those conflicts in total, according to Künzi (2011).

[3] The abolition of mercenary service was a step on this regard.

[4] Despite this early policy, Swiss mercenaries continued their services in foreign armies.

[5] Neutrality saw one real peril, however, and it came from the very inside: the sympathies held by the different linguistic communities towards some belligerents. See:


Published by

Recent Posts

TTIP: A Much Needed Platform for Renewed Prosperity or A Threat to Sovereignty and Democracy?

What is TTIP? TTIP stands for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and represents the…

2 years ago

The Great War. Part II

The second stage: 1871 – 1890 Sedan, 1870. The guns are silent now, the soldiers…

2 years ago

Holocaust Denial as a Legal Issue in Europe

Emilie Mendes de Leon reflects on Holocaust denial as racist speech in Europe and explains the…

2 years ago

The Iran Nuclear Deal: Diplomatic Triumph or Ticking Time Bomb?

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed to in Vienna on July 14th 2015 by…

2 years ago

Genetically Modified Food and the Second Green Revolution

Mervyn Piesse, Research Manager, Global Food and Water Crises Research Progarmme - Genetically Modified Food…

2 years ago

Biodiversity: An Integral Part of Food Security

Mervyn Piesse, Research Manager, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme - Biodiversity: An Integral…

2 years ago