An Interview With Stephen P. Halbrook

When it comes to World War II, most people tend to figure out only two actors: the Axis vs. the Allies. In modern terms, it was a clash of civilization, so to speak, where the champions of Good and Evil fought to the death. Of course, reality is never so simple, as any individualist could point out.

The "great history" is known to everyone. But few know the role of Switzerland during the conflict. That small country succeeded in preserving its traditional liberty even when Hitler was supposed to win the war and establish a New World Order. Swiss citizens were always united in opposition to the Nazi dictatorship. Nor did they sign any sort of alliance with Britain, the US, and the Soviet Union. They had the policy of armed neutrality, and deterrence was their major arm — leave aside the weapons privately owned, which posed a major threat to any invading army, German, Soviet, or otherwise.

Recently I talked about Swiss behavior during WW2, and tried to learn something useful for our own future, with Stephen P. Halbrook, author of Target Switzerland. Swiss Armed Neutrality in World War II. Mr. Halbrook also authored several books and articles about the right to keep and bear arms: among them, the famous That Every Man Be Armed. The Evolution of a Constitutional Right.

STAGNARO: Many people believe Switzerland was quite “collaborationist” with Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Your book shows things went differently. How could the Swiss defend their independence without compromising with the regime of Hitler?

HALBROOK: Every man in Switzerland had a rifle at home. Shooting was the national sport. A look at a map shows tiny, democratic Switzerland surrounded by the Axis powers stretching all over Europe and into Russia and North Africa. This nation of riflemen situated in the Alps managed to remain neutral and to dissuade a Nazi invasion.

Winston Churchill, England's wartime leader, wrote as the Allies were engaged in conquering Germany in 1944: "Of all the neutrals Switzerland has the greatest right to distinction. . . . She has been a democratic State, standing for freedom in self-defence among her mountains, and in thought, in spite of race, largely on our side."

By contrast, the year before, Adolf Hitler stated that "all the rubbish of small nations still existing in Europe must be liquidated as fast as possible," and that if necessary he would become known as the "Butcher of the Swiss."

But Hitler knew that the Swiss were gun owners and that many Nazis would be butchered in the process. Located in Bern, American spy Allen Dulles, the head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), explained: "At the peak of its mobilization Switzerland had 850,000 men under arms or standing in reserve, a fifth of the total population. . . . That Switzerland did not have to fight was thanks to its will to resist and its large investment of men and equipment in its own defense. The cost to Germany of an invasion of Switzerland would certainly have been very high."

Incidentally, Italian partisan leaders would slip over the border into Ticino, the Italian-speaking Swiss canton, and arrange with the OSS for air drops of supplies to their mountain bases.

STAGNARO: German generals studied several plans to invade Switzerland. All of them worried about the strength of the Swiss army, as well as about the ability of Swiss to make them pay a very high price. Let’s play history-fiction: had the Germans really tried an invasion, what fate would they have been likely to find?

HALBROOK: When Hitler came to power in 1933, Nazi propaganda depicted Switzerland as one of several countries to be annexed as part of "Greater Germany." Unlike the other European neutrals, which spent money for the welfare state, the Swiss immediately began military preparations to repel an eventual German attack. In 1940, Switzerland was a potential southern invasion route to France, while Belgium and Holland were the northern invasion routes. The Germans avoided Switzerland, where every man was armed and the spirit of resistance predominated.

Just after the fall of France, the German forces devised several new invasion plans against Switzerland – the Nazis would occupy the German and French speaking areas, and Fascist Italy would occupy the Italian speaking area. These plans acknowledged that the Swiss were well-trained marksmen, and recommended considerable forces for the attack. While Hitler hated Switzerland – which he called a "pimple" on the face of Europe — for refusing to join the New Order, he was distracted by the Battle of Britain and then by Operation Barbarossa, the battle with the Soviet Union in 1941.

Yet just days before the assault on Russia, Hitler and Mussolini met on the Brenner. The record states: "The Führer characterized Switzerland as the most despicable and wretched people and national entity. The Swiss were the mortal enemies of the new Germany." The Duce called Switzerland "an anachronism." Attack plans against Switzerland continued to be made.

When the Fascist government collapsed and the liberation of southern Italy began, Germany occupied northern Italy — which greatly increased the risk to Switzerland. Germany wanted the Swiss Alpine routes to ship soldiers and weapons, and the Swiss refused. But Switzerland provided sanctuary to Italian and French partisans and refugees.

A Nazi invasion of Switzerland during any of the above periods would have faced the following: The Swiss border forces would have fought to the death and would have been eliminated. But the bridges and roads were charged with explosives and would be destroyed, as would the Gotthard and Simplon tunnels on the Alpine routes to Italy.

The Swiss forces were concentrated in the Alpine Réduit. Panzers and the Luftwaffe could not operate in these steep mountains. Wehrmacht infantry would have been subjected to murderous fire from artillery hidden in mountain sides. Swiss forces could hold out indefinitely in the Alps.

Any German occupation of parts of Switzerland would have had extreme costs in blood. Unlike any country Germany occupied, every Swiss man had a rifle at home. The Swiss government and military ordered that no surrender would take place, and any report of a surrender was to be regarded as enemy propaganda. The Swiss would have waged a partisan war unequaled in European history. While many Swiss would have been killed, the invaders would have faced a Swiss sniper behind every tree and every rock.

STAGNARO: You make a strong point in defense of the Swiss military organization: Switzerland could resist against Germany thanks to its armed citizenry. Do you believe this system is still good, despite the dramatic changes we have experienced in the last decades, both in the kind of enemies (e.g., terrorism) and in the ways of waging wars?

HALBROOK: Shortly before World War I, the German Kaiser was the guest of the Swiss government to observe military maneuvers. The Kaiser asked a Swiss militiaman: "You are 500,000 and you shoot well, but if we attack with 1,000,000 men what will you do?" The soldier replied: “We will shoot twice and go home."

Still today, every Swiss male on reaching age 20 years old is required to attend recruit school and issued a Fucile d'assalto 90 (model 1990, 5.6 mm selective fire rifle) to keep at home. Many women also participate in the shooting sports, as do teenagers and elderly persons. Weapons are carried so commonly on public transportation, around towns, and to hotels – especially when a shooting match is about to occur — that foreigners think a revolution is occurring. For an example of a contemporary shooting match which took place in the Swiss canton of Ticino, visit my website and look for "An Armed Society."

The Swiss militia army consists primarily of an infantry of the armed populace, but also includes modern artillery — some of which is hidden in Alpine fortifications — and fighter jets. As for terrorism, depending on the circumstances, a vigilant and armed populace may be instrumental in stopping a massacre. If terrorist acts occur on Swiss soil, the citizenry will resist however possible.

STAGNARO: Most RKBA supporters assert that gun control is the key to tyranny. In fact, Hitler disarmed his enemies (starting from German Jews) before they could organize a resistance. Do you believe there’s a link between the Swiss tradition of an army of the people, and the tradition of liberty of that country?

HALBROOK: Machiavelli said it best: the Swiss are "armatissimi e liberissimi." From 1291, when the Swiss Confederation was born, armed Swiss peasants and herdsmen resisted the aggression of some of the great armies of Europe. Every man was expected to provide his own arms and to defend against any invasion.

When Hitler came to power, his henchmen burned the Reichstag and blamed it on the Communists — the excuse to suspend all constitutional rights and to disarm all political opposition. Under the gun control laws passed by the liberal Weimar republic, the Nazis began disarming Jews. Then came Reichskristallnacht in 1938, in which the Nazis smashed up businesses and homes with the excuse that the Jews were dangerous and must be disarmed. Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler threatened 20 years in the concentration camp for any Jew caught with a gun.

When the Nazis occupied France and other countries, they found the registration lists of firearm owners in the police departments. Gun owners who did not turn in their firearms within 24 hours were shot, as were those who failed to inform on their friends and relatives. For whatever reason, historians have shown no interest in highlighting the cruel fate of Jews and subjects in the occupied countries who were firearm owners. And yet some of these gun owners who eluded the Nazis were able to use their firearms to save their families, refugees, and others and even to mount armed resistance. The Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943 was initiated with only a half dozen illegal handguns.

In Switzerland, the only "gun control" law was that every man must shoot accurately at 300 meters. Had they attacked, the Nazis would have needed no gun registration records — they could have assumed that every man had a gun. As war clouds approached, in 1938 at the World Shooting Championships held in Luzern, Switzerland, Swiss Federal President Philipp Etter declared:

"There is probably no other country that, like Switzerland, gives the soldier his weapon to keep in the home. . . . With this rifle, he is liable every hour, if the country calls, to defend his hearth, his home, his family, his birthplace. The weapon is to him a pledge and sign of honor and freedom. The Swiss does not part with his rifle."

The Nazis heard this message in countless other venues. They knew that they could not execute every Swiss for having a weapon — instead, they knew that countless German soldiers would die from Swiss snipers. The powerful German army could make Switzerland into a wasteland, but the German blood that would be spilled was unacceptably high, and the country would be ungovernable.

STAGNARO: The American Founding Fathers warned that a professional standing army could be a threat to liberty, because it induces a strong temptation to imperialism. In your vision, is there any correlation between the peculiar military organization of the Switzerland, and its neutrality?

HALBROOK: America's Founding Fathers recognized that standing armies were dangerous to liberty because such armies oppressed the population domestically and engaged in wars of imperialist aggression. That is why the United States originally followed the Swiss model of republicanism, a militia army, and neutrality. America's founders wished to avoid "entangling alliances" in Europe, and the US entered World Wars I and II reluctantly.

A militia army includes virtually all able-bodied males under arms in a country, and thus challenges any invader with unending guerilla warfare. A standing army consists of professional soldiers forming a small proportion of a country's population. Numerous standing armies in Europe collapsed before the onslaught of Hitler's blitzkrieg — the governmental elites surrendered and ordered the soldiers to lay down their arms. An attack on Switzerland would have encountered no elite to surrender, and instead armed resistance at every turn.

The organization of the Swiss military as a militia meant that, while it could protect its country, it could not have invaded another country. This was the experience since medieval times. Armed Swiss commoners defeated the mightiest armies of invading knights at numerous battles – they left Charles the Bold in a ditch with his head crushed by a halberd at Nancy in 1477 – but were themselves defeated when they ventured into foreign lands, such as at Marignano in 1515.

The above is the key to Swiss neutrality. Militia armies are good at defending their own countries, but are no good at attacking other countries, and thus avoid foreign wars. Both militia defense and neutrality thus promote the ideals of peace.

One last thought. The Second Amendment to the US Constitution declares: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." Besides being influenced by the Swiss example, America's Founders were also inspired by Cesare Beccaria's Dei Delitti e delle Pene (1764), which characterized as "false idee di utilità" the laws that prohibit peaceable citizens from carrying arms, which encourage attacks by armed criminals against unarmed victims.

As the world community enters an uncertain 21st century, the lessons of history will either be learned or its mistakes will be repeated.

December 2, 2002