In 1815, Europe’s powers gathered in Vienna, Austria, in an attempt to draw long-standing, mutually agreed upon political borders which had blurred due to decades if not centuries of warfare. This group, called the Congress of Vienna, ended up agreeing to an act which not only rearranged Europe’s borders and territorial rights, but also did a few other things, such as condemn the trade of slaves and ensure the neutrality of Switzerland. Switzerland has not been at war since.
If Adolf Hitler had has his way, that would not have been the case.
Hitler was not one to care much about treaties and agreements, and his aspirations — total control of Europe, if not the world — simply did not jibe with the idea of a neighbor, neutral, sitting on Germany’s border. While Hitler’s pre-World War II statements assured the Swiss that their neutrality would not be compromised, his tune changed as the war matured. Even though the Swiss stance of neutrality benefited Germany in some regards — for example, by providing financial services to Nazis — Hitler wanted to own Switzerland.
Taking Switzerland, however, was a fool’s errand. The Swiss topology is not very conducive to invasion by tanks, which were some of Nazi Germany’s stronger assets. On top of that, while Germany would have been able to take Switzerland (although not without suffering significant casualties, as Switzerland’s populace was well armed), Switzerland was prepared to blow up much of its own infrastructure if invaded. So even though Switzerland is wedged between Germany and France, the strategic value of occupying the neutral nation was tiny. But when France surrendered to Germany on June 25, 1940, the strategic value of Switzerland became moot. Momentarily, Hitler’s focus switched to Germany’s neighbors to the southwest, with Germany planning its Switzerland invasion that same day.
The plan, titled Operation Tannenbaum, went through many revisions over the next few months, but by October, a plan had been set: Germany would invade Switzerland with 11 divisions of troops with Italy providing additional support. In total, the proposed Axis forces may have numbered as many as 500,000 men.
While Hitler was apparently repeatedly interested in invading Switzerland, he never gave the go-ahead to invade — and we don’t know the precise reason why. There are many theories. Perhaps he was too busy focusing on other battles — the final Operation Tannenbaum plan was completed around the same time Germany lost the Battle of Britain, and just a few months before Hitler decided to invade the Soviet Union. Maybe others convinced Hitler that Swiss neutrality was a valuable asset, or that the fact that the Swiss had 20% of the adult male population under arms meant that any invasion would simply be too costly. Or perhaps he never got around to it.
Regardless, if Hitler had his way, Switzerland would not have been a neutral sovereign; it would have been a German territory.
Bonus fact: In early 2007, 170 Swiss troops accidentally went non-neutral for a bit — they took a wrong turn and unintentionally “invaded” Liechtenstein. Switzerland alerted Liechtenstein of the error — the small principality did not notice the error — and apologized. The apology was accepted.
From the Archives: Tanks for the Info: German tanks fell prey to an Allied weapon: math.
Related: “Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality in World War ll” by Stephen Halbrook. 3.5 stars on 17 reviews, available on Kindle.