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Switzerland: Overview
Switzerland: Profiles



During the war, Switzerland balanced its longstanding policy of neutrality with its economic dependency on surrounding nations, meaning it would cooperate with both the Axis and Allied powers. This balancing act was complicated by the fact it was encircled by Axis powers from the summer of 1940 to autumn 1944, was located at a crossroads in Western Europe, contained key road and rail routes across the Alps, held cultural and linguistic ties to surrounding nations, and was a key financial centre. 


Switzerland feared invasion, a concern heightened following Italy’s entry into the war and France’s fall to the Nazis. In practice, and particularly for Switzerland - a country in “the eye of the hurricane” as Raul Hilberg described - neutral states during the war never could divorce themselves entirely from ongoing international events, and neutrality was often violated.  

However, Switzerland was also, as a newspaper described in September 1943, a “European post of Good Samaritans”, a “giant European sick-bay” and a “world refuge for children”, something exemplified by the International Committee of the Red Cross being based in Geneva. By 1945, the humanitarian agency had more than 2,500 employees working in 27 offices across Switzerland and 76 delegations around the world, carrying out a range of activities including sending relief missions to concentration camps, providing medical supplies and sending relief parcels to prisoners-of-war, civilian prisoners and, crucially for resistance efforts, protecting persons not mentioned in the First Geneva Convention for humanitarian treatment in war, including partisans.  

The Red Cross had such access precisely because of Switzerland’s neutrality, something reflected in the way other nations – often warring – entrusted it. At one point during the war 35 countries gave Switzerland 219 mandates as a ‘protecting power’, meaning it carried out diplomatic duties on their behalf; it was simultaneously doing so for the US in Germany and Germany in the US, for example. Unsurprisingly in many cases these mandates brought both gains and losses. For example, as Urs Schwarz writes, in 1944 “1,870 Jews were freed from Hungary and brought to safety in Switzerland” but the price was “$1,000 per head paid to German jailers”.