Swiss neutrality

Swiss neutrality is one of the main principles of Switzerland's foreign policy which dictates that Switzerland is not to be involved in armed or political conflicts between other states.[1] This policy is self-imposed, permanent, and armed, designed to ensure external security and promote peace.[2]

Switzerland has the oldest policy of military neutrality in the world;[3] it has not participated in a foreign war since its neutrality was established by the Treaty of Paris in 1815.

Although the European powers (Austria, France, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Prussia, Russia, Spain and Sweden) agreed at the Congress of Vienna in May 1815 that Switzerland should be neutral, final ratification was delayed until after Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated so that some coalition forces could invade France via Swiss territory.[4]

The country has a history of armed neutrality going back to the Reformation; it has not been in a state of war internationally since 1815 and did not join the United Nations until 2002.[5] It pursues an active foreign policy and is frequently involved in peace-building processes around the world.[6][7]


The beginnings of Swiss neutrality can be dated back to the defeat of the Old Swiss Confederacy at the Battle of Marignano in September 1515[8] or the peace treaty the Swiss Confederacy signed with France on November 12, 1516.[9]: 241  Prior to this, the Swiss Confederacy had an expansionist foreign policy.[8]

The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 was another important step in the development of Switzerland's neutrality.[9]: 242  Other countries were disallowed from passing through Swiss territory, and the Confederation became legally independent from the Holy Roman Empire,[9]: 242  even though it had been independent from the Empire de facto since 1499.[10]

The 1798 invasion of Switzerland by the French First Republic culminated in the creation of a satellite state called the Helvetic Republic. While the 1798 Swiss constitution and the 1803 Act of Mediation stated that France would protect Swiss independence and neutrality, these promises were not kept.[9]: 245  With the latter act, Switzerland signed a defensive alliance treaty with France.[9]: 245  During the Restoration, the Swiss Confederation's constitution and the Treaty of Paris's Act on the Neutrality of Switzerland affirmed Swiss neutrality.[8][9]: 246 [11]

The dating of neutrality to 1516 is disputed by modern historians. Prior to 1895, no historian referenced the Battle of Marignano as the beginning of neutrality. The later backdating has to be seen in light of threats by several major powers in 1889 to rescind the neutrality granted to Switzerland in 1815. A publication by Paul Schweizer, titled Geschichte der schweizerischen Neutralität attempted to show that Swiss neutrality wasn't granted by other nations, but a decision they took themselves and thus couldn't be rescinded by others. The later publication of the same name by Edgar Bonjour, published between 1946 and 1975, expanded on this thesis.[12]

The World WarsEdit

World War IEdit

Alliances in Europe in 1915. Switzerland (yellow) found itself surrounded by members of opposing alliances

During the First World War, Switzerland sustained its policy of neutrality despite sharing land borders with two of the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) and two of the Allied Powers (France and Italy). The German-speaking majority in Switzerland generally favoured the Central Powers whilst the French-speaking and Italian-speaking populations favoured the Allied Powers. This sparked internal tensions; however, the country was able to maintain its neutrality.[13]

In 1917, the neutrality of Switzerland was brought into question by the Grimm-Hoffmann Affair. Robert Grimm, a Swiss socialist politician, visited Russia in an attempt to negotiate a separate peace agreement between Russia and Germany, in order to end the war on the Eastern Front in the interests of socialism. Grimm was supported by Arthur Hoffman, a Swiss Federal Councillor who was in charge of the Political Department and headed the Foreign Ministry. However, Hoffman had not consulted his fellow Councillors over this initiative, and when a telegram sent between Grimm and Hoffman was made public, the Allied Powers were outraged.

Interwar periodEdit

The League of Nations formally recognized Swiss neutrality on February 13, 1920.[8][14] While the policy was not universally admired, it was respected by other countries. As a tribute, the world organization even chose Geneva as its headquarters.[15] It also exempted Switzerland from military obligations.[16] However, the country was forced to adopt the so-called "differential neutrality", which required Switzerland to participate in economic sanctions while preserving its military neutrality, a policy initially welcomed to establish the Swiss solidarity with international efforts to promote a peaceful world order.[17] By March 1938, however, the Swiss government was increasingly becoming averse to this type of neutrality and reverted to absolute neutrality. The shift was not only a case of the Swiss realizing the value of their traditional policies but was also attributed to the deteriorating European economic and political relations in a period preceding World War II.[16]

World War IIEdit

Switzerland found itself completely surrounded by the Axis powers and Axis-controlled territory for most of World War II. Nazi Germany planned an invasion of Switzerland, and Switzerland made preparations for such an occurrence. At one point, Switzerland mobilized 850,000 soldiers.[18] Under the leadership of Henri Guisan, Switzerland developed its National Redoubt plan in case of an invasion.

Although Switzerland was criticized by many for its ambiguous stance during World War II, its neutrality has been appreciated on several occasions by both European and non-European leaders.

Of all the neutrals, Switzerland has the greatest right to distinction. . . What does it matter whether she has been able to give us the commercial advantages we desire or has given too many to the Germans. . .? She has been a democratic state, standing for freedom in self-defence. . . and largely on our side.

Winston Churchill, letter to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in 1944[19]

From 1943 Switzerland stopped American and British aircraft, mainly bombers, overflying Switzerland during the Second World War. On numerous occasions during the war, Allied aircraft trespassed on Swiss airspace; mostly damaged Allied bombers returning from raids over Italy and Germany whose crews preferred internment by the Swiss to becoming prisoners of war. Over a hundred Allied aircraft crews were interned and placed in ski resorts which were left abandoned due to the lack of tourists after the outbreak of war. They were to be held in there until the war had ended.[20] At least 940 American airmen attempted to escape into France after the invasion of Normandy, but Swiss authorities intercepted 183 internees. Over 160 of these airmen were incarcerated in a Swiss prison camp known as Wauwilermoos, which was located near Lucerne and commanded by André Béguin, a pro-Nazi Swiss officer. The American internees remained in Wauwilermoos until November 1944 when the U.S. State Department lodged protests against the Swiss government and eventually secured their release.[21]

Switzerland was surrounded by territory controlled by the Axis Powers from 1940 to 1944.

Switzerland was surrounded by Axis-controlled territory; this meant that they also suffered from Allied bombings during the war – an example of this would be when Schaffhausen was accidentally bombed by American planes on April 1, 1944, the town was mistaken for Ludwigshafen am Rhein, a German town 284 kilometres away.[20][22][23][24]

These bombing incidents tested the neutrality of Switzerland as it showed the leniency of the Swiss towards Allied airspace violations. The bombings persisted and eventually Switzerland declared a zero-tolerance policy for violation by either Axis or Allied aircraft and authorised attacks on American aircraft.[25]

The Swiss, although somewhat skeptical, reacted by treating these violations of their neutrality as "accidents". The United States was warned that single aircraft would be forced down, and their crews would still be allowed to seek refuge, while bomber formations in violation of airspace would be intercepted. While American politicians and diplomats tried to minimise the political damage caused by these incidents, others took a more hostile view. Some senior commanders argued that as Switzerland was "full of German sympathisers" (an unsubstantiated claim), it deserved to be bombed.[26] General Henry H. Arnold, Commanding General of the U.S. Army Air Forces, even suggested that it was the Germans themselves who were flying captured Allied planes over Switzerland in an attempt to gain a propaganda victory.[27]


Following World War II, Switzerland began taking a more active role in humanitarian activities.[8]

It joined the United Nations after a March 2002 referendum. 10 years after Switzerland joined the UN, in recorded votes in the United Nations General Assembly, Switzerland occupied a middle position, siding from time to time with member states like the United States and Israel, but at other times with countries like China. In the United Nations Human Rights Council Switzerland sided much more with Western countries and against countries like China and Russia.[28]

Switzerland participated in the development of the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers (ICoC), intended as an oversight mechanism of private security providers. In September 2015, a "Federal Act on Private Security Services provided Abroad" was introduced, in order to "[preserve] Swiss neutrality", as stated in its first article.[29] It requires Switzerland-based private security companies to declare all operations conducted abroad, and to adhere to the ICoC. Moreover, it states that no physical or moral person falling under this law can participate directly—or indirectly through the offer of private security services—in any hostilities abroad.[30] In 2016, the Section of Private Security Services (SPSS), an organ of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs in charge of the procedures defined by the new law, has received 300 approval requests.[31]

In 2011, Switzerland registered as a candidate for a seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2023–2024. In a 2015 report requested by parliament, the government stated that a Swiss seat on the Security Council would be "fully compatible with the principles of neutrality and with Switzerland’s neutrality policy". Opponents of the project such as former ambassador Paul Widmer consider that this seat would "put its [Switzerland] neutrality at risk".[32]

A 2018 survey found that 95% of Swiss were in favor of maintaining neutrality.[33]


Swiss neutrality has been questioned at times, notably regarding Switzerland's role during World War II and the ICRC, the looted Nazi gold and later during Operation Gladio, its support for the apartheid regime in South Africa and more recently in the Crypto AG espionage case, amongst other cases.[34][35][36][37][38][39]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Domestic Politics and Neutrality (Switzerland) | International Encyclopedia of the First World War (WW1)".
  2. ^ "Neutrality remains a core principle". SWI
  3. ^ List of Neutral Countries. Adducation. 2016. Downloaded Sep. 17, 2017.
  4. ^ Thomas Fleiner; Alexander Misic; Nicole Töpperwien (5 August 2005). Swiss Constitutional Law. Kluwer Law International. p. 28. ISBN 978-9041124043.
  5. ^ "Moving towards the UN in slow motion". Swissinfo. Retrieved 18 January 2017.
  6. ^ Lassa Oppenheim, Ronald Roxburgh (2005). International Law, The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd. ISBN 978-1-58477-609-3. p. 173
  7. ^ The Parliamentary Debates from the Year 1803 to the Present Time, Volume 32 (1 February to 6 March 1816), Hansard, p. 308
  8. ^ a b c d e Andrews, Evan (August 3, 2016). "Why is Switzerland a Neutral Country?". History. Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Sherman, Gordon E. (April 1918). "The Neutrality of Switzerland". The American Journal of International Law. 12 (2): 241–250. doi:10.2307/2188141. JSTOR 2188141.
  10. ^ Egli, Emil; et al. "Switzerland — Expansion and Position of Power". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  11. ^ Pauchard, Olivier (March 20, 2015). "The Day Switzerland Became Neutral". Swissinfo. Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  12. ^ Andreas Suter (1998), "Neutralität. Prinzip, Praxis und Geschichtsbewusstsein", Eine Kleine Geschichte der Schweiz (in German), Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, p. 163, ISBN 3-518-12079-4
  13. ^ World War I-Introduction in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
  14. ^ Latson, Jennifer (February 13, 2015). "Switzerland Takes a Side for Neutrality". Time. Retrieved February 18, 2017.
  15. ^ Czupryn, Adriana; Omilanowska, Malgorzata; Schwendimann, Ulrich (2017). DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Switzerland. New York: Penguin Random House. p. 46. ISBN 9781465460011.
  16. ^ a b Wylie, Neville (2001). European Neutrals and Non-Belligerents During the Second World War. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 332–333. ISBN 0521643589.
  17. ^ Fischer, Gabriel (2003). Swiss Foreign Policy, 1945-2002. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 49. ISBN 9781403912756.
  18. ^ Bonjour 1978, p. 431.
  19. ^ Koella, Stephen (2 February 1997). "Churchill's Switzerland". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 January 2017.
  20. ^ a b "The Diplomacy of Apology: U.S. Bombings of Switzerland during World War II". Archived from the original on May 5, 2007.
  21. ^ Dwight S. Mears, "The Catch-22 Effect: The Lasting Stigma of Wartime Cowardice in the U.S. Army Air Forces," The Journal of Military History 77 (July 2013): 1037–43.
  22. ^ "Stadtarchiv Schaffhausen : Willkommen beim Stadtarchiv Schaffhausen" (PDF).
  23. ^ US-Bomben auf Schweizer Kantone Archived 2007-09-28 at the Wayback Machine
  24. ^ "Military Agency Records". National Archives. August 15, 2016.
  25. ^ Regan, Geoffrey. Blue on Blue – A History of Friendly Fire. Avin Books, New York, 1995.
  26. ^ Prince, Cathryn (2003). Shot from the sky : American POWs in Switzerland. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press. p. 179. ISBN 1-55750-433-4.
  27. ^ Petersen, Neal (1996). From Hitler's Doorstep: the Wartime Intelligence Reports of Allen Dulles, 1942–1945. University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State Press. p. 398. ISBN 0-271-01485-7.
  28. ^ Ten years in the United Nations: Where does Switzerland stand?, Simon Hug, Simone Wegmann, University of Geneva
  29. ^ "Federal Act on Private Security Services provided Abroad". Portal of the Swiss Government. 1 September 2015. Retrieved 13 March 2017.
  30. ^ "Loi fédérale sur les prestations de sécurité privées fournies à l'étranger". Portal of the Swiss Government (in French). 6 December 2016. Retrieved 13 March 2017.
  31. ^ "Sous pression de Berne, les entreprises de sécurité privées sortent de l'ombre". Le Temps (in French). 12 March 2016. Retrieved 13 March 2017.
  32. ^ What will happen to Switzerland’s bid for the UN Security Council?, June 20, 2019, SWI, Swiss Broadcasting Corporation
  33. ^ How neutral is Switzerland, really?, SWI, Swiss Broadcasting Corporation
  34. ^ "Scandale Crypto: plusieurs ministres savaient, selon la presse". Le Temps. 16 February 2020 – via
  35. ^, Thomas Stephens. "Latest spy scandal 'shatters Swiss neutrality', say papers". SWI
  36. ^, Kathrin Ammann. "Has 'Crypto Leaks' exposed Swiss neutrality as a sham?". SWI
  37. ^ "Switzerland and Gold Transactions in the Second World War" (PDF). (1.18 MB). Bergier Commission, May 1998. Retrieved on 5 July 2006.
  38. ^ "ICRC in WW II: the Holocaust". Retrieved 2012-08-28.
  39. ^ "The Sinister Face Of 'Neutrality' | FRONTLINE | PBS".