Swiss neutrality is one of the main principles of Switzerland's foreign policy which dictates that Switzerland is not to be involved in armed conflicts between other states. This policy is self-imposed, permanent, and armed, designed to ensure external security and promote peace.
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.
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. Nevertheless, it pursues an active foreign policy and is frequently involved in peace-building processes around the world.
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 or the peace treaty the Swiss Confederacy signed with France on November 12, 1516.(p241) Prior to this, the Swiss Confederacy had an expansionist foreign policy.
The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 was another important step in the development of Switzerland's neutrality.(p242) Other countries were disallowed from passing through Swiss territory, and the Confederation became legally independent from the Holy Roman Empire,(p242) even though it had been independent from the Empire de facto since 1499.
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.(p245) With the latter act, Switzerland signed a defensive alliance treaty with France.(p245) During the Restoration, the Swiss Confederation's constitution and the Treaty of Paris's Act on the Neutrality of Switzerland affirmed Swiss neutrality.(p246)
The World Wars
World War I
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.
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. The separate peace Germany-Russia could help the Germans to enforce their troops on the Western Front.
The League of Nations formally recognized Swiss neutrality on February 13, 1920. 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. It also exempted Switzerland from military obligations. 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. 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.
World War II
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
After the Second World War
Switzerland began taking a more active role in humanitarian activities. It joined the United Nations after a March 2002 referendum. 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. 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. 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.
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