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Special collections treasure trove – 80-year anniversary of the 1939 mobilisation

After Hitler’s invasion of Poland, the Federal Council decided to mobilise the Swiss Armed Forces for war on 2 September 1939. 430,000 soldiers and 200,000 people in the auxiliary service reported for duty.

02.09.2019 | Christine Rohr-Jörg

Although Switzerland was spared from direct conflict during World War II, its politics, economy and the daily lives of its citizens were affected deeply by the wars being waged in neighbouring countries, and by the precarious situation in which it found itself.

Even though Swiss soldiers never actively fought in the war, the experience of serving in the military during this time left a lasting impression on many.

The Library Am Guisanplatz (BiG) has numerous sources that describe this ‘active duty’. The following was written about Mountain Rifle Company I/41:

“Soldiers belonging to Mountain Rifle Company I/41 were summoned on 2 September 1939. The company assembled in Knutwil. When we were given live ammunition, and even more so when we were asked to pledge allegiance to the flag, we were struck by the gravity of the situation.”

While many units were dismissed in November of that year, in May 1940, they were called to duty once more with the second general mobilisation. It was not until the Réduit plan was put in place that a partial demobilisation could be effected, after which the number of troops sank to 180,000.

Testimony to a turbulent time

On average, soldiers completed around 800 days of active service – performing guarding duties, practicing shooting with live ammunition, carrying out operational exercises and going on marches. They also erected bunkers, fortifications and barriers. Specialised detachments were charged with providing firewood, and there was the possibility of attaining a sports badge during military training.

“Working with pickaxes, shovels and mallets makes troops physically hard and robust,” reported Rifle Battalion 50 while setting up fighting positions on the Kander river in November/December 1940.

Military service was at times tough and tiring – other times dull and drab. The experience created a bond between those who served in active duty – a bond that can still be felt to this day. There exist a myriad of diaries, troop albums and personal stories bearing witness to this turbulent period in time.

In 1946, General Guisan wrote in his final report:

“From 30 August 1939 on, I understood the purpose of the armed forces to be the forming of a sufficiently strong obstacle, so that in addition to political and economic factors, our military’s presence would function as a deterrent to any of the warring countries considering an attack, thereby guaranteeing Switzerland the greatest possible security.”

The extent to which the armed forces helped Switzerland avoid attack continues to be discussed with much controversy in research. But what is fairly certain is that several factors played together to ensure Switzerland was largely spared in this devastating and terrible war.




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