Erwin Rommel had been a military man for decades by the time that World War II broke out. Having fought in World War I for Germany, he was a key general for Nazi Germany by the time of World War II. During the war, Rommel was to play a major role in North Africa, and even tried to remove Hitler from power. Samuel Mitcham Jr., the author of a new book on Rommel (Amazon USAmazon UK), explains.

Erwin Rommel in 1942. Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1985-013-07 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, available  here .

Erwin Rommel in 1942. Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1985-013-07 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, available here.

The Desert Fox. The words conjure up an image of a dust-covered, sunburned military genius, making quick and incredibly brilliant decisions against overwhelming forces. He is seen as a Godlike and almost infallible figure, winning victory after astonishing victory over his numerically superior but less astute opponents, yet fighting a war without hate and even with a degree of chivalry. This myth is not entirely accurate, of course, but there is a great deal of truth in it.

 

EARLY LIFE

Erwin Rommel was born in Heidenheim, Wuerttemberg, in the southwestern region of Imperial Germany known as Swabia, on November 15, 1891. His father, Erwin Rommel, Sr., was the headmaster of a secondary school, and young Rommel grew up in a stable, comfortable middle-class German environment. In many ways, he was a typical Swabian: self-reliant, pragmatic, thrifty, with a strong work ethic and a streak of stubbornness. He was a simple, practical young man and would remain so until the day he died.

Despite the lack of military background in his family, he decided to become a soldier. With his father’s help, he gained an appointment as a Fahnenjunker(officer-cadet) in an infantry regiment in the isolated garrison town of Weingarten. Here, lonely and away from home for the first time, he had an affair with a woman who was a fruit seller. He was shocked when she turned up pregnant. In the class-conscious world of the Second Reich, however, she was not considered officer wife material. He decided to marry her anyway; then his father pointed out that he would have to resign his commission if he did so. It was 1913, and many could see what was to become World War I on the horizon. If he left the army now, Professor Rommel pointed out, everyone would think he was a coward. That settled the issue for Lieutenant Rommel. He broke up with his girlfriend, although he provided financial support for his daughter for the rest of his life.

Erwin Rommel learned his lesson. He married Lucie Mollin, the daughter of a West Prussian landowner, and they remained happily married the rest of his life. He apparently didn’t even think about being unfaithful.

 

1STLEUTENANT ROMMEL TO CAPTAIN ROMMEL

Rommel joined the army in 1910 and was commissioned in January 1912. His career was not out of the ordinary until World War I broke out. The battlefield changed him from an ordinary, if overly serious second lieutenant into a first-class warrior. As Desmond Young, who fought in the Indian Army against Rommel in Africa and went on to write the bestselling Rommel: The Desert Fox (Amazon USAmazon UK), would explain, “From the moment that he first came under fire he stood out as the perfect fighting animal: cold, cunning, ruthless, untiring, quick of decision, incredibly brave.” He fought on the Western Front until the fall of 1915, when he was transferred to an elite battalion of mountain shock troops. He served with them in France, Romania, and Italy. In October 1917, during the Battle of Mount Matajur, Rommel (now a 1stlieutenant) took charge of four companies in addition to his own and captured two Italian brigades and several smaller units, totaling 9,000 men and 81 guns. His total strength never exceeded 800 men. A couple of days later, he captured the entire Italian 1stInfantry Division at Longarone: 10,000 men, 18 guns and 200 machine guns. For this feat, he was awarded the Pour le Merite, which was the equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor when granted to someone so young. He was promoted to captain shortly after that.

After the Armistice ended World War I in late 1918, Rommel was selected for the Reichsheer, as the peacetime army was called. Here, he was a content family man. He took to marriage enthusiastically. At home, he was good-tempered and an excellent fix-it man. His only flaw was attempting to play the violin—apparently without a great deal of success.

Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. Rommel’s political convictions and his ambivalent relationship with the Nazis have been the subject of controversy in recent years. Like many Germans, he supported Hitler at first—at least to a degree. He was pleased with Hitler’s successful economic efforts to end the Depression in Germany, as well as his public works programs (including the building of the autobahnen), his renunciation of the odorous Treaty of Versailles, his rebuilding of the military, and his reoccupation of former German areas taken from the Reich after World War I. Only gradually did this change. Sacred vows were broken, and outlandish statements which Rommel and most Germans dismissed as wild rhetoric turned out to be uttered in deadly seriousness. But all that was in the future.

 

MILITARY CAREER TAKES OFF

Rommel was a lieutenant colonel in 1935, teaching at the War School in Dresden, when he wrote a book based on his lectures and World War I experiences. It became a best seller and Adolf Hitler read it. He determined to meet the author and had Rommel attached to his escort for the Nuremberg Party Rally of 1936. The Fuehrer liked the Swabian and named him commander of the Fuehrer Bodyguard Battalion during the occupations of Czechoslovakia and Memel, and during the invasion of Poland in 1939. He promoted Rommel to major general on August 23, 1939.

In Poland, Rommel saw the blitzkrieg at first hand. Although he had no armored experience, he saw the future lay in the armored branch. After the fall of Warsaw, he asked Hitler for the command of a panzer division, and the dictator gave it to him.

Erwin Rommel had a natural grasp for mobile warfare. As commander of the 7thPanzer Division during the French campaign (1940), he captured 97,468 men and captured or destroyed 458 tanks and armored cars, 277 guns, 64 anti-tank guns, 4,000 to 5,000 trucks, tons of supplies, five French admirals, and about 20 Allied generals. He had approximately 10,000 men and 218 tanks, mostly inferior Czech T-38s.

Rommel was on occupation duty in southwestern France in early 1941 when the Italian 10thArmy in Libya collapsed under British attack. Hitler ordered Rommel to North Africa as commander of the Afrika Korps (15thand 21stPanzer Divisions) to restore the situation. Here he won victory after victory and made himself a renowned military general. In his First Cyrenaican Campaign (1941), Rommel pushed on to the Egyptian frontier and overran all of Libya except Tobruk, smashing the British XIII Corps (the former Western Desert Force) in the process. With less than one full panzer division, he destroyed the British 2ndArmoured Division. Only four of its tanks escaped.

 

RESILIENT AND RESOURCEFUL AGAINST GREAT ODDS

Rommel was forced to lay siege to Tobruk. It lasted 242 days. The British made three attempts to liberate Tobruk: Operations Brevity, Battleaxe and Crusader. Rommel was severely handicapped, because the British sank 85% of its supplies, and he had only 15% of his needed petroleum and ammunition. Fighting an entire British army with only two divisions, Rommel destroyed 814 British tanks and armored cars, while losing only 167 himself. He had only about 80 tanks left when he was forced to retreat in December 1941.

“If Rommel had an outstanding quality, it was resilience,” British Brigadier Desmond Young wrote later. “He was like one of those weighted toy figures, no sooner was he knocked down than he was on his feet again.” In January 1942, when he received a shipment of 50 new panzers, he assumed the offensive again. This was the Second Cyrenaican Campaign. In five days, he destroyed or captured 299 tanks and armored cars, 147 guns, and 935 prisoners. He lost three tanks and 14 men. 

The British dug into the Gazala Line, which they enhanced with a million mines. Rommel outflanked it on May 26 and started a battle that lasted until June 21. He had 333 panzers and 228 mostly useless Italian tanks against 900 British tanks. The British 8thArmy had fewer than 100 “runners” when it retreated into Egypt. Rommel overran Tobruk and took 19,000 prisoners. Hitler was so pleased that he promoted the Desert Fox to field marshal.

After the fall of Tobruk, Rommel invaded Egypt, even though he had only about 55 runners. A heavily reinforced 8thArmy checked him at El Alamein, just 60 miles from the Nile. The British then launched a series of counterattacks against Panzer Army Afrika, aimed primarily at Rommel’s Italian units. Rommel checked them all.

The Desert Fox launched a last-chance offensive at Alam Halfa Ridge on August 30. He had 259 panzers. Montgomery had 713 tanks and absolute command of the air. Rommel lost almost 3,000 men and 49 tanks. Monty lost 1,750 men and 67 tanks. It was the turning point of the Desert War.

The decisive battle in North Africa began on October 23, 1942. When it started, Panzer Army Afrika had 104,000 men (half of them German) against Montgomery’s 195,000. The Germans were outnumbered 4 to 1 in men, 5 to 1 in tanks (excluding Italian tanks), 3 to 1 in anti-tank guns, and 3.6 to 1 in aircraft. Rommel’s forces were dangerously low on fuel, making a battle of maneuver impossible. Rommel had 293 tanks when the battle began. Only a dozen of them survived the battle. The British lost about 500 tanks.

In December 1943, Rommel’s Army Group B assumed command of the 7thArmy, 15thArmy, and Armed Forces Netherlands. They were part of Rundstedt’s OB West (Oberbefehlshaber West), the German Supreme Command in the West. OB West had 58 divisions. Hitler had 151 divisions fighting on the Eastern Front.

 

DEFEAT, CONSPIRACY, AND SUICIDE

Rommel significantly thickened the defenses of Fortress Europe. When the Allies landed in Normandy in June 1944, Rommel was able to check but not repulse the Great Invasion. Meanwhile, Rommel learned that Hitler and his cronies were committing mass murders in the East. He turned against the Nazis and joined the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler and his regime. 

Field Marshal Rommel was seriously wounded by an Allied fighter-bomber on July 17. Three days later, the conspirators detonated a bomb under Hitler’s table, severely injuring him. After the coup attempt failed, the Gestapo launched a full-scale investigation. They discovered Rommel’s part in the plot. On October 14, 1944, a pair of Nazi generals offered Rommel a choice: stand trial in front of the People’s Court or commit suicide. Under the doctrine of Sippenhaft—collective family responsibility—the Nazis would then arrest his family, and they would end up in a concentration camp, if they were lucky. However, if the field marshal committed suicide, they said, his family would be spared, and would even be allowed to draw his pension. Rommel declared that he would be dead in 15 minutes. He took a cyanide pill provided by the Nazis and was dead within half an hour. Thus ended the life of the military general.

On this occasion, the Nazis actually kept their word. They did not harm Rommel’s family. Lucie Mollin Rommel died of natural causes in 1971. Their only child, Manfred, died in 2013. Gertrude, Rommel’s illegitimate daughter, passed away in 2000.

Let us know what you think about the article below. 

 

Dr. Samuel W. Mitcham Jr. is the author of newly-released Desert Fox: The Storied Military Career of Erwin Rommel (Regnery History; March 12, 2019 - Amazon USAmazon UK), and more than forty other history books. He has appeared on the History Channel and the BBC, been a visiting professor at West Point, and served as an Army helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War.

The Wall Street Journal praised his previous title, Vicksburg: The Bloody Siege that Turned the Tide of the Civil War (Regnery History; June 4, 2018 – Amazon USAmazon UK), as a work that “thoroughly recounts the series of battles leading to the gates of Vicksburg and illuminates some underappreciated aspects of the war.”

He lives with his family in Monroe, Louisiana, where he is now devoted to writing military history books.

Adolf’s Hitler’s Nazis are one of the most terrible movements in history - but to what extent did they achieve what they wanted in their homeland? Here, Seth Eislund follows up from his first article for the site here, and considers whether the Nazis achieved what they wanted politically, economically, and socially within Germany itself.

Adolf Hitler addressing the German Parliament in May 1941. Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-808-1238-05 / CC-BY-SA 3.0. Available  here

Adolf Hitler addressing the German Parliament in May 1941. Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-808-1238-05 / CC-BY-SA 3.0. Available here

From his election as chancellor on January 30, 1933, until his suicide on April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler ruled over Germany and transformed the country into a fascist, authoritarian state. Hitler’s Nazi Party imposed its nationalistic, militaristic, racist, and anti-Semitic ideology on all levels of German society, with the hope of establishing the Aryan race as master of the world. More specifically, the Nazi government imposed its views and policies on the political, economic, and social spheres of Germany, vying to establish complete control over the lives of the German people. While the Nazi regime succeeded in eliminating political opposition and quelled political dissent, it was only partially successful economically and socially. The Nazi government's economic program, the Four-Year Plan, failed to achieve its long-term goals. Furthermore, Hitler failed to obtain complete social dominance over his citizens because he couldn't fully control their religious beliefs.

 

The Nazi Party's Political Ascendancy

The Nazi Party succeeded in achieving total political control over Germany, as it established itself as the only legal political party in the country and ruthlessly eliminated its opponents. On July 14, 1933, the Nazis passed the Law against the Founding of New Parties, which declared the Nazi Party to be the only valid political party in Germany.[i]All other political parties were banned. As a result, this law effectively established Germany as an authoritarian single-party state, nullifying any form of political opposition. A year later, the Nazis continued their political domination of Germany by carrying out the Night of the Long Knives, which purged the Sturmabteilung (also known as the SA), the Nazi Party’s former paramilitary organization. SA leader Ernst Röhm and approximately 85 members were assassinated because the Nazis feared that the SA was a threat to the army and the state, according to historian Richard J. Evans.[ii]With his opposition in and outside of the Party eliminated, Hitler could rule Germany unopposed. Thus, the Nazis were successful in cementing complete political control over Germany, using both legal and extrajudicial methods to achieve their aims.

 

The Nazi Regime and Economic Success

While the Nazi regime established total political control over Germany, it was only moderately successful in achieving its economic goals. On October 18, 1936, Hermann Göring, one of the highest-ranking members of the Nazi Party, initiated the Four-Year Plan in order to reform Germany’s industrial and military production.[iii]The Nazis aimed to make Germany a self-sufficient nation, capable of producing the materials necessary for later wars and expansion. While Nazi Germany did see a rise in economic activity, employment, and the creation of munitions and explosives, the Four-Year Plan caused the production of consumer goods to suffer. With a greater focus on military production, resources were directed away from consumer goods, and Germany’s economy became weakened in the long-term.[iv]Additionally, historian Richard Overy claims that Nazi Germany was unable to establish a strong war economy, which ultimately led to its defeat in 1945.[v]Furthermore, historians Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham state that Germany was still reliant on the resources of other countries for the production of its raw materials by 1939.[vi]Therefore, while Germany was partially successful in stimulating industrial and military production, its failure to permanently establish a robust, self-sufficient economy in the military and civilian sectors ultimately led to the Nazi regime’s downfall.

 

The Nazi Regime and Social Control

In addition to its mixed economic success, the Nazi regime’s social goal of replacing religious devotion with devotion to Nazism was only partially realized. According to historian Richard Weikart, Adolf Hitler believed that religion had no role to play in German political and ideological life and instead wanted all Germans to believe in the Nazi Party’s ideology.[vii]The Nazi regime was successful in turning the attitudes of children in the Hitler Youth and the League of German Maidens against Catholicism and Protestantism. Historian Richard Bonney states that children in these programs broke up church youth groups and spied on Bible studies classes.[viii]While the Nazis succeeded in influencing anti-religious sentiment among children, they knew that purging religion completely from German society would be unwise. Weikart posits that while Hitler despised Christianity and organized religion in private, he dared not eliminate Catholicism and Protestantism in Germany, as doing so would turn the majority of the German people, who were Christian, against him.[ix]Thus, the Nazis were only moderately successful in achieving social control over the German people, as they required the support of religious Germans to stay in power.

 

Conclusion

Throughout its 12-year reign, the Nazi authoritarian regime attempted to achieve total control over the political, economic, and social aspects of German society with varying success. The Nazi Party was very successful in obtaining complete political control over Germany, as it legally declared itself to be the only legitimate party in the country and murdered those who opposed it. However, the Nazis only saw moderate success in controlling the economic and social spheres of Germany. While Hermann Göring’s Four-Year Plan did augment Germany’s production of industrial and military-related materials, it ultimately weakened the German economy and left the nation vulnerable to defeat in World War II. Additionally, the Nazis found some success in wielding social control over the German people by instilling anti-religious sentiment in German youth., but they didn’t eradicate religion in Germany because doing so would have resulted in a massive loss of popular support. Regardless of its economic and social shortcomings, though, the Nazi regime still held enough control over German society to incite the world’s deadliest conflict, commit a genocide that killed 11 million people, and change the course of history. Only through studying regimes such as Nazi Germany can one realize the dangers of authoritarianism, and how such systems cause horrific destruction and despair.

 

What do you think of the article? Let us know below.

You can read Seth’s previous article for the site, on Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus, here.


[i]United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, "Law against the Founding of New Parties," United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, accessed  August 29, 2018, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/law-against-the-founding-of-new-parties.

[ii]Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power(New York: Penguin Press, 2010), 39-40.

[iii]Adam Tooze and Jamie Martin, The Cambridge History of the Second World War, ed. Michael Geyer, vol. 3 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 35.

[iv]"Nazi Economic, Social and Racial Policy," BBC News, November 13, 2017, accessed August 29, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/bitesize/guides/zw6s7p3/revision/1.

[v]Brian Gray et al., Oxford IB Diploma Programme: Authoritarian States Course Companion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 210-228.

[vi]Ibid.

[vii]Richard Weikart, Hitler's Religion: The Twisted Beliefs that Drove the Third Reich (Washington, D.C.: Regnery History, 2016), 89-95.

[viii]Richard Bonney, Confronting the Nazi War on Christianity: The Kulturkampf Newsletters, 1936-1939, 139.

[ix]Weikart, Hitler's Religion, 89.

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

The Holocaust has left its mark as one of the darkest moments in history. However, even during the darkest of times, there was still love. Here, Casey Titus tells us about a love story between a Nazi concentration camp prisoner and an SS Guard at Auschwitz.

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  Helena Citronova (left) and Franz Wunsch (right) fell in love at Auschwitz.

Helena Citronova (left) and Franz Wunsch (right) fell in love at Auschwitz.

In September 1935, the Reichstag (the parliament during the Third Reich) voted unanimously to for the passing of the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, otherwise known as the Nuremberg Laws that not only excluded German Jews from Reich citizenship but from marrying or having sexual relations with people of “German or related blood.”

Persons accused of having sexual relations with non-Aryans faced public humiliation and those convicted were “typically sentenced to prison terms, and (subsequent to 8 March 1938) upon completing their sentences were re-arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Nazi concentration camps.”

Even with the punishments for forbidden affection severe, especially for Nazi soldiers, that was not enough to stop Auschwitz SS officer Franz Wunsch from falling in love with a Jewish Slovakian prisoner named Helena Citronova. Across the world, Auschwitz concentration camp has become a symbol of genocide, terror, war, and the Holocaust.

However, after 70 years, PBS in America as well as an Israeli television brought to life the forbidden romance story between an SS guard and a Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz that highlighted the complexity of human relationships in the most horrifying of world events.

In 1942, Franz Wunsch was serving as a 20-year old SS guard in charge of the gas chambers of Auschwitz. On his birthday, March 21, his Nazi comrades brought in a Jewish girl, Helena Citronova, to sing him birthday songs. Helena was imprisoned at Auschwitz from Slovakia and was forced to sort all of the incoming prisoners’ belongings before they were shipped to Berlin to fuel the Nazi war efforts.

Helena and her sister Rozinka had both been sentenced to die in the gas chambers earlier that very day so Helena attempted to sing the very best she could, melting the heart of the SS guard. When Wunsch realized she wouldn’t be alive the next day, he hurried and managed to postpone the execution of both sisters.

Helena would say years later in Israel, “When he came into the barracks where I was working, he threw me that note. I destroyed it right there and then, but I did see the word "love" — "I fell in love with you". I thought I'd rather be dead than be involved with an SS man. For a long time afterwards there was just hatred. I couldn't even look at him.”

Over time, though unclear of exactly when, Helena succumbed to her feelings for Franz, especially after her SS devotee rushed to prevent her sister and her sister’s children from being sent to the gas chambers.

“'So he said to me, "Tell me quickly what your sister's name is before I'm too late." So I said, "You won't be able to. She came with two little children." Helena later recalled.

'He replied, "Children, that's different. Children can't live here." So he ran to the crematorium and found my sister.'

Helena admitted she had slept with her rescuer and at times had even forgotten who he was and came to terms with the romance. Wunsch would provide Helena with food, clothing, and protection. Though their relationship would not develop any further, Helena would repay him years later for risking his life to protect a Jewish prisoner on the pain of death.

When the war ended, the SS guards fled the Allied advance, even destroying parts of the concentration camps to cover their war crimes. Helena and her sister Rozinka attempted to return home with other displaced people through an Eastern Europe that contained violent and raping Soviet soldiers. Both sisters avoided being raped when Rozinka claimed to be Helena’s mother and defended her. Following the founding of Israel in 1948, Helena moved there while Franz returned to Austria.

Thirty years following Nazi Germany’s defeat and the end of World War II, in 1972, Wunsch was put on trial in Vienna, accused of being cruel towards prisoners by beating men and women alike and operated at the gas chambers to insert the lethal gas. Testimonies include camp survivors describing Wunsch as a “natural Jew hater” and sometimes participated in the selection of inmates all over occupied Europe to live or die. With more than enough evidence for the guilty verdict, life imprisonment and death most likely would have awaited him.

In a twist of events, Helena and her sister defended Wunsch at his trial. Even with ‘an overwhelming evidence of guilt’ as the judge commented in Wunsch’s participation in the Nazi’s largest concentration camp’s mass murder, Wunsch was acquitted of all charges due to the statute of limitations over war crimes in Austria.

“Desire changed my brutal behavior,” Wunsch said. “I fell in love with Helena Citronova and that changed me. I changed into another person because of her influence.”

 

Citronova died in 2005. Wunsch died in 2009.

 

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Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
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Switzerland had a curious position during World War Two. It was officially a neutral country, but that neutrality was not always strictly maintained. Here, Laura Kerr considers how neutral Switzerland really was and how helpful it may have been to Nazi Germany…

Fascist leaders Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler together in Munich in 1940. The pair discussed an invasion of Switzerland during World War Two.

Fascist leaders Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler together in Munich in 1940. The pair discussed an invasion of Switzerland during World War Two.

Switzerland. Three things come to mind: watches, chocolate and neutrality. And for good reason. Firstly, Switzerland is home to both Rolex and Omega which can boast the titles of ‘first watch on the moon’, ‘James Bond’s official watch since 1995’, and the watch of choice for both the American and British armies during World War One. However despite its truly fascinating watch history, that is not the aspect of Switzerland that I am focusing on today.

Switzerland is the longest standing neutral nation in the world and has not taken part in a war since 1505. Its official stance of non-involvement had been decided during The Congress of Vienna in 1815, in which major European leaders met to discuss the nature of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon.

Up until World War Two, Switzerland upheld her stance of neutrality rather admirably. But despite not engaging in combat during the war, Switzerland’s so called ‘neutrality’ has been heavily scrutinized in recent years, with particular emphasis on border controls, banking and trade with Nazi Germany.

 

Hitler’s decision not to invade

The first question that needs to be answered to fully understand Switzerland’s position during WWII, is why Hitler did not invade the country while trying to establish the Third Reich. Hitler described Switzerland as a “pimple on the face of Europe” and both its geographical location and culture would seem like a clear target for the Nazis.

A good way to summaries Hitler’s reasoning not to invade Switzerland is simply ‘risk versus reward’. At the prospect of a German invasion, the Swiss improved and invested heavily in their ‘National Redoubt’ (The Swiss National Defense Plan). Along with the tough terrain and modern machinery, this didn’t make the Swiss a particularly easy target.  Not only was the risk high, the reward wasn’t tremendously great for Hitler either. Switzerland and Germany already had a beneficial trading partnership which helped Germany’s war effort. Additionally, the neutral but infamous Swiss banks made Switzerland useful to the Nazis.

There’s little doubt that once the Allies had been defeated, Hitler would have mobilized an attack on Switzerland (a planned invasion was named known Operation Tannenbaum). But as it was, his attention and resources were preoccupied on bigger enemies so any attacks on Switzerland had to wait.

Nevertheless, by 1940 Switzerland was completely surrounded by Axis powers and the Nazis occupied France, making it increasingly difficult to stay clear of the Second World War. It is the ways in which Switzerland allowed and in some ways, assisted, Nazi Germany which makes her “neutrality” so questionable.

 

Border control

After the Nazis gained power in Germany, many racial minorities attempted to flee to avoid persecution. Switzerland, a neighboring but impartial nation seemed a clear destination choice. As well as an agreement of neutrality, Switzerland had also pledged to be an asylum for any discriminated groups in Europe. They had taken in Huguenots that had fled from France in the 16th century and was an asylum for many liberals, socialists and anarchists from all over Europe in the 19th century. However, this wasn’t exactly upheld during WWII.

In fear of angering Hitler and prompting an invasion, Swiss border regulations were tightened. They did establish internment camps which housed 200,000 refugees, of which 20,000 were Jewish. Importantly though, the Swiss government taxed the Swiss Jewish community for any Jewish refugees they allowed to enter the country.

In 1942 alone, over 30,000 Jews were denied entrance into Switzerland, leaving them under the control of the Nazis. In an infamous speech, a Swiss government official stated “our little life boat is full.” Although the prospect of leaving Jewish civilians to certain death under the Nazis is unthinkable, there are arguments in Switzerland’s defense. Switzerland was a small country (with a population of roughly 4 million) which was completely surrounded by Nazi troops and nations under Hitler’s control. In comparison, the USA (arguably the safest nation for fleeing Jews) repeatedly rejected Jewish refugees and only accommodated approximately 250,000 people between the years from 1939 to 1945; tiny compared to its size. Historians today estimate that the USA could have easily accommodated over 6 million refugees.

But that is not the only controversy when it comes to Swiss border control. It was the Chief of the Swiss Federal Police, Dr Heinrich Rothmund, who proposed the idea of marking Jewish passports with a red ‘J’, and which became an important method of discrimination adopted by the Nazis. The Swiss government wanted to know and control the amount of Jews entering Switzerland but it led to a measure that made fleeing from the Nazis even harder for Jews.

Interestingly, on the March 8, 1995, the Swiss government made an official apology for their involvement with the Nazi Party, in particular their role in developing the ‘J’ stamp.

 

Banking

To this day, Swiss banks are known for their secretive but successful policies that created one of the strongest economies in the world. They were massively important during WWII, especially to high-ranking Nazis, and became another way in which Swiss neutrality was questioned.

But why were they so important?

Until 1936, the Swiss Franc was the only remaining freely convertible currency in the world. Therefore both the Allies and Axis Powers sold large amounts of gold to the Swiss National Bank and relied heavily on its economic stability. The German national currency was no longer a means of payment in international markets which meant the Nazis relied on Swiss banks in order to buy war machinery and commodities from other countries.

But if the banks accepted gold from both sides, then surely they are still technically neutral? Although that may be the case, it is the type of gold and the secretive way in which it was handled which has caused massive controversy in recent years. For over 581,000 Francs worth of ‘melmer’ gold taken from Holocaust victims was sold and kept by Swiss banks. Following the defeat of the Nazis, Swiss banks struggled with what to do with the gold, whose rightful owners had been killed in the awful genocide.

 

Trade

Prior to WWII, Switzerland had relied heavily on trade with Germany to build a strong and economically powerful nation. It was an industrialized country with virtually no raw materials, experiencing the same economic depression that was felt throughout both Europe and America. When World War Two commenced, Switzerland worried that any non-cooperation would lead to a cease in vital trade and even more significantly, an invasion. As it was completely surrounded by Nazi controlled countries, the Swiss had two choices: cooperate with Nazi trade policies or fight against them.

Between the years of 1939 and 1945, roughly 10,276,000 tons of coal was transported from Germany to Switzerland and provided 41% of Switzerland’s energy requirement. This demonstrates how the Swiss were keen to stay on good terms with Germany to continue their vital trade.

One thing Switzerland provided to the Nazis in return for important materials was access to the railway that ran through Switzerland and connected Italy and Germany. In the event of an invasion, the Swiss army planned to destroy vital tunnels and bridges, immobilizing the railway for years and making transportation between Italy and Germany nearly impossible. To uphold their neutral stand, Switzerland’s governments laid down restrictions on what could be transported over their railway. The Swiss would only allow sealed boxes to pass through without checking their contents, in exchange for raw materials and trade. Officially, the Swiss banned any transportation of people (troops) or war goods over their railway, but the extent to which this was upheld is very questionable.  

 

So, despite its attempts, Switzerland struggled to remain truly neutral during the Second World War. In fairness, World War Two was a ‘Total War’ which made it hard to remain impartial for almost every nation. It is the type of involvement, however, that is interesting and less well known to people studying history.

The extent to which a country remains neutral during times of armed conflict goes beyond their lack of involvement in armed combat. A country can only be considered neutral if they demonstrate no bias in business, social and economic activity.

Was Switzerland neutral? Arguably not.

But the extent to which they ‘helped’ the Nazis is a much more complex matter.

 

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We thought that this review should be about something really special, and then somebody suggested this amazing film.

Alice Herz-Somme is the oldest Holocaust survivor and an amazing pianist. The film, The Lady in Number 6, tells her story. But here, we’ll briefly explain her life.

Having been born in Prague in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1903, Alice went on to live an inspiring life – but not before her troubles. In the years before World War II, she gained a reputation as being a world-class pianist, and played with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. And that helped to save her and her son when they were sent to the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp by the Nazis. Alice’s husband and mother were killed in Auschwitz; however, Alice’s music allowed her to play in concerts in the Concentration Camp.

After the war, Anna went back to a changed Prague. The Nazis had moved other people into her apartment and so she decided to move to the new country of Israel. She continued to play the piano, while her son became a cellist.

Later in life, at nearly 100, Alice moved to London in order to be close to her son. Alas tragedy struck again, but Alice has an incredible spirit. This film tells the story of her views on life, a woman that has suffered hardships that most of us can’t possibly imagine, but still has a very positive outlook. Here is an extended clip:

You can find out more about the film by clicking here.

 

And there is another of our reviews available here.  It's on Germany, Poland and the USSR.

Posted
AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones