German Invasion of Switzerland – Operation Tannenbaum
After France surrendered in June 1940, Switzerland was completely surrounded by Axis-controlled territory. A major aim of the irredentist Nazis was to gather all ethnic Germans into a single country, and that included the German-speaking Swiss. Hitler appalled that the German-speaking Swiss felt stronger attachment to their French and Italian-speaking countrymen than they did to Germans, opined that “Switzerland possessed the most disgusting and miserable people“, and that the Swiss were “a misbegotten branch of our Volk‘. He considered democratic Switzerland an anachronism and ordered plans drawn for its conquest and absorption into the Third Reich.
The result was Operation Tannenbaum (see map, above), which envisioned a two-stage conquest with 21 German divisions, a force later deemed excessive and downsized to 11, plus 15 Italian divisions. First, conventional attacks from Austria, southern Germany, and occupied France, assisted by paratroops dropped behind Swiss lines, would overrun the lower-lying parts of Switzerland where most of the population and economic activity was located. To the south, Italians were to mount holding operations. Once the important parts of Switzerland were conquered, follow-up attacks were to be made against Swiss army remnants in the “National Redoubt” – a fortified zone in Switzerland’s mountainous south.
The plan likely would have succeeded. Much has been made of Switzerland’s mountainous terrain, and the Swiss army planned to take advantage of their topography by retreating into the mountainous part of their country. However, the overwhelming majority of the Swiss did not live high up in the mountains, but in the lower parts of the country in valleys and foothills that were readily accessible to attacking Germans. Cutoff up in the mountains, one can only guess how long the Swiss in the National Redoubt might have been able to offer sustained resistance.
Partisan and guerrilla warfare would have been an option. However, that would have required the Swiss to be markedly different from other Western Europeans whose countries were occupied, yet exhibited little willingness to risk the massive reprisals and atrocities the Nazis were willing to inflict on restive conquered subjects. Bad as Nazi rule was, the Germans did not treat Western Europe as atrociously as they did the Eastern European Slavs. Western Europeans thus never felt that their backs were to the wall and that they had nothing to lose, to the same extent as did, e.g.; the Soviets or Yugoslavs, who responded with a fierce and widespread partisan resistance that had no equivalent in Western Europe.
It is unlikely that the Germans would have treated the Swiss, whom they viewed as fellow Germans to be incorporated into their Reich as fellow citizens, with anything approaching the severity that triggered widespread resistance in the East, but would more likely have treated them better than they did other Western Europeans.
Fortunately, the order was never given. While it would have been emotionally gratifying for Hitler to invade, there was no immediate necessity: the Swiss had no aggressive designs and surrounded on all sides by Axis territory, there was no security threat of occupation by the Allies to use as a base for attacking Germany. Switzerland also had no resources that were not readily available to the Germans via trade, and the Swiss banking system, combined with Swiss neutrality, made the country a convenient center for currency exchange and other international financial transactions.