Neutral but armed and ever-ready

February 3, 2011, 10 Comments


Yesterday was the first Wednesday in February. In Switzerland that means only one thing: annual siren test day. At precisely 13.30 all the sirens across the whole country are tested, and it still scares the living daylights out of me. As a newcomer, no-one warns you that on a quiet day in February the Swiss practise the end of the world. The first time I heard the sirens, I contemplated running to my nuclear shelter (we all have access to one), but then noticed that everyone else was acting normally. So calm in a crisis, I thought. In fact it was just the Swiss making sure that in the event of being attacked, their sirens will be in good working order.

Now you might wonder who exactly is planning to attack the Swiss. After all the last invader was Napoleon in 1798. According to the head of the army, it could easily be Sweden, Greece or Britain, all of which he identified last year as potential threats to Swiss peace and neutrality. Hmm, talk about trying to justify your over-inflated army budget. And that is crux of the matter. The Swiss spend more on defence than agriculture, export weapons to 72 countries (No 1 market: Pakistan) and own more guns per head than the people of Iraq. It may be neutral but Switzerland is a highly militarised country. Armed soldiers in uniform are a common sight in Swiss towns and trains, so much so that it often feels like the country is mobilising for World War One every weekend. That still unnerves me.

On 13 February it’s the latest referendum day and the issue this time is guns. Every Swiss man over the age of 20 must complete 260 days of military service before he is 34 – and gets a gun which he has to keep at home, just in case the country is attacked in the middle of the night. The proposal (“Für den Schutz vor Waffengewalt”) wants to make it obligatory to store army guns in arsenals rather than under the bed. Quite sensible you might think, especially given that 300+ people die here every year from gunshots, and Switzerland has by far Europe’s highest rate of gun suicide for men under 24.

But that ignores the fact that the army rifle is a symbol of Swiss manhood (very Freudian, I know) and of Swiss independence. If you believe some, it was only these rifles that kept Hitler at bay 70 years ago. Never mind that he quite liked being able to use Swiss tunnels and banks, or that he had bigger fish to fry in the shape of those pesky Russians. And as for that fact that warfare has moved on somewhat since then, well, that seems to have gone unnoticed. When some cyber-terrorist is bringing down the Swiss banking system, rifles are not going to help defend the nation.

The latest opinion polls show a tiny lead for the Yes vote (ie to put the guns in arsenals). The problem is that it needs a majority both of the popular vote and of all the cantons to change the constitution, and that looks unlikely. The left, women, younger voters and city-dwellers all seem to be in favour, but conservative old men living in the countryside are dead against it – and there are lots of just those voters. With the right-wing bleating on about an attack on Swiss values, and spending thousands on a poster campaign, I guess the proposal will fail. Male pride and jingoistic nonsense will win. The 2.3 million guns in Switzerland will stay in homes and still be used to kill, though not against any invader.

At least the sirens serve another purpose – they are also used in the event of avalanches, earthquakes, floods and other disasters, all of which are far more likely than Switzerland ever going to war.

10 Comments on "Neutral but armed and ever-ready"

  1. Alex Thursday February 3rd, 2011 at 02:29 PM · Reply

    Lovely article, but’s a common misunderstanding that all these Swiss shelters are atom-proof (surely the Bundesrat will have access to one). You need some extra meters of concrete and steel and air treatment systems to withstand that.

    BTW, Dutch sirens are tested once every month 🙂

  2. wypfov Friday February 4th, 2011 at 02:17 AM · Reply

    guess what? .. you don’t like it here.. get the f*** out! ..

  3. Heinz Hofer Friday February 4th, 2011 at 12:46 PM · Reply

    Well – you better listen then to Swiss radio or read Swiss papers. BBC and The Times certainly won’t warn you about this. By the way: Frühwarnsyteme also exist elsewhere and may be helpful if they function properly when needed. We Swiss are no longer afraid of German blitz attacks but that danger was real at the time – a fact which you seem to ignore too much when you scoff at the Swiss and their behaviour during World War Two. You may call Fortress Switzerland a myth but it was much more than that if not only for the benefit of the Durchhaltewille of the Swiss people. – Having said this I congratulate you for your book Swiss Watching which I’m reading with much pleasure und many smiles.

    Glad to have met you the other day at the bookshop.

    Heinz Hofer, Hinterkappeln

  4. Anonymous Coward Friday February 4th, 2011 at 10:01 PM · Reply

    I’m a Swiss male over 45. I’ve spent/wasted well over 250 days, almost double of that, in the militia, aka Swiss Army … I for one am very thankfull I no longer have rifle and amunition at home.. It’s scary!

    On the other hand, all those guns, and even more so the militia system, do make a coup d’etat rather impossible (Me? paranoid? Certainly ).

    I’m still unsure what to vote … but lean strongly towards a yes.

    Thanks for writing and wondering about Switzerland. It’s always good to hear intelligent, well worded and differing opinions … helps me make my mind up!

  5. Mario Aeby Sunday February 6th, 2011 at 07:56 PM · Reply

    There’s a different tone for floods as well. I took that video clip while on duty for the Zivilschutz:

    • swisswatching Sunday February 6th, 2011 at 08:04 PM · Reply

      Thanks Mario. I actually got a card in the post once detailing the different tones. I wondered at the time if I would remember which tone was which if I ever heard them.

  6. maatallah22 Monday February 7th, 2011 at 05:07 AM · Reply

    I just wanted to say I love your blog!!
    I’m hopefully going on an exchange to Switzerland soon, and I read it almost daily!!

  7. Maja Tuesday March 27th, 2012 at 11:39 AM · Reply

    I didn’t know they were also used in case of war as this not only seems highly unlikely but also ridiculous.. To my understanding (and that’s what my parents teached me as a kid =)) it is used to make people aware of catastrophies like leeking of nuclear plants or chemical catastrophies or similar… and people need to switch on the radio to hear what exactly happened and instructions on what they should do.

  8. easycanale Wednesday June 27th, 2012 at 11:16 AM · Reply

    We are surrounded by serial killers who have invaded, killed, maimed slaughtered, exterminated, ethnically cleansed and caused more havoc than all the Tsunamis in history put together. Would you allow a serial killer to baby sit your kids after paying his debt to society in the pen? I don’t think so. Armed, Neutral and Democratic since 1291 and i think it is best we remain so for a long long time. I feel its safer with a SG550 assault rifle in my house.

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