Swiss neutrality decoded

Posted by Mad Mitch on  UTC 2020-02-14 11:02 Updated on UTC 2020-02-15

In order to keep the Switzerland™ Myth up in the air a number of balloons have to be kept pumped up: Wilhelm Tell against the Austrian Habsburgs, plucky little Switzerland facing down that German Wilhelm in 1914 and then that German Adolf in 1939 (with that heroic Reduit thingy), self-determination, armed neutrality, banking secrecy etc.

From time to time these balloons are punctured by historians and events, but the air never seems to go completely out of them. Today's hiss of escaping air comes from the 'neutrality' balloon.

The idea of 'neutrality' in today's globalised world is absurd. The political and economic interdependencies between countries make the neutrality that was written into the constitution of the modern Swiss Confederation impossible to achieve. It is the equivalent of some little girl in the playground declaring herself to be neutral in the hope that the bullies will leave her alone.

Even worse, the new Green activist mentality that has infected the country in the last decade has made neutrality even more unachievable – the little kid now feels morally obliged to go around the playground interfering in everyone's business and telling off the transgressors. In Swiss politics, states that sin against the environmentalist credo have become filthy pariahs.

A corollary of the old idea of neutrality is the doctrine that Switzerland can deal with other states in a completely even-handed way. The Swiss seem to be proud of their role as intermediary in international conflicts, die Guten Dienste, their 'good offices'.

In this role, trusted equally by the various parties in a conflict because of this alleged neutrality, they are in a position to talk to any participant, however reprehensible or monstrous some of those parties may be. No hand is too soiled for a Swiss diplomat to shake it.

Though its ambassadors and legates may affect neutrality, how can the nation of Switzerland ever be neutral? Given the dramatis personae on the international political stage in the twentieth century, can a country remain fastidiously neutral in the company of some of humanity's worst villains: Stalin, Khrushchev, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Pol-Pot, as well as all the Communist functionaries who kept their boots on the necks of the peoples of the Eastern Bloc states for so long?

The democratic nations of the West may have their flaws, but can one country really say: 'all other countries are the same to us'? That's theory. In practice, though, the Swiss spent much of that century expensively preparing to be overrun by the forces of the East, whilst simultaneously offering their good offices as 'neutrals'.

A large puncture has appeared in this myth in recent days. It concerns a company making cryptographic equipment, Crypto AG, in Canton Zug in central Switzerland. The company was formed in 1952 and closed down in 2018. Well over a hundred countries bought equipment from the company, presumably in the belief that the equipment, supplied by a neutral country that was diplomatically willing to shake anyone's hand, would be secure. These countries used Crypto's equipment in war and peace to keep their secrets to themselves. It now turns out that for much of that time the information was going to western espionage agencies.

FoS image, size 708x398

The offices of Crypto AG. Image: PD, ND.

In fact, only a few years after Crypto AG was founded, the CIA took an active interest in the company. In a brilliant move, in 1970 the CIA and the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) in West Germany took over the running of the company completely in a joint venture under the codename 'Minerva'.

It appears that from the very beginning of the involvement of the security agencies, Crypto AG began supplying its customers with two types of equipment: a secure version that did what it said on the tin and an insecure version that allowed the spymaster owners of the company to read these supposedly secure communications.

The technological details of the implementation of this 'backdoor' is not clear at the moment. Given the massive technological developments that took place during this period, there must have been several flavours of backdoor. It is possible, for example, that the insecure version generated only weak or known keys, which means that messages could be decrypted easily by those in the know.

In the intervening years there were occasional indications that something unusual was going on in Crypto AG. The German BND gave up their participation in the company in 1993. It appears that the freshly minted Germany with its new constitution would prefer to have nothing more to do with the company. The BND's old enemy, East Germany, had collapsed and all this spying business was now surplus to requirements. Combined with the innate anti-American ethos of the European left, an exit became inevitable.

In the last few weeks, an independent journalist in Switzerland broke the story about the involvement of external agencies in Crypto AG. The veracity of the story was confirmed by the former head of the BND. No one is admitting it yet, but it appears that the Swiss intelligence agencies not only knew about the activities of Crypto AG – it would be a sign of amazing incompetence if they didn't – but that they, too, benefited from the intelligence harvested.

In an instant the air hissed out of the balloon of the Swiss neutrality myth, leaving it hanging limp and flaccid. Those who pretend to take such myths seriously are now wailing that the despots and monsters of the world will never trust them again, that their role as honest broker with those on the dark side will no longer be possible, those dirty hands will no longer be offered to be shaken by the neutral Swiss.

We cynics, however, are delighted to hear that in the depths of the cold war, under real threat of nuclear and conventional attack almost every day, whilst half the world was treating its citizens with absolutist barbarity and threatening the democracies that stood up to them, the Swiss, in dark and quiet ways, decided who their friends were and who their enemies were and which side they were on.

If, as a result of this insight, they can no longer float around offering their seedy 'good offices' to the pariah states of the world, that is after all a very good thing. They are now free to grumble at the rest of the world about its ecological misdeeds.

Update 15.02.2020

The Editor in Chief of Zurich's TagesAnzeiger, Judith Wittwer, gets it:

The Crypto affair brings into new focus the question of Switzerland's conception of itself as the good guy of world history. Even more so, since the dimensions of the espionage activities of the CIA and Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) with manipulated encryption devices of 'Swiss quality' has robbed our country of a double illusion.

Die Crypto-Affäre stellt in neuer Schärfe das Selbstverständnis der Schweiz als Good Guy der Weltgeschichte infrage. Mehr noch: Die Dimension der Spionageaktion von CIA und Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND) mit manipulierten Chiffrier­geräten Schweizer Güte beraubt unser Land gleich einer doppelten Illusion.

The second of these illusions is the belief in the essential honesty of Swiss civil servants – the Crypto scandal has shown this to be an illusion in that Swiss civil servants and functionaries have been revealed to be just as capable of deceit and dirty tricks as anyone else.

But the first of these lost illusions was the substance of the present article: the mythical nature of the idea of Swiss neutrality:

Firstly, our neutrality, even after the Second World War, was more of a fiction than a reality, with Switzerland being in the best case a 'Neutral of the West'.

Erstens war unsere Neutralität auch nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg mehr Fiktion als Realität, die Schweiz im besten Fall eine «Neutrale des Westens».

Wittwer goes on to describe aspects of this myth of neutrality, which research shows is still valued highly in the public mind.

Why it [neutrality] is necessary is less clear. The idea is felt to be something elevated, as the historian Georg Kreis said in explanation of the myth. Politicians in their traditional speeches on Swiss National Day [1 August] represent neutrality as a central symbol of Swiss identity.

The elevated status of neutrality in domestic politics stands in contrast to the foreign policy reality. In a multipolar world the respect for and importance of neutrality has declined drastically. The use of neutrality as a battle cry for propagating going it alone is anyway useless. The father figure of the SVP, Christoph Blocher, likes to present Switzerland as independent and neutral – it isn't. In the Second World War the country violated the Hague Convention on multiple occasions – such as by the export of military equipment from its nationalised armament producers or by the weakness of the checks on the transit traffic between the Axis powers.

Warum es sie braucht, wird weniger klar. Sie werde als etwas Erhabenes empfunden, erklärt Historiker Georg Kreis den Mythos. So verklären Politiker die Neutralität in ihren 1.-August-Reden: die Neutralität, ein zentrales Symbol schweizerischer Identität.
Die innenpolitische Überhöhung steht im Widerspruch zur heutigen aussenpolitischen Realität. In einer multipolaren Welt haben Ansehen und Bedeutung der Neutralität drastisch abgenommen. Als Kampfbegriff, um den Alleingang zu propagieren, taugt sie sowieso nicht. So unabhängig und neutral, wie SVP-Übervater Christoph Blocher die Schweiz gerne darstellt – sie ist es nicht. Im Zweiten Weltkrieg verletzte sie das Haager Neutralitätsrecht gleich mehrfach – etwa durch Kriegsmaterialexporte aus bundeseigenen Produktionsstätten oder lasche Kontrollen des Transitverkehrs zwischen den Achsenmächten.

Wittwer senses that, though the myth is still strong in the minds of unreflective citizens and in the mouths of speechmaking politicians, the Realpolitik of the loss of neutrality is understood within the Swiss government:

Switzerland is today more normal than many citizens would like. The halo of the special case is disappearing. Micheline Calmy-Rey had tried to give neutrality a new, more active direction, in that she interpreted it as a peace mission. In Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis' report on the foreign policy vision for 2028, neutrality no longer appeared as a pillar [of Swiss policy]. In plain, honest speech the talk is now of 'clearly defined interests'.

Die Schweiz ist heute normaler, als es viele Bürgerinnen und Bürger gerne hätten. Der Nimbus des Sonderfalls verschwindet. Micheline Calmy-Rey hatte noch versucht, der Neutralität eine neue, aktivere Richtung zu geben, und sie als Friedensmission interpretiert. In Bundesrat Ignazio Cassis’ Bericht zur aussenpolitischen Vision 2028 taucht die Neutralität aber als Pfeiler nicht mehr auf. Schnörkellos ehrlich ist nur noch von «klardefinierten Interessen» die Rede.

On 17 May this year the Swiss people will cast their votes in a referendum on the proposed Framework Agreement with the EU. The acceptance of this agreement will subsume Switzerland in many respects into the European Union, particularly its courts. In this case the myth of neutrality will have been definitively punctured even for those who still dream.

It will be interesting to see which side prevails, the dreamers or the realists. Since this is a Swiss referendum on an important abstract subject, we can expect the voting to be around 51:49, one way or the other, or perhaps 52:48 if there is a landslide.


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