All the Tsar’s Men
Why Mobilization Can’t Save Putin’s War
COMPETITIVE rearmament is a permanent process of keeping up with the Joneses. Among practically equal rivals, the latest armament is bound to be the best, only in its turn to be surpassed by something newer. European experts now believe that the point of Germany's military superiority over France will be reached in something like 12 to 24 months. After Germany has attained the top of her military powers any delay in using them might see her outstripped by British or French preparations. The crucial period for Europe therefore is generally assumed to be the years 1937 and 1938. However, if the Germans realize that their opponents have become alarmed to the point of rapidly undertaking effective counter measures, then the date of the crusade (for that is the form it would take) might well be somewhat advanced.
Where might Germany attack? The fundamental aims of the Nazis were early formulated along approved Pan-German lines and there is no reason to believe that they have been seriously modified. The first aim, rearmament and the elimination of treaty shackles, has been virtually achieved. The second is the incorporation into the Third Reich of all those who speak German, as well as of other Teutons, now dispersed among such neighboring countries as Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Switzerland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and a strip of Poland -- not to speak of Denmark. The third aim is territorial expansion further east. This last is not yet practical politics. The immediate task for the Nazis is "racial integration." The greatest obstacle is considered to be France.
Could the Germans be sure that France would sit with folded arms while they "rescued" Austria and portions of Czechoslovakia, their temptation would be to leave her severely alone, if only because of the fear lest a contrary policy would risk involving Britain. But can they be at all sure that France, pacifist as she is, can stand aside and watch the Reich absorb odd bits of the European map? In the second place, such a policy would have two disadvantages. It would demand the completion opposite France of a German fortified line similar to the French "Maginot Line," which would be enormously expensive and might take too long. And it would leave the initiative of offensive to the French, who could bide their time and attack Germany at the moment they judged appropriate. Now in a military sense Nazi Germany represents a prolongation and intensification of the old Prussian militarism. The Prussian military tradition does not favor defensive wars. The pike in the carp pond does not wait for the latter to organize an attack against him. Therefore, despite the risk of galvanizing British opposition, the Nazis may have to contemplate settling accounts with "be-niggered" France in accordance with Hitler's suggestion in "Mein Kampf." This idea fits in with Ludendorff's stern theories as well as with the wild notions of professors of military science like Ewald Banse. As the Brunswick professor puts it, "With a neighbor like France one cannot have peace. One or the other country must disappear."
Assuming that Germany may feel it necessary to fight France, one comes to the question of how she would proceed. Military authorities differ as to the value of the "Maginot Line" of fortifications which France has built along her eastern frontier and which now is rapidly being carried northward into Belgium. But military authorities in general and the Germans in particular have today the greatest respect for fortresses. The alternative to a frontal attack on French fortified positions is to go around the obstacles, to the north or to the south, or both. Attack by the northern flank would be easier. Despite the new credits voted by the Dutch, and despite an awakened Dutch public opinion, Holland could hardly defend herself against a serious German blow. But such a campaign would almost surely bring Britain into the war. The invasion of Holland therefore would become advisable only if the Germans were convinced that they must in any case count the British among their active enemies. German strategists might well prefer an attack around the southern end of the French fortifications where they stop at Mulhouse -- in other words, south of Belfort and through Switzerland. Britain's frontier, they hope, is not on the Jura. Contrary to widely held opinion, such an undertaking, though difficult, is by no means impossible for a military machine like the one which Germany is assembling. And if it is possible, we are safe in assuming that it has been considered. If it has been considered, and if it is found advantageous, no merely moral considerations would prevent it from being tried.
Invasion of Switzerland is nothing new. Since Cæsar compelled the migrating Helvetii to return to their home near the Lake of Geneva, numerous ambitious war lords have risked invasion of this territory. Some, like Charles the Bold, came to grief; others, like Napoleon, marched back and forth across Swiss territory much as they pleased. Swiss neutrality was respected in the Franco-Prussian War. During the World War the same thing happened, though both sides were tempted, as Colonel Sprecher de Bernegg, Swiss chief of staff, later revealed.
In the years immediately following the war, hope of lasting peace through the League of Nations rose high in Switzerland. But as Germany gradually reverted to Prussianism other voices became audible. In 1931 a project for reaching Montbéliard, Belfort, Besançon and Dijon by way of Switzerland began to be talked about in German military circles. In 1932 Professor Banse ("Raum und Volk") insisted that favorable conditions for a German war with France included the "occasion or the authorization" to pass through Belgium and the Netherlands in the north and through Switzerland in the south. Only a fully rearmed Germany could seriously contemplate such a scheme. But by 1934 the German rearmament had made real progress. In 1935 the Swiss Colonel Hans Fry publicly discussed the possibility of a German attack. It remained for the violation of the Locarno Treaty on March 7, 1935, to shake the Swiss fully out of their self-confidence. For evidently Nazi dynamism would no more hesitate to violate Swiss neutrality than to tear up an agreement drafted largely to protect Germany, then disarmed and helpless.
Now the Swiss have no desire to be on bad terms with Germany. Nearly three million of them speak German. To them, before the advent of Hitler, the Reich was a spiritual and cultural source of primary importance. Even Hitler did not at first worry them. To be sure, they are liberal democrats. But Germany is their best customer and their chief source of imported goods. Nearly two billion Swiss francs "frozen" in the Reich were a sort of hostage for Swiss friendship. But the religious persecution in Germany, the mistreatment of the Jews, the killings of June 30, 1934, and finally the German attitude at the time of the Gustloff murder, convinced the Swiss they wanted no totalitarian régime. Recently the public in a Zürich movie house has been asked "not to hiss Adolf Hitler" when his picture is flashed; and for one to address inhabitants of Basel or Zürich in hoch (or Reichs) Deutsch is no recommendation.
On the whole, however, the Swiss were slow to estimate the new German régime correctly. Imagine the shock when on April 17 of this year the Federal Council (Cabinet) suddenly asked the legislative bodies for the amazing sum of 235,000,000 francs for national defense. In a long message the Council outlined its reasons: failure of the Disarmament Conference; disappointment with the League of Nations; visible threats abroad; the temptation to others inherent in being weak -- in short, a recognition that the world had indeed entered that "age of bronze" heralded by Professor Banse. Germany was not specifically mentioned, but no single Swiss had any illusions as to the possible enemy against whom the "absolutely indispensable" in modern armaments to be acquired by such an expenditure might have to be used.
Now for a country like Switzerland, with its four million population, 235,000,000 francs (roughly $80,000,000 at present rates) is a tremendous sum. At the same rate of twenty dollars a head, the United States would have to appropriate and spend no less than $2,500,000,000. The Swiss are not poor. For years the military budget had been slowly mounting: 1928, 75,000,000 francs; 1929, 86,000,000; 1930, 87,000,000; 1931, 102,000,000. But few peoples reckon more closely than the Swiss or appreciate the value of money more keenly. Facing the same danger from the same source, Holland, with twice the population of Switzerland, this year appropriated for defense only half the Swiss figure. Obviously the Swiss statesmen who proposed so broad reorganization of their military machine were seriously alarmed.
The nature of the reform can be seen from a glance at the summarized items (in Swiss francs):
|2.||Frontier Covering Force:|
|New arms and accessories||21,000,000|
|8.||Building and Construction||13,500,000|
In justifying such expenditures the Federal Council insisted on the special necessity of air defense and frontier cover. Herr Minger, Head of the Federal Military Department, expressed the intention of making the country invulnerable to invasion. Divisional Colonel Guillaume Favre insisted in Lausanne that Switzerland must not become a point of "least resistance."
One need only travel in the frontier districts from Basel to Lake Constance to realize how seriously the Swiss themselves have taken the government warning. In Basel the German danger is a chief topic of conversation. In Schaffhausen not an adult, whatever his political views, but believes that the nearby Reich plans to strike at France through Switzerland. In Bern the Federal Government officials, usually so cautious, so respectful of the duties of neutrality, cannot altogether hide their apprehensions. In Zürich argument is heard about the value of passive defense against air attacks and about the number of days it would take French troops stationed around Besançon, Dijon and Lyons to assist the retreating Swiss at the eastern edge of the Jura. Opinions on details are varied. Only on one point is there virtual unanimity. Foreigners incline to question whether the hotel-keeping Swiss have not become too soft and commercially minded to risk their existence against a Great Power. Not so the Swiss themselves. Most of them refuse to admit this even as a possibility. In their patriotism, they say, they are second to none. It is not long since the entire communist group of Schaffhausen went over to the Social Democrats because the communist theorists denied them the right of national defense if Switzerland were attacked. One gets the impression that with the exception of a few communists and a handful of pro-German fascists the Swiss would prove true to their traditional independence and fight.
Let us now consider the technical aspects of a German invasion of France through Switzerland.
Four million Swiss are grouped on a fairly small territory in the midst of three great nations, two of which, Germany and Italy, openly espouse a militarist philosophy. The country is officially neutral by the 1815 treaties; and that status was confirmed by the Act of London in 1921. Its population is mixed: 71 percent German, 21 percent French, 8 percent Italian and Ladine. Fifty-seven percent are Protestant, the rest Catholic. Geographically the land is not very unified. There are high mountains in the center and southeast; a kind of hilly plateau runs from Lake Constance in the northeast down to a point in the southwest corner where the mountain-gap at Bellegarde gives access to the Lyons district; to the west rise the chalky seams of the Jura.
Considerable difficulties would face an invader. But as a French expert writes, there are longitudinal valleys which would offer "facilities to the march of troops directed from east to west or those coming from the upper Rhine between Basel and Schaffhausen and marching towards the northern French Jura chain."[i] Obviously it is precisely such a march that would tempt the German General Staff. The present writer is no strategist, but the general problem as seen by military authorities is not difficult to understand for anyone who looks at the accompanying map.
Let us imagine a sudden German attack on France. The German Staff decides to remain upon the defensive for the entire length of the Maginot Line, behind equivalent or at any rate sufficient German fortifications. But Germany's available man power is almost twice that of France, so that even if she must station considerable forces in the east, enough are left over to constitute a sort of hammerhead in the southwest and south. The terrain that interests us lies to the south of the Maginot Line and of the Belfort fortress. Here is a narrow plain, unfortified because of French respect for the Treaty of Vienna of 1815. The Swiss at that time obtained from the Allies who downed Napoleon an undertaking that the French fortress of Huningue be dismantled. Article 3 of that Treaty reads: "Les Fortifications de Huningue seront rasées sans pouvoir être rétablies ni remplacées par d'autres ouvrages à une distance moins de trois lieues de la ville de Bâle." Here is a narrow but clear path for the right wing of a German striking force, as soon as it has passed the Rhine and entered Basel.
Switzerland is protected to the north by the swift-flowing Rhine and Lake Constance. On the western part of the frontier there are three bridges or groups of bridges, at Basel, at Waldshut and at Schaffhausen. From these gates an invader could sweep down across Switzerland for a distance of from thirty to a hundred and twenty-five miles and enter France through one or more of the Jura valleys -- that at Porrentruy, that near La Chaux de Fonds, or that leading from Pontarlier to Dôle. Which means that a perfectly equipped motorized force could, if it met no effective resistance, emerge from the western defiles of the Jura just five hours after crossing the Rhine bridges. The task of the main portion of the attacking force would be to overrun and penetrate the Jura. At the base of the Jura the large river Aare runs roughly in the same direction as the line of the invasion; it therefore would not be an obstacle. But it is fed from the Alps by a number of swift streams which flow in a northwesterly direction right across the Swiss plateau and cut up a terrain which otherwise would not be too difficult. This would be the line of march of the German left, or turning force. Its advance might well be slow. But with four or five German divisions in a first wave, the same number in a second, long before the Swiss fighting forces could be mobilized (it took three days in 1914) all possibility of real resistance might be at an end. Nor could the French conceivably reach the Jura passes within the few hours here assumed as the period of the German passage. In other words, as matters now stand this lightning-like raid might succeed.
To meet this situation what can the Swiss do? They are a thoroughly military people with a magnificent military tradition. Their first-line troops, organized as a militia, can be put in the field within three days, 250,000 strong. Each man keeps his uniform and his arms in his house, and his horse -- if he needs one -- in his stable. His training begins early and is supplemented from boyhood by target practice. It is calculated that every Swiss male of military age fires nearly a hundred rounds a year. There are not quite three hundred career officers, most of whom are military instructors. The morale and physical condition of the troops are good. Of their courage there cannot be the slightest doubt. But the charge is made that the entire Swiss system is obsolete. There is, critics say, too much reliance upon rifle fire. What is the good of rifles against tanks and armored cars and airplanes? The Swiss have little aviation, an antiquated and deficient artillery, too few machine-guns. They still rely too largely upon guerrilla warfare at a time when it has ceased to be of any avail. Until recently their mobilization occurred in the center of the country. Even under the new system whereby the recruits in the frontier districts rush to their appointed place immediately, they would be swept aside and dispersed by a relentless German force so long as they lack proper fortifications and have no effective defense against air attacks.
The new German army, it is assumed, can immediately mobilize a million and a half men, out of which half a million could be available for the hammer thrust through Switzerland. The bulk of the French would be north of Besançon, and in any case it would take them a couple of days to occupy the Jura passes on the Swiss side and relieve the retreating Swiss. Switzerland risks being virtually eliminated as a war factor in the first twenty-four hours.
But though admitting these facts, Swiss military experts do not think that the situation any longer is as pictured above. "In the first place," they say, "in order to be successful, the gigantic motorized raid which you describe must be prepared secretly and carried out with very large forces. Four hundred thousand men simply cannot be massed near our northern border without news of it leaking across to us. Our Thalwehr and other frontier forces are ready at an hour's notice to blow the Rhine bridges.
"Secondly, the German Army today is still unready to take the field, chiefly owing to the fact that the training and preparation of qualified officers takes time. By the time the German Army is all ready, our Swiss frontier will bristle at critical points with 'pill boxes' and other local fortifications. Our mobilization will bring us close to the frontier almost immediately and our best troops will have plenty of time to occupy strong positions prepared in advance while the Germans are bursting the frontier defenses. We shall not hesitate to sacrifice exposed centers like Basel. But the mountains just behind that city are so difficult that once we have fortified them, and once the French have placed long-range guns in the hills to the west, the famous 'trouée de Belfort' at the south end of the Maginot Line will be impassable. Therefore in order to traverse the Jura in the direction of Besançon the Germans must penetrate almost as far south as Solothurn, that is to say thirty or forty miles. Only two good roads are available. On the west side of the River Aare there is little space for an advance in mass. On the east the ground is cut by numerous tributaries of that river, and crossing is a hard job if the bridges have been blown. If you have motored from Zürich to Bern you must have seen that the so-called Swiss 'Plateau' is anything but easy country. Give us a year to rearm and reorganize our forces and we will be able to delay any German invasion until help arrives.
"Another point. The French General Staff seems to be worried lest we follow our old strategic conception and retire the bulk of our retreating army south and east into the high Alps, thus losing contact with the advancing French. Nothing of the kind.
"For all these reasons, therefore, we Swiss believe that by the time the Germans are ready to spring a surprise visit upon us, we shall be in a position to give them a surprise welcome. This being so, we very much doubt if the Germans, whatever their previous plans, will risk such an expensive violation of our neutrality. And the same argument holds good against a German attempt to enter Austria or Italy through eastern Switzerland, where the terrain is even more difficult. No, once our new plans are in effect, Switzerland will be reasonably secure even against the Germans."
Obviously, a decision as to whether if Germany attacked France she would try to operate via Switzerland depends in the last analysis on the German General Staff's estimate of the Swiss capacity of defense. Only the Germans know what that estimate is today or what it is likely to be a year or so hence.
[i] "Notions sur l'Armée suisse," by Colonel Aublet, La Revue militaire française, February 1934.