In World War II, the small nation of Switzerland found itself surrounded by countries at war with one another. In 1939, the Swiss Federal Council confirmed the state's neutrality, a status recognized by the warring powers. International law, particularly the Hague Convention, provides guidelines for neutrality. Following these rules gave legal support to Switzerland's claim. For practical and cultural reasons, Switzerland considers neutrality essential to its survival.

The Cultural Imperative

Since the 16th century, Switzerland has maintained neutrality in foreign conflicts -- a status interrupted only briefly by the Napoleonic Wars from 1798 to 1815. Apart from a long history, neutrality ensures the continued coexistence of the multiple cultural, religious and linguistic groups that make up the democratic state. Switzerland is organized in small communities called cantons that enjoy relative autonomy. With citizens who have German, Italian and French ties, neutrality, particularly in World War II, served to preserve the unity of the state. As neutral territory, Switzerland occupied a special place in the international community. The Red Cross had been founded in Geneva in 1863, and Switzerland remained convinced that its humanitarian and diplomatic services were far more valuable than anything it could achieve militarily by entering the war.

Neutral But Not Defenseless

Maintaining neutrality did not mean Switzerland was a sitting duck. The state's concept of neutrality recognizes its strategic geographic location as a small nation surrounded by larger ones. Above all, Switzerland's neutrality protects the Swiss culture and people from foreign invasion. The 1907 Hague Conventions recognize that the continued safety and protection of territory is the most important right of neutral states. To this end, although neutral states cannot participate in wars, they are allowed to maintain armies for self-defense. In World War II, Switzerland mobilized as many as 450,000 men and women to defend Swiss territory if invading forces breached their border.

The Refugee Problem

Switzerland's legalistic approach to neutrality caused many critics to question the morality of the nation's position in World War II. From the onset of the war, Switzerland allowed some Jewish refugees asylum within its borders, but turned others away -- as many as 30,000 in 1942 alone. Many of these refugees were arrested by the Swiss and promptly turned over to the Nazi government. However, this action was in accordance with international law at the time. During World War II, neutral states were under no obligation to provide asylum to refugees for any reason. In 1951, after the horrors of the holocaust had been revealed, the international community agreed to include the principle that refugees could not be turned away if they were fleeing from persecution because of race, religion, nationality or political opinion. Switzerland has since admitted its refugee policy during World War II could have been more generous.

Political Realities

For Switzerland, neutrality was practically dictated by geographical and political circumstances. Between 1940 and 1944, the country was surrounded by Axis powers. If invaded, Switzerland most certainly would have sided with the Allies, but absent a threat to its own national territory, entering the war was a political impossibility. The state was criticized for continued trade and financial transactions that brought benefit to Nazi Germany. However, international law states a neutral state cannot break off economic ties with one side of a conflict while maintaining them with the other side. Switzerland needed raw materials not available within its borders, and these economic relations were considered essential to the continued survival of the Swiss people.