In some ways, World War II feels like a very long time ago. But on the sheer rock face of a quarry in Switzerland stands a stark reminder of the nations that tried to remain neutral during that terrible period. Just miles from the German border, the area in which it is located was of enormous strategic value at the time.
While Switzerland had a stance of armed neutrality during both the First and Second World War, the general populace still lived in fear. As early as 1939, the Swiss mobilized to defend their borders. And because of the country’s close proximity to Germany, there was a very real risk of invasion.
However, the Swiss government knew that its armed forces were no match for the German war machine. And so a plan was drawn up, known as the “National Redoubt.” It would mean abandoning much of the Swiss heartland to the Germans while the army withdrew to the Alps.
The bunker in Canton Aargau would have played a role in that plan had Germany invaded. It’s a construction designed to repel attackers while sustaining the soldiers inside for the long haul – and it’s certainly an impressive sight.
While many similar fortifications have been destroyed or renovated, the bunker in Canton Aargau is almost in its original state. Passing through the huge metal doors, designed to withstand flamethrower attacks, must be like stepping back in time. And what is contained within the bunker’s stone tunnels confirms that.
Around 90 feet of hallways connect the different parts of the bunker. There are living quarters, gun emplacements and armories. But the bunker is more than just a shell of what it used to be. Inside you’ll find a treasure trove of World War II-era weaponry, uniforms and other equipment from the conflict.
Machine guns and anti-tank weaponry still point through windows in the walls of the bunker. The viewing ports where spotters would have sat, meanwhile, are covered with bulletproof glass. And armored plating can also be dropped down to provide an extra layer of protection.
There are other intriguing innovations built into the bunker, too. If the gun emplacements were locked down against incoming flamethrower attacks, they were still able to fire. This was due to the ingenious use of photographs and maps – as well as spotters in the valley who could call out targets.
The walls in some rooms of the bunker are covered with old rifles, and there are even weapons here that predate the Second World War. While forts like this one may have been a last line of defense, they were well equipped and ready for battle. And that shows just how worried the Swiss authorities were about a German invasion.
The Germans did in fact draw up detailed plans for an invasion of Switzerland. Indeed, the Third Reich was adamant about bringing all German-speaking regions under its flag. And, as a result, it developed a strategy known as Operation Tannenbaum to conquer the German-speaking Swiss. Meanwhile, the French- and Italian-speaking Swiss territory would have been incorporated into France and Italy.
It wasn’t just the bunkers, though, that would have been used to defend Switzerland. A maze of defenses was put up around them as well, including concrete trenches designed with two purposes in mind. First, they’d make it difficult for any tanks approaching the bunker to traverse the terrain.
And the trenches would also funnel any troops attacking the bunker into the crosshairs of the machine gun emplacements. The woods around the bunker were filled with anti-tank defenses as well. These were fortifications to be reckoned with.
In the event, though, the attack on Switzerland never came – despite its close proximity to Germany. There were a number of reasons for this. In part, it was down to the Swiss people’s resistance to Nazi ideology. Indeed, conquering Switzerland could have caused more problems than it solved.
There were other factors as well. A strategic railway ran through Switzerland from Germany to Italy, and the Germans knew that if they invaded, then the Swiss would likely destroy it. On top of that, the Swiss banking industry became a haven for Nazi loot.
That’s not to say that the Swiss played no part in the war. Skirmishes between Swiss and German forces along Switzerland’s northern border occurred throughout the war. What’s more, a number of Nazi planes that violated Swiss airspace were shot down. This even led to an unsuccessful attempt by German forces to sabotage Swiss anti-aircraft guns.
So the role that the Swiss played in World War II was a complex one. And bunkers such as the one in Canton Aargau stand as reminders that less than 70 years ago the world was at war. Indeed, walking into the bunker allows visitors to step back in time.
Some of the weapons may have been updated over the ensuing years, but the atmosphere of claustrophobia remains. It’s embodied, for example, by the emergency telephone that would have been used to warn of German invasion. This is a place where time has seemingly stood still.
That said, the Festungswachtkorps, or Fortress Guard Corps, that once looked after Switzerland’s network of forts and bunkers has long since disbanded. Its various duties have been taken on by other branches of the Swiss military. But many of the secret locations that it once tended to remain.
The existence of the bunkers wasn’t officially recognized by Swiss authorities until the 1990s. Some, such as the one in Canton Aargau, are now museums. Others are used as secure facilities for storing data or valuables. A few of of them house vast archives. And some have even been turned into hotels.
Oddly enough, too, some of the bunkers have been turned into accommodation for those seeking asylum in Switzerland. Where once they stood as a bulwark against oncoming forces, now they’re used to house migrants looking to escape conflict. Perhaps that’s the most fitting end for remnants of one of the worst conflicts the world has ever known.