Switzerland is one gigantic booby-trap

Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG has been exploring the bizarre world of Swiss self-destructing infrastructure, documented in La Place de la Concorde Suisse, John McPhee's "rich, journalistic study of the Swiss Army's role in Swiss society." It turns out that the Swiss Army specifies that bridges, hillsides, and tunnels need to be designed so that they can be remotely destroyed in the event of societal collapse, pan-European war, or invasion. Meanwhile, underground parking garages (and some tunnels) are designed to be sealed off as airtight nuclear bunkers.

To interrupt the utility of bridges, tunnels, highways, railroads, Switzerland has established three thousand points of demolition. That is the number officially printed. It has been suggested to me that to approximate a true figure a reader ought to multiply by two. Where a highway bridge crosses a railroad, a segment of the bridge is programmed to drop on the railroad. Primacord fuses are built into the bridge. Hidden artillery is in place on either side, set to prevent the enemy from clearing or repairing the damage...

There are also hollow mountains! Booby-trapped cliff-faces!

Near the German border of Switzerland, every railroad and highway tunnel has been prepared to pinch shut explosively. Nearby mountains have been made so porous that whole divisions can fit inside them. There are weapons and soldiers under barns. There are cannons inside pretty houses. Where Swiss highways happen to run on narrow ground between the edges of lakes and to the bottoms of cliffs, man-made rockslides are ready to slide...

The impending self-demolition of the country is "routinely practiced," McPhee writes. "Often, in such assignments, the civilian engineer who created the bridge will, in his capacity as a military officer, be given the task of planning its destruction."

Various forms of lithic disguise (Thanks, @MagicPeaceLove!)


  1. This sounds like the brief period during WWII when the British were hiding all sorts of wacky improv traps in likely places in the hope that the hopelessness of the Home Guard’s job would be lessened, or at least less noticable.

    Except minus the ‘improv’ part, and with decades of meticulous Swiss engineering…

    1. Yes, the whole thing is actually a remnant from the crazy of WWII. Most European countries have weird relicts of WWII. Switzerland is probably just more open about it than other countries. And the book cited here is from the early 80ies. Meaning the book is like 30 years old (!!). I don’t know why boingboing is reading books that are 30 years old. Even before the 80ies they started, but especially since then they long removed explosives wherever possible… And in newer or renovated constructions there are no explosives whatsoever…. (PS: I’m Swiss, and it’s highly entertaining what kind of views other people have about Switzerland, but all the conspiracy theories sometimes worry me, seriously… we’re just a tiny multicultural country that has a rather well functioning multi-party semi-direct democracy which might seem very odd at times, because it is so different from most other countries’ systems, but other than that we are not that interesting, in fact we’re quite boring. Stop making up all those odd stories… there’s nothing there, we really are that boring!)

  2. Yup, all true. They can seal the country to ground forces in seconds -and they maintain a very well-equipped air force. All Swiss tunnels are curved too, so you can’t shoot down them.

    1. Clever engineers! But the tunnels are more likely curved so you do not get blinded when driving towards the brighter entrance :)

      There are even fake chalets (houses) which have real, furnished fake rooms on the front side and were built to conceal an entrance to a bunker :/

    2. A Swiss buddy told me that Air Force squadrons are mainly comprised of high-altitude shepherds of the Grison Alps, for two reasons:
      1. Vertigo is basically non-existent among these people.
      2. They are the only people in the world who still speak Romansch, so that in a dogfight, they may be undecipherable to the enemy.

  3. It was the well-known Swiss talent for total war that kept the Nazis from invading during WWII.  They decided that the Soviet Union was an easier target.

    1. They knew the Swiss would do whatever they wanted, and had special skills and access to the rest of the world.   Switzerland’s faux-neutrality was very useful to the Drittes Reich.

        1. They can collapse all the tunnels in the country but the fact remains that they have very little in natural resources.   Switzerland knew they were still dependent on the rest of Europe and so maintained a cool neutrality with the Nazis.  There were plans drawn up to invade but it was determined the cost wouldn’t justify it and there were bigger perceived threats (like the USSR).

    2. Actually Switzerland was useful to the Nazis to:
      * funnel trough building materials
      * holiday resort, always nice to have a piece of unblemished countryside if you need to recuperate from bombed out cities and starving population.
      * place for the brass to hide their stash from the general public

      And reasons for taking it where not that many, strategically not that important and lots of difficult terrain.

    3. I am so sick and tired of this line of malarkey. The much touted Swiss defiance of the Nazis would be impressive if they had ever defied the Nazis. Sure, the Nazis didn’t invade Switzerland. I grant that the Swiss defense and sabotage plans might have made such an invasion massively expensive relative to rewards. But you know what would have made the invasion really expensive? The disruption in all the services the Swiss were already giving them, including transit to Italy, international banking and brokering, and access to Switzerland’s (very limited) natural resources.

      Maybe in their position the Swiss could do no better. Maybe they had to comply with Nazi demands while asserting their sovereignty. Maybe they had no choice but to fire and prosecute Paul Grueninger – though they might have taken less than fifty years to apologize to him. But – even leaving aside the treasure their (privately run) banks retained entrusted to them by victims and oppressors alike – the Swiss government is in no position to brag about its WWII record, nor to insist that they held firm against the Nazis.

      And your claim that the Nazis “decided that the Soviet Union was an easier target” is just absurd. Really, you ought to be ashamed. More important in any number of ways is not at all the same thing as “easier”.

  4. Oh great now my fear of collapse while driving across a bridge or in a tunnel actually has a real possibility…  I guess it’s a good thing I live in the US.  Our bridges weren’t built to self destruct, they just fall apart due to neglect.

  5. We gave up that strategy years ago…. the large bunkers in the alps are for sale know… new bridges and tunnels aren’t designed that way anymore…

    1.  It would seem like an odd form of defense, suicide via civil engineering.  “You’ll never take us alive!”

      1. So take the Taliban and their caves, add professional engineering, a highly trained professional army, and a fully trained people armed with military grade weaponry at home.

        Yeah, odd form of defence.

        Not to mention that Switzerland has one of the healthiest democracies in the world. They got the “right to bear arms” right. A people shouldn’t be afraid of their police or military. With sufficient support, anything can be brought to a national referendum – most recently in the news as a ban on minarets :|

        1. And women’s suffrage? They were just a tad slow on that one, and I am not sure how women’s rights stack up in the whole country even now. But they have the right to bear arms – the important things.

        2. Not to mention that Switzerland has one of the healthiest democracies in the world.

          If by democracy, you mean fascism. Second and third generation brown residents are regularly denied citizenship by secret ballot of their white neighbors.

          1. A Swiss-born friend was telling me on her last trip to visit her parents, she answered the door to find a charming constable welcoming her (by name) back to Switzerland and asking how long she was planning on staying.

            I like my police charming, but I like anonymity as well.

          2. That’s so not true. Second and Third generation can get citizenship very easily. Only for first generation it is quite hard. And of course there might sometimes be a bias when the community is involved (it would be everywhere and they are in the process of changing the process where it still is in this old way to more transparency and less bias prone) But it has nothing to do with the color “Brown”. Are you f*ing kidding me?!
            And this from a ‘Moderator’ of boingboing. You seriously disappoint me. Get your facts straight.

          3. You’re right. I’m behind the times since the secret ballots were voted down in a referendum in 2008. However, Switzerland has the strictest rules for allowing long-term residents to become citizens and the majority of those accepted are from other European nationalities, so I’m sticking to my comment about race.

        3. By “odd” I meant that they were ready to completely destroy their infrastructure right off the bat. A scorched earth policy.

          1. The infrastructure is what an invader would want, principally to provide cleared, sheltered routes for troop movements and supply lines; compare torched oil wells in the Middle East, or Dr. Strangelove’s Doomsday Device. This is more like a strategic deterrent or insurance policy than a traditional defensive force.

      2. It’s a pretty simple bargain: let us claim to rule ourselves, and we’ll give you access to our banks and our tunnels through the Alps. Basically, you’ll get full use of everything we’ve got. Invade, and everything that makes us worth having goes blooie.

  6. No, the Swiss are not joking. They literally wrote the book (“Total Resistance” by Major H. von Dach) on turning a country into a murderous quagmire for enemy forces.

  7. That doesn’t sound like it is begging for terrorists to take advantage of it or anything…

    1. There are currently no explosives under any swiss bridge. However, the bridges were designed and prepared to be armed when a war comes up.

  8. I can’t help but feel building explosive self-destruct functions into your entire country’s infrastructure  might be a bad idea…

    1.  you say that now, but when the streets are filled with the walking dead, you’ll be the first to strap TNT to all tunnels leading in to your town.

          1.  If the “Engineers” in Prometheus were Swiss, that d****d rolling donut wouldn’t have been able to be knocked out of the sky by that little pea of a ship.

  9. Greetings from Switzerland!
    The book is from 1984, and some of the Information cited here seems to be much older.

    While it is true that during WWI and WWII many bridges and alike wer equipped with explosives to be blown up in case of an invasion, I think this is mostly history by now.

    As for the hollow mountains: You can actually visit them. They still have huge canons inside, aimed at nearby (20km?) bridges and railroad-tracks, but they are no longer usable.

    On the other hand, the part about the airtight-sealed nuclear bunkers is still valid. As far as I remember, every citizen in switzerland needs a place in a nearby bunker.
    However, I thought this is similar in other countries?

    1. “Every citizen in Switzerland needs a place.” Tourists and guest workers? They’d better start digging.

      1. Not at all. Most building already have a shelter underneath, commonly used as a normal basement.

        See this link (official Gov. Info) http://www.bevoelkerungsschutz.admin.ch/internet/bs/en/home/themen/schutzbauten/schutzraeume.html

    2. “As far as I remember, every citizen in switzerland needs a place in a nearby bunker. However, I thought this is similar in other countries?”

      The US once had various basements (usually local government official buildings, or schools) designated as “Fallout Shelters”, but they were just basements labeled as such – they did not have anything like modern filtration systems designed to protect people from, oh, say, fallout. This was all abandoned after Gorby ended the arms race. In recent times, people were advised to buy rolls of duct tape to seal themselves in their homes. 

      If you are a member of the Federal government of the US you may fare better, as there have always been bunkers (now more like mini-cities) underground in various national parks and other remote locations, though only old ones are ever declassified – the modern ones are kept secret.

    3. “…similar in other countries” Goodness no. In America there haven’t been any serious efforts to prepare civilian fallout shelters in decades. Some of the old Cold War stuff from the 50s & 60s still exists, but I doubt most of it has been maintained well enough to actually be useful, and even if it were, it would only protect a tiny minority of the population and most people probably don’t know where they are.

      We’re notoriously underprepared for disasters, including ones that happen quite frequently like tornados in the midwest. We have storm warning systems that usually don’t trigger until it’s too late and aren’t loud enough to hear in many situations. They test the sirens every Wednesday here and I can barely hear them even when I’m just down the street from them. The town I grew up in didn’t have sirens (that I was ever aware of so same difference) and a twister hit less than a quarter mile from my childhood home.

      We could build our homes to be more survivable during a tornado (or at the least produce fewer dangerous scrap projectiles), but no one does it. Most new homes in tornado alley don’t have storm cellars anymore or even a basement that would be suitably safe in a real storm. And that’s a threat we actually face on a regular basis.

      If someone invaded us, we’d be screwed. The only thing that might save us is if the invading army got lost in the maze-like warrens of a suburban subdivision or if they were hit by a tornado.

      1. I remember reading in “Is Paris Burning” that most of the bridges in France before WW2 were equipted with metal trays underneath the spans to hold explosive charges in case they needed to be blown. This was instituted as far back as the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 to slow down the Bosche, and Hitler’s forces would have used the trays to ruin Paris in 1944 if the German commandant hadn’t cancelled Hitler’s order.

      2. …it would only protect a tiny minority of the population and most people probably don’t know where they are.

        Cue Dick Cheney and his “undisclosed location”.

      3. Perhaps the fact that invaders would have to deal with our crumbling infrastructure is our deterrent.

        1. “…In the years following the apparently successful invasion of the United States, the conquering army became complacent and overweight, then quickly began dying off due to arteries clogged by cholesterol…”

        2. I read somewhere that Japanese engineers take field trips to America to see what lack of maintenance does to roads and bridges. Since everything is way over-built/maintained in Japan, they literally don’t have good understanding of how infrastructure decay works.

    4. We have quite a few in the UK that are secret enough that 99% of people don’t know about them, but they were built for the cold war and I’m not sure if they’re maintained in any way.

      If shit goes nuclear you’ll need more than a basement level car park to live out the rest of your life. You’ll see me on high ground with my arms outstretched.

    5.  > However, I thought this is similar in other countries?

      Moin, Herr Nachbar :-) You are right, as far as (former West-) Germany is concerned.  Bridges and other strategically important structures have (had) contraptions for controlled demolitions.  Before 1989 this was a tactical necessity, for instance my home city of  Hamburg was reachable within little more than one hour for Warsaw Pact tanks. Autobahns have two directions :-)

      Also, many subway stations and public buildings in Germany feature nuclear shelters, but most of them are defunct or abandoned now or have found new uses since the last Cold War ended.

  10. Not to mention the mandatory military service – for both genders. 

    Trivia: Dr Ruth Westheimer, a rather famous (and really short) sexologist is a fully trained sniper as she was evacuated to Switzerland in order to avoid the Nazis.

    1. Dr. Ruth also fought for the Haganah during the Israeli War of independence in 1947, and was seriously wounded there.

  11. Swiss military strategy seems to be limited to merely making it more difficult to go through Switzerland than around it. The stories of elaborate preparations and the citizen military are entertaining, but are not proof of prowess in combat. The only test for that, unfortunately, is the real thing.

    Switzerland is certainly the cleanest country I’ve ever visited, though.

    1. The new military strategy takes that into account by much downsizing the military and getting rid of the idea that you can do the fortress strategy in this age.

      Nevertheless, the previous idea of having a massive army of well equipped semi-trained resistance fighters has its merits, if even say 5% of them turned out to be halfways competent at what they’re doing, it would result in massive insurgency difficulties for the invading army. Anyways, the idea somebody would walk into here to make us uncomfy is by now largely rejected as improbable.

    2. Well read Swiss history; Switzerland established its independance by beating the crap out of much larger  invading armies of knights in the middle ages using the terrain to their advantage in guerilla tactics (rock, snow or tree avalanches) and such nifty inventions as the halbart, a medieval multi-usage weapon.

  12. Are all these self-destruct mechanisms radio-controlled, or does someone have to push a button in a physical circuit at each and every site? If some malefactor figured a way to trigger these devices, the entire country would be cut off from the world, and they’d be all “Help!  We’ve fallen and we can’t get up! Can somebody come help us?” And we’d be all “Uh… no.”

    1. We’d actually be all “Uh… yeah, we’ve got a crapload of money in their banks!”

  13. Fun fact about Swiss tunnels:  public radio stations have transmitters inside, so you can drive around the highways and never lose the signal.  As for ad-crammed commercial radio – tough luck, no signal inside.
    Sunday night public radio in Switzerland is pretty good, and I did discover this keeper by Tom Russell, “Criminology”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6i6uWs5M8o

  14. Switzerland gets so much stuff right. I’m really jealous. Any Swiss want to trade citizenship? You can be a USian. Its pretty cool…

  15. I lived in Switzerland six years and I never knew that. Finally all those frequent cannonades outside my window make sense. So awesome.

  16. Speaking as someone who is an ex corrupt dictator of an exploited third world nation and who is presently a disgustingly rich criminal of staggering evilness, it gives me a very warm glow to think my hidden funds will be safe in their Swiss bank lairs when the econopocalypse finally causes the disintegration of the world as we know it.


        1. We also offer very attractive financing options on highly trained private armies, loyal only to you and with a tenuous at best grasp of ethics and morality.

  17.  Oddly enough, exactly that happened once, during the war of 1812. (From Wikipedia):

    Less than a day after the attack began, a sudden heavy thunderstorm put out most of the fires. It also spun off a tornado that passed through part of the city, killing British troops and American civilians alike, and tossing cannons.The storm forced the British troops to return to their ships, many of which were badly damaged; the occupation of Washington lasted only about 26 hours.

          1. Actually Lederhosen are seen in surrounding Countries, but not in Switzerland.
            And I’ve never heard of any Chiliwurst specialties from Switzerland, frightening to think I’ve missed them my entire Life ;-)

  18. All mirrors in switzerland are one-way.  Behind each mirror lives a single swiss army soldier who, in case of war, will execute any foreigners or traitorous citizens(citizens may be defined as traitors in many ways, including littering, not yodeling sufficiently, and eating non triangular chocolate).  The soldiers are permanently sealed in and survive by eating the cheese that used to be where the holes are in swiss cheese. 

  19. True story: a few months ago, the Swiss Army found 400! infantry tanks in one (read: 1) of the hundreds of mountain bunkers. They just forgot they had them due to a clerical error… No joke!

    1. This happened in Miami recently too.  Only they were Toyota Priuses, and there were only 300 of them.

  20. This sounds similar to the discussion of anarchist mountain peoples in Southeast Asia in the book The Art of Not Being  Governed by James C. Scott. While reading it, I was reminded of the phrase “herding cats,” especially during the part about the Miaou people of Southern China.

  21. Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.

  22. Yep, the Swiss have never fully abandoned the “redoubt” philosophy. When I went hiking through their countryside last decade, I commonly found a scenic village with a forest, road, and mountains. The village offered allotment gardens on the edge of town, adjacent to the road, and these gardens were typically bordered by concrete ditches to entrap tanks. Running parallel to the road lay a forest trail ideal for infantry to encircle a trapped column on the road and adjacent farmland. I’m pretty sure the Swiss also had nasty surprises well oiled and sprung in the forest too. So it is the Swiss have already planned 3 and more steps ahead of the point of contact.

    1. Actually it’s not that we haven’t abandoned said philosophy. It’s just that we are to lazy to get rid of all the anti-tank crap and such ;-)

  23. I recall hearing a story about how the army blocked off a section of Swiss highway, a jet fighter landed on the road, taxied off the highway and a section of cliff face opened to admit the jet, the roadblocks were removed and everything went back to normal.  The whole thing took only a few minutes. 

Comments are closed.