Written By: Wessel Meijer
Edited by Piotr Kosik
Supervised by Ginevra Bertamini
On 18 September 2023, Lieutenant General Süssli announced that Switzerland will halt the selling of bunkers and reintegrate them within the national defence strategy. This decision marks a significant change to Switzerland’s previous policy (Allen, 2023, para. 2). In 2010, the Swiss Defence Minister Maurer stated: “The nature of military threats has changed. The bunkers are poorly placed and the weapons they contain will only last for another ten or twenty years. It’s not worth maintaining something that you’re not going to use in the future” (Allen, 2023, para. 4). However, the Russo-Ukrainian war has revived the interest in the military potential of bunkers, which is in line with a broader trend among European governments (Last, 2022, paras. 1-2).
Captivating photos of Ukrainian civilians sheltering in air raid shelters and bunkers have awakened European governments to reinvest in their bunker infrastructure (Last, 2022, paras. 3). For example, in April 2022, the Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser announced that Germany will upgrade its existing public shelter systems (Reuters, 2023, para.3). Furthermore, the Romanian government is currently building a bunker infrastructure near the Ukrainian border (Euronews, 2023, para.2). After World War II, Western governments made massive investments in their bunker networks. However, as the development of nuclear weapon technology became ever more advanced, bunkers became obsolete. Furthermore, the relatively peaceful ending of the Cold War resulted in many European governments neglecting their bunker network as an essential part of their defence. Nevertheless, the return of high-intensity war on the European continent confronted them with their wishful thinking (Last, 2022, paras. 3-7).
Bunkers have traditionally played an important role in preserving Swiss neutrality. Starting from 1886, Switzerland built its first significant defence bunker to protect itself against foreign invasions. In 1937, General Henri Guisan developed the National Redoubt strategy, which had to turn the country into ‘the largest fortress of Europe’ by constructing an extensive network of bunkers and fortifications. This development allowed the Swiss military to defend the Alpine passes and secure the key transit routes. There are currently about 8000 estimated bunkers spread throughout Switzerland (Franklin & Wiegmann, 2016, paras. 8-18). The rise of nuclear tensions led to the decision to build an additional 370.000 fallout shelters to secure every individual household (Allen, 2023, para.15).
Although the bunkers were well maintained throughout the Cold War era, high maintenance costs and budget cuts have resulted in a majority of them being sold to entrepreneurs (House of Switzerland, 2019, para. 3; Allen, 2023, para. 16). Since then, many shelters were turned into different facilities, such as data centres, mushroom farms, hotels, museums, and art projects (Allen, 2023, para. 17). Nevertheless, the spirit of fortification has been revived. The Swiss army is currently cataloguing its combat and command facilities in order to maximise its capacity (SWI, 2023, para. 2). They will take full use of the existing infrastructure, such as the 100 bunkers that were modernised with automatic mortars in 2003 (Allen, 2023, para.8; SWI, 2023, para.5). As Lieutenant General Süssli stated: “We always have to protect our shelters and camps first before we can protect others” (SWI, 2023, para. 3).
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