Ever since I read the two volumes of the graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman two decades ago, I have been thinking how the historical context that marked our parents’ formative years impacts our lives today. My parents are not Holocaust survivors–they spent their teenage years during WW II in northern Switzerland, about 20 miles from the German border. Switzerland was completely surrounded by the Axis powers, food and other daily commodities were scarce, and practically everything was rationed. Not to speak of the daily routine of going to bed with the fear of waking up to German tanks rumbling through town.
My father was a soldier in the Swiss Army starting in 1943. He never fired a shot. I cannot possibly compare the history of my family with the tragic fate of the Spiegelman family. Yet what happened to my parents marked an entire generation in Switzerland and has been passed on to my generation. I grew up in a house of food hoarders. An entire pantry was dedicated to the storage of non-perishables, such as flour, sugar, rice, canned food and of course soap. My mother stored potatoes and apples in our cool, dark cellar, and we ate home-made jam that was always about three years old. Yes, my mother had a sophisticated labeling and rotation system. It was clear that my parents were not ever going to suffer food shortages again.
I had a dinner party at my house a week ago, and one of my sons made fun of the extraordinary amount of pasta in my pantry. This was one of these Maus moments in my life. We all laughed, including myself, because it is funny. And we had laughed about this before, and will again. Yet I know I always will store ample food supplies. I would not feel comfortable without a full pantry. And freezer. When in 2005 Hurricane Rita hit the Gulf Coast and even threatened my home in Austin, my house was ready for six additional people who had been displaced by the storm while everybody else was at the stores clearing shelves of anything that was edible.
This morning I read this headline in the online version of the German news magazine Der Spiegel : “Swiss Army chief hoards emergency supplies.” Of course, I knew right away that General André Blattmann was a kindred spirit. Apparently, he is storing about 80 gallons of mineral water (non-carbonated, in case you were wondering), wood for heating, and all kinds of food supplies. The title of the interview General Blattmann gave to the Swiss Sunday paper Schweiz am Sonntag, on which the Spiegel report was based, makes it plain that he would like all Swiss to do the same: “The Army chief advises the population to store emergency supplies.”
Blattmann points out that contemporary society has become very vulnerable to a number of threats: the crisis in Ukraine with the potential for armed conflict, the growing risk of cyber-attacks, and the possibility of accidents in nuclear power stations in or near Switzerland, all of which could cause a systemic loss of electric power and disrupt the supply of food, water, and other necessities of life. And he paints a bleak picture for the role of the army: “We need the army to prevent looting when ATM machines don’t work anymore and there is nothing to buy.” Here is the lesson Blattmann takes away from this: “If you cannot defend yourself, history will tell you what you will have to do.”
This is the essence of small-state thinking. Small states do not have the resources to shape international politics. But small states can prepare for worst-case scenarios to ensure their own survival. Switzerland always has taken the concept of Zivilverteidigung (civil defense) very seriously, and after 1945 enormous resources were spent to create nuclear shelters and underground hospitals for the general population, culminating in the publication of the Zivilverteidigungsbuch (Civil Defense Book) in 1969 which was distributed to all Swiss households. Storing food supplies and asking citizens to do the same was part of that effort. But my parents did not need that reminder.
This kind of preparedness has been the essence of the long-standing Swiss policy of neutrality which has been practiced successfully since the 16th century: keeping out of conflicts between other countries to ensure survival, and being prepared militarily to create a deterrent. The lesson of WW II clearly has been that Switzerland as a nation, but also individual Swiss citizens have to prepare the resources to be self-reliant in times of crisis as the country cannot control the outcomes of international conflicts and cannot count on being bailed out by a larger power. According to Blattmann, the conflict in Ukraine and the threat of future asymmetrical conflicts have shown that we are entering a renewed period of uncertainty that requires a higher degree of preparedness.
Blattmann’s response to this new sense of insecurity clearly is a small-state response. Just imagine General Dempsey requesting that all Americans do the same. It also is anchored in this hoarding reflex the generation that came of age during the last war has instilled in their children and grandchildren. Just check the general’s basement–or my pantry. But then, I sleep better that way, even in Texas.