The Swiss border may have been well-guarded during World War II, but there were always ways to slip across.
The Swiss border may have been well-guarded during World War II, but there were always ways to slip across. Swiss National Museum

Smuggling in the tri-border area

Especially in times of scarcity, smuggling has been an important activity, and for people in the tri-border area where Switzerland meets Germany and France it has been no different. The complicated lines of the border made smuggling even more attractive here.

Jacqueline Plum

Jacqueline Plum

Jacqueline Plum is a historian and author and advises non-profit organisations on fundraising and communication.

During both world wars, Germany suffered severe shortages. In neighbouring Switzerland people could get goods that were either very expensive or difficult for Germans to get in their own country. Coffee, tobacco and chocolate in particular were brought across the border into South Baden in large quantities. But in those times, it was not unusual for political writings to be brought in covertly as well.
The map shows just how closely Switzerland, Germany and France are interlinked.
The map shows just how closely Switzerland, Germany and France are interlinked. © GE GeoRhena / GISOR - Oberrheinkonferenz
After the First World War, smuggling flourished between South Baden and Switzerland. The supply situation in Germany had deteriorated steadily as a result of the war. The growing economic differences between the two countries were particularly evident in the border area, where prosperity and poverty coexisted side by side. In the South Baden town of Lörrach, the daily ration of bread and flour was 300 grams and meat was rationed at a weekly 200 grams – while across the border in the neighbouring Swiss village of Riehen and in Basel, the Germans saw full shelves and overflowing display windows in the bakeries and butchers’ shops. Just a few kilometres separated the people of Lörrach from the “shop window to a better world”. Looking across the border was not only tantalising, but also vital. However, shopping in Switzerland was made more difficult by the meagre import allowances. For example, in 1920 the minor cross-border traffic between north-west Switzerland and South Baden allowed each household to bring in only half a kilo of coffee and half a kilo of tinned meat every 15 days. In addition, strict identity checks made border-crossing a more complicated affair. The borders were open until 1914, but during World War I they were closed and border controls were introduced. Even after 1918 the borders were strictly guarded and crossing was carefully regulated. It was only after a long delay that the borders were opened further. That meant the green border was hugely important for bringing coffee, chocolate and tobacco from Switzerland into neighbouring Germany. The so-called ‘Eiserne Hand’, the ‘Iron Hand’, a piece of forested land two kilometres long and around 150 metres wide, is an area of Swiss land that extends into German territory like a finger. It is part of the municipality of Riehen, which is located in the northeast of the canton of Basel-Stadt. The ‘Iron Hand’ has always been a chink in Germany’s armour for refugees and small-time smugglers. But professional smugglers also used this route, bringing sought-after goods such as coffee, tobacco and chocolate into South Baden in large quantities.
The Eiserne Hand, or Iron Hand, on a map dating from 1923.
The Eiserne Hand, or Iron Hand, on a map dating from 1923. Collection of the Dreiländermuseum Lörrach, K 20-918
Alsace also took advantage of this route for the covert exchange of goods with Switzerland, especially in the period up to 1918 when the area was under German administration and the export of foods into Switzerland was banned. Alsatian farmers brought cheese, potatoes, milk and eggs to Allschwil in Switzerland under cover of night, and returned undetected with chocolate, coffee, saccharin, tobacco, soap and petrol. A good opportunity for smuggling was provided by a local railway line that ran for a few kilometres across Alsatian territory – smugglers used it to throw Swiss goods off the moving train. During and after World War II as well, smuggling flourished on the German-Swiss border, despite blockades and tight controls. The ‘Iron Hand’ merits another mention here. At the outbreak of World War II, the border with Switzerland was closed and entry was only possible with a visa. In 1942 the German authorities sealed their border with a barbed wire barricade. When, in the summer of 1942, they set 500 young men from the Reichsarbeitsdienst (the Reich Labour Service) to work erecting a barbed wire fence between Germany and Switzerland the Germans, seeking to economise on the almost four kilometre border fence around the piece of forest making up the ‘Iron Hand’, asked the Swiss whether they would seal off the strip. Their proposal was that Switzerland erect a 150-metre long fence on its own territory. However, for reasons of territorial law Bern refused to do so. So despite the border closure, there was still a loophole at that point even during World War II.
Smuggler’s shoe with a hollowed-out sole.
Book repurposed for smuggling.
Smuggler’s shoe with a hollowed-out sole, and a book repurposed for smuggling. Both objects were collected in the early 19th century by a customs officer serving on the French border in Allschwil. Allschwiler Heimatmuseum
The increasing smuggling of goods in the period after 1918 led to tight controls by the customs authorities, and severe penalties for those caught. On 25 March 1919, the Oberbadische Volksblatt reported that 100 people were in custody at the Lohnhof in Basel, the city’s prison at the time. They had been caught trying to cross the border between Switzerland and Germany without authorisation. Especially in the first few years after World War II, the day-to-day smuggling of goods was severely punished. Even during that period, the allowances were so small that people were tempted into smuggling. People caught committing minor smuggling offences were allowed to choose whether they wanted their charges dealt with in what was known as an ‘Unterwerfungsverfahren’ (submission proceedings), or in ordinary judicial proceedings. In the former, the perpetrator was required to admit to his crime and at the same time accept the penalty imposed. After this so-called ‘Unterwerfungsverhandlung’ (submission trial), the ‘offender’ had to confirm this in writing. The result was that the ‘act’ was entered in the criminal register. There were times when someone was given a criminal record for a smuggled pack of cigarettes.
‘Allo’ the coffee sniffer dog in action. Reproduced from the chronicle of the Hauptzollamt (main customs office), Lörrach.
‘Allo’ the coffee sniffer dog in action. Reproduced from the chronicle of the Hauptzollamt (main customs office), Lörrach. Collection of the Dreiländermuseum Lörrach
It wasn’t only food that was smuggled; political writings and publications also crossed the border covertly. Especially in exceptional times, it was very important for parties and political groups to print leaflets, newspapers and books in other countries and then smuggle them into their own country. When political parties were banned in 1933, Germany’s social democrats and communists could only exist in secret and operate outside the law. During the Nazi era, they relied on smuggling. Leaflets printed abroad were brought into Germany in litter bins on the trams between Riehen and Lörrach or in bicycle inner tubes, and distributed into the country’s interior from the border.
Border between Riehen and Lörrach.
Border between Riehen and Lörrach. ETH Bibliothek Zurich, Image Archive
Swiss people were also involved in the political cross-border traffic. Brothers Robert and Fritz Kehrli from Basel, for example. On numerous occasions they smuggled communist printed material to Lörrach in Fritz Kehrli’s wheelchair, and delivered the papers to a hairdresser’s salon in the village. From there the writings were circulated throughout Germany by other people. In December 1934 there was a dramatic incident. A German customs officer knocked over the wheelchair when the pair were crossing the border, and the illegal material was revealed. The disabled Fritz crawled back to the line of demarcation while his brother Robert stood over him protectively on the German frontier. Robert Kehrli was then arrested and only returned to Switzerland after five years in a German prison.

SPD flag brought to safety

After the National Socialists seized power and the SPD was banned in June 1933, associates from Lörrach smuggled the traditional flag of the Allgemeine Arbeiterbund (General Workers’ Union), which is still the party’s flag, from Lörrach across the border into Switzerland in a baby’s pram. Here it was safe. The flag had already found a safe place to stay in Switzerland during the era of the anti-socialist laws brought in by Germany’s Imperial Chancellor von Bismarck.
Party flag of the SPD, which was brought to Switzerland in 1933.
Party flag of the SPD, which was brought to Switzerland in 1933. Collection of the Dreiländermuseum Lörrach, F 105
The smuggling of political writings from Switzerland to Germany had a certain ‘tradition’ even before the two world wars. The anti-socialist laws in force from 1878 to 1890 banned socialist, social democratic and communist groups, as well as the printing and distribution of their writings. Both were legal in Switzerland at that time, and the Basel police took a liberal attitude to smugglers found taking the publications across the border into Germany. In general, it can be said that the social democratic movement in Lörrach, which was only established in 1868, would have remained in the background for much longer had it not been for the support coming from Riehen and Basel while the anti-socialist laws were in force. In the Reichstag elections in 1890, for example, the movement made progress with a five per cent share of the votes in the entire constituency. For the first time, the Baden Social Democrats as a whole were represented by a member of the Reichstag.

Dreiländermuseum Lörrach (Three Countries Museum)

The Dreiländermuseum Lörrach regularly stages exhibitions on topics relating to the three countries. The Museum devoted a special exhibition, which was accompanied by a booklet, to the subject of border history and smuggling in the tri-border area.

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