In 1956 the world was on the brink of a new world war. And right in the thick of it, Switzerland acted as a mediator. But it was a tough job.
Daniel Rickenbacher is a historian and a lecturer at the University of Basel.
This October marks the 65th anniversary of the 1956 Suez Crisis. The crisis is largely forgotten today – unfairly, because Switzerland was involved in this crisis in a number of ways, and it left a deep impression on the country’s politics and its people. The problem may start with the name itself. What is actually meant by the Suez crisis? Are we only talking about the brief nine-day war that broke out in the Middle East at the end of October, or are we referring to the major events leading up to and following the war?
In the perception of those who were around at the time, the actual crisis began in late July 1956, when Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser announced to a cheering crowd in Alexandria that the Suez Canal was to be nationalised. The step was a tit-for-tat response to the US decision not to finance loans for the construction of the Aswan High Dam. The group around Gamal Abdel Nasser, known as the Free Officers, had seized power four years earlier. At first the Americans supported the young Nasser enthusiastically, and saw him as a moderniser in the style of Atatürk and a bulwark against communism and the fanatics of the Muslim Brotherhood. But Nasser soon established close ties with the Soviet Bloc, alienating the Americans.The British and French protested, accusing the Egyptians of breaking international law by nationalising the Suez Canal. Nasser refused to engage in diplomatic negotiations and was hostile to proposals to internationalise the Canal, an act which he considered a violation of Egypt’s sovereignty. The Swiss were deeply concerned by the crisis. Federal Councillor Max Petitpierre, who headed the Department of Foreign Affairs (then EPD), compared the nationalisation to Hitler’s occupation of the Rhineland in 1936, and feared an alliance between the Third World and the communist bloc under the banner of a shared hatred of the West. He toyed with the idea of organising a peace conference himself, to bring the warring parties around one table.In parallel to the diplomatic dithering, the British and French secretly prepared a military response to the nationalisation. The Israelis soon joined the Alliance. Each of these three nations had its own ‘beef’ with the Egyptian leader. France was unhappy with Egypt’s support for Algeria’s independence movement, the United Kingdom was exasperated by Nasser’s agitation against its allies in Iraq and Jordan, and the Israelis, finally, sought to put a stop to the incursion across their borders of guerrilla fighters from the Egyptian-controlled Gaza Strip. On 29 October, Israel opened the hostilities with an attack on Egyptian troops in the Gaza Strip. France and the UK followed two days later. Nasser pulled his troops back beyond the Suez Canal, saving them from certain devastation.
Before the outbreak of the war, the British and French had asked Switzerland to represent their interests in Egypt – a classic protecting power mandate such as Switzerland had already undertaken many times before. But this time it was to be different. Petitpierre appointed experienced diplomat Max König for the task. Because of the airstrikes, König and his eleven-man team had to land in the desert in the far south of the country. It was only after a long journey by boat and train, which they also used for sightseeing, that they finally reached the capital, Cairo.In Switzerland, fears of a third world war were growing in the light of the events on the Nile and the simultaneous Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising. The Soviets threatened military intervention on the Egyptian side. Contrary to expectations, the USA had not sided with its traditional allies either, and was pressing for an immediate withdrawal. Petitpierre’s idea of an international peace conference was rolled out again, but met with rejection. Following mediation by the UN the warring parties signed a ceasefire on 6 November. Finally, Switzerland was able to make a contribution to establishing peace. The country organised the transport of the UN peace-keeping forces through Swissair, and covered the costs.After the outbreak of war, Egypt had launched a wave of repression against the French, British and Jews. Tens of thousands were placed under house arrest, hundreds were interned in camps and their property was seized. Suddenly Max König was responsible for all these people. Repeated interventions with the Egyptian authorities resulted in minor improvements. But König felt helpless in the face of the Egyptian policy, which amounted to the robbing and expulsion of the minorities. He was caught between Bern, which wanted to maintain good Egyptian-Swiss relations and also sought to protect the Swiss community in Egypt, and the vulnerable groups in need of protection in Egypt, who were asking for his help. In the end, there was a scandal. König’s accusations of the Egyptians acting ‘barbarically’ became public and he had to leave the country.The ‘victory’ made Nasser a hero of the Third World overnight, and fuelled his ambitions. NZZ Middle East correspondent Hans Tütsch warned shortly after the crisis, ‘Abdel Nasser is deliberately and openly seeking to create a great empire’. In fact, Nasser’s aggressive and actionist foreign policy would go on to keep Switzerland busy in many ways. His dreams of great power ended in 1967 with Egypt’s crushing defeat in the Six-Day War against Israel. Nasser himself paid a high price for his ambitions, and the stress caused him to age prematurely. Even as early as the Suez Crisis, the Swiss ambassador in Egypt estimated Nasser to be 10 years older than he really was. The Egyptian leader died in 1970 at the age of 52.
The iron helmet in the collection at the Swiss National Museum is said to have once protected the head of Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531) as he lay dying. Though there is no evidence of the actual origin of this Catholic trophy.