Excerpt from the informational film produced by the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Protection ‘La vie dans l’abri’ [‘Life in the shelter’], 1984. Condor Documentaries Zürich / VBS

Shelters – a Swiss phenomenon

Hidden amidst the single-family homes, blocks of flats and public facilities in Switzerland are approximately 360,000 shelters designed to offer protection in the event of war breaking out. The protective structures, which today are used as wine cellars, hobby rooms or storage areas, were for the most part built during the Cold War.

Jost Auf der Maur

Jost Auf der Maur

Jost Auf der Maur is a Swiss journalist and author, he has received several awards for his reports and lives in Chur, Switzerland.

Since 24 February 2022, bombs have been falling in Europe once again – not only on Ukraine’s military facilities, but also on unprotected residential homes in cities with populations numbering in the millions. Pictures of people seeking protection in underground stations in the capital city of Kyiv have made their way around the world. This probably reminds many in Switzerland that civilians here have access to specially designed shelters. Of course, this is not a matter of chance but the result of a deliberate course of action. On 24 May 1959, the majority (62.3%) of Swiss men voted yes to a civil protection clause in the Federal Constitution. This political bill should be understood in its historical context: the carpet bombing attacks of the Second World War and the use of two atomic bombs against Japan dramatically illustrated the consequences to the population. Furthermore, within twenty years of the end of the Second World War, the USA, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France and China were building up their arsenal of atomic weapons. In Switzerland, a few ‘falcon’ members among the military and political establishment were convinced that the answer was likewise to equip the army with atomic weapons. Federal Councillor Karl Kobelt gave the secret order in 1946: “Creation of a Swiss uranium bomb or other applicable weaponry based on the principle of the use of atomic energy.” The situation didn’t come to that. On the other hand, the plan to build shelters was assiduously pursued. The purpose: to protect people and their livelihoods “in the event of major incidents of loss, catastrophes, emergencies and armed conflicts”. In 1963, the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Protection (BZS) was set up.
Air-raid shelter in Muri, Berne, 1968.
Air-raid shelter in Muri, Berne, 1968. ETH-Bibliothek Zürich / Comet Photo AG
The results may sound surprising: there is currently a place in a shelter available for every Swiss resident. Around 360,000 private underground shelters and approximately 2,300 large public shelters exist. Based on the population count, there is even currently an oversupply of places in shelters. The obligation to provide shelter for homeowners and communities has not been lifted without replacement, however; in villages where there are already enough shelter places, a replacement payment will be made. Switzerland also has underground hospitals that have over 50,000 protected hospital beds. Men and women undergo civil protection training. Of course, extensive “technical instructions for the construction of compulsory shelters” (TWP) apply. The motto: standardised, strong, simple, practical. Switzerland is (almost) unique in taking such precautions; only Sweden and the city state of Singapore have followed suit. If placed end to end, the shelter facilities in Switzerland (which were often built on opencast mining structures) would create a tunnel approximately 1,200 kilometres long – long enough to stretch from Zurich to Algiers. Civil protection is one of the country’s biggest national projects, comparable with the OASI (Federal Old-age, Survivors’ and Invalidity Insurance) system, the national road network or the railways.
"Life in the shelter": The informational film produced by the Swiss Federal Office for Civil Protection illustrates what needs to be considered in the event of a disaster when living in a shelter, 1984. Condor Documentaries Zürich / DDPS
Many people in Switzerland are aware of the private shelters in the cellar at least from illustrations. The striking installations have ultra-thick walls of reinforced concrete; heavy, 500-kilogram doors with weighty handles for gas-proof locking; metal explosion protection valves; an emergency exit and potentially a box with an earth closet. Shelters must be equipped with a hand-operated filter pump, which, in the event of emergency, can be used for the back-breaking work of manual cranking – to keep the air breathable and safe from unwelcome chemical and biological particles. Most shelters are not empty but are used as wine cellars, hobby rooms or storage areas. When, on 1 November 1986, agrochemicals burning in the Schweizerhalle industrial complex near Basel created a toxic cloud over the city and people had to stay at home, the shelters were not ready for use.
Members of the civil defence inspect a shelter, 2011.
Members of the civil defence inspect a shelter, 2011. Clemens Laub / DDPS
Cultural identity is one of the foundations of an intact civil society. Cultural property should also therefore be protected; in 1962, Switzerland joined the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. A national memorial has therefore been set up deep underground in Heimiswil in the Emmental district. Cultural assets are characterised, among other things, by the fact that they are unique and irreplaceable – in contrast to electronic data, gold and money. In the event of their destruction, these cultural assets should at least be able to be reconstructed true to the original, whether they are buildings, documents or works of art. For archiving purposes, the relevant information is stored on silver salt microfilm, kept safe in steel containers and stored in containers at 10 degrees Celsius and 35% humidity. This ensures they can be stored safely for 500 years.
In addition to the microfilm archive in Heimiswil, the cultural assets shelter in Hausen am Albis, a former military facility, is available for storing federal cultural assets in an emergency.
In addition to the microfilm archive in Heimiswil, the cultural assets shelter in Hausen am Albis, a former military facility, is available for storing federal cultural assets in an emergency. Swiss National Museum
Fulfilling the need for providing protection also produced strange results, however. One example of this is the bunker city of Sonnenberg in Lucerne, which was designed to offer 20,000 people shelter in the event of a third world war. Yet the technicians and engineers did not take into account the simple facts of everyday human life. The bunker city – a monument to the Cold War that, today, is a popular tourist destination – fails to fulfil its intended purpose.
View of a larger civil protection facility in Berneck: sleeping area.
View of a larger civil protection facility in Berneck: sleeping area. Wikimedia / Kecko
Image 01 of 06
View of a larger civil protection facility in Berneck: eating area.
View of a larger civil protection facility in Berneck: eating area. Wikimedia / Kecko
Image 01 of 06
View of a larger civil protection facility in Berneck: washing area.
View of a larger civil protection facility in Berneck: washing area. Wikimedia / Kecko
Image 01 of 06
View of a larger civil protection facility in Berneck: technical facilities.
View of a larger civil protection facility in Berneck: technical facilities. Wikimedia / Kecko
Image 01 of 06
View of a larger civil protection facility in Berneck: infirmary.
View of a larger civil protection facility in Berneck: infirmary. Wikimedia / Kecko
Image 01 of 06
View of a larger civil protection facility in Berneck: communications facilities.
View of a larger civil protection facility in Berneck: communications facilities. Wikimedia / Kecko
Image 01 of 06
Switzerland is a global phenomenon with regard to its fully constructed underground protection for civilians. The opportunity to flee deep underground has been democratically agreed and seems to fit the Swiss national mentality. In other countries, many billions are spent on free medical treatment. Yet other nations spend the money on indirectly buying themselves time instead of pulling thick concrete covers over their heads in fear of an uncertain future. Friedrich Dürrenmatt wrote pointedly that: “The Swiss are antediluvian beings in expectation of the Flood.” Nonetheless, we have chosen what suits us.

Further posts

Address & contact
Swiss National Museum
Landesmuseum Zürich
Museumstrasse 2
P.O. Box
8021 Zurich
info@nationalmuseum.ch

Design: dreipol   |  Realisation: whatwedo
Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).