The «Zivilverteidigungsbuch» was produced in the style of the 1958 «Soldatenbuch».
The «Zivilverteidigungsbuch» was produced in the style of the 1958 «Soldatenbuch». Swiss National Museum

The civil defence of 1969: the war in people’s heads

In 1969, the Federal Council had a little red booklet distributed to every household in Switzerland. It was the Zivilverteidigungsbuch, the Civil Defence book. The book caused red faces for years…

Dominik Landwehr

Dominik Landwehr

Dominik Landwehr is a cultural and media scientist and lives in Winterthur.

In autumn 1969, a special kind of mailshot landed in every household in Switzerland. «The Zivilverteidigungsbuch» – a 320-page paperback book with an eye-catching red cover, it was printed in a run of 2.6 million copies, in all three national languages. The total cost of the controversial work came to 4.8 million Swiss francs. Both the book and the controversy surrounding it provide a glimpse of Switzerland’s mental state during the Cold War years.
Provocative illustrations played an important role in the «Zivilverteidigungsbuch».
The book was sent out by the head of the Federal Department of Justice and Police, CVP-affiliated Federal Councillor Ludwig von Moos (1910-1990). In the letter accompanying this delivery to the nation’s people, he explained the purpose of the work as follows: “The booklet is intended as a guide: in relation to future events, to trials that could beset our population, natural catastrophes and major disasters; it is also in preparation for times of potential danger to our homeland… Keep the booklet in a safe place, read it carefully, check every once in a while that everything is prepared, and do your bit to make sure we can look to the future with confidence.”
Federal Councillor Ludwig von Moos (in the middle) in Bern in 1959.
Federal Councillor Ludwig von Moos (in the middle) in Bern in 1959. Swiss National Museum / ASL
In terms of style and format, the book was based on the Soldatenbuch, a manual for Swiss Army soldiers published in 1958, and was written in the style of a guidebook for pathfinder technology. Even today, a flick through its pages will make you shudder. Natural disasters are not the main focus; instead, the booklet’s content is almost exclusively about war in our country.  The booklet was intended to prepare the civilian population for armed conflict and nuclear war. It described the course of a war from preparation to a nuclear strike, to guerrilla warfare and liberation. The scenario was based, essentially, on World War II. The Zivilverteidigungsbuch gave the public to believe that Switzerland was poised and ready to handle a nuclear strike: “When nuclear weapons are used, the impact decreases the further you get from the blast site. We must work on the assumption that everything in the core zone of the explosion will be destroyed. In a zone further out, however, where everything above ground has also been destroyed, the civilian population will have survived in the shelters.”
A possible nuclear war was one of the topics covered in the «Zivilverteidigungsbuch».
A possible nuclear war was one of the topics covered in the «Zivilverteidigungsbuch».
The work also became controversial because of the concept of the enemy that it presented: the enemy came from within as much as from without. The book painted a picture of a Switzerland that had been infiltrated by foreign ideas, by parties and organisations from abroad. Its collaborationist warnings clearly referred to the Swiss Left. In the Zivilverteidigungsbuch this is referred to as the second form of war: “The second form of war is so dangerous because it is not outwardly recognised as war. The war is concealed, obscured. It plays out against the backdrop of an outward appearance of peace, and takes the form of a civil revolution. The beginnings are small and apparently innocent – the end is as grim as the war itself.” The illustrations also deserve a mention. Firstly, factual infographics were used, but then there were also sketchy illustrations; people without recognisable faces were rendered as shadowy lines and shaded red in the relevant passages.
In addition to provocative illustrations, factual infographics were also included.
In addition to provocative illustrations, factual infographics were also included.
The production of the book was coordinated by two men, working with a group of other authors – there were no women among them: military intelligence officer Albert Bachmann (1929-2011), and historian Georges Grosjean (1921-2002). Bachmann was a colonel in the General Staff of the Swiss Armed Forces and was described as an “extraordinarily dazzling and colourful character, afflicted with certain adventurous traits”. In the late 1970s he assigned the amateurish spy Kurt Schilling to spy on the Austrian armed forces, and later tried to set up a clandestine resistance organisation. In 1979 he was forced to take early retirement. The Zivilverteidigungsbuch received a very critical reception in Switzerland, and sparked debate within the Federal Council even before it was published. The liberal Federal Councillor Hans Schaffner (1908-2004), head of the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, is said to have repeatedly pressed for a more objective representation. In parliament, there were a number of attempts on the issue. “Ultimately, the defensive tenor of the project wasn’t a good fit with the prevailing mood of the political and cultural turning point in the 1960s”, the Federal Archives now note.
Portrait of Albert Bachmann, 1981.
Portrait of Albert Bachmann, 1981. Dukas / RDB
Understandably, there was great outrage in left-wing circles, as these groups were defamed in the booklet as potential public enemies. A number of bookshops offered to exchange the free book for current books by Swiss authors, free of charge. The work was even publicly burned at a demonstration in front of the federal parliament building. The controversy was particularly intense at the Schweizer Schriftsteller Verband (SSV), the Swiss writers’ association, as SSV member Maurice Zermatten had provided the French translation of the Zivilverteidigungsbuch. In response, the Olten Group split off from the writers’ association; the group would go on to become an important voice. The Olten Group members included, among others, Peter Bichsel, Anne Cuneo, Walter Matthias Diggelmann, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Max Frisch, Vahé Godel, Ludwig Hohl, Kurt Marti, Mani Matter, Adolf Muschg, Walter Vogt and Otto F. Walter. The Olten Group only disbanded in 2002.
Demonstrators burn copies of the «Zivilverteidigungsbuch» on Bern’s Bundesplatz, December 1969.
Demonstrators burn copies of the «Zivilverteidigungsbuch» on Bern’s Bundesplatz, December 1969. Swiss National Museum / ASL
The Zivilverteidgungsbuch was an unsuccessful project, implemented at the wrong time. The high costs probably also had something to do with the long production time, of five years. The booklet was devised at the beginning of the 1960s, and by the time it finally appeared in 1969, the zeitgeist had changed: Switzerland wanted to come out of the shadow of spiritual defence, the Geistige Landesverteidigung, and turn its attentions to something new. The publication of the Zivilverteidigungsbuch was also followed abroad. The book was reprinted in a number of countries and appeared in Arabic, Chinese and Japanese, sometimes even featuring the Swiss cross.
The «Zivilverteidigungsbuch» was adopted by other countries and translated into the relevant languages.
The «Zivilverteidigungsbuch» was adopted by other countries and translated into the relevant languages. Wikimedia

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