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GENEVA, Jan 13 — The Cold War finally came to an end in Switzerland late last year, without a bang.
A quarter century after the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, the Swiss army has finally finished demining hundreds of bridges, tunnels, roads and airfields. And much to the surprise of many residents.
“We all knew about the explosives, but not that they were still there until recently!” said Hans Ulrich Buehler, mayor of a northern village on the German border whose ancient covered bridge — a big tourist draw — was packed with TNT.
The peaceful Alpine nation has not been invaded for more than two centuries but was long laced with demolition charges that could be detonated in case of a foreign invasion.
At the end of December 2014, however, “the dismantling process was completed,” Swiss army spokesman Daniel Reift told AFP.
The 13th-century wooden bridge in Mayor Buehler's village of Stein, a locality proud of its picturesque medieval centre, was one of the last structures stripped of its explosives.
The Bad Saeckingen covered bridge is on the national registry of historic monuments and straddles the Rhine to connect a German city of the same name. The fact not in the guidebook was that its foundation hid hundreds of kilos of TNT until last October.
While the inhabitants of Stein knew the bridge was once equipped with demolition charges, many were shocked to learn they had remained at the ready for so long.
“What a surprise,” Mayor Buehler told AFP.
The Swiss military began mining public infrastructure at the beginning of World War II with the aim of destroying all means of transport that could be conceivably taken by an invading army.
The campaign intensified during the 1970s, when “permanent explosive deposits” were set up to defend the small, wealthy nation at the heart of Europe against a possible attack by Communist countries to the east.
Starting in 1940, the army chiefs in forever neutral Switzerland ordered the country's soldiers to withdraw into the towering mountains in the case of an invasion, setting off a trail of explosions in their wake, Swiss historian Peter Hug told AFP.
Up to 3,000 sites mined
This strategy was broadened after the war to encompass several hundred sites.
It peaked at between 2,000 and 3,000 mined sites in the 1980s during the nuclear missile build-up amid soaring tensions between the Soviet Union and the West, Hug said.
Even after the Soviet Union disintegrated, Switzerland “continued to invest millions of Swiss francs in this doctrine,” he said, pointing for instance to a vast artillery system long situated inside the 16-kilometre Gothard tunnel.
The doctrine falls “completely within the famous 'Swiss cheese' logic,” said Julien Grand, head of the Swiss Association for Military History and Military Science.
He was referring to the Swiss strategy of “hollowing out” their towering mountains and filling them with more than 20,000 hidden bunkers, airfields and artillery positioned to take possible invaders by surprise.
The Swiss military did not acknowledge until recently that this strategy had become “obsolete,” giving in to calls for a shift towards more “mobile methods” of securing Switzerland.
But why did it take the Swiss so long to move on from the Cold War?
The military blames the small number of specialists available in the country with the knowhow to safely handle and disarm the explosives.
Hug, however, pointed the finger at Swiss culture and a consensus and referenda-based political system, which tends to slow down the decision-making process.
“Switzerland is always lagging 10 to 20 years behind other countries,” he said.
The Swiss, he said, “are not favourable to abrupt change. We need time.” — AFP