Saturday, June 8, 2013

Building Bomb Shelters

By Swiss law, every dwelling built in the country since 1968 must have a bomb shelter able to withstand a blast from a 50 megaton explosion at a distance of 700 metres (by way of comparison, the Fat Man bomb detonated 600 meters above Nagasaki measured only 21 kilotons), stocked at all times with 3 weeks of rations, water, and other supplies. Why? 

Switzerland has no nuclear weapons and no enemies – not having fought a war in 500 years does have its diplomatic benefits – but has more shelter space per capita than any country on earth. The law came into effect during the worst of the cold war, and Switzerland – uncomfortably close to the German heartland that would probably have been the central battleground of a NATO-vs-Warsaw Pact land war – wisely decided upon a strong defense.

This is actually an old Swiss strategy: the Alpine Redoubt or Schweizer Alpenfestung – the retreat to the mountains. This should not be confused with surrender, since before they gave up on war Swiss mercenaries were the most feared in Europe (and continue to guard the Vatican to this day). The shelter mentality is rooted in a firm belief that the Swiss are as comfortable in the mountains (literally in them) as anyone, that the hills have always provided for the Swiss and been a natural barrier against millennia of invasions, and that when things fall apart, the hills will provide again. 

Still, the logic of the bombshelter can appear paradoxical, since it presumes that a nuclear holocaust so horrific that it destroys everything not buried underground in a reinforced concrete bunker to nonetheless be worth surviving. 

The shelter mentality, however bemusing to the non-anthropologist, is simply the practical extension of a fundamental piece of Swissness: the view that Helvetia is a place where hard work, a beautiful environment, and an admirable social order have created a singularly wonderful way of life – one worth maintaining even after the rest of the world has been destroyed. 

Who would want to emerge into such a world and face the horrors of trying to create a new life? The Swiss.

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