Switzerland's World War II Bunkers Get a Second Life

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Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters

The Swiss Fort Knox bunker in the mountains near the Swiss Alpine resort of Saanen

Switzerland may be famous for its banks, but not many people know about the one that lies hidden underneath the Alps. The cavernous underground vault, which is protected round-the-clock by armed men in black fatigues and has blast- and bullet-proof doors, is strong enough to withstand terrorist attacks and natural disasters. But when it was first carved out below a mountain in the Swiss town of Saanen half a century ago, the vault was designed to withstand a different kind of attack — one by the German army. It used to be a World War II bunker, and, like thousands of other old bunkers around Switzerland that had stood empty for decades, it now has a second life as something else entirely.

Although Switzerland had been neutral for four centuries, when the Nazis started invading countries to its east and west in 1939, the tiny nation decided to batten down the hatches. The Swiss military dug over 20,000 bunkers in the Alps, allowing its soldiers to stay hidden — along with their weapons, ammunition, and other supplies — and defend the country in case of an attack.

The government maintained its tight network of military fortifications until the end of Cold War. Then, in the 1990s, it started to sell or rent some of the bunkers to private companies and other civilian organizations. Now these underground fortresses are used as everything from hotels, banquet halls and seminar centers to museums, stables, and, in at least one case, a storage room for cheese.

Thanks to its tight security, the Saanen fort, which during the war served as an Air Force command post, is called the Swiss Fort Knox. It is co-owned by SIAG, a technology-security company whose CEO, Christoph Oschwald, knew of the bunker's existence from his own army days. He figured its impregnable cement walls made it the perfect place to store digital data. "To build a high-tech data bank with the highest level of security would cost about $250,000," says Oschwald, whose company also runs another digital bank in a former underground military bunker in the nearby town of Zweisimmen. "So to use one that was already built made sense."

Oschwald says clients from 30 countries use the underground facility at Saanen to store their digital data, "anyone from a student storing files from his computer to an international corporation that wants its data accessed from anywhere in the world." The Swiss Fort Knox is so secure that European scientists have chosen to store the "digital genome" behind one of its 3.5-ton doors. Created by the four-year, $18.4 million Planets project, the digital genome has to be locked away securely because of its value to future generations—it's a time capsule from which scientists will be able to recreate certain types of present-day digital file formats, should they one day become obsolete.

Southeast of Saanen, inside the massive St. Gotthard mountain, there lies another fort, this one used during the war as an artillery stronghold. In 2004, it was converted into a hotel called La Claustra. For those not suffering from claustrophobia, the four-star facility, open from May to December, offers a spa, a conference center, and the boasting rights that come with staying in a hotel hewn deep into the mountain rock.

Other demobilized bunkers — such as those in the towns of Crestwald and Vitznau — provide no-frills group accommodation, and give visitors the chance to participate in special events like Swiss Army Nights, where participants rough it out on military bunk beds in much the same way as the soldiers who guarded this secret fortress did in the 1940s. Still other former army bunkers have been turned into museums displaying the now-obsolete weaponry and rudimentary shelter that discreetly protected thousands of troops for months at a time.

Some of the old bunkers can't be rented or sold because they are still used by the military, says Kai-Gunnar Sievert, a spokesman for armasuisse, the procurement agency of the Swiss Armed Forces. Sievert adds that the price for buying a bunker ranges from several hundred to $2 million, "depending on its exploitability."

According to Véronique Kanel, spokeswoman for Switzerland Tourism, the country's official tourist body that promotes some of the military fortresses as unique attractions, it's easy to see why people are still interested in the disused underground caverns. "The army and the bunkers are deeply anchored in our tradition and in the history of Switzerland," she explains. And with Switzerland's now downsized military maintaining the country's neutral reputation, the transformed bunkers are, in a sense, symbols of the nation's farewell to arms.