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ETH - Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule Zuerich - Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich
Section: Science Life
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Published: 10.02.2005, 06:00
Modified: 09.02.2005, 21:41
Conference "Nato Secret Armies and P26"
The dark side of the West

During the Cold War secret armies in all West European states prepared themselves for possible Soviet invasion. An ETH study was presented last week that shows how these hidden groups operated and did not even shrink from terror attacks against their own people.

By Felix Würsten

It is now a little more than fifteen years since the fall of the Wall in Berlin brought the Cold War to an end. The division of Europe into two hostile spheres of control that had lasted for decades was thus overcome. Previous to this each side had done everything conceivable to maintain control over its sphere of influence–at any price. That the East resorted to drastic measures during the Cold War is borne out for example by the tragic events in Hungary or former Czechoslovakia.

By contrast, there is hardly any awareness today of how cohesion in the West was maintained. True, at the beginning of the 1990s, due to revelations in Italy, Belgium and Switzerland, the public learned that the western alliance had not always been squeamish when it came to choosing its ways and means. Most states, however, steadfastly refuse to shed any light on incidents pertaining to the Cold War. Some light now comes from a new publication (1) from the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich (2), which was presented to the public last week.

Direct connections to the Pentagon

During the Cold War, explains the author of the study, Daniele Ganser, NATO set up so-called "stay-behind" networks. These were secret organisations that–in the eventuality that a country was invaded–would fight the Soviet occupying forces from the underground. There was close co-operation between the different national organisations. Co-ordination was upheld by two secret sub-divisions of "Shape", NATO's Headquarters, which was directly subordinate to top NATO commanding officer in Europe (Saceur). Direct connections also existed to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the USA and to the British Secret Service, MI6.

Secret underground armies existed also in the neutral countries. In Switzerland it was the organisation known as P26, the existence of which was brought to light in 1990 by a parliamentary committee for investigation (PUK-EMD) investigating the military department. P26 was not directly involved in the network of NATO's secret armies but it had close contact to MI6. In Austria in 1990 too, the government was obliged to admit that an underground organisation had existed.

Andreotti unveils the unbelievable

NATO's secret armies are a dark spot on the history of Western Europe. In a number of countries they attempted to influence political developments with terrorist activities. In Italy in 1990, the then Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti publicised the existence of the secret army "Gladio" under pressure from the investigators. Gladio was controlled by the military secret service Sismi and worked in close collaboration with the CIA. But apparently Gladio was also in league with the Mafia, the fascists and the Catholic Church.

The aim was to hinder–at any price–the government participation of the communists. Ministers of this party, so the fear, could pass on secrets to the Soviet Union, thus undermining NATO from the inside. Gladio did not flinch from cowardly terrorist attacks against its own people. The population was to be unsettled so they would demand more security from the state. By using false trails and exerting control over the the judiciary, Gladio succeeded in laying the blame on the political opponents.

In France and Germany (where former SS officers were involved), as well as in Norway and Belgium secret armies carried out terrorist strikes. In Greece one such was involved in a military putsch and in Turkey so-called "counter-guerrilla" groups fought against the Kurds. Following the revelations of Switzerland's PUK-EMD commission, the suspicion was voiced for the first time that P26 had carried out strikes. The suspicion, however, could not be confirmed.


Lively discussion on the hidden activities of secret service agents (from the left): Daniele Ganser (author of the study), Professor Andreas Wenger (Director of CSS, ETH Zurich), Professor Georg Kreis (Director of the Europe Institute at the University of Basle), Hans Senn (Company Commander rtd.), Helmut Hubacher (former Member of Parliament), Bruno Lezzi (journalist, NZZ). large

What did the politicians know?

In the panel discussion following the presentations Hans Senn, former lieutenant general and General Chief of Staff of the Swiss Army between 1977 and 1980, told how, in the middle of his term of office, he was informed of the existence of a secret espionage and defence organisation. He tolerated the existence of the organisation for security political reasons. It already became clear in 1980 in the wake of the Schilling/Bachmann affair that there was also a secret group in Switzerland. For this reason the later investigations of the military department by PUK-EMD appear strange, said Senn. All politicians were in a position to know that there existed a covertly operating group in Switzerland. Senn still finds it scandalous that his successor, Jörg Zumstein, was decried as a "putsch general" by the Social Democrats (SP). There can be no doubt, he said, about the democratic disposition of the commanding officers of the army.

Former Member of Parliament, Helmut Hubacher, President of SP Switzerland between 1975 and 1990, vehemently contradicted Senn. Although it had been known that "special services" existed within the army, he said, as a politician he never at any time could have known that the secret army, P26 was behind this. Hubacher pointed out that the President of PUK-EMD, the right-wing politician from Appenzell and member of the Council of States for that Canton, Carlo Schmid, had suffered "like a dog" during the commission's investigations. The world of many right-wing politicians was shattered at that time.

Incompetent media

Hubacher found it especially disturbing that P26 was not only there to organise resistance in the case of occupation. It also had a mandate to become active should the left succeed in achieving a parliamentary majority. P26 was therefore not as harmless as it is presented by the generals today. There was, however, agreement amongst those on the panel that the chances of a successful putsch happening in Switzerland had been slim.

Bruno Lezzi, journalist and military expert with the NZZ and one-time member of the sub-unit "Intelligence Service" of the Federal Department of Defence, does not doubt the democratic persuasion of those involved either. But he was astounded in 1990, he said, about the way in which the affair was handled by the media. Lezzi grants his professional colleagues a remarkably high degree of incompetence. The manner in which the administration in Berne had dealt with the matter was not exactly professional either. Instead of taking the lead and communicating openly it reacted to the revelations in the press from day to day.

With the benefit of hindsight Lezzi threw the question into the round of whether, if the situation had become serious, P26 would really have been capable of taking up the fight. On a visit to the Chechnyan capital Grozny before the war, he himself had come to realise that notions in Switzerland of what a modern war really meant were totally erroneous.

(1) Daniele Ganser: Nato's Secret Armies. Operation Gladio and Terrorism in Western Europe. Frank Cass. London 2005. Project information at:
(2) Homepage of the ETH Center for Security Studies (CSS):

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