Total Resistance: The Swiss Cold War manual inspiring Ukraine’s fight against Russia

A Swiss 1950s guerrilla warfare handbook has found new readers in Ukraine, providing inspiration to Ukrainian soldiers fighting the Russian invasion, writes Clare O'Dea.

A Swiss military member holds a flag at an army exercise. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
A Swiss military member holds a flag at an army exercise. Photo: Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Total Resistance by Major Hans von Dach was conceived as a manual on how to resist a hypothetical Soviet invasion on Swiss soil. Now it’s a bestseller in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian translation of the field manual comprises two of the original seven volumes, and was first published by Lviv-based Astrolabe Publishing in 2014, the year Russia annexed Crimea. Now in its eighth edition, 100,000 copies have been distributed in the country and it has become a symbol of resistance.

“Most of the equipment von Dach mentions is the same as what we’re using. In the regular artillery and infantry, we have mortars, rifles and grenades. And when it comes to retaking small towns and villages, you still need to send people to shoot guns,” Eugene Slavnyi, an avid reader of the manual, told The Local Switzerland.

A video producer in Kyiv in normal times, Slavnyi’s life changed completely at the end of February. Now a first lieutenant in the Ukrainian army, he has been on active duty since then and was among the troops that drove the Russian army away from the territory it had occupied north of the capital.

“I wanted to read something about warfare, not theory or inspirational stuff but practical tips. And this was the first thing that came up in Ukrainian when I googled,” Slavnyi told The Local.

“The concept of the book is the same as this Russian invasion because this book was about the Swiss protecting their motherland. I also thought the Swiss army is pretty cool and they know how to fight,” he said. 

Published in 1957, Total Resistance did not seem so far-fetched at the time, coming as it did just after the Hungarian Uprising was crushed by Soviet forces, and not long after the atrocities of Second World War. It became a bestseller but soon ran into controversy due to its popularity with subversive groups.

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Written in a friendly, accessible style with von Dach’s own hand-drawn illustrations, the book lays out the moral principles, strategic goals, tactics and military techniques of a so-called small war.

The cover of Total Resistance in German.By Hans von Dach -, digitally edited, Fair use, Creative Commons

The cover of Total Resistance in German. By Hans von Dach –, digitally edited, Fair use, Creative Commons

It gives instructions on organisation and a wide range of combat actions such as the sabotage or ambush of vehicles, disrupting railroads and communications, how to ‘dispose’ of guards, the concealment of weapons, making homemade grenades and so on.

“The part about fighting in the forest is very good so I used a lot from it, even advice like where to position machine guns and grenade launchers. It even tells you basic things like how long it takes to dig a trench,” Slavnyi said.

Born in 1927, Hans von Dach was a military theorist and prolific writer from Bern, considered an outsider in his day, according to Swiss historian and journalist Thomas Buomberger.

“Von Dach was not officially commissioned to write the book, he did it on his own initiative. He had a very good knowledge of these tactics which he explained in great detail. Because of that detail, this is a very dangerous book,” Buomberger told The Local Switzerland.

Astrolabe Publishing launched a military periodical in 2009 alongside its range of fiction, philosophy and psychology titles. When the editor-in-chief, former university professor Oleh Feschowetz, started looking for material abroad, he came across Hans von Dach’s work and obtained the Ukrainian translation rights.

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Feschowetz regularly receives messages of thanks from officers on active duty and is convinced the book has had a concrete impact on the war. “If you look at how our army units or territorial defence units operated in late February and in the first half of March in the north and east of the country, this can rightly be described as a ‘small war’, the tools of which are well described by Hans von Dach,” he told The Local Switzerland.

Astrolabe has also published four volumes of another von Dach title Combat Technique, which is aimed at training regular army units. The first edition in Ukrainian was published in 2015. Both books come with extensive footnotes added for Ukrainian readers.

“We are currently working intensively on the preparation of the remaining parts of both Total Resistance and Combat Technique, and we want to publish all of them in the near future. We reproduce the original editions absolutely accurately, without deleting anything,” Feschowetz said.

Of Astrolabe’s 100,000 copies of Total Resistance, 20,000 were distributed for free to members of the armed services. Since the Russian invasion, the book has been available to download for free from the publisher’s website. Feschowetz also plans to obtain the Belorussian rights for Total Resistance and make that available for free.

Pirated editions of the book in dozens of languages have popped up in insurgency contexts all over the world. Because it achieved a kind of cult status with militant organisations, both left-wing and right-wing, Total Resistance has had a chequered past. It was banned in Germany for many years, where it was associated with the notorious Red Army Faction.

“Since the peace euphoria of the 1990s the book has been largely forgotten in Switzerland. No one thought a guerrilla war would be fought any more,” Thomas Buomberger explained. He believes the longer the war and occupation goes on, the more useful the book will become in Ukraine.

READ MORE: Ukraine war drives sudden demand for bomb shelters in Switzerland

Total Resistance should be completely outdated but Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine also has a dated quality that matches the book, not just in some of the equipment being used but also in the aims of the offensive. Von Dach’s words from the book’s preface sound strangely prescient and would fit neatly into a speech by President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“One thing is certain. The enemy will show no mercy. The enemy will snuff out one life, dozens, hundreds or thousands without any qualm if this would further his aims. … We believe it is better to resist to the last. We believe that every Swiss woman or man must resist. We believe that the enemy cannot be allowed to feel at ease for even one minute on the conquered territory.”

A family man who loved dogs and volunteered with the Salvation Army, Hans von Dach always rejected any accusation that he advocated for violence. According to Buomberger, von Dach claimed that he simply compiled information on the different forms of military and civil resistance in the event of an occupation.

In a 1988 newspaper interview, von Dach was quoted as saying: “That’s just as much my hobby as other people who go fishing.”

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Biden accidentally congratulates Switzerland on joining NATO

NATO's latest expansion momentarily got really interesting with even Switzerland about to join -- at least for a second in a Joe Biden verbal slip Thursday.

Biden accidentally congratulates Switzerland on joining NATO

At a press conference marking the end of the NATO summit in Madrid, the US president recounted the behind-the-scenes talks putting militarily non-aligned Finland and Sweden on track to join the Western alliance in a major rebuff to Russia.

Except he misspoke, saying there was a plan to call the leader of famously neutral Switzerland about joining. Quickly realising his stumble, Biden said: “Switzerland, my goodness.”

“I’m getting really anxious here about expanding NATO,” he joked, before adding for the record: “Sweden.”

Biden, 79, has long been known for his verbal gaffes during a political career spanning half a century.

How much is too much? Understanding Switzerland’s cooperation with NATO

Why isn’t Switzerland in NATO?

NATO, an acronym for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, was created in 1949 as a response to the militarisation and expansion of the Soviet Union.

Two years earlier, a period known as the Cold War began — a state of conflict between western countries and the Soviet bloc that lasted for more than four decades.

NATO was formed in that geopolitical context to provide collective security against the rising threat posed by the Soviet Union.

Switzerland’s reason for not joining the military alliance at that time or since then was that such a move would be incompatible with the country’s longstanding tradition of neutrality — the same tradition that had kept Switzerland from joining the United Nations until 2002, and is still keeping it from joining the European Union.

EXPLAINED: Why isn’t Switzerland in NATO?

Specifically, what has kept Switzerland from becoming a member is the Article 5 of the NATO treaty — the principal of collective defence, implying that an attack on one member is viewed as an attack on all.

Switzerland’s principle of “armed neutrality” means the country can defend itself against an invasion, but it can’t engage militarily to defend other nations in an armed conflict.