Echoes of Switzerland’s secretive past still linger, buried deep in the mountains and foothills of its deceptively bucolic landscape. It reverberates in thousands of tunneled bunkers conceived as a tactical fortress against Hitler’s advance. Known as the “Defense du Réduit” strategy, the bunkers were built as a hideout for government and army commanders in case of an invasion. These cavernous war rooms, used right up until the late 20th century, were the country’s last hope of survival.
But it is the mystery rather than the history that led photographer Reto Sterchi to document what he calls the “Swiss Mountain Myth.” As a boy, he used to play by a river at the foot of the Alps where the ruined remains of a bunker protruded from the waters.
“It was like a boulder, but sticking out of it was a machine gun,” Sterchi tells National Geographic. “I was like: ‘What the hell is this? What is inside it?’” But he was forbidden to explore any further.
That hidden world was finally laid bare years later, when he was a 20-year-old serving in the army. During training, the sergeant told him and his fellow soldiers to go down a set of stairs at the foot of a mountain. “We went 300 steps down and were suddenly inside this mountain,” says Sterchi. He didn’t end up seeing daylight for three weeks: “I remember getting lost with my friend. It took four or five days to find out the layout, they're that big. You never knew what time it was, but it didn’t seem to matter.”
But it wasn’t until the summer of 2010 that he started to explore Switzerland’s underworld in earnest. There is very little information about the bunkers online and no photographic record of them when they were in use. “I realized there was no photo project about them,” he said. “And I needed to be the guy who did it.”
Access proved difficult, despite the government opening many to the public in the late 1990s. The military was uncooperative, preferring to keep the bunkers shrouded in secrecy. He relied instead on members of the public who had privately acquired them and either preserved them or turned them into personal playgrounds. The first bunker he encountered of this kind was owned by an eccentric man who liked to drive his Ferrari through the warren of tunnels and used one room as a James Bond-style weapons chamber. “Of course I couldn’t photograph it,” he says. “But that’s an example of the type of characters they are.”
Sterchi realized he was really drawn to those that had been left untouched, suspended in time as if people had been camped out there just yesterday. From a dining hall with the tables laid out for dinner to an operating theater with everything but a doctor and patient, the rooms show just how fully formed this secret strategy was.
Though wildly different in size and shape, the interiors have a strangely consistent palette. The mustard yellows, rose pinks, and pistachio greens give the bunkers a kitschy appeal. But they were not designed to be aesthetically pleasing, Sterchi says—only to be bearable after weeks and possibly months of captivity.
The preference of functionality over style became the crux of his project. “Everything was built for purely practical reasons. There were no aesthetics involved whatsoever, but they are very interesting to look at,” he says. “I thought that contrast was really fascinating.”
The "myth" and mystery that surrounded these mountain caverns when Sterchi was a boy has somewhat dampened since. “A lot of military types have played up the secrecy of the whole thing as if the Russians were about to invade tomorrow,” he says. “It feels so antiquated now, that whole world view.”