I was just looking through my quarterly magazine called ‘Swiss Review” that arrives regularly like clockwork in my house and an article about the history of Swiss Mercenaries caught my attention.
In school we were taught that the Swiss soldiers had a reputation of being fierce. The Swiss guard at the Vatican started out like that a long time ago. As the center Cantons are primarily catholic it stands to reason that only catholic men can join the guard and many are from those central Cantons.
I am not sure for how long this article is going to be reachable through this link as I had to go searching for it, I am putting the content here:
Switzerland – a warfare service provider
Mercenaries do not have a good reputation. The Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi attempted for months to prevent his fall from power in October 2011 with foreign troops. The UN recently warned of a worrying rise in the number of mercenaries in Africa. The use of “external military forces” is outlawed in Switzerland but that has not always been the case. The Swiss were among the most sought-after mercenary forces for half a millennium. Well over a million Swiss mercenary soldiers fought on the battlefields of Europe. They were renowned for their brutality and boldness, which made them much coveted and feared in equal measure. They served almost every European power. At one stage, one in three of the French army’s infantry came from Switzerland. And in the 19th century, liberation movements were often confronted with Swiss troops serving royal dynasties in decline. Swiss mercenaries of old are a far cry from the idyllic image of the modern-day papal Swiss Guard as an historic relic.
Probably no other phenomenon had a stronger influence on pre-modern Switzerland than its mercenaries. Journalist Jost Auf der Maur points out that it is strange that there is little general awareness of this extraordinary historical phenomenon. Extensive research has been carried out into mercenaries in military history, but the cultural history and socio-political dimension has largely been overlooked. In his book “Söldner für Europa” (Mercenary soldiers for Europe), Auf der Maur highlights this black hole in Swiss history. He felt obliged to do so as many of his direct ancestors were officers in the pay of foreign powers.
In one respect, it was a “dirty business”, one that established an aristocracy founded on the mercenary trade and wielding political power. The book’s illustrated annex impressively shows the financial gains of Swiss mercenary entrepreneurs, which were turned into architecture – stately homes built on blood in the truest sense of the word in many parts of Switzerland. Mercenary soldiers who avoided death on the battlefield often returned home in poverty, mutilated and suffering from alcoholism. Switzerland suffered huge population loss.
On the other hand, the long periods abroad resulted in a transfer of knowledge. Those who managed to return home in good health and perhaps even with some prosperity brought culture and knowledge from many foreign countries with them. Auf der Maur even claims that Switzerland would not have survived without its foreign mercenaries. The courts of Europe had become so dependent on Swiss troops that they refrained from attacking their supply line of soldiers. The Swiss were able to call their troops home whenever they needed them for themselves. A mechanism was practised here that gradually became an ever stronger commitment to neutrality.
Based on his family history, Jost Auf der Maur provides new, fascinating and sometimes disconcerting insights into a turbulent and underappreciated chapter in Swiss history.
The “Swiss Review” keeps me abreast of what is happening in Switzerland and more often than not I learn something that I never knew or was even aware of. Why do I receive it? Every Swiss citizen registered with their local embassy is automatically subscribed. I guess, that is how Switzerland keeps track of its citizens living abroad.