“Most armed; most free.” So the renowned Italian thinker and strategist Niccolo Machiavelli described the Swiss five centuries ago.
That was a time when the 30 ft pikes and deadly halbards (pole axes) of Switzerland’s fierce mercenary armies were the terror of Europe. The “furia Helvetica” ruled the battlefields until 1515 at Marignano when French guns, firing at point-blank range, tore apart the massed Swiss pike phalanxes.
Today, the memory of Swiss military glory is preserved at the Vatican by its colorful Swiss Guard.
Switzerland has long stayed behind its borders and observed armed neutrality, avoiding both world wars. But on voting days in the Alps, burly farmers come down from the mountains carrying their rifles, axes, and swords – reminders that Swiss independence was won and remains thanks to her people’s force of arms.
Switzerland is the world’s oldest democracy, dating from 1291. As a former resident, I believe this beautiful nation is the world’s most perfect and sensible democracy. Citizens vote directly in all major questions. The 26 Swiss cantons manage their own financial, judicial, and administrative affairs, leaving only defense, railroads, post and foreign affairs to a tiny government in Bern.
Last week, Swiss were asked to vote on a key question that keeps recurring every decade: pacifist and leftists put to referendum the proposal of eliminating national military service and disarming the Swiss Confederation.
Most Swiss are keenly aware that as one of the world’s richest nations they are always surrounded by hungry neighbors. They just watched the US hold up their banks. They voted no to the foolish referendum.
Switzerland’s independence and horde of gold have been protected by their soldiers, not by treaties or the Alps. When I was a student in Switzerland in 1960, the Swiss could mobilize 700,000 soldiers in 48 hours. Each was trained to hit targets with his rifle 300 meters away (the US Army trains at 100 meters).
Every Swiss soldier keeps his semi-automatic rifle and uniform at home in a secure compartment. Gun violence in law-abiding Switzerland is extremely rare.
All Swiss male citizen soldiers train annually and serve from the age of 19-34 years. The Swiss Army is a vital part of the national character, integrating Switzerland’s three major languages and religions.
Switzerland and France were the world’s most fortified nations. I have had the privilege of being the first non-citizen to be shown many of Switzerland’s top secret fortifications that honeycomb the Alps, blocking the gateways of St Maurice, Sargans and Gothard.
These forts, and 700,000 tough Swiss soldiers, deterred Nazi Germany and Italy from invading in 1940. The Swiss commander, Gen. Henri Guisan, sent a chilling order to his men: if the enemy attacked, they were to abandon their families and retreat to the Alpine Redoubt. “Fight to your last bullet; when your bullets are exhausted, fight with your bayonet. Die where you stand.” I keep a Swiss Army bayonet on my desk.
Germany and France wisely decided to leave the Swiss porcupine alone. Some leftist historians claim it was because the Axis needed the Swiss banks. Nonsense. Berlin and Rome had access to banks in neutral Portugal, Sweden and Turkey. The real reason was all those angry Swiss mountaineers, with their rifles zeroed in at 300 meters.
As the cold war ebbed, Switzerland slowly reduced its potent military down to today’s 155,000 – men which is not so bad for a small nation of only 8 million. Another 33% reduction will occur in 2016. The Swiss no longer fear invasion by the Soviet Red Army – a very real danger during the 1960’s.
Having been in the field with the Swiss Army, I regret seeing this once mighty force so reduced. But the same is happening everywhere else. Still, the Swiss are very right to keep compulsory military service. Young men, still immature and besotted by hormones, need military discipline and structure. I look back on my own army days as some of the best of my life.
In this cruel world, self-defense is essential. Look what happened to rich Kuwait and Libya – both pounced on and looted. Hitler thundered “I will teach these insolent Swiss cheese-makers a lesson.” Until his generals told him how much invading the high Alps would cost.
So wise old Machiavelli was right about the Swiss.