Swiss History

From the Encyclopedia Britannica CD 1997 Edition

See also: the rise of infantry in the 1200s

Morgarten, Battle of

(Nov. 15, 1315), the first great military success of the Swiss Confederation in its struggle against the Austrian Habsburgs. When the men of Schwyz, a member state of the confederation, raided the neighbouring Abbey of Einsiedeln early in 1314, the Habsburg duke Leopold I of Austria, who claimed jurisdiction in the area, raised an army of knights for an invasion of Schwyz from Zug by way of the Morgarten Pass alongside Lake Egeri (Ägerisee). The men of Schwyz, however, and some confederates from Uri caught the Austrians before they were out of the pass, killed more than 1,500 of them outright, drove others in the lake, and put the rest to flight.

Swiss eidgenossen, or "oath brothers," learned that an unarmoured man with a seven-foot (200-centimetre) halberd could dispatch an armoured man-at-arms. Displaying striking adaptability, they replaced some of their halberds with the pike, an 18-foot spear with a small, piercing head. No longer outreached by the knight's lance, and displaying far greater cohesion than any knightly army, the Swiss soon showed that they could defeat armoured men-at-arms, mounted or dismounted, given anything like even numbers. With the creation of the pike square tactical formation, the Swiss provided the model for the modern infantry regiment.

The victory ensured the survival of the confederation, which was formally renewed less than a month later (Pact of Brunnen, Dec. 9, 1315). Because of the prestige won by Schwyz in the battle, the confederation as a whole became known by forms of this name (e.g., Schweiz [German], Suisse [French], Svizzera [Italian], or Switzerland).

For more on military technology in Europe from the 1200s on, see: The Rise of the Infantry

The Halberd And Pike

Pikes were used by the Scots against Edward I at Falkirk in 1298 and by the Flemish against French chivalry at Courtrai in 1302. Subsequently they became the specialty of the Swiss, who, for topographical and economic reasons, never had much use for horses and knightly trappings. A Haufe (German: "heap") of Swiss infantry had much in common with a Macedonian phalanx, except that it was smaller and more maneuverable. Most of the troops seem to have been lightly armoured, wearing helmet and corselet but not being burdened by either greaves or shield. Hence, they possessed good mobility and formidable striking power. The first shock would be delivered by the pikes sticking out in front, after which the halberdiers would leave formation to do their deadly work. The Swiss differed from the Macedonians in that they did not combine the phalanx with cavalry but relied on infantry for both fixing the enemy and striking him. Usually they entered battle in three columns moving independently, thus permitting a variety of maneuvers as well as mutual support. An enemy could be engaged from the front, then hit in the flank by a second Haufe following the first in echelon formation.

Though it is hard to be certain, apparently the hard-marching Swiss possessed sufficient operational mobility to keep up with cavalry, at any rate in confined terrain such as Alpine valleys. If the worst occurred and an isolated column was caught in the open, the troops could always form a square or hedgehog, facing outward in all directions while keeping up a steady fire from their crossbows and relying on their pikes to keep the opposing horse at a respectful distance until help arrived. Whereas the Scots inhabited a northern wilderness, the Swiss were located in the centre of Europe, and, whereas the Flemish went down in front of French chivalry at Roosebeke in 1382, the Swiss won a series of spectacular victories at Morgarten (1315), Laupen (1339), Sempach (1386), and Granson (1476). These two factors combined to give Swiss tactics a reputation in Europe. From about 1450 to 1550, every leading prince either hired Swiss troops or set up units, such as the German Landsknechte, that imitated their weapons and methods--helping to bring down the entire feudal order.

Swiss burghers and peasants, fighting for their freedom in Alpine valleys where cavalry had little room to maneuver, brought about a return of the phalanx. This consisted of one-fifth missile weapons (chiefly the crossbow), one-fifth spears, and three-fifths halberds (eight-foot shafts with the blade of an ax, the point of a spear, and a hook for pulling a rider out of the saddle). Discarding all armour except for the helmet and cuirass, the Swiss were able to march 30 miles a day and attack with a celerity and discipline that were disconcerting to their adversaries.





Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531), the great figure in Swiss Protestantism, was in fact if anything more committed to military action than Müntzer because he fell as a combatant with sword and helmet on the field of battle. He became a Reformer independently of Luther, with whom he was entirely in accord as to justification by faith and predestination. At certain points Zwingli drew from Erasmus and Karlstadt, notably with respect to the disparagement of the sensory aids to religion.

Zwingli, though an accomplished musician, considered that the function of music was to put the babies to sleep rather than to worship God. The organ was dismantled and the images removed from the cathedral at Zürich. The Lord's Supper was understood by Zwingli in his most extreme period simply as a memorial of Christ's death and, on the part of the recipient, as a public declaration of faith with more significance for the members of the congregation who saw him take his stand than for his own spiritual life. Zwingli could the more readily retain the baptism of infants because it was simply a recognition that the child belongs to the people of God as the child in the Old Testament belonged by circumcision to Israel. The analogy with Judaism applied at many points, for Zwingli regarded the Christian congregation as the new Israel of God, an elect people, reasonably identifiable, not as with Müntzer by the new birth but by adherence to the faith. This company could be called theocratic in the sense that it was under the rule of God, whom church and state should alike serve in close collaboration. The identification of the whole populace of Zürich with this elect people was the more tenable because those not in accord with the ideal were disposed to leave. Zwingli approved of even an aggressive war to forestall interference from the Roman Catholic cantons. In the second war of Kappel he fell in 1531.

In Zwingli's circle arose the group who formed the mainstay of the radical Reformation. They shared with Zwingli, and with all the reformers to a degree, the desire to restore the church to the primitive pattern, but they were more drastic in their restitution. Manifestly the early church had not been allied with the state. Luther, Zwingli, and other Reformers saw no sense in forcing the church back into the period when the state was hostile and the Christians were persecuted. After the state became Christian, there could very well be a close alliance, as indeed there had been in ancient Israel.

Swiss-German literature of the Reformation.

The activities of the religious reformer Huldrych Zwingli had an indirect influence on literature. Zwingli himself wrote mainly in Latin. The so-called Zürich Bible of 1529 was gradually adapted to conform with the Luther Bible, which tightened the connection between Swiss and German writings. As a result of Zwingli's work, the Protestant majority of German-speaking Switzerland established a permanent connection with Protestant parts of western Switzerland and with Protestant countries abroad. The anonymous play about William Tell from the canton of Uri was a forceful and popular expression of Swiss patriotism. Gilg Tschudi's Chronicon Helvetikum (1734-36 "Swiss Chronicle"), covering the years 1000-1470 in Swiss history, endured as literature.

Swiss neutrality.

Switzerland remained neutral during the Franco-Prussian War, and neutrality was maintained during World War I in spite of the country's ethnic division. Because 40 percent of all the food consumed was imported, Switzerland was dependent on the goodwill of neighbouring countries for the maintenance of its food supply. Although many sectors of the economy suffered severely because of the war, others, such as machine manufacturing, watchmaking, textiles, food processing, and agriculture, flourished.

The peaceful position of Switzerland was reaffirmed after the war by the Treaty of Versailles. It recognized Swiss neutrality as an important component in maintaining peace. Neutrality was further strengthened by the Declaration of London in 1920, when the Council of the League of Nations recognized that Switzerland's permanent neutrality, and the guarantee of its territorial integrity, as stated by the treaties of 1815, were justified in the interests of general peace and therefore consistent with the league's principles.

The confederation would not be called upon to engage in military operations or to permit the transit of foreign troops. However, Switzerland would be bound to participate in economic sanctions taken by the league against covenant-breaking nations. In May 1920 the Swiss voted for entry into the League of Nations, and the league's headquarters, at the insistence of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, was established in Geneva.

The disintegration of the league during the troubled 1930s induced the Swiss to give up collective security for their old position of absolute neutrality. Fearing the worst, they prepared themselves psychologically, economically, and militarily for any possible conflict. When World War II broke out, the Federal Council issued a declaration of neutrality that was backed by a strong army and air force. Ultimately 850,000 soldiers were mobilized out of a total population of only 4,000,000. A fortress in the central Alps, the réduit, was prepared with arms, ammunition, medical supplies, food, water, hydroelectric plants, and factories so that the Swiss army could fight against the Nazis even if the cities of the Mittelland were lost. The populace was told that, if it should be announced by radio, leaflets, or any other means that they were to capitulate, they should regard such statements as enemy propaganda. The Swiss were determined and prepared militarily to fight to preserve their freedom. Despite being surrounded by Nazi and fascist enemies, Switzerland survived as the only democratic state in central Europe. Three factors were mainly responsible for this. First, if invaded, the Swiss would have destroyed the road and rail links through the Alps. Second, the Swiss army was a formidable fighting force. Finally, the Swiss army would have used the country's Alpine topography to its own advantage.

Strict neutrality has persisted to the present, though the Swiss sided with the United Nations in the 1991 Persian Gulf war. In 1986 the Swiss voted three to one against joining the United Nations. Nevertheless, units of the Swiss army have been trained for UN peacekeeping duties.

Switzerland, with its citizen army, remained a notable example of universal conscription; all able-bodied men aged 20 underwent an initial training of four months, followed by eight periods of three weeks' training until age 33, when they went into the reserves. In the United States, although peacetime conscription on a selective basis was ended in 1973 as part of a program to establish an all-volunteer military service, registration for a future draft if needed was reinstituted in 1980.