How Switzerland Remains Independent in the Face of Powerful Neighbors

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A Brief History

On April 9, 1388, at the Battle of Näfels, a military force of the Old Swiss Confederation fought a much larger force representing the Austrian royal family, the Habsburgs.  In a stunning example of David beating Goliath, the Swiss soldiers won a rousing victory, an indication of why other powerful European countries have been leaving Switzerland alone for many years now.

Digging Deeper

At the Battle of Näfels, the Swiss fielded a modest troop of only about 400 or so fighting men against a superior Austrian force numbering around 6500 soldiers.  The attacking Austrians at first forced the Swiss to withdraw, and began sacking the local town, seeming to enjoy their apparent “victory.”  The wily Swiss were having none of that!  Swiss soldiers counterattacked unexpectedly, taking the preoccupied Austrians by surprise and leveling a devastating defeat against the larger foe.  While the Swiss suffered 54 soldiers killed, more than 10% of their number, the Austrians left 1700 men dead on the battlefield.  The Austrians panicked and ran, flocking to a bridge to escape the Swiss, but the bridge collapsed under the weight of too many men and even more of the Austrians drowned.

A year later the Swiss and Austrians signed a treaty acknowledging Swiss sovereignty over lands taken during the war.  Victory in the Battle of Näfels against 16 to 1 odds is an indication of the ferocity the Swiss people are able to call on in defense of their nation.  The Swiss Confederation (1300-1798) was the precursor to the modern nation of Switzerland (1648, as that date is celebrated as the date of independence from the Holy Roman Empire), a loose  amalgam of cantons that became a relatively small country in the middle of a continent prone to warfare  and populated by powerful nations with state of the art armed forces.  Despite having no real ethnic or national origin, as the Swiss are broken up into German, French and Italian regions and linguistic segments (with a smaller minority of Romansh speaking people), these hardy people have managed to establish an enviable reputation for intelligence, banking, industry and industriousness, skiing, chocolate, cuckoo clocks, wristwatches, multi-function army knives, and self-defense, maintaining their neutrality during both of the World Wars, and remaining non-aligned during the Cold War (1947-1991).  The country is one of the richest nations in the world per capita without the benefit of sitting on top of vast oil reserves.

A landlocked country, Switzerland has no navy, but its Army and Air Force are staffed by a broad cross section of the population, mostly conscripts from 20 to 34 (50 in some cases) that are called upon to remain as members of the national reserve after their active duty training is over.  On the several border lakes that  Switzerland shares with its neighbors the Swiss maintain patrol boats. A unique aspect of the Swiss military is that these citizen soldiers keep all their military gear at home in their houses!  This includes their fully automatic rifles, along with a supply of ammunition, though the issue of military ammunition has largely been curtailed in recent years.  Men must register and are slotted for the national conscription when they turn 18 years old, and women are permitted to join the military voluntarily, and are not conscripted.  In 2003 the strength of the military was reduced to 200,000 from the previous 400,000, probably a nod to the reduced likelihood of another World War in Europe.

So, with this tremendous firepower available to most able-bodied Swiss men, are the automatic rifles (assault weapons) jumping out of their cases and killing people?  No, they are not.  Switzerland is a prime example of the fact that the widespread distribution of firearms does not automatically mean the widespread murder of people by the use of those firearms.  With about 29% of the population armed with military style weapons, the country of Switzerland makes for a daunting target for would be invaders.  This concept is quite similar to that envisioned by the Founding Fathers of the United States when they created the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution allowing citizens to keep and bear military arms.  (Prior to the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, an estimated 11 million AR-15 type rifles and carbines were in the hands of American citizens, and in the first few months of 2020, an untold number of additional tens of thousands or perhaps many more have been added to the civilian arsenal, with no increase in gun crimes at all.  Just saying…)

In Switzerland, citizens are permitted free access to private ownership of semi-automatic weapons and with the granting of a permit, ownership and possession of fully automatic weapons.  Swiss citizens are not required to show or prove any “need” to obtain guns.  With a population of just under 8 and a half million people, private citizens in Switzerland own about 2.332 million firearms (estimate), an ownership rate much higher than most countries.  (Some estimates nearly double the number of privately owned firearms in Switzerland.)

Note: The murder rate in Switzerland ranks 211th in the world (out of 230 entities).  The United States ranks 94th.  Perhaps we could learn something from the Swiss…

Notable instances of Swiss mobilization to deter any ideas of invading the country took place in 1871 in response to the Franco-Prussian War, in 1914 in response to World War I and in 1939 in response to World War II.  In each instance, no country dared to attempt to invade Switzerland or violate their neutrality.  Obviously, this relatively small country with a small population is respected enough to be left alone.  After examining the results of the Battle of Näfels, we can see why!  Do you need more proof?  The Swiss Guards are the security detail for the Pope!

Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite Swiss product? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Luck, James Murray. A History of Switzerland the First 100,000 Years: Before the Beginnings to the Days of the Present.  SPOSS, 1986.

Urner, Klaus and General Alexander Haig. Let’s Swallow Switzerland: Hitler’s Plans against the Swiss Confederation. Lexington Books, 2001.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Roland Zumbühl (Picswiss), Arlesheim (Commons:Picswiss project), of a commemorative plaque at the Battle of Näfels memorial near Näfels, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.