How Switzerland Ended Its Involvement in War


Dietrich Fischer – TRANSCEND Media Service

For the first 200 years of its history, Switzerland was involved in many wars, first to defend itself against repeated attempts by the German emperor to reconquer the cantons that had declared themselves independent in 1291, and later to acquire more territory. Two events brought an end to this involvement in war.

In 1481, at a meeting of representatives from all member cantons in Stans in the Canton of Nidwalden, two cities, Fribourg and Solothurn, applied for membership in the Swiss confederation. The other cities were in favor if it, because they expected that more cities would make Switzerland more powerful. The rural cantons were opposed, arguing that cities always fight wars, and then get into difficulty, and require troops to help them, and they would have to send their men to go to war instead of cultivating and harvesting the fields. There was a long debate, and the two sides could not agree. Finally they decided to send a joint delegation to ask for the advice of Niklaus von der Flue.

Niklaus von der Flue used to be the mayor of Stans, but he found that he was always too busy and did not have sufficient time to reflect. So he retreated to a cave in the mountains, where he had time to meditate. His wise council was widely sought, and he lived from donations of food from people who asked him for advice. For example, one man went to see Niklaus and asked him, “How should I punish my wife? She has not been faithful to me.” Niklaus said to him, “Go home and apologize to your wife. I am sure you were not kind to her, otherwise she would have been faithful to you.”

When the representatives of urban and rural cantons came to explain to Niklaus their different points of view and ask him whether they should admit Fribourg and Solothurn to the Swiss confederation or not, he proposed: “Let these two cities join Switzerland, but make it clear to them that they are only entitled to help in their defense if they are attacked from outside. If they start a war and get into trouble, they should not expect to be rescued by the other cantons.” Both sides felt that this was a fair proposal that met both the cities’ and rural cantons’ main concerns. This creative solution may well have avoided a breakup of Switzerland, and possibly a civil war.

This injected for the first time in people’s mind the idea that there is a difference between defense, which is legitimate, and aggression, which is wrong. However, it took another 34 years until that idea was fully heeded.

In 1515, the French King and the Pope fought a war in Northern Italy. At the battle of Marignano, two Swiss armies, one allied with the French King and another allied with the Pope, encountered each other on opposite sides of the battle field, and almost completely wiped each other out, in bloody hand to hand combat that lasted through the night. When the few wounded survivors brought the news of that battle back to Switzerland, people felt that war makes no sense. Killing “enemies” had not made the same impression. This was not even a civil war, where the two sides were angry at each other and wanted to kill each other. It was a totally senseless, unintended mutual massacre.

After that event, Switzerland decided to become a neutral country, defending only its borders, but not participating in wars among other countries. With the exception of a brief occupation by Napoleon’s troops from 1798 to 1803, Switzerland has been able to stay out of war for nearly 500 years. Each time a war raged in the rest of Europe, including the thirty-year war of 1618-1648, the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and the two world wars, Switzerland’s neutrality helped it keep out of war. This confirmed people’s conviction that neutrality is the best policy to avoid war. While not participating in other countries’ wars is a good idea, Switzerland should now join more actively with other countries to help solve global problems that no country can solve alone. It finally joined the United Nations in 2002 as one of the last holdouts


Dietrich Fischer, born in 1941 in Münsingen, Switzerland, got a Licentiate in Mathematics from the University of Bern 1968 and his Ph.D. in Computer Science from New York University 1976. 1986-88 he was a MacArthur Fellow in International Peace and Security at Princeton University. He has taught mathematics, computer science, economics and peace studies at various universities and been a consultant to the United Nations.

Excerpted from Dietrich Fischer’s Stories to Inspire You – TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 10 Aug 2015.

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