I will preface my answer with Milan Kundera’s epic quote:
There is something about the Czech esprit de fronde, which has always captured my attention.
Ever since I learned about the self-sacrifice of Jan Palach, I started paying more attention to this small but strong people. This 20 year old Czech student set himself on fire in response to the demoralization of Czechoslovakian society after the Soviet invasion of August 1968. In this he succeeded far beyond his intentions. 20 years later, anti-communist protesters followed through in his memory. Their demonstrations preceded the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia (November-December 1989).
Both Kundera and Palach knew instinctively how a free person thinks. A free person desires to be free above all other things. As Albert Camus, another “libertarian” French thinker of the last age put it:
The most important war nobody talks about was the war fought by Swiss peasants and farmers between 1291 and 1815 for their right to exist as a free folk, free from any yoke, free to do as they pleased in their valleys, and in their towns, villages, and cities, against all foreign and domestic powers that threatened to put paid to Swiss independence.
To be Swiss is to be free and in order to be free one needs to be able to fight for it.
Case in point:
In early August 1291, representatives from three Forest Cantons, the nucleus of Switzerland, entered into a compact, in other words an Eternal Alliance or League (Ewiger Bund der Drei Waldstatten). The Latin original text of this Federal Charter provides a glimpse into how the people from the valley of Uri, the democracy or landsgemeinde of Schwyz, and the community of the Lower Valley of Unterwalden, saw themselves, their objective political status and long term objectives.
Let there be no misunderstanding, they all came together with one purpose: to be free. And they were ready to risk it all at the altar of freedom. These three cantons had already received the Imperial Immediacy from the Holy Roman Emperor and they were loathe to lose their right to deal directly with the Kaiser to some pesky Hapsburg upstart nobles.
But let us turn to the language of the Federal Charter.
“IN THE NAME OF GOD – AMEN. Honor and the public weal are promoted when leagues are concluded for the proper establishment of quiet and peace.
Therefore, know all men, that the people of the valley of Uri, the democracy of the valley of Schwyz, and the community of the Lower Valley of Unterwalden, seeing the malice of the age, in order that they may better deffend themselves, and their own, and better preserve them in proper condition, have promised in good faith to assist each other with aid, with every counsel and every favor, with person and goods, within the valley and without, with might and main, against one and all, who may inflict upon any one of them any violence, molestation or injury, or may plot any evil against their persons or goods. And in every case each community has promised to succour the other when necessary, at its own expense, as far as needed in order to withstand the attacks of evil-doers, and to avenge injuries; to this end they have sworn a solemn oath to keep this without guile, and to renew by these presents the ancient form of the league, also confirmed by an oath.
Yet in such a manner that every man, according to his rank, shall obey and serve his overlord as ist behooves him.
We have also vowed, decreed and ordained in common council and by unanimous consent, that we will accept or receive no judge in the aforesaid valleys, who shall have obtained his office for any price, or for money in any way whatever, or one who shall not be a native or a resident with us. But if dissension shall arise between any of the Eidgenossen (confederates; Eid = oath, Genosse = fellow, comrade), the most prudent amongst the confederates shall come forth to settle the difficulty between the parties, as shall seem right to them; and whichever party rejects their verdict shall be held an adversary by the other confederates.
Furthermore it has been established between them that he who deliberately kills another without provocation, shall, if caught, lose his life, as his wicked guilt requires, unless he be able to prove his innocence of said crime; and if perchance he escape, let him never return. Those who conceal and protect said criminal shall be banished from the valley, until they be expressly recalled by the confederates.
But if any one of the confederates, by day, or in the silence of the night, shall maliciously injure another by fire, he shall never again be considered a fellow-countryman. If any man protect and defend the said evil-doer, he shall render satisfaction to the one who has suffered damage.
Furthermore, if any one of the confederates shall spoil another of his goods, or injure him in any way, the goods of the guilty one, if recovered within the valleys, shall be seized in order to pay damages to the injured person, according to justice.
Furthermore, no man shall seize another’s goods for debt, unless he be evidently his debtor or surety, and this shall only be done with the special permission of his judge.
Moreover, every man shall obey his judge, and if necessary, must himself indicate the judge in the valley, before whom he ought properly to appear. And if any one rebels against a verdict, and, in consequence of his obstinacy, any one of the confederates is injured, all the confederates are bound to compel the culprit to give satisfaction.
But if war or discord arise amongst any of the confederates and one party of the disputants refuse to accept the verdict of the judge or to give satisfaction, the confederates are bound to defend the other party.
The above-written statutes, decreed for the common welfare and benefit, shall endure forever, God willing. In testimony of which, at the request of the aforesaid parties, the present charter has been drawn up and confirmed with the seals of the aforesaid three communities and valleys.
So done in the year of the Lord 1291 at the beginning of the month of August.”
This document should IMHO be taught in schools all over the world. It is as far reaching in terms of political dogma as the U.S. Constitution of 1787–89. It served to channel the military energies of the three Swiss communities into a reservoir of political power that enabled them to grow and achieve their objectives and maintain their independence for the past 800 years.
I know of no other such document that withstood the test of time as good as the Federal Charter.
16 years later, in 1307, three landammaner or democratic leaders from Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden met at the meadow of Rutli, above Lake Uri, and swore thus:
“We want to be a single People of brethren,
Never to part in danger nor distress.
We want to be free, as our fathers were,
And rather die than live in slavery.
We want to trust in the one highest God
And never be afraid of human power.”
Wir wollen sein ein einzig Volk von Brüdern,
in keiner Not uns trennen und Gefahr.
Wir wollen frei sein, wie die Väter waren,
eher den Tod, als in der Knechtschaft leben.
Wir wollen trauen auf den höchsten Gott
und uns nicht fürchten vor der Macht der Menschen.Rütlischwur / The Oath on the Rütli Meadow (1307)
The significance of the Rutlischwur far surpasses the import of an oath. It shows the determination of these people to live free from slavery and “never be afraid of human power.” This is one of the highest sentiments human beings can aspire to.
Liberty or death! Such words are not mere words. They are a promise made by fathers to sons, by mothers to daughters, that their future as inscrutable as it may be, shall not be darker for lack of trying from their parents. It is a comforting notion to know that one is born free when the world seems ready to go back to the entropic principle of tyranny.
Eight years later, in November 1315, the Swiss Eidgenossen (i.e., Confederates or Brothers) defeated their archetypal would-be masters, the Habsburgs, at the battle of Morgarten.
Swiss halberds won the day. Numerically inferior, 1,500 Swiss unarmored men destroyed 5,000 heavy cavalry and mounted knights and routed their leader, Duke Leopold of Austria.
This pole weapon acted as a can opener…
… making this knight obsolete over the course of a single day.
One could go on and on about Swiss military prowess but suffice to say that the Swiss adopted and validated Vegetius’ motto: Si vis pacem para bellum!
Throughout the ages they fought off all invaders and became so good at it that by 1499, the Swiss Confederation’s independence was recognized de facto by Emperor Maximilian I.
BTW, Maximilian married Charles the Bold’s daughter, Marie de Burgogne, who had lost her father at Nancy in 1477, when a Swiss halberd hacked off his head thus destroying his imperial dreams. 22 years later, because princes never learn, the Swiss did the same to Maximilian’s aspirations. After that, the Emperor agreed to stay away from Swiss affairs.
A century and a half later, Swiss independence from the Holy Roman Empire was recognized de jure at the Peace of Munster-Westphalia (1648).
Between 1648 and 1798, or another 150 years later, the Swiss Confederation was a net exporter of excellent mercenary soldiers who developed a sound reputation for holding on to their military oaths even under the most strenuous of circumstances. This Swiss steadfastness earned the Swiss Foreign Service men the respect and honor, which will live into eternity.
Case in point:
The Swiss regiments’ sacrifice during the Tuilleries assault by the French mob looking for blood on 10 August 1792 is the stuff of legends. The French King had left the building but the Swiss Royal Guards were under orders to defend the Palace of Tuilleries (near Paris).
The Parisian mob and the National Guard offered safe passage to the Swiss troops if they disarmed. The Swiss refused. The mob tried to storm the palace after bombarding it with cannon fire. The Swiss fired into the mob until they ran out of ammo and they were massacred.
Out of 800 officers and troop, a mere 100 survived the French Revolution. Today, this is the monument that meets the eye of beholder in Lucern.
Even later during Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Switzerland, the Swiss fought bravely against the invaders. Internal dissensions between rural and urban cantons, between turncoats who saw the French as liberators and patriots who wanted to have nothing with French ideas of bloody revolution, prevented an organized resistance, and Switzerland was conquered for the first and only time in her history.
After 1815, Swiss neutrality was officially recognized by the Holy Alliance and Britain.
It took the Swiss another 32 years and a short but intense civil war in 1847, which was fought in a humanitarian way (i.e., less than 150 dead in 37 days) to realize that unity was preferable to disunity, especially when faced with the rapacious European powers surrounding the Confederation on all sides.
The Sonderbund War on 1847 and the Constitution of 1848 ensured that Swiss neutrality would be an armed neutrality guaranteed not by Europe like Belgium’s neutrality, but by the Swiss people themselves.
The Swiss gave themselves solid military institutions (Military Academy in Thun), excellent arms and small arms, which established the country as one of the leaders in military technology in the 19th and 20th centuries. Swiss technological prowess and ingenuity assisted the Confederation in making sure that no world power dared challenge the principle of Swiss armed neutrality. It protected Switzerland against the vicissitudes of 2 centuries of violent revolution, European wars, World Wars, and a Cold War.
Swiss Service Rifles:
These fine service rifles and pistols ensured that the Swiss Confederation remained free and independent during three Franco-German wars (1870–1871, 1914–1918, 1939–1945), one Cold War (1945–1991), and continues to maintain its armed neutrality at great cost to Swiss society to this day.
Most of us do not realize that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. The Swiss not only understand this costly precept. They practice it religiously, safe in the knowledge that their armed militia are the guarantors of internal peace and that only a militarily robust nation can remain free. One cannot exist without the other. And as always, nothing that is worth having comes for free. It requires lots of work, self-sacrifice, and forethought.
The most important war, my friends, is the war for freedom that the Swiss have been fighting, day in day out, since that blessed and fateful day of 1 August 1291.