It is fairly common knowledge for anyone who has done even a little bit of study regarding European history that the relatively small nation of Switzerland, nestled amid the Alps, has remained staunchly neutral for hundreds of years, despite major wars and conflicts being waged all around it.
War History Online reports that the famed neutrality of the Swiss dated back to the Battle of Marignano at the tail end of the War of the Holy League, which raged from 1508-1516. In the battle, the Swiss were defeated by a much larger French army bolstered by various mercenary units from other European nations and feudal kingdoms.
The Swiss were not a neutral party prior to that battle, and had been ravaging northern Italy for some time until a French army commanded by a young King named Francis gathered a force together and marched through a pass in the Alps to confront the Swiss army.
Greatly outnumbered, the Swiss initially sought to negotiate a settlement, but after receiving some reinforcements, they decided to hold firm and fight it out with the French, who outnumbered them roughly 2-1. According to War History, the French hard more than more than 40,000 men, including cavalry and artillery, compared to 22,000 Swiss men who were almost exclusively composed of infantry units.
The two-day battle saw the Swiss charge repeatedly straight at the French artillery with the hope that they’d be captured and turned on their former owners. Despite reaching the artillery multiple times and gaining control of some of the guns, the Swiss were never able to fully capture the position and were forced to retreat after flanking attacks from French cavalry.
The Swiss tried the same thing the next day but were repulsed by concentrated artillery fire and ultimately routed when a late-arriving force of cavalry from French-allied Venice launched a surprise attack on the Swiss flank and sent them running.
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In the aftermath of the bloody battle, a deal was reached with the French that included a clause demanding “eternal peace” between the two nations, a clause that has persisted unbroken save for during the Napoleonic era, which saw Switzerland temporarily conquered and occupied by the French.
According to History, the French ultimately withdrew from Switzerland in 1803, and the Congress of Vienna in 1815 recognized the “perpetual neutrality” of the Swiss.
To that point, though the Swiss never engaged in military excursions outside of their borders, Swiss mercenaries would enlist wherever they were needed, until a new constitution was adopted for the nation in 1848 that explicitly outlawed Swiss citizens from fighting in foreign armies, further reinforcing their neutral stance.
That “perpetual neutrality” was later reaffirmed following World War One by the League of Nations — the failed precursor to the United Nations. The League even established its headquarters in the Swiss city of Geneva in recognition of their long-standing neutrality.
However, just because the Swiss have stayed officially neutral as conflicts raged all around them, that didn’t necessarily mean they are a pacifist nation, according to Time. Far from it actually, as Switzerland throughout history and even to this day maintain a well-armed and well-trained military, even if they they haven’t had to use it.
Indeed, whenever the stated neutrality of the Swiss would be violated by one party or another, the Swiss are ready to fight back ferociously to defend their lands, culture and prosperity.
Time noted that Swiss newspaper Volksrecht declared defiantly during World War II that, though the Swiss were faced with potentially being swallowed up by the conquering Nazi armies, “It is of the greatest importance that we leave no doubt in anybody’s mind that not even the most hopeless situation will make us capitulate voluntarily. And before we can be commanded, we have got to be beaten.”
The Germans ultimately decided against attacking the Swiss due to their strong natural defenses and military, and the Swiss to this day are not afraid to defend themselves against those who cross their borders.
So there you have it, the famous Swiss neutrality came from a battle they lost some 500 years ago in which the settlement terms called for an eternal peace for the Swiss. It’s a condition they have seemingly done their best to live up to over the next five centuries.
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