Switzerland – neutral and peaceful. How come the Swiss are responsible for protecting the most important figure of the Catholic Church? And who would have thought that in fact, the Swiss people used to be among the most aggressive and war-going people in Europe? The fact that we guard the Vatican City has nothing to do with our neutrality, on the contrary…
When Roman Emperor Julius Caesar invaded the Swiss territories, he described them in his books “de bello gallico” as “the bravest among all Gaul tribes” and “the only to fight the Germanics”. And that’s basically what we did for centuries: In the middle ages, many wars were fought by the Swiss not only between themselves, but also against German and Austrian noble houses. Thanks to some crushing victories, the Swiss soldiers gained a reputation as strong and skilled warriors – the ones you would want in your own army. From the 15th up to the 19th century, the Swiss decided to make a good use of their reputation: they became mercenaries.
One reason for their success was their fierce fighting tactics: A wall of long spears and pikes keeps the enemy away until they are able to create a small gap in their line. That’s when soldiers with halberdiers push through that gap and break the enemy line . This technique, roughly translated as “force-pile” (“Gewalthaufen” in German) made them so successful, it became popular for rulers all over Europe to have Swiss mercenaries in their armies.
While at first the single mercenaries were recruited as soon as a war started, it became more and more institutionalized over the decades. For some Swiss cities, it even became one of the main sources of income. And many European houses became our customers: France, Great Britain, Denmark, Prussia, you name them… Even the Russian Tsar had Swiss Guards in his rows.
And why the pope? Since 1505 the Swiss guard the head of the Catholic Church. Why? The reason is the same as with all other rulers in Europe. Skilled fighters were always wanted and the Swiss had that reputation. The pope was one of the most powerful persons in Europe at that time. Therefore, it makes sense that he would want the best soldiers guarding him.
Today, the Swiss guards in the Vatican are the last remains of the Swiss mercenary system. And no, they only wear the funny suits, the silly hats and the halberdier for the tourists and parades… The rest of them wear suits and firearms and are trained soldiers.
So, the next time you think that tiny Switzerland never played a big role in European history, just remember that we fought in most of the wars, counted amongst the best fighters in Europe… and that you should never wake a sleeping giant. (Just kidding, we’re actually very nice people).
Simon, Free Walk Lucerne