I was sitting in a grotto in southern Switzerland, savouring a regional version of risotto made with local merlot, surrounded by vibrant green mountains and down the road from a centuries-old stone village that to this day has refused electricity. Both my lunch mates were Swiss, though one spoke Italian and the other preferred German. For my benefit, they switched to English. I smiled contentedly; this kind of multicultural moment had been common in my month of travel across Switzerland, and I figured I had the country’s famed neutrality to thank for it.
This incredibly old village survived Europe’s many wars because there were none here
For one thing, this incredibly old village survived Europe’s many wars because there were none here. Switzerland’s borders are porous and friendly for the same reason. People can travel across them as easily as language and food do, which is why everyone from down here in Ticino speaks Italian and why I was eating what you’d think of as an Italian dish made with what you’d think of as an Italian wine.
You might also like:
‒ Switzerland's new 'criminal' currency
‒ The country that loves to give
‒ The nation that hates to be late
Even the way the country is set up seems like the epitome of peaceful coexistence. Politically it’s a direct democracy; culturally it recognises four language groups; and as you crisscross the cantons, you feel like you’re visiting four countries: Italy (in Ticino), Germany (in Zurich), France (in Geneva) and a unique descendant of the Roman Empire (in Grisons).
But with the next delicious forkful halfway to my mouth, one of my dining companions said something that shook me out of my cocoon: Switzerland – the world’s bastion of neutrality and peacekeeping – started out as a country of mercenaries.
The world’s bastion of neutrality and peacekeeping started out as a country of mercenaries
Gears started to click into place in my mind. The day before, I’d stood on the battlements of the famous castles of nearby Bellinzona, which featured heavily in medieval land struggles between the Milanese, the French and the young Swiss confederacy. The stone citadels, collectively a Unesco World Heritage Site, are reminders of a long history of tribes, cantons and countries that all tried to control strategically important Ticino and the passage to the Alps. The Swiss had quite the military history, and it was definitely not neutral.
Ironically, the country’s modern anti-war policy is the main reason travellers can experience so much of that history.
“The effects of neutrality are everywhere around,” said Clive Church, emeritus professor of European Studies at the UK’s University of Kent and author of several books on Switzerland’s history and politics. “You tell me,” he added, “Where is there bomb damage in any Swiss city?”
The answer: nowhere. “You can go to any Swiss city and you can see the place as it has developed organically because there’s never been an invasion. You benefit from neutrality visually because all the past is there.”
You benefit from neutrality visually because all the past is there
Walking through the country’s fairy-tale-like cities, it’s easy to see how right he is. The entire old town of Bern, the Swiss capital, is a Unesco World Heritage Site full of historic arcades, sandstone buildings and fountains, plus a famous clock tower built in 1530. On the other side of the country, Chur, Switzerland’s oldest city, has safely conserved Roman ruins (they’re housed in an out-of-the-way pavilion by local architect Peter Zumthor). And in Bellinzona, you can walk the battlements of those three still-standing medieval castles or explore the area’s historic stone villages.
Despite this, many travellers don’t have much of a clue about Switzerland’s current neutrality – or its military past.
“I have mainly two kinds of visitors,” said Lydia Muralt, historian, tour guide and co-owner of Lynvi Switzerland. “Those who don't know that Switzerland is neutral and those who do. The first group is always surprised to hear that we are neutral in the first place, and that we hence have nearly no war damages. The second group has difficulties understanding our neutrality: does this mean that we maybe do not care about the rest of the world or are opinion-less?”
Back in the Middle Ages, the Swiss were very good at winning wars. So good that they turned it into a thriving business
Muralt informed me that there’s actually a definition of the neutrality policy on the Swiss government website, and I eagerly checked it out. In addition to focusing on the country’s humanitarian bent, it lists some of the rules: The country must refrain from engaging in war, not allow belligerent states to use its territory and not supply mercenary troops to belligerent states.
That last one is clearly a nod to times past.
Back in the Middle Ages, the Swiss were very good at winning wars. So good that they turned it into a thriving business. “Basically [mercenary service] was due to economic reasons,” said Laurent Goetschel, professor of political science at University of Basel and director of the research institute Swisspeace. “[The old Swiss confederacy] was a very poor country – it was not suitable for large-scale farming and it had no access to colonial resources and no sea access, so being mercenaries was just a source of income.”
And the Swiss were reliable winners, so it continued to be a good source of income – until they lost. The reckoning came at the Battle of Marignano in 1515 when the French and Venetians arrived with artillery and armoured cavalry, and the Swiss brought pikes and spears. Sadly, technology had passed them by.
“After that defeat, they realised they were good soldiers in their way but halberds are not much good against artillery,” Church said. “They then stepped back from getting involved in Europe’s major political things.” Instead, the Swiss rented themselves out almost exclusively to France, which kept them in the black and also solved the inconvenience of occasionally finding themselves on two sides of the same battle. “It didn’t happen all the time but when it did happen, it was extraordinarily worrying and encouraged moves to neutrality,” Church said.
The Swiss had fought too many wars on too many sides to be able to safely pick one for the long haul
During this time, it became clear that the Swiss had fought too many wars on too many sides to be able to safely pick one for the long haul, especially when all the big powers wanted Switzerland for themselves because of the country’s strategic location guarding the Alps. So when the Congress of Vienna met in 1814–15 to sort out European peace after the French Revolutionary War (during which the Swiss had continued to serve as hired bodyguards for the French monarchy, including the last king, Louis XVI) and the Napoleonic Wars (during which the French invaded Switzerland and broke up the old confederacy), the Swiss put forth an elegant win-win solution for the whole continent: let us be neutral. This validation was key. As Goetschel points out, “Neutrality only makes sense if the other powers recognise you.”
Since then, Switzerland has basically been the non-partisan state we’ve all come to know. Stop by the statue of Charles Pictet de Rochemont to say thanks next time you’re in Geneva; he’s the soldier-cum-diplomat who personally wrote the Swiss declaration of neutrality ratified by the Vienna Congress.
While you’re there, devote an afternoon to the Red Cross Museum, where you’ll start to understand the next big development in Switzerland’s neutrality – its commitment to humanitarian aid. It started back in the 1860s when Geneva businessman Henry Dunant went on a business trip to Italy. He’d intended to hammer out trade route complications, but when he saw the horrific treatment of injured soldiers on Napoleon III’s gory battlefields, he switched his focus to forging the Red Cross.
If it’s so neutral, why does it need a military?
At this point, things were going well for Switzerland. The creation of the Red Cross upped its cred, led to the first of the Geneva Conventions in 1864, won it the inaugural Nobel Peace Prize in 1901 and endowed the country with what Church describes as “a kind of soft power” in Europe.
But then the World Wars happened, and that reputation was sorely tested, especially during WWII when Switzerland controversially bought Jewish gold from Nazi Germany and refused Jewish refugees. “From a Swiss perspective, [neutrality] was successful in so far as Switzerland wasn’t involved in fighting,” Goestchel explained. “There have been many debates if Switzerland was really neutral, especially in WWII, but it wasn’t involved in fighting activities.”
This hair-splitting leads to one the most confusing things to outsiders about Switzerland: its army. If it’s so neutral, why does it need a military? “Swiss neutrality has always been armed,” Church clarified. “One day somebody might invade, therefore you have to have an army so that you can defend your country.”
That same logic led to the construction of an extensive network of bunkers, underground hospitals and shelters during WWII – some of which travellers can visit today, including those at Vitznau, Vallorbe and Sasso San Gottardo. As for the current Swiss Armed Forces, you’re likely to run into them all over the country. I rode city buses with exuberant gaggles of young conscripts in Chur, and I got to watch a graduating class pass the flag to incoming cadets in a gallant ceremony in a Zurich square.
But you don’t have to rely on chance to observe the many fascinating upshots of modern Swiss neutrality. Anyone can tour Parliament in Bern (for insight into domestic politics); the international research centre CERN, which is half in Switzerland and half in France (to see how the policy has led to advances in science); and the United Nations offices in Geneva. (Interestingly, Switzerland only became of a member of the UN in 2002. And even more interestingly, it is still not a member of the European Union.)
You can also simply keep your eyes, ears and mouth open as you travel – looking for Switzerland’s unique spins on the cultures, languages and cuisines of the countries it’s been bumping up against – in peace and war – for centuries.
I highly recommend that risotto.
Join over three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.