20 December 2021
From the mid-fifteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, soldiers of the Eidgenossenschaft were the most sought-after export product.
The prestige of these mercenaries’ fighting spirit, courage, and armament rose to unprecedented heights after the defeats they inflicted on the most powerful armies: Habsburg in 1315, 1386, 1415, 1460 and 1499 and the mighty Duchy of Burgundy in 1474-1477.
Without the Eidgenossen, the kingdom of Burgundy might have come into being, and the then powerless kingdom of France might have been a short episode in history. An estimated one and a half million (!) Swiss soldiers served kings, emperors, dukes, popes, republics and other rulers in this period.
The Swiss Guard is a relic of this era. The Lion of Lucerne (the Löwendenkmal) commemorates the Swiss Guard of the French King Louis XVI. Most of them did not survive the attack on the royal palace of the Tuilereëien in 1792.
The system was simple and effective. Prominent families maintained contact with their European patrons and received generous remuneration, often for generations.
The simple soldier, often from a peasant background, received his (meagre) pay and, with luck, returned to his village with some booty. Few became rich in this dangerous profession. Many remained in the countries of their patrons or did not survive.
The Constitution of 1848 banned this lucrative trade, for that is what it had become. Not so much for the ordinary soldier but especially for the families that recruited the soldiers.
Moreover, after 1848, Switzerland developed rapidly from emigrants to an immigration country. Also, the rural cantons in the country’s middle and east, the mercenaries’ purveyors, became less interested due to the rise of industry, tourism, trade and the New World, America.
The canton of Nidwalden in central Switzerland supplied many mercenaries for centuries. The fate of most of them is unknown.
However, there are individuals from well-known families. Louis Wyrsch, Borneo Louis, is one of the most famous. He served as an officer in the Dutch colonial army and made a name and fortune.
The mercenary sector has always been controversial in Switzerland too. It was even an essential point of interest during the Reformation, among others, for the Zurich reformer Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531).
As early as 1530, he advocated a ban because of moral and religious motives. Swiss mercenaries often fought against each other. It was regarded as immoral and a waste of human capital.
The Nidwalden Historical Museum in Stans presents a well-documented exhibition on the moral, economic, organisational and personal facets of Nidwalder’s foreign military service.
The exhibition also gives a good impression of this phenomenon in other cantons.
(Source: Historisches Museum Nidwalden, nidwaldner-museum.ch).