Thursday, May 2, 2024

The Neutral Swiss and their Citizen Army: Guest Post by Kim Hays

 Pesticide (2022) and Sons and Brothers (2023), my third mystery featuring Swiss police Linder and Donatelli came out in April. In A Fondness for Truth, the Bern Polizei detectives are investigating the hit-and-run death of a woman whose job was helping men to get out of their Swiss army service.

What Swiss Army service, you may be asking. For most people, the phrase “Swiss army” exists for one purpose only: to describe red pocket knives with multiple blades, tools, and attachments. Swiss army knives range in weight from less than an ounce to over three pounds (the latter containing 87 implements with 141 functions!), and the name is not a misnomer. The manufacturer, Victorinox, really does produce the knives carried by Swiss soldiers, which are black, not red, weigh 4.6 ounces, and have seven attachments.

Swiss soldiers exist even though Switzerland has been a neutral country for centuries, belonging to neither the European Union nor NATO; it only joined the United Nations in 2002 by a slim majority of the popular vote. Tradition has it that Swiss neutrality was born on September 15, 1515, at the Battle of Marignano in northern Italy. A young Francis I of France was trying to conquer the duchy of Milan, and the soldiers of the Swiss confederacy were fighting for the Milanese in hopes of expanding Switzerland further into Italy. More than half of the thousands of soldiers on both sides were killed in that one battle, and Francis I would probably have been defeated if 12,000 troops from Venice had not arrived in time to fight on his side. 

Out of this war, which the Swiss lost, came a treaty with France in which Switzerland swore never to fight against the French again or allow Swiss mercenaries to be hired to fight against French troops. In return, Switzerland got its Italian-speaking canton of Ticino and plenty of new trade rights. It is said that the devastation at Marignano convinced the Swiss never to attack their neighbors again. Officially, though, the country’s neutrality, along with its independence as a confederation, wasn’t recognized by Europe until three hundred years later in the 1815 Treaty of Paris, signed after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.

Neutral or not, the newly recognized confederation decided it needed an army, and when Switzerland became a modern federal state in 1848, every Swiss man was required to defend his country. During the First and Second World Wars, this militia-style army was mobilized to protect the nation. Historians now agree that Hitler’s respect for Switzerland’s neutrality had more to do with the Swiss banks—and perhaps the Swiss Alps—than the Swiss army, but at the time, the country’s 4.2 million people were very grateful to the up-to-850,000 sons, fathers, and brothers guarding its borders.

Between 1961, at the height of the Cold War, and 2024, Switzerland’s militia army dropped from 625,000 men aged 18 to 50 to 100,000 men (and some women) aged 18 to 30 (not including senior officers). The series of government reforms that streamlined the Swiss army also did away with the nation’s strictly enforced jail sentence for conscientious objectors.

Soon after turning eighteen, Swiss men are ordered to spend three days at a military center to evaluate their fitness for army service. Until recently, those deemed fit went into Rekrutenschule or basic training, followed by further military service; those judged not suited to soldiering were drafted into protecting the Swiss population in other ways—for example, in cases of flooding or rock slides. For the last fifteen years, however, young men who’ve passed all their fitness tests have had the option of doing thirteen months of social service rather than learning to be soldiers. This choice is called the Civilian Service, and the young men who do it are nicknamed Zivis in Swiss German—I’ve called them Civis in my book.

Andrea Eberhart, the murder victim in my new Polizei Bern mystery, had a job advising Swiss Civis. If you want to learn more about what that means and about the extraordinary range of jobs Civis do, I suggest you read A Fondness for Truth!


Kim Hays, a citizen of Switzerland and the United States, has made her home in Bern for thirty-six years since marrying her Swiss husband. Before that, she lived in San Juan, Vancouver, Stockholm, Cambridge, MA, and Berkeley, CA. Kim has worked at many jobs, including factory forewoman, lecturer in sociology, and cross-cultural trainer. Pesticide, the first book in her Polizei Bern series featuring detectives Giuliana Linder and Renzo Donatelli, was published by Seventh Street Books in 2022 and was a finalist for the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award and the Falchion Award for Best Mystery. The second book in the series, Sons and Brothers, came out in 2023, and the third, A Fondness for Truth, in April 2024. 


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