The Swiss militia system – a historical outline

The Swiss militia system – a historical outline

by Dr phil René Roca, Research Institute for Direct Democracy1

The Swiss Association of Communes (SGV) has declared 2019 the “Year of Militia Work”. The aim is to raise awareness of the importance of the militia principle for the Swiss state and to anchor it more broadly in the population. The SGV supports this concern with events and information (see www.chgemeinden.ch). The following text appeared in a shortened version in the May issue (2019) of the magazine “Schweizer Gemeinde”. 

Definition of “militia system”

The term “militia” refers to a common organizational principle in public life in Switzerland. Every citizen who considers himself capable of doing so can take on public duties and responsibilities on a part-time or voluntary basis. Militia work, however, involves far more than a part-time or honorary post in the sense of community service. Rather, it points to a republican identity, which – if internalised – is one of the most important pillars of our Swiss political culture. In this sense, the militia principle is still firmly anchored in Switzerland’s political culture and closely linked to direct democracy.
The term “militia system”, which is only used in Switzerland, originates from the warfare (lat. militia). “Militia” is actually the term used to describe a vigilante or people’s army, in contrast to a standing army. The term was borrowed in the 17th century from the Latin militia “military service; totality of soldiers” and was initially used primarily in the military sphere, later also in the political sphere.

Historical roots

The historical origins of the militia principle go back to ancient Greece, more precisely to Attic democracy and the early Roman Republic. Even then, the term was used to describe the exercise of civil office. In the ancient polis, the free and independent landowners discussed and decided every single matter personally in the People’s Assembly. In addition, political offices were usually determined by lot on a short-term rotation basis. This was based on the conviction that every citizen was obliged and qualified to temporarily assume public functions (which would be worth considering again today with the appropriate political education ...).
In addition to ancient roots, old Germanic institutions such as the Thing, which were based on old Germanic law (“He who is honourable is defendable”), are certainly also important. Since the late Middle Ages, one legacy of these approaches to the idea of militia has been the pre-modern cooperative cantonal assembly democracy (Landsgemeinde) of the Old Swiss Confederacy. But there are also clear indications of the militia principle in the federal city cantons.
Nicolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) saw in the old Swiss Confederation the return of the Roman principle of the unity of citizen and soldier, and in his ground-breaking book “Il Principe” he noted the principle that a republic like the Swiss Confederacy must rely on its own troops and not on foreign troops. For the old Confederation he therefore stated: “The Swiss surpass all others in forcibility and freedom” (“armatissimi e liberissimi”).2

Militia Army

The principle of the People’s Army in contrast to the standing army in Switzerland goes back to the late medieval orders of the individual federal states. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) had the federal principle of the citizen army in mind when, in 1772, after returning from exile in Switzerland, he wrote in his expert opinion on the total revision of the Constitution of Poland: “Tout citoyen doit être soldat par devoir, nul ne doit l›être par métier. Tel fut le système militaire des Romains; tel est aujourd’hui celui des Suisses ; tel doit être celui de tout État libre [...]”3  (Every citizen should be a soldier by duty, he should not be a professional soldier. Thus was the Roman military system; such is the Swiss system today; this should be the case for all free states) Rousseau thus establishes the positive connection between citizen and soldier, between militia army and liberal state.
Following the example of the French and American revolutionary armies, the first national constitution, the Helvetic Constitution of 1798, laid down the militia principle in Article 25, among others: «Every citizen is a born soldier of the fatherland.”4 The regenerated cantonal constitutions then adopted this principle as from 1830. The federal constitutions of 1848 and 1874 recognised the general military service and prohibited the Confederation from holding standing troops. It was not until 1999 that the military militia system was explicitly enshrined in the Federal Constitution in Art. 58: “Switzerland has an army. It is basically organized according to the militia principle.”5 This reference in the Constitution is, by the way, the only reference to the militia principle. The political militia principle is thus largely part of the unwritten constitutional customs. This is probably why so little attention has so far been paid to it in the state constitution.

Militia system in politics

Since ancient times there have been indications that the militia system has also been transferred to the political sphere. Since the 13th and 14th centuries respectively, the above-mentioned federal cantonal assembly towns and communes have anchored the militia idea in the population, read for example the Federal Letter of 1291 or other founding documents of the Swiss Confederation.
The political roots of the militia system are therefore certainly to be found in the Ancien Régime. The principle of voluntariness and gratuitousness flowed into numerous forms of cooperative organisation in the territory of present-day Switzerland. Thus the cooperative relied on the “most able”, on their willingness to swear an oath and make material sacrifices for the community. In addition, the Christian principle of “Caritas”, i.e. the obligation to help the sick, the handicapped, the poor and the failed, undoubtedly also had an effect, and this was reflected in various charitable militia organisations (e.g. Samaritans).
The Bernese early Enlightenment philosopher Beat Ludwig von Muralt (1665-1749) and the Enlightenment philosopher Isaac Iselin (1728-1782)  from Basel demanded that Switzerland create its own republican identity. Within this framework they emphasized the militia idea and the cooperative principle and thus promoted a discussion of virtue with their philosophical writings. Republican values such as courage, thrift, mutual help, trust in one’s own judgement and contempt for courtly splendour were necessary to build a national self-image and a Swiss communal republic. Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) and Philipp Albert Stapfer (1766-1840) then developed these ideas further and thus created links between modern republicanism based on the militia idea and Swiss early liberalism.
The regenerated cantonal constitutions from 1830 onwards then explicitly transferred the militia system to the communes and their self-administration. In all public affairs, citizens had to assume their responsibility for the community. This was the basis on which the republican form of government was founded and from which it drew its constant vitality. It was therefore customary that the important state offices were not occupied by permanently employed magistrates or civil servants, but by citizens for terms of office.
Together with the associations, which received a boost in the 19th century, the militia principle still represents an essential feature of our federalist direct-democratic state in political terms at municipal, cantonal and federal level.

Thoughts on strengthening militia work in Switzerland

At present, the militia idea is under pressure because fewer and fewer people want to make themselves available for militia activities. Finally, a few thoughts on how the militia principle can be preserved and better anchored in the population:

  1. The clarification of the meaning and value of the militia principle must begin at elementary school and be embedded in the teaching of Swiss history.
  2. As a solution to strengthen the militia principle in society again, community mergers are proposed. These, however, destroy the militia system. Community mergers mean that fewer people are actively involved and want to help shape society. Scientific studies show that this weakens the bonum commune in the long term.
  3. The militia principle is important for an ethical foundation of our democratic society: “The creative, life-affirming and responsibility inherent in the militia idea was a breeding ground on which material and spiritual human impoverishment could not grow. Is it not still the case today that a society shaped by the militia spirit is needed to create and develop cultural values?”6                         •

1    www.fidd.ch
2    Machiavelli, Nicolo. Der Fürst (Il principe), 1513, XII.
3    Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne et sur sa réformation projettée, 1772, XII.
4    Verfassung der helvetischen Republik vom 12. April 1798, in: Kölz, Alfred (Hg.). Quellenbuch zur neueren schweizerischen Verfassungsgeschichte, 1992, S. 133
5    Swiss Federal Constitution, 1999, Art.58
6    Röösli, Leonhard. Introduction, in: Der Geist des freiwilligen Dienens, Jahrbuch der Neuen Helvetischen Gesellschaft (NHG), 1986, 2

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