How can we strengthen ‘the militia principle’ in Switzerland?

by Dr phil. René Roca, Research Institute for Direct Democracy

The “Year of Militia Work”, launched by the Swiss Association of Municipalities (SGV), has brought the idea of “militia” back into the consciousness of the Swiss population. But what actually constitutes the militia principle? The principle has a long history in Switzerland, has become seminal in every area of society over time and, with its significance for the common good and for direct democracy, has developed foundational. The definition of the term “militia” is broad. The idea of militia contains vastly more for example than what is understood by the term “voluntary work”. It encompasses the very essence of the republican identity of the Swiss citizen.


We must thank the Bern political scientist Markus Freitag and his research group for providing this contemporary evidence-based study of militia work in Switzerland.1 It examines the potency of the militia ideal in the executive branch, the legislative branch and commissions in selected Swiss communities; it omits consideration of the fire brigade and of neighbourhood associations, which also properly belong to militia work. Freitag, concentrates on the political sphere and in doing so presents impressive figures: “To an unsurpassed extent, citizens in Switzerland enjoy extensive participation in political decision-making bodies and commissions. Taking 100,000 as the membership of the municipal executive, legislative and commissions implies that one in 50 Swiss voters are involved in local politics.”2
But we must note that although participation is high it is ubiquitously ‘grey-haired.’ This applies to all areas of militia work. The militia principle is in consequence becoming dangerously fragile. What is to be done?

Alerting citizens to their responsibilities

It is important to allow the militia principle to be incorporated more strongly into education and training in a comprehensive sense. Globalisation with its concomitant individualism have already infected Swiss political culture. In consequence alongside individual rights, emphasis must once more be placed on duty. As the Federal Constitution states in Article 6: “All individuals shall take responsibility for themselves and shall, according to their abilities, contribute to achieving the tasks of the state and society.”3Gott­fried Keller (1819–1890), the Swiss poet and politician, expresses this concern in radical terms in his diary notes of 1848. He was keenly aware of the central importance of the militia principle for the very survival of the federal state, which was founded in the same year: “But woe betide anyone who does not bind his fate to that of the public community, for not only will peace of mind elude him, but he will also lose both resolution and the people’s respect.”4

After all, according to a 2017 study, around three-quarters of the population express pride in Switzerland’s militia system.5 Nevertheless, concrete measures are needed if the militia system is to be maintained. Often, various anodyne reform ideas, such as better remuneration for militia offices have been proposed. But more important is that we raise awareness of the importance of militia work – both for the common good and for the development of one’s own personality – and to make it part of the educational curriculum. (The brochure “Meine Gemeinde, mein Zuhause” (My commune, my home) of the Swiss Association of Municipalities expresses it well.)
The Swiss historian and literary scholar Georg Thürer (1908–2000) encapsulates the timeless core of the militia idea in a speech to the young citizens of Glarus in 1968:
“One of the most important moments in the life of a young person is therefore the one in which one realises that he is now not only free from something, namely from previous obedience, but also free for something, namely for the service of his fellow human beings. To recognise and commit oneself to this is to have found both life and virtue [...] Young citizens, all of you look forward to your participation in civic life. You belong to the generation that for the most part will cross the threshold from the second to the third millennium. Multitudinous innovations will continue to precipitate. But you must remain cool and – rather than staggering through life, resolve to shape it. No innovation must blind us to the perennial rule that we must live for one another as Swiss confederates and fellow travellers. The dignity of humanity will thereby be preserved. Even if human endeavour remains inadequate, iterative and piecemeal, our Confederation continues to grant its citizens the right to express their views freely. It not only imposes an obligation on us to pay taxes and do military service. The state system requires your thinking, watching and participation in order to form a community of mutual support. As builders, we continue to openly discuss and decide with one another how to develop the Swiss House – to the best of our knowledge and belief – in the all the spheres of commune, state and federation. Welcome to our building site!”    •

1    Freitag, Markus; Bundi, Pirmin; Flick Witzig, Martina. Milizarbeit in der Schweiz. Basel 2019
2    Freitag. Milizarbeit. p. 23
3    Bundesverfassung der Schweizerischen Eidgenossenschaft
4    Keller cf. Freitag. Milizarbeit, p. 25.
5    Milizarbeit in Zahlen. In: Freitag. Milizarbeit. pp. 32

The militia army and voluntariness

rr. Historically the term “militia” (Miliz) derived from the military sector (see also Current Concerns No 13 from 12 June 2019). In Switzerland’s militia army military service is still based on each citizen’s duty to defend his country rather than on voluntariness. This duty is still enshrined in the Federal Constitution, which defines the Swiss army and mandatory military service in the following terms:

“Art. 58,1: Switzerland shall have armed forces. In principle, the armed forces shall be organised as a militia.
Art. 58,2: The armed forces serve to prevent war and to maintain peace; they defend the country and its population […]
Art. 59,1: Every Swiss man is required to do military service; alternative civilian service shall be provided for by law.”1

Today, this duty is often mistakenly identified with the compulsion to perform military service. Earlier generations took their activity in the Swiss militia army for granted and performed their military service as a matter of course. They were aware of the significance of their commitment for their country and for liberty and they did not want to delegate the defence of their country to a professional army, that is to say to a military caste. At the core of the militia principle are the ideas of the citizen-soldier and of the citizen militia, which were already admired by the renowned Geneva Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). For all intents and purposes, citizen militias correspond to Enlightenment principles and are indispensable for a free republic. For this reason, Switzerland’s first democratic constitution, the constitution of the Helvetic Republic, drawn up in 1798, laid down in its article 25: “Every citizen is a naturalborn soldier of his fatherland.”2
These key foundations of civic life will have to become a focus of debate again, especially given the ever more dramatic scaling down of the Swiss militia army.

The militia system in the political sphere

In the Late Middle Ages politics and the military were so closely intertwined in the area of present-day Switzerland that the militia principle was also adopted in the political sphere. According to political scientist Alois Riklin, the openair popular assembly, the assembly of the people, and the commons in agriculture, alongside military service, can be seen as the nucleus of this political militia system.3 Cooperatives, which served as labour and ownership collectives, existed in many Swiss cantons since the High Middle Ages. In the requirement specification sheets of such corporations office-taking, for example for the implementation of usage schemes for collective goods, was taken for granted, indeed seen as a necessity. Hence there was no talk of “voluntariness”, the establishment and maintenance of “Gemeinwerke” (communal works) was simply part of a system that required everyone’s dedication for the common good. Today, office-taking is no longer compulsory for many offices in the militia system, but luckily the lack of the required commitment is still not too great in many areas. In fact, a great many Swiss people, male or female, still exercise public functions in the militia system, as evidenced by the most recent study (see article above).

1 Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation.
2 “Verfassung der helvetischen Republik vom 12. April 1798” in Quellenbuch zur neueren schweizerischen Verfassungsgeschichte, ed. Alfred Kölz, Berne, 1992, p. 133.
3 Riklin, Alois, “Die Schweizerische Staatsidee”, in Zeitschrift für Schweizerisches Recht, No. 191, Basel, 1982, pp. 217–246.

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