Béla Kapossy is Associate Professor in the Department of History of the Faculty of Arts. His wide knowledge of the history of ideas in the eighteenth century is a valuable asset to the study of the Enlightenment. Bela Kapossy is especially interested in the circulation of knowledge, political and economic thought, and intellectual history in general.
Switzerland’s neutrality was not achieved overnight. Back in 1515, the Helvetians were an acknowledged military power. The Confederation then had a tiny population of just under one million, living in 13 cantons, which were sovereign but bound to each other by treaties.
Following a final major victory in Lombardy (at Novara in 1513), the Swiss combatants faced the artillery of Francis I at Marignan (today Melegnano) in 1515. On the second day of the battle, the arrival of 12,000 Venetians sent to help the king was decisive. Contrary to the legend which has prevailed in France since 1515, Francis I won the war essentially as a result of his political choices (his alliance with the Venetians) and his gold (which dissuaded some of the Swiss from taking up arms).
What role did this major defeat play in the invention of Swiss neutrality? According to legend, the Confederates understood that very night that they should no longer attack their neighbours. In reality, Switzerland discovered the concept of neutrality much later, as Béla Kapossy, historian of ideas and associate professor at the University of Lausanne, explains.
In 1515, on the night of Marignan, who thought of becoming neutral?
Some did, but not in the modern sense of the term. At the end of the Middle Ages, neutrality was far from having the positive connotation it can have today. The Confederates then lived in a world which made a clear distinction between just and unjust wars. In a feudal order represented by the Emperor, who himself held power directly from God, not taking a position in favour of the just cause was frowned upon.
And yet, did this defeat have an effect on the Swiss?
A very important effect. The Confederates signed peace treaties with the King of France which resulted in the payment of considerable sums, and offers of engagement for Swiss mercenaries. Serving abroad became an industry, which also offered the Swiss access to foreign markets under favourable terms.
With these agreements it became more worthwhile to fight under contract for France than to attack a neighbouring territory. So, neutrality was not a simple political decision, but also an economic process?
Yes. There was never a realisation dictating that, from such or such time, Switzerland would remain neutral. It was only at the end of the 17th century that people began to talk of Marignan as the start of Swiss neutrality, and it was legal experts rather than politicians who were the first to try and find a definition. In books used for teaching international law, a distinction began to be made between the law of war, the law of peace and the law of neutrality. The first to develop this idea was the Swiss philosopher Emer de Vattel, in his “People’s Law” in 1758. Thereafter, this view became the norm in books of the 19th century and its importance increased under the influence of the United States, which also initially wished to be neutral.
And then comes 1815…
Yes, at the Congress of Vienna, at the end of the Napoleonic wars, Switzerland’s perpetual neutrality was decreed by different countries and became an act of European public law. In 1815, it was above all Swiss territory which became neutral, for strategic reasons. In documents of the time, geographical and geostrategic language prevails. According to the treaty, it was in Europe’s general interest to neutralise the area separating Austria and France, Italy and the principalities of Germany. This was due in particular to Alpine crossing routes, which were of major strategic importance.
And did this Congress give rise to widespread debate in Switzerland?
No, not really. Peter Lehmann, a doctoral student studying history at the University of Lausanne, is working on Pictet de Rochemond, the Swiss delegate to the Congress of Vienna. He has noted that there are no major debates in reviews, newspapers and political literature concerning the origin of neutrality in 1815.
So we must wait until 1895…
Yes, it was in that year that the first “History of Neutrality” was published, written by the Zurich archivist Paul Schweizer. It is an important book that upholds the view, somewhat late in the day when all is said and done, of a Switzerland which since Marignan has followed a very clear and original tradition of neutrality.
If it wasn’t a political choice, how did this neutrality develop?
With a great deal of pragmatism. It developed gradually: over time, the Swiss discovered the benefits of such neutrality. With great good fortune, too, and political intelligence, the Confederation has always tried to balance its favours and the interests of its elites, and not overly expose itself to the military adventures of its larger neighbours.