The Ottonian Empire had reduced standing armies, and the taxes necessary to keep them, to a very low level since war was possible only during about 65 days of the year. In this civilized context, the various European powers relied on mercenaries. These originated essentially from the poorest country in Europe, Switzerland (fig. 18.3).
Figure 18.3. Swiss mercenary drawn by the engraver Urs Graf (signed bottom, left) in 1514. Graf (1485-1527) was a vile man who frequently went off as a mercenary soldier. His drawing of the brute has a morbid fascination. Graf disappeared after having probably taken part in the sack of Rome.
Swiss mercenaries were formidable opponents when the security of their homeland was at stake, as the Duke of Austria and the Duke of Burgundy learned at their own expense but, during Ottonian times, the art of war consisted essentially in avoiding confrontations. Since Swiss soldiers were fighting on both sides, the greatest concern of the belligerents was not to make war and, if war was declared, not to engage in any battle and, if a battle was indeed fought, was to avoid any casualty. The Swiss mercenaries of the French king Louis XII and those of Lodovico il Moro of Milan refused to fight each other on the 5th of February 1500, at Novara, in Italy.
Despite the introduction of firearms, the situation remained pretty much unchanged throughout the Empire until the Renaissance. Machiavelli announced the return of mentality toward tribal primitivism but his writing had no immediate practical consequences. He addressed himself to tyrants of Italian city-states who had at their command a handful of mercenary matamores who considered that they were there to keep order and provide pageantry, and were in no case supposed to kill and be killed (fig. 18.4).
Figure 18.4. Michel-Angelo designed the flamboyant dresses of the Swiss guards for the service of the Vatican.
Machiavelli wrote when Italian city-states were aggressed by France and needed despotic rulers to induce the Italian citizens to resistance. Machiavelli noted the failure of the Church to achieve this. Powerful Nation-States appeared, whose means far exceeded the means of either city-states or the Empire. The Belgian City of Gent at one time refused to pay the taxes requested by the Emperor Charles V to fight Francis I of France. The powerless Emperor had to send an army to subdue his city of birth. Francis, on his side, was not powerless but roasted the citizens recalcitrant in their generosity to give him their fortune.
The Swiss, allied to the pope, lost the battle of Marignan against the French armies of Francis I, in 1515. The Swiss concluded peace “forever” with France and Swiss mercenaries resolved to restrict their activity to the maintenance of order.
The residence of the King of France in Paris, the now destroyed palace “Les Tuileries”, was stormed by the Parisians on the 10th of August 1792. The two Swiss regiments guarding the palace, 900 men composing the regiments of the cent-suisses, were butchered. Thrown through the windows, the living bodies were impaled on pikes, stripped of their clothes and roasted. Napoleon, watching the slaughter and barbecue without intervening, wondered about the Swiss reluctant to defend themselves and inflict harm on the aggressors, which spelled their annihilation. Soon thereafter, relying on conscription, indoctrination and propaganda, Napoleon easily and successfully defeated the various European armies fighting according to the old rules, until he met with Russian, Spanish, Prussian and British opponents who had learned the hard way how to oppose him.
Appalled by the savagery of the attack on the cent-suisses, revolted by the callousness, hypocrisy and xenophobia of the French politicians who ordered the attack, understanding that tolerance and restraint in human affairs were concerns of the past, unwilling to have any part or responsibility in the looming exercises in atrocity, Switzerland recalled all its mercenary troops from Europe, except those guarding the Vatican. A monument of breath-taking beauty was erected in Lucerne to the memory of the butchered cent-suisses and Switzerland engaged in a policy of neutrality to which it has remained faithful during these last 200 years.
This policy could be followed because the Swiss were willing to pay for the expenses needed to keep a deterring standing army of formidable efficacy, which forced the respect of the belligerents of WW I and WW II. The cabal concerning the goods of Jews killed by Nazi Germany who had put their savings in Swiss banks, savings which were not returned, and the collaboration of Swiss companies with Nazi Germany, should not extend to the Swiss. In 1940-1941, the country was totally surrounded by fascist countries that appeared invincible: Austria and the Südetenland were annexed to Germany, Belgium, Holland, Denmark and Poland had been conquered, France, Italy and the USSR were allies of Germany, the US was neutral and Great Britain seemed on the verge of succumbing, and yet 95% of the Swiss population opposed the fascist ideology and was ready to fight if ever attacked.