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Large-scale wars are a destructive and remarkable invention of the modern world. Medieval wars seem like puny skirmishes in comparison to the worldwide destruction caused by wars in the post-industrialization era. With most countries progressively increasing their military budgets, there is one country that has found itself in a Utopian position of operating based on ingenious policies regarding arms and ammunition. Despite literally being at the center of the continental battlefield for the World Wars (I and II), this country’s neutrality was still grudgingly respected by all of its neighbors.
The nation I am referring to here is Switzerland. It is not simply a mecca for clockwork fanatics and cheese connoisseurs. Switzerland, with its one-of-a-kind political system, is also a very interesting case study.
Switzerland was technically created because of Napoleon’s actions within Europe. Before Napoleon, Switzerland was fraught with economic and political problems, along with its neighboring countries basically trampling all over it for their militaristic ambitions. Napoleon, however, played a part in creating the Swiss Federation by partially restoring the sovereignty of the Swiss cantons (territories). After his defeat, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 fully recognized the independence of the Swiss Federation and the Europeans came to accept Swiss neutrality. The only large-scale civil war that Switzerland went through since then was the Sonderbund War in 1848, which arose due to the differences between the Catholic and Protestant populace of the country. To reach a peaceful agreement between the two groups, it became necessary to forge a new, more inclusive state. Thus, the directly democratic federation of Switzerland was born!
Second World War
During the Second World War, Switzerland felt constantly threatened by Hitler’s forces. Hitler was quickly conquering most of continental Europe, and Switzerland was smack in the middle of it. Germany was strengthening its military right outside Switzerland’s front doors, which would be worrying for any country. The Swiss began harboring guns in every household, as they felt that they could be victims of Hitler’s blitzkreig at any moment. Their attempts at self-preservation were not uncalled for. According to some historians, Hitler avoided attacking Switzerland not because he respected the decision made by the Congress of Vienna, but because he didn’t believe his forces could overpower the armed Swiss citizens. No wonder the people of Switzerland chose to remain constantly vigilant!
This attitude has not changed in Switzerland since that time. There are still a formidable number of guns within the Swiss border, although there have been some significant changes in policy within the country.
Switzerland has one of the highest statistics regarding gun ownership in the world. Believe it or not, 2-3 million guns are legally in circulation in Switzerland. That means 29 guns for every 100 citizens! This ranks third behind USA and Yemen. Although there is no threat to their personal safety, the Swiss still choose to keep firearms in their home.
This love of guns is because Switzerland has a strange relationship with its military. It basically consists of civilian volunteers, rather than full-time soldiers! Eligible men are compulsorily conscripted into military training, while women have the option to refuse. Soldiers usually just go back to their civilian lives once this training is over, but during times of emergency, the country can summon its highly trained citizen-soldier army to defend itself. Some are nominated for higher ranks and receive extra training. These higher ranks hardly ever manifest in a practical way, given Switzerland’s lack of internal or international conflicts. The higher-ranking officials usually just slip back into their mundane daily pursuits after training, rather than basking in military glory. For this reason, in the past 500 years, there have been only four Swiss military generals!
The citizen-soldiers can, however, choose to retain their right to keep their firearms after training, and many prefer to do so. Ever since World War II, Swiss households have taken personal and national safety very seriously. They consider it a commitment to community responsibility.
As Switzerland is a direct democracy, the people can easily intervene in policy-making processes. In fact, in Switzerland, you can actually challenge a law if you manage to gather 50,000 signatures against it within 100 days! In other words, it is the people that end up deciding the budget for the military, as well as the equipment that will be used.
Isn’t that incredible? It is the people who choose the kind of military to defend their own nation. The citizen-soldiers of Switzerland are not just mindless pawns that follow orders. They make executive decisions regarding the use of the weapons entrusted to them. The rest of the world could certainly learn a thing or two from Switzerland’s policy.
The flexibility of the Swiss democracy regarding its military was displayed after a tragedy shook the nation in September of 2001. In the city of Zoug, a mass murderer by the name of Friedrich Leibacher killed 14 people, after which he committed suicide. The people of Switzerland were devastated by this incident. Soon, the law regarding firearms came under public scrutiny. It was decided that while all citizens can still keep guns in their homes, the same cannot be said about the ammunition. The ammunition would be henceforth deposited in the military barracks instead.
The reason why this law was accepted nationwide is because the Swiss don’t fear for their self defense as much as their national defense. The crime rates in Switzerland are astonishingly low, despite the number of firearms. Unlike the USA, where there are 30 gun murders every single day, Switzerland has had no other incidence of gun violence in this century apart from the Zoug shootings. Remarkable, right? The Swiss are obviously a very responsible people!
However, some feel that Switzerland doesn’t need to keep up this vigilance in today’s modern world, and the country is slowly moving towards a more relaxed position regarding peacekeeping. There are several organizations that are lobbying against compulsory military training. However, the topic remains hotly debated. It will be interesting to watch how this country moves forward from its current status of armed neutrality!