The Swiss cantons and their business of war – Anything but ‘just business’

On 10 June 2021, we participated in the workshop War as ‘Just Business’ (Oxford University) organised by Peter H. Wilson and his project team. Of the various questions the organisers had prepared for this meeting, we felt productively challenged by one question in particular: How far can the ‘business of war’ be considered ‘just business’? Because only recently, we wrote an article entitled ‘A Polity Full of Contractors – The Swiss Cantons and Their Business of War (Fifteenth to Nineteenth Centuries). Inspired by the discussion on the European fiscal-military system (Peter H. Wilson) on the one hand and the contractors approach (Rafael Torres Sánchez) on the other hand, we have analysed – based on the current state of research – the specific involvement of the Corpus helveticum in the European business of war. The unpublished article forms the basis for this short thesis paper that we wrote for the workshop.

The Corpus helveticum took indeed a very different path from the major European powers. After the first phase of the Italian wars (1494-1516), it was only indirectly involved in European wars via its alliances and ‘capitulations’ (Kapitulationen, i.e. military contracts or agreements). It kept out of the dynamics of the ‘military revolution’, and followed its own nation-building path as an ‘island of peace’ in the middle of Europe. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it did not maintain a standing army in the traditional sense. Instead, it had access to its permanent mercenary troops abroad, which could, according to the terms of the military alliances, be summoned back if they were needed for defence purposes. The training and maintenance of these troops were financed by the foreign powers. By externalizing the costs of a standing army, and accepting pensions as payment for recruiting rights on their mercenary markets, the cantons were able to keep their taxes low. No ‘extraction-coercion cycle’ was set in motion here; nor did the Corpus helveticum become a ‘fiscal-military state’, which as a ‘contractor state’ would have commissioned various actors to supply the Swiss armies with mercenaries, goods and capital. Instead, the Corpus helveticum itself acted as a supplier of mercenaries, and as an international financial centre serving the belligerent powers. In the service, capital and goods markets of the Swiss area, politicians, officers, military entrepreneurs, marchands-banquiers, gunsmiths, cannon-makers, engineers and other actors catered to various war-related needs in the broadest sense. By way of alliance contracts and capitulations, many elite Swiss families were involved in transnational military transactions: as service providers, entrepreneurs and proprietors of military units, as traders on the international goods and financial markets, as clients and agents of princely patrons, and as the recipients of clientelist resources. In this sense, the Corpus helveticum was not a fiscal-military state, but a polity full of contractors.

The social and political implications of the business activities of the Swiss military entrepreneurs (or contractors) and their close ties to the centres of power were of outstanding importance for the Corpus helveticum. Our answer to Peter’s question is therefore clear: With regard to the Swiss Confederacy, the business of war was anything but ‘just business’. By formulating two theses, we say why. But first a brief preliminary remark on the Corpus helveticum.

Preliminary remark: What does Corpus helveticum mean?

The Corpus helveticum was a composite polity and differed strongly from its monarchical neighbours. Until the end of the Ancien Régime in 1798, the Corpus helveticum formed a complex structure made up of several systems of alliances. These systems emerged in the period from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, establishing fairly loose connections between numerous communal, noble and ecclesiastical dominions. Thanks to successful territorial policies and power politics, they came to have sovereignty over subject territories of various sizes. These communes formed the core of the so-called Confederacy (Eidgenossenschaft), which, by 1513, had expanded to include thirteen small, communal states, which all belonged to the Holy Roman Empire. These were the cantons (German: Kantone, Orte). The allied cantons (Zugewandte Orte) formed a second category of territories within the Corpus helveticum. These autonomous or sovereign dominions (Wallis, the Three Leagues, the principality of Neuchâtel, the princely abbey of Saint Gall, the cities of St. Gallen, Biel, Mulhouse in Alsace, Rottweil, Geneva and others) maintained closer, asymmetrical alliances with some of the thirteen cantons, but they were integrated much more loosely into the Corpus helveticum than these cantons. Lastly, large parts of the Corpus helveticum consisted of subject territories (Untertanengebiete), which were governed by individual cantons or collectives of several cantons. In the latter case they were known as condominiums (Gemeine Herrschaften). The Corpus helveticum lacked certain essential attributes of statehood. Its borders were unclear, because only a small minority of the allied cantons were allied with all thirteen cantons. The Corpus helveticum had no political centre, let alone a capital. The only collective institution of the Confederacy was the Diet (Tagsatzung), which can best be characterized as a congress of diplomatic envoys from the individual cantons. It served mainly to ensure continuous political and diplomatic communication between the power elites of the individual cantons, but also to maintain diplomatic relations with external powers. There were substantial social and economic differences between the thirteen communal states of the Confederacy. Relations within the Corpus helveticum were structurally complex and shaped by conflicting interests and rivalries between the cantons, exacerbated by the Reformation and the conflict between the denominations.


The usefulness of the Corpus helveticum in the fiscal-military system of Europe

Remarkably, the Corpus helveticum – except for the involvement of the Grisons in the Thirty Years War – was not involved in the wars of the European powers for the whole early modern period until the War of the Second Coalition in 1799. Contrary to the narrative of traditional national history, the existence of the Corpus helveticum as an island of peace in the middle of a warlike Europe was not based on the country’s fundamental aversion to war and its affinity with neutrality. Instead it was based – seemingly paradoxically – on the web of political alliances with the great European powers and entanglement in their wars, and on the strategic management of the country’s favourable geopolitical position.

As a result of the Burgundian Wars (1474-1477) and the Italian Wars (1494-1559), the Corpus helveticum was incorporated into the sphere of influence of the Spanish Habsburg empire. Inevitably, this meant that it also became a strategic factor for the king of France, the great rival of the Habsburgs. Both powers wanted to gain the allegiance of the Corpus helveticum and achieve as close and exclusive a relationship as possible, in order to secure the advantages of its location, or at least to neutralize this area in view of its potential threat. The Ewige Richtung and the Erbeinung with Habsburg-Austria (signed in 1474/1477 and 1511 respectively) and the peace and alliance treaties with France in 1516 and 1521 governed the relations of the cantons with these two powers. At the end of the sixteenth century, in 1587, an alliance between the Catholic cantons (with the exception of Solothurn) and Spain-Milan was added.

These alliances granted the cantons security in a dynamic and warlike environment. Both sides pledged to be peaceful neighbours and to give military help in the case of an attack by third parties. The cantons subsequently dispensed with any costly expansion of their defence structures or modernization of their militia troops, and trusted that they would be permitted to recall their mercenary troops from abroad if they needed to defend themselves. To all intents and purposes, the Swiss regiments in foreign service acquired the character of externally financed standing armies abroad. This enabled the cantons to externalize the high costs of modernizing their defences, at the expense of their allies (or the taxpayers in those countries). They were therefore able to keep their military and security spending very low, compared to other European countries, for a long period of time. This outsourcing of military spending gave the cantons a kind of ‘peace dividend’ in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: they paid off their debts, invested part of their state funds in the debt policies of the European powers, and could afford not to tax their subjects.

The feature that made the Corpus helveticum such an attractive partner for alliances was its favourable location. This was the result of conflicts over power and dominion in the fifteenth and the early sixteenth century in what is now Switzerland. In this period, the communes of the Confederacy were able to assert themselves against the rival Habsburg, Burgundy and Savoy dynasties, and affirm their long-term position as the pre-eminent power in the central section of the Alpine region. This was partly due to the Swiss infantry tactics, which retained their supremacy until the early sixteenth century. Its sovereign control of strategically important alpine passes and its immediate proximity to important battlegrounds of the wars between Habsburg and France and their allies gave the Corpus helveticum a geostrategically central position in the middle of Europe. It thus became an attractive and indispensable ally for the rival powers. This attractiveness was intensified by the fact that, after the defeat against the king of France at the Battle of Marignano in 1515, and the conquest of the Waadt in 1536, the Corpus helveticum ceased to engage in any power politics of its own. Instead it remained passive and made itself politically neutral (the policy of Stillesitzen). The existence of a Corpus helveticum that was weak in terms of power politics, but useful for military purposes, security and commerce, was very much in the interests of the powers. The country served as a security buffer between the rival crowns and as military flank protection; as an intact mercenary market and a safe transit area for moving troops between Italy and the war zones in north-western Europe; as a credit provider and a hub for trading in war materials and provisioning the armies of the warring powers; and as a platform for diplomatic intelligence services.

As an area close to the wars but unscathed by them, the Corpus helveticum was an integral part of the transnational European fiscal-military system. It benefited from wars in Europe and from the fact that the warring powers had to mobilize the resources for their wars in a competitive environment. In particular, it exploited the fact that the European powers (as ‘contractor states’) outsourced war-related activities to private individuals. This business model was the basis for the existence of the numerous military entrepreneurs and mercenaries from the Corpus helveticum. From the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, they catered to a wide range of war-related needs, developing a unique tradition of labour and career migration for purposes of military entrepreneurship. The bellicosity of Europe and the Stillesitzen of the Corpus helveticum were two sides of the same coin.

Thesis 1: Because the neutral confederacy was integrated into the European fiscal-military system through its military alliances and capitulations and reliably supplied the belligerent powers with war-making resouces, it secured its existence in a warring Europe.


Mercenary service and elite formation in the Swiss cantons

The canton-regulated export of mercenaries was organized by military entrepreneurs, most of whom belonged to families from the political elite of their cantons. The economic and political interests of the Swiss power elites were in fact closely interwoven with the mercenary services. Officers in foreign service not only collected pay and pensions, they also gained important military experience of leadership and war, improved their language skills, and developed personal connections with the power centres of Europe. Their close contacts with France, Spain and Savoy familiarized these career migrants with the customs of European princely society. Holding high military ranks and decorated with patents of nobility and the insignia of exclusive orders of knighthood, they knew how to operate in aristocratic and courtly circles. While many mercenary officers dedicated themselves to a military career and did not return to their home country for the rest of their lives, for others mercenary service was simply a stage in their biography, part of an intergenerational strategy to preserve the status of the wider family unit in the long term. The accumulation of economic, social, cultural and symbolic resources meant that the mercenary officers were well-qualified for a political office in their homeland, or for higher functions in the domestic militia.

Thesis 2: Military entrepreneurship and political strategies for getting to the top and staying there were interdependent, since the officers could use the resources acquired abroad to develop and maintain their clientele at home, thereby expanding and securing their family’s position of power.


For many countries in Europe in the modern period, war became the ‘the flywheel in the machinery of state’, as the historian Otto Hintze once put it. The arms race and the costly wars forced the states to build up military and bureaucratic systems intended to provide them with the necessary resources for war. War made the state, and the state made war. This well-known thesis does not apply to the Old Swiss Confederacy, however. Instead, it kept out of the European wars. It did not take part in the arms race itself, and it allowed the European rulers or rather their taxpayers to pay for the modernization of its troops in foreign service. Subsequently the Swiss militia troops at home fell further and further behind developments in military technology, and became structurally incapable of warfare.

The Corpus helveticum, however, was an integral component not only of the European market for mercenaries and arms, but also of war operations on the continent. The Swiss power elite benefited from a market logic which organized the flows of war-related goods and money in the most economically efficient (i.e. decentralized) manner, and thus integrated the Corpus helveticum into the European fiscal-military system as a ‘neutral’ market participant. However, in making clever strategic use of the structural features that set their country apart from its geopolitical surroundings, the Swiss contractors also served the interests of the warring powers. So on the one hand we have the extreme bellicosity of the European powers, and on the other hand the Swiss, cultivating their geostrategically crucial position, keeping the Corpus helveticum out of the wars of the European powers as a ‘neutral actor’ while turning its neutrality into a business model. The interdependence between them makes it very clear that neutral parties are highly relevant to war, especially in wartime.


erlach johann ludwig von
Johann Ludwig von Erlach (1595-1650) from Bern served successively the Bohemian Confederates, Christian of Brunswick, Sweden and ultimately succeeded Bernhard of Weimar as commander of Sweden’s former German army which passed into French service in 1639. The artist is not known, but the portrait shows him as a French lieutenant general.
erzgiesser johann balthasar keller vom steinbock

Johann Balthasar Keller (1638-1702) was a Swiss gunfounder from Zurich serving France. In the portrait, he is pointing to one of the four large statues of Louis XIV he and his brother cast which are now at Versailles. The painting is by Hyacinthe Rigaud.