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SWITZERLAND EXPLAINED

Why do the Swiss guard the Vatican?

It may be unusual for a neutral nation to have a military presence abroad — even if it is partially ceremonial — but there is a historic reason why the Swiss are protecting the Pope.

Swiss guards are known for their iconic multi-coloured garb.
Swiss Guards at the Vatican have been protecting popes since 1506, but not always dressed in their medieval uniform. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP

The mere mention of “Vatican guards” brings up images of iconic yellow, red and blue uniforms, plumed helmets, pikes, and swords.

How did such extravagantly outfitted men, who look more like court jesters than soldiers ,and carrying medieval weapons that would be useless in modern warfare, come to guard the Pope?

READ MORE: 9 stereotypes about Switzerland that just aren’t true

And why did the Vatican outsource this job to the Swiss?

The answer to this question lies in the Middle Ages, when Switzerland, or Helvetia as it was then known, was a poor rural country.

To earn money, many young men became mercenaries engaged in armed combat, fighting on the side of those who paid them the most. Others were hired as guards for European monarchs and nobility.

Swiss soldiers were very popular during the Renaissance as the word of their discipline and military skills spread across Europe, which was engaged in many bloody conflicts at the time.

Roman scholar Tacitus once commented on the military might of the Swiss, saying “the Helvetians are a people of warriors, famous for the valour of their soldiers”

Having heard of the Swiss mercenaries’ famed valour and skills on the battlefield, Pope Julius II hired 150 of them in 1506  to defend him and his palaces.

The guards proved their mettle two decades later when they defended Pope Clement VII during the Sack of Rome on May 6th, 1527 — so named after the Spanish, German, and Italian troops literally attacked the city of Rome.

During that battle, 147 Swiss Guards were killed, but the remaining 22 managed to escort the Pope from his residence at Castel Sant’ Angelo.

In a bloody coup in 1527, Swiss Guards defended the Pope and Casel Sant’Angelo. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

In remembrance of this occasion, new Guard recruits are sworn in every year on May 6th.

Today there are 130 Swiss Guards at the Vatican, and their daily duties include such tasks as desk duty and directing traffic in front of the entrance to the Vatican — they do this while wearing a plain blue uniform rather than their ceremonial Renaissance garb so as not to distract traffic.

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Contrary to popular belief, they are not equipped with standard issue Swiss army knives.

These days they are equipped with modern weapons and are skilled in using them — just as many Swiss people are.

In fact, these Guards really are soldiers and they really are Swiss.

Service of at least two years in Switzerland’s military is one of the main perquisites for the job, while they must have Swiss citizenship in order to serve. 

They must also be at least 175 cm tall, be unmarried, be practicing Catholics and present a certificate from their parish testifying to their moral character and regular attendance at mass.

In addition, a letter is needed from each candidate’s local authority certifying that he has been an upstanding member of the community.

Most guards stay at the Vatican for about two years before returning to Switzerland.

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SWITZERLAND EXPLAINED

Does Switzerland really have a national identity and is it changing?

To the outside world, Switzerland comes across as a unified nation of bankers, cheese and chocolate makers, yodellers, and skiers. But the real picture is far more complex.

Does Switzerland really have a national identity and is it changing?

A recent Credit Suisse study examined, among other things, whether Swiss national identity has been changing in view of the events like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

More specifically, researchers looked at the way Swiss people’s perception of their country’s role in the world has shifted in view of this geopolitical event.

But first, what exactly is ‘Swiss identity?’

This question is difficult to answer in relation to any nation, and Switzerland is no exception — even more so because it is not, as many people from other countries believe, homogeneous.

The 8.7 million people who live in the country are not only divided among four linguistic groups — German, French, Italian, and Romansh — but other distinctive characteristics also pay a role in defining Switzerland’s diversity.

For instance:

  • Over 2.2 million of Switzerland’s population (25 percent) are foreigners, mostly from the EU.
  • Nearly 2.9 million people (39 percent) have a migration background, including more than 1 million Swiss citizens.

In terms of mentality too, there are marked differences, not only between language groups — the so-called Röstigraben — but also between the more liberal urban areas and rural regions, which tend to be more conservative in their outlooks.

READ MORE: Röstigraben: The invisible barrier separating Switzerland

So it is fair to say that in matters of identity, the Swiss could be as different as their individual backgrounds, regions, and languages.

Yes, but is there such a thing as a single ‘national’ identity?

While this remains undefinable for all the reasons mentioned above, there is such a thing as “national characteristics,” although that could be part fact and part stereotype.

For instance, the Swiss are known to value punctuality, hard work ethic, rules, social justice, direct democracy, as well as freedom and independence (the latter trait often spilling into the country’s political stances).

They also don’t like to be told by other countries what to do within their own borders, according to the study’s findings.

When asked about various factors that threaten Switzerland’s identity, “external pressure, in its different forms, plays a significant role for many respondents,” researchers reported.

“In concrete terms, Switzerland’s dependence on the global economy, the EU and its problems, and immigration, are increasingly seen as threats to Switzerland’s identity.”

It is true that the Swiss often look down on anything foreign, believing that everything in Switzerland is better than elsewhere. That too, could be regarded as part of the elusive “national identity”.

READ MORE: Why do the Swiss think they are superior to everyone else?

Belief in their country and institutions

Swiss people’s assessment of their own country “remains positive by international standards, although Switzerland’s vulnerability has been laid bare by the pandemic and the war,” the study found.

For 92 percent of respondent, the Swiss economy is in good shape compared with other countries.

In addition, 54 percent of those surveyed still believe Switzerland can compensate for more difficult access to the EU market through increased trade relations with third countries.

This positive outlook ties in with yet another finding: the trust people have in their public institutions is stable and broad-based.

The fact that the Swiss have such confidence in their government is also an aspect of national identity: the unshaken belief that authorities which the people themselves elect will not let them down.

That trait, by the way, extends to foreign nationals living in Switzerland who, in some cases at least, trust the state even more than the Swiss themselves.

READ MORE: Why do foreigners in Switzerland trust the government more than the Swiss?

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