National Geographic : 1969 Jul
National Geographic, July 1969 rests in the archives of nearby Schwyz, the canton that later gave its name to the grow ing confederation. These hardy mountain men had experience in democracy. They met regularly to vote on pasture rights or community irrigation canals. In five of the Swiss cantons, men still gather every spring for the open-air Landsgemeinde, to vote on issues by a show of hands. But the main reason Switzerland survived the tumul tuous centuries after Riitli was that it was constantly ready to fight for its freedom. Army Trains in Rugged Mountains "We have always believed that bearing arms is a free man's basic right-and duty," Herr Demmer said. Striking a kitchen match, he blackened the sights on his Luger while we awaited his turn at the target range. "Wil liam Tell was a man of courage and integrity -and he was a good shot!" For centuries Swiss soldiers were consid ered the best in Europe. Until a hundred years ago Switzerland's chief export was men, fighting men, hired soldiers for the armies of Europe-France, Savoy, the House of Habs burg, and many another. Only one holdover from her mercenary days remains, the Swiss Guard at the Vatican. But at home she has never lowered her guard. Every able-bodied man is called for basic training when he reaches 20 years of age. Throughout his adult life-until he is 50-he trains with the militia forces several weeks each year. Between courses he keeps his uni form, rifle, and ammunition at home ready for any emergency. On only 36 hours' notice the Swiss can put 600,000 men in the field approximately one-tenth of the nation's en tire population. Visitors to Switzerland are often surprised to find traffic slowed by columns of tanks while an infantry battalion "takes" a village or a hill and Mirage jet fighters scream over head. I spent two days on maneuvers with a company of young officer candidates high in the mountains near St. Gotthard Pass. In command was Col. Peter Baumgartner, a tough, rawboned man in a gray wool uniform. He carried a rucksack and a coil of olive drab rope. "Many of our troops get mountain train ing," the colonel said, setting a brisk pace up through the snow and rocks. "The Alps make a natural fortress-but you have to know how to man it." We reached a chasm more than 50 feet wide, cut by a roaring stream. Men had al ready rigged a rope. Following the colonel, I hooked my legs around the rope, fastened a snap ring through a belt sling for safety, and slid across the chasm hand over hand. On the other side infantrymen in camouflage suits were already dug in (pages 80-81). "If an enemy ever invaded, every major bridge and tunnel in his path would be blown up," Colonel Baumgartner said as we crouched behind a boulder waiting for the mock battle to begin. "They would have to make it through the mountains on their own. We would be waiting." The colonel nodded a signal. With a grunt an officer candidate near us heaved the first grenade. A few seconds of silence, then ba rrroooom! Beyond the smoking snow ahead of us, machine guns opened up, adding their staccato to the growing din. Off to our left a platoon of Alpinists, roped by twos, edged down a sheer granite cliff to join the attack. Still higher, skiers, nearly invisible in white parkas and helmets, glided into firing position. Echoes multiplied the ear-splitting barrage. In 15 minutes it was all over. The soldiers faded back into the silence of the mountains from which they came. Soldiers Rescue a Stranded Hiker The skill and stamina of these men were impressive. But, as I pointed out to Colonel Baumgartner, in the event of war they would be heavily outnumbered. He recalled the story of Kaiser Wilhelm's visit to Zurich shortly before World War I. Inspecting a turnout of the Swiss Army at a review in his honor, the Kaiser was impressed. But he stopped, and in a jocular manner asked one soldier, "What could you really do if the great German Army were to invade your country-with a force twice as strong?" "In that case, sir," the soldier replied, "each of us would have to fire twice." It was late afternoon and trying to snow when we hiked across the Rhone Glacier after the day's exercises. Suddenly we heard a distant call for help. We took a squad of men and worked back across the glacier, then down through a jumble of giant sapphire slabs at its edge. Now we could see a man, maybe 600 feet up on the crumbling moraine. The soldiers began cutting steps up the steep bank of snow below him. Half an hour later they led a grateful tourist back to safety.