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Commentary: Evolving Switzerland’s Conscription System into a Citizen’s Service

September 20, 2022

By Oliver Hegglin – Research Assistant

Switzerland is not comprised of one people. Instead, Swiss history has developed the country in that it today has 26 distinct Cantons, four national languages, and a high percentage of foreigners. The federalist nature of government also assures that each Canton governs itself, with very few aspects under federal responsibility. This includes the federal postal service, the federal rail service, a national currency, a national foreign policy, and perhaps most crucially, its national armed forces.

Switzerland’s system of conscription has been enshrined in the Constitutions since the establishment of the federal state in 1848, which reads “each Swiss is subject to conscription”. In other words, military service to the state and the concept of a “citizen-soldier”, is as old as the country itself. Going further back in time to the establishment of the Helvetic Confederation in 1291, the first three Cantons promised to “assist each other by every means possible against one and all who may inflict on them violence or injustice within their valleys and without”. Over the course of the next 700 years, these “Original Cantons” (Urkantone) grew to become a sovereign state of 26 Cantons united under the motto “Unus Pro Pmnibus – Omnes Pro Uno” (One For All – All For One). 

The Cultural Significance of the Army

Until the establishment of the federal state in 1848, each Canton was in practice effectively independent but pledged to the others in what can be considered to be a proto-defensive alliance. Service between the Cantons to each other is thus the oldest and perhaps most integral facet of Swiss culture and identity; It has kept the Cantons together through centuries and paved the way for our current foreign and security policy.

When young Swiss conscripts and volunteers enter the military, they do so not only as individuals serving their country, but as envoys from their Cantons, sent to uphold the promise the Cantons pledged to one another. In doing so, they meet other young men and women from across the country and have the opportunity to explore other Cantons, visiting and seeing places unfamiliar to them. This system continues to keep the 26 Cantons together in common purpose and sets the foundation on which the Swiss state is built.

Evolving Conscription as a state-building measure

A military threat against Switzerland was a real concern throughout the Cold War, leading to the establishment of the Civil Defense in 1963. Its purpose was to build and maintain infrastructure such as bunkers, and ‘clean up’ after a military confrontation, where the army was responsible for territorial defense. However, this changed in the 1990s, when the size of the military was gradually reduced in the following decades and the Reduit defensive concept, which called for a string of fortresses in the mountains, abandoned. The Civil Defense also realigned its focus from dealing with the effects of war to disaster and emergency situations. In 1996, a Civil Service was introduced to provide another alternative to military service. This service supports different institutions, such as schools or hospitals in day-to-day operations. For the people as a collective and for the individual, it became clear that serving in the army is not the only way to serve and develop as a citizen of the country.

Other countries such as Singapore and Israel, like Switzerland, are also comprised of multi-ethnic populations with various cultures, languages, and religions. And in all three, service to the state through military service helps create a national identity where there otherwise is none. It unites these different groups of people under one common flag. In Switzerland, it is becoming irrelevant if a Swiss can trace their ancestry to when their Canton first joined the Confederation or if one was born to migrant parents – fulfilling their service to the country makes these two example individuals equal in the eyes of the state, as both would have fulfilled the duty entrusted to them as citizens. Through their national service, a common identity can continue to be built inclusive of the demographic shift that is occurring throughout the country.

Changing Demographics

Switzerland has developed to have a very high foreign population, which has resulted in many Swiss holding more than one passport and subsequent generations having a foreign background. With the legalization of dual-citizenship in 1992, the entry into the Schengen Area in 2008, and an economy that properly began to prosper during the Cold War, much foreign talent was attracted.

Consequently, the definition of what it means to be Swiss has begun to vary widely. The federalist make-up of the country, however, means there is no single Swiss ‘ethnicity’ or ‘race’. The country is a group of independent Cantons who have pledged their support to each other, which encompasses the spirit of what it means to be Swiss. When one gains Swiss citizenship, it is the Canton that sets forth requirements, building on the federal minimum, and the Canton which guides an individual through the process with the place of residence at time of naturalization becoming the new citizen’s ‘place of origin’. New citizens primarily become a citizen of their Canton, having successfully adapted to their local environment and become familiar with its customs and local way of life.

To then truly encompass what it means to be Swiss, each citizen, regardless of if their family has lived in the country for centuries or is a migrant, has the sacred responsibility to serve the country on behalf of their home Canton. This is what separates the Swiss from neighboring countries; Being Swiss is a belief – it is a responsibility above all else, a responsibility one is either born into or accepts upon naturalization. This duty to the country continues to be carried out as it has been since the beginning – either through military service or one of the alternatives. Service to the country is at its core quintessential to the stability of the federal state and unity of the Cantons.

Service Citoyen – A Citizen’s Service

The current system of conscription excludes many, especially women and foreigners. This leaves a large part of the population out of this state-building measure. Consequently, there is much talent and knowledge that is not included in this process, while these individuals lose out on learning soft skills such as leadership and crisis management, which make those who serve more competitive in the labor market. At the same time, many people in the country, including those who already fulfil a service, complete other forms of ‘community service’, such as volunteering at the local fire department, in a non-governmental organization, or in a variety of other institutions.

To recognize these unrecognized forms of service on a national level, and to continue evolving the current model of conscription to make it all-inclusive, the people’s initiative* Service Citoyen has the goal of introducing a nationwide “Citizen’s Service”, in which every Swiss would complete a form of officially recognized service to the country, whether it be in the military, civil defense, civil service, or in new future variants, such as in favor of the environment or in social care. In so doing, the youth can be empowered to find their physical and mental limits, to discover what they are capable of as individuals, and push them to success through a worth-while commitment in a changing society.

Service to one’s community and to the state is a cornerstone of Switzerland’s success story and closely linked to its system of direct democracy. By introducing a Citizen’s Service, every Swiss, regardless of background, would be contributing to the greater good of the country and partaking in the state-building process of Switzerland. This universal system would strengthen unity among the Cantons and continue to develop Swiss identity at a time of demographic shifts and political polarization. It would set the Switzerland apart from other European countries and perhaps even set a precedent. But most importantly, every person holding Swiss citizenship would fulfil the oath the Cantons have taken towards each other since 1291, embodying the spirit of “One For All – All For One”. The reform Service Citoyen aims to introduce is indispensable for the future of Switzerland.

Image: A Swiss Army infantry squad and Mowag Piranha during presentation (Source: TheBernFiles)


Addendum – Initiative Text

  • “Every person with Swiss citizenship performs a service for the benefit of the general public and the environment.
  • This service is performed as military service or in the form of another equal and legally recognized militia service.
  • The target size of crisis-intervention services is guaranteed; this concerns in particular:
    • The armed forces
    • The civil defense
  • Persons who do not perform a service for the benefit of the general public and the environment, although they are obliged to do so, shall owe a levy; the law may provide for exceptions. This tax shall be levied by the Confederation and assessed and collected by the Cantons.
  • The law shall determine whether, and to what extent, persons without Swiss citizenship render a service to the general public and the environment.
  • The Confederation shall issue regulations on the appropriate compensation for loss of earnings.
  • Persons who perform the service and suffer damage to their health or lose their lives in the process, shall be entitled to appropriate support from the Confederation for themselves or their dependents.”


* Notes:

  • The author is on the ‘Initiative Committee’ of Service Citoyen, the public-facing body advocating for the Popular Initiative within the country.
  • A ‘People’s Initiative’ is a legal tool in which 100,000 valid signatures gathered from citizens within the span of 18 months can force a nationwide vote to alter the constitution on a certain issue.

About Oliver Hegglin

Oliver Hegglin is a geopolitical threat analyst in the private sector and has a master’s degree in international affairs from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva and a dual bachelor’s degree in international studies and anthropology from Washington College. Between and during degrees he completed internships with diplomatic representations and the United Nations, and worked for a developmental NGO. Oliver is a Specialist Officer with Swiss Armed Forces International Command where he supports the training for peace support operations and has served abroad in Mali and Kosovo. He is a board member of the NGO Imholz Foundation. His research interests include peacekeeping, the Arctic and Swiss and global security issues.