The Sonderbund War

 

We have four more days before my next podcast episode goes online, so while you’re waiting for it, here’s another story about an obscure war that I recently added to the website.  This one took place in Switzerland, believe it or not, and I added it to Chapter 13 of the European history series.

The Sonderbund War

We don’t get many opportunities to discuss Switzerland in a European history narrative, because the Swiss kept to themselves most of the time, and the outside world didn’t bother them much. The most recent outsider who did bother them was Napoleon Bonaparte, who conquered Switzerland in 1798, and turned most of it into a "Helvetian Republic." Then in 1803, because the Swiss refused to cooperate with him, he brought back the previous canton system, though the cantons remained satellite states of the French Empire until 1814. With the Congress of Vienna, Switzerland’s independence was restored, and Valais, Neuchâtel and Geneva were added as new cantons, establishing Switzerland’s present-day boundaries. Most important of all, the Congress declared Switzerland neutral, and the Swiss have followed this to the letter; they have not been involved in any foreign war since 1815, nor will they join any international organization.

However, the Swiss could still fight other Swiss, and they did that once, in a conflict that was short and is now nearly forgotten. Thanks to Ulrich Zwingli, today’s Swiss population is predominantly Protestant, but a large Catholic minority remained after the Reformation era ended. In the 1840s a new liberal party rose, the Free Democratic Party of Switzerland. This party wanted a new constitution that would turn the Swiss Confederation into a more centralized state, and it wanted to reduce the power of the Catholic Church, especially in the schools. To protect their rights, seven cantons that were both conservative and Catholic formed an alliance called the Sonderbund ("Separate Alliance"). This was illegal according to the 1815 treaty and the constitution. The liberals ordered the alliance dissolved, and the Sonderbund members refused. Among the other cantons, fifteen supported the Bern government, and two were neutral.

The resulting Sonderbund War lasted less than four weeks, in November 1847. The Protestants had the advantage of numbers, recruiting 99,000 troops to go against the Sonderbund’s 79,000. In response, the Sonderbund requested aid from the two strongest Catholic nations in Europe, France and Austria. Therefore, Bern’s strategy was to win the war as quickly as possible, before any foreigners could get involved. The Sonderbund began the fighting by launching two offensives, against Ticino and Aargau, but they failed to gain anything important before the government struck back. Those counter-offensives conquered Fribourg and Lucerne, and broke the Sonderbund forces. By December 1 the last Sonderbund canton (Valais) surrendered, and it was all over.

There is nothing "civil" about most civil wars, but the Swiss managed to make the Sonderbund War one of the most polite conflicts of all time. The government army commander, Guillaume-Henri Dufour, refused to equip his army with Congreve rockets, a weapon the enemy did not have, because he felt the rockets would cause too much damage. And he actually let the other side know where he was planning his next attacks, in the hope that this would make them surrender before the attacks took place. In addition, a lot of people in the Sonderbund did not really want to secede from Switzerland, so when government troops entered rebel towns, they received a warm welcome. Finally, both sides had standing orders to give medical aid to wounded enemies. All this meant that casualties were minimal (60 federal troops and 26 rebels killed), and when a new constitution was introduced in 1848, one which turned Switzerland into the federal state that exists today, the Catholics were willing to give it a chance. In fact, they are still in Switzerland now. As for General Dufour, he went on to preside over the First Geneva Convention, which founded the International Red Cross in 1864.

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