Zwischen den Fronten. Berner Militärunternehmer im Dienst des Sonnenkönigs Ludwig XIV.

Ryser, Benjamin
Archiv des Historischen Vereins des Kantons Bern (95)
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Rezensiert für und H-Soz-Kult von:
Peter Wilson, History, University of Oxford

Military history has taken several interesting paths. The oldest route follows campaigns and battles and remains very much alive, not only in works catering for a wider readership, but also in scholarly accounts. There are also several varieties of “new” military history, most of which grew from the “war and society” approach of the 1960s and which examine warfare and military institutions as social and cultural phenomena. Most recently, economic perspectives have at last received the attention they deserve, with research moving beyond traditional issues such as whether warfare promoted or retarded growth, to examine the preparation and conduct of war as aspects of “business”.[1]

Benjamin Ryser’s account of Bernese military contractors between 1663 and 1715 exemplifies the potential of this approach to connect various phenomena which have often been examined separately. People – mainly, though not exclusively men – are at the heart of his book which examines who was involved in contracting, recruiting, and commanding the Swiss soldiers who formed such an important element in the early modern French army and many other European forces. Ryser’s discussion of the activities of these individuals encompasses aspects of political, social, cultural, as well as business and military history.

This breadth distinguishes it (as well as other recent work) from Fritz Redlich’s classic work on German military contractors which is, in many ways, the intellectual ancestor of the “business of war”, but which imposed an anachronistic materialist cost-benefit analysis on its subject.[2] By contrast, Ryser offers a sophisticated and nuanced account why sons of Bern’s elite were prepared to risk their lives in a business which was often not particularly lucrative, and could end in personal ruin and even death. At best, the profits were comparable to those of a “third-rate” landed estate, and though regimental colonels fared much better than captains, their returns were usually still only around three times as high. His discussion offers one of the clearest accounts of this form of military contracting and indicates that the pressures on profits were already mounting in the later seventeenth century, decades before they began to seriously discourage new entrants into the “business”.

While the lure of wealth remained a core motive, those involved were also attracted by the prestige attached to soldering, as well as the desire to secure powerful patrons. While the cultural implications of these aspirations are noted, Ryser’s main concern is to reconstruct the personal networks promoting or retarding those Bernese entering French service. In this aspect, his work showcases the best of current Swiss scholarship and its wider contribution to debates on the “contractor state” which examines the role of private entrepreneurs in delivering “public” services, notably in military and naval supply.

In some respects, Ryser’s case is specific and is determined by the structural characteristics of Swiss contracting which, in turn, allow him to capitalise on exceptionally rich archival sources. Swiss contractors generally retained much stronger ties to their homeland than the Huguenot, Irish, or Scottish officers who have also been studied extensively for this period. Yet, the Swiss homeland was also generally smaller and certainly more circumscribed than those of the German officers who also served in foreign regiments in the French, Dutch, and other armies. This has allowed those studying the Swiss not only to reconstruct the careers of individual officers in often exceptional detail, but to connect their various social and professional worlds. This is also essential in the Swiss case, because the republican character of cantonal politics widened the range of families involved in deciding whether to approve or reject foreign powers seeking troops. By contrast, such matters elsewhere were generally handled by a monarch with a smaller group of advisors, with the officers selected from men who often had little or no direct political influence.[3]

These contrasts emerge clearly from Ryser’s examination of Bern’s provision of an infantry regiment for France in 1671 which allows him to explore the complex interactions between individual, family, cantonal, and wider European interests. Though the Swiss were happy with their perpetual peace with France since 1516, not all were keen to supply troops, especially as these might be used offensively against otherwise friendly states. The dangers were revealed almost immediately when the Bernese regiment was deployed with other French forces to invade the Dutch Republic in 1672. Ryser carefully reconstructs the connections between serving officers and Bern’s patrician families, as well as how the canton sought to preserve its neutral status whilst individuals profited from supplying troops to France. Matters grew still more complicated when Bern joined several other Protestant cantons in supplying regiments to the Dutch during the Nine Years War (1688–1697), raising the possibility of Swiss in rival armies encountering themselves on the same battlefield.

Several important points emerge. One is Bern’s success in navigating the broader shifts in the European power balance, notably by negotiating clauses in its contracts to preserve the ostensibly “defensive” character of the units it hired out. Such legal details established plausible deniability against potential protests rather than effective mechanisms to prevent the abuse of contracts by the foreign powers. Here, Ryser points to the wider conclusion that old Swiss neutrality rested more on a fortuitous coincidence of rival external interests, all keen to preserve access to military manpower, rather than any secure international norm or abstract principle.

Second, neither France nor the Bernese authorities had full control over the numerous actors involved, and the imperfect nature of their influence had a major impact on how the details played out. Bern could not recall units once they had been provided but could exert some influence through its management of replacement recruiting to maintain their strength, since permission to seek new soldiers openly made that process both cheaper and easier. However, it proved impossible to prevent the Dutch recruiting without formal permission, because enough well-connected local families were interested in the new venture.

Third, France could not prevent Bern providing a regiment to its enemy, but it was able to reward or punish its local clients through the manipulation of officer appointments and promotions. In one important case, it protected one branch of the Erlach family which had placed loyalty to the Sun King above its obligations to its homeland. That example reveals a fourth point: the “cost” of foreign service was not only the risk of financial ruin, injury, or even death, but could entail virtual exile.

Ryser’s inclusion of the Dutch recruitment means his study is broader than its title suggests. The rich detail is often illuminating, and individuals are helpfully identified by full name and life dates. However, the absence of an index is a serious drawback, and it would have been helpful to have included a few more family trees. These points aside, this is a valuable and important addition to the growing literature on European military contracting.

[1] The seminal text is David Parrott, The Business of War. Military Enterprise and the Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge 2012. See also the special issue of the journal Business History, 60 no. 1 (2018), on the “Business of War” which offers a good introduction to the recent literature.
[2] Fritz Redlich, The German Military Enterpriser and his Work Force, 14th to 18th Centuries, 2 vols., Wiesbaden 1964–1965.
[3] Richard Harding, Sergio Solbes Ferri (eds.), The Contractor States and its Implications (1659–1815), Las Palmas de Gran Canaria 2012. Recent work on the Swiss includes Robert-Peter Eyer, Die Schweizer Regimenter in Neapel im 18. Jahrhundert (1734–1789), Bern 2009; Rudolf Jaun, Pierre Streit, Hervé de Weck (eds.), Schweizer Solddienst. Neue Arbeiten, neue Aspekte, Birmensdorf 2010; Philippe Rogger, Geld, Krieg und Macht. Pensionsherren, Söldner und eidgenössische Politik in den Mailänderkriegen 1494–1516, Baden 2015; Kaspar von Greyerz, André Holenstein, Andreas Würgler (eds.), Soldgeschäfte, Klientelismus, Korruption in der Frühen Neuzeit. Zum Soldunternehmertum der Familie Zurlauben im schweizerischen und europäischen Kontext, Göttingen 2018.

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