For members


Why is Bern the ‘capital’ of Switzerland?

It is smaller and less cosmopolitan than Zurich and Geneva. So how did Bern — also called Berne — end up being the political centre of Switzerland?

Why is Bern the 'capital' of Switzerland?
Bern, Switzerland's de facto capital. Photo by Andreas Fischinger on Unsplash

It may be a matter of semantics, but strictly speaking, Switzerland doesn’t have a “capital” as such. Bern’s official title is the “federal city” rather than the “capital city”, though to all ends and purposes, it is one and the same.

So how did Bern, rather than more logical choices like Zurich or Geneva, become the federal city?

Actually, before Bern became the seat of the government in 1848, this role rotated among several cities — very much like the role of the country’s president rotates among the seven members of the Federal Council.

“In the fledgling Helvetic Republic the honour went, in 1798, to Aarau – for all of four months”, according to an article by the Swiss National Museum. 

But “it soon became clear that there was not enough space in the little country town, and the capital was moved to Lucerne”.

Next, the title was passed on to Lausanne, followed by Fribourg, Solothurn, Basel, Bern, Zurich and again to Lucerne. “From 1815, this number was reduced to just Bern, Zurich and Lucerne, for two years each”, the museum’s records show.

When the newly elected parliament met for the first time on November 6th, 1848, the nascent federal state still had no capital. Several cities vied for the title, including Zofingen, a tiny town in the canton of Aargau.

 Zurich and Lucerne were also in the running (Geneva never was), but MPs decided that the seat of the nation’s government should not be located in a major city. In the end, Bern got 79 votes, Zurich 38 and Lucerne 9.

However, not everyone was happy about this choice.

Many of the Bern’s citizens saw this development more as a burden than an honour. The small town had no infrastructure to speak of, lacking suitable venues to sit the government. It had to borrow money and impose an extraordinary tax to build the Federal Palace to house the parliament and the Federal Council.

And this is how Bern (and not Zofingen) became the capital of Switzerland.

The Federal Palace in Bern. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Here are some interesting facts about Bern:

  • The city was founded in 1191, exactly 100 years before the Swiss Confederation was established. Its Old Town was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
  • With the population of about 130,000 people (and several bears living in its famous Bärengraben), Bern is Switzerland’s fourth-largest city, after Zurich, Geneva, and Basel
  • As the seat of the government, Bern (both city and canton) is bilingual German /French.  
  • The name Bern is reportedly a form of “bear” (Bär in German), a heraldic animal that has become the symbol of the city.
  • Aside from being the seat of the federal government and all its offices, Bern is also the headquarters of the international postal, telegraph, railway, and copyright unions.
  • It was while he lived in Bern between 1903 and 1905, that Albert Einstein developed his theory of relativity, best known for its formula E = mc2. His house, located at Kramgasse 49, is now a museum.

READ MORE: Why does Switzerland use ‘CH’ and what does it mean?

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For members


Is Switzerland’s male-only mandatory military service ‘discriminatory’?

Under Swiss law, all men must serve at least one year in compulsory national service. But is this discriminatory?

Swiss military members walk across a road carrying guns
A new lawsuit seeks to challenge Switzerland's male-only military service requirement. Is this discriminatory? FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

All men aged between the ages of 18 and 30 are required to complete compulsory military service in Switzerland. 

A lawsuit which worked its way through the Swiss courts has now ended up in the European Court of Human Rights, where the judges will decide if Switzerland’s male-only conscription requirement violates anti-discrimination rules. 

Switzerland’s NZZ newspaper wrote on Monday the case has “explosive potential” and has “what it takes to cause a tremor” to a policy which was first laid out in Switzerland’s 1848 and 1874 Federal Constitutions. 

What is Switzerland’s compulsory military service? 

Article 59 of the Federal Constitution of Switzerland says “Every man with Swiss citizenship is liable for military service. Alternative civilian service shall be provided for by law.”

Recruits must generally do 18 weeks of boot camp (longer in some cases). 

They are then required to spend several weeks in the army every year until they have completed a minimum 245 days of service.

Military service is compulsory for Swiss men aged 18 and over. Women can chose to do military service but this is rare.

What about national rather than military service? 

Introduced in 1996, this is an alternative to the army, originally intended for those who objected to military service on moral grounds. 

READ MORE: The Swiss army’s growing problem with civilian service

Service is longer there than in the army, from the age of 20 to 40. 

This must be for 340 days in total, longer than the military service requirement. 

What about foreigners and dual nationals? 

Once you become a Swiss citizen and are between the ages of 18 and 30, you can expect to be conscripted. 

READ MORE: Do naturalised Swiss citizens have to do military service?

In general, having another citizenship in addition to the Swiss one is not going to exempt you from military service in Switzerland.

However, there is one exception: the obligation to serve will be waved, provided you can show that you have fulfilled your military duties in your other home country.

If you are a Swiss (naturalised or not) who lives abroad, you are not required to serve in the military in Switzerland, though you can voluntarily enlist. 

How do Swiss people feel about military and national service? 

Generally, the obligation is viewed relatively positively, both by the general public and by those who take part in compulsory service. 

While several other European countries have gotten rid of mandatory service, a 2013 referendum which attempted to abolish conscription was rejected by 73 percent of Swiss voters. 

What is the court case and what does it say? 

Martin D. Küng, the lawyer from the Swiss canton of Bern who has driven the case through the courts, has a personal interest in its success. 

He was found unfit for service but is still required to pay an annual bill to the Swiss government, which was 1662CHF for the last year he was required to pay it. 

While the 36-year-old no longer has to pay the amount – the obligation only lasts between the ages of 18 and 30 – Küng is bring the case on principle. 

So far, Küng has had little success in the Swiss courts, with his appeal rejected by the cantonal administrative court and later by the Swiss Federal Supreme Court. 

Previous Supreme Court cases, when hearing objections to men-only military service, said that women are less suitable for conscription due to “physiological and biological differences”.

In Küng’s case, the judges avoided this justification, saying instead that the matter was a constitutional issue. 

‘No objective reason why only men have to do military service’

He has now appealed the decision to the European level. 

While men have previously tried and failed when taking their case to the Supreme Court, no Swiss man has ever brought the matter to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Küng told the NZZ that he considered the rule to be unjust and said the Supreme Court’s decision is based on political considerations. 

“I would have expected the Federal Supreme Court to have the courage to clearly state the obvious in my case and not to decide on political grounds,” Küng said. 

“There is no objective reason why only men have to do military service or pay replacement taxes. On average, women may not be as physically productive as men, but that is not a criterion for excluding them from compulsory military service. 

There are quite a few men who cannot keep up with women in terms of stamina. Gender is simply the wrong demarcation criterion for deciding on compulsory service. If so, then one would have to focus on physical performance.”

Is it likely to pass? 

Küng is optimistic that the Strasbourg court will find in his favour, pointing to a successful appeal by a German man who complained about a fire brigade tax, which was only imposed on men. 

“This question has not yet been conclusively answered by the court” Küng said. 

The impact of a decision in his favour could be considerable, with European law technically taking precedence over Swiss law.

It would set Switzerland on a collision course with the bloc, particularly given the popularity of the conscription provision. 

Küng clarified that political outcomes and repercussions don’t concern him. 

“My only concern is for a court to determine that the current regulation is legally wrong.”