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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

Freiheitstrychler: Who are Switzerland’s ‘freedom bell ringers’?

For non-German speakers, Freiheitstrychler is a difficult word to pronounce, but this group has become a symbol of how age-old Swiss customs and traditions can lead to political resistance. Here’s what you should know about it.

Federal Councillor and former President Ueli Maurer
Federal Councillor Ueli Maurer has stirred controversy with his ‘provocative’ attire. Photo Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

If you have been following Swiss news in the past two months, you have likely seen images of the Federal Councillor Ueli Maurer, who heads the Finance Department, wear a white t-shirt decorated with a Swiss flag as well as edelweiss and other Alpine flowers.

While the shirt may look innocuous enough, it is worn by a group of vocal anti-vaxxers, who oppose Switzerland’s policies toward  managing the pandemic.  

Trychler versus Freiheitstrychler

The Trychlern are bells worn by Swiss cows, and the word is also used to describe men who take part in traditional bell-ringing processions in the Alps.

Freiheitstrychler (“freedom bell ringers”) on the other hand, is an offshoot, militant group of the traditional ringers, who have been voicing their disagreement with the government’s anti-Covid measures.

Covid-19 vaccines: Why is Switzerland lagging behind other countries?

Before the health crisis, the trychlers were only known to folklore lovers, mainly in the Swiss-German regions of the country.

But during the pandemic, and after the “freedom” prefix was attached to their name, the offshoot group started to ring their bells during unauthorised anti-Covid protests.

“Founded by a group of committed Swiss people, we put our heart and soul into our constitutional rights”, the group says on its website.

The Maurer controversy

Perhaps the Freiheitstrychlers would be largely unnoticed if a Federal Councillor had not been photographed wearing the group’s t-shirt.

Ueli Maurer, a two-time President of Switzerland who is a member of right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), was photographed at an SVP event in September wearing the Freiheitstrychler shirt.

This was taken by many as a deliberate provocation and a stance against the government’s Covid policies.

Maurer was accused of breaching the Federal Council’s principle of collegiality and consensus: no matter which political parties they represent or what their personal views are, all councillors must uphold and support the common government policies. 

In this particular case, Maurer sent conflicting messages, because while the Federal Council is trying to convince the population of the need for Covid vaccinations, the Freiheitstrychler reject this and other the official measures.

“With this behaviour, Maurer clearly stabbed the Federal Council in the back, said Balthasar Glättli, president of the Green Party.

After the fallout from incident, Maurer denied he wore the shirt as a political statement as he didn’t know what it stood for.

READ MORE: Thousands take part in illegal protest against Covid measures in Switzerland

Tradition versus political activism

Combining political opposition with an ancestral tradition is not to everyone’s taste.

The “freedom” faction is facing criticism from traditional trychlers, who accuse the anti-Covid group of harming the old custom.

“The Freiheitstrychler abuse our customs and damage our image”, according to traditional bell-ringer, Josef Winiger.

Due to the media hype, he said, some of their shows have been cancelled, “as the organisers of these events fear our performance will be politically motivated”.

Traditional trychlers want to distance themselves from the other group, especially as many “are not even real trychlers. They just got some bells somewhere and parade with them ”.

Photo by Wikimedia commons

Ruedi Herger, president of the Trychlerclub Herger of Seelisberg in the canton of Uri, is also fed up.

“We have to separate our bells from politics. If someone wants to go and demonstrate, he can do so, but our custom must not suffer ”.

That’s one message that rings a bell among the traditionalists.

READ MORE: Sluggish Swiss jab rates up despite anti-vaxxer sabotage

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OFFBEAT

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.”

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