When I ask my students why they are interested in international politics, most of them begin telling about their past. Many have traveled extensively before going to college, some have worked in development projects in Africa, while others have served in military missions in Kosovo or Afghanistan. Somehow such foreign experiences have raised their interest in the international. And the same holds true for me as well. At some stage in my biography, international politics has made more of an impact on my life than I would have liked. In retrospect, at least, this experience seems to be what some of us would call the “cause” of my becoming a student of International Relations (IR). And probably, it also goes some way into explaining my foremost research interest: the social construction of reality, especially the making of identity and difference. Yet, if I tell my story here, I do so less to explain where my IR comes from,

but more to illustrate a point that is very dear to me: international politics is not just a series of big events, important “men” and crucial decisions (as we often teach our students), but it is also an important shaper of our lives. Accordingly, the IR I favor studies the impact of international politics on the everyday lives of ordinary people like myself. Therefore, the following is foremost a case-study in international politics’ influence on biographies. Indeed, many people have stories to tell in which the international has made a much greater impact on their lives than in my case – and often an infinitely more painful one. However, as I am particularly familiar with my own case, this is probably where I should begin. In July 1989, barely two months after I had graduated from high-school in

a small town in the south of Germany, I became a soldier in the Swiss army. Until then, I had never lived in Switzerland, I barely spoke the rather peculiar German dialect spoken there and did not know anyone in Switzerland except some family. Yet due to a Swiss mother, I carried a Swiss passport in addition to my German one. And when I was 18, this passport for the first time seemed to be of real value. Both Germany and Switzerland have conscription

armies, but the length of the compulsory military service varies considerably. While young men in Germany had to serve 15 months back then, the basic military training in Switzerland, the so-called Rekrutenschule, lasted only four months. My friends were stunned when they heard me considering going to the

Swiss army. Most of them were conscientious objectors about to take up their civilian service in hospitals, nursing homes, or houses for disabled people. And they reminded me of the fact that I, too, had always taken pacifist positions in our discussions. How could I betray my normative principles just to save a couple of months? I tried to justify my decision with reference to the legal situation. At the time, Switzerland was among the few remaining countries in Europe without an alternative civilian service. It was only three years later, in 1992, that a referendum decided to establish a civilian service for conscientious objectors. But in 1989, conscientious objectors in Switzerland still went to prison. And my conscience was too pragmatic for jail. Just forget about your Swiss passport then, my friends suggested, and do

your civilian service in Germany instead. Yet, my friends had underestimated the complexities of dual citizenship. I had inquired with the Swiss authorities about how they would handle my case assuming that I would do my civilian service in Germany. This, they told me, would have no influence on my military duties in Switzerland. As there was no civilian service in Switzerland, they would have to treat my German civilian service as if it had never taken place. Should I ever take residence in Switzerland, I would still be recruited into the Swiss army. Military service in Germany, however, would be accepted as a substitute for Swiss military service. This meant that I could not avoid going to the military if I ever wanted to move to Switzerland. As I had planned to go to university in Zürich, and preferred four months in the military over 15 months, I eventually became a Swiss soldier and moved into the barracks of the garrison town of Drognens in the Swiss canton of Fribourg. I loved sports and the outdoors, and also had a taste for the curious, so

I applied for the Swiss army’s bicycle division. A number of countries, including the United States, had installed bicycle troops in the late nineteenth century, but Switzerland was the only country where they were still operative in the late twentieth century (and even in Switzerland they were dissolved in 2003). The bicycle division was regarded as an elite troop, of key importance for defending the country. It could cover far greater distances than the normal infantryman, but without making as much noise as motorized troops. A high ranking officer of the Swiss cyclist troops describes the advantages: “We are fast! We can leave within ten minutes after an alarm, because we simply take our bikes and off we go … Our soundlessness! A cycling platoon can march into a village without the enemy taking notice” (Leuenberger 2000).1 I knew that the military cyclist’s life had a reputation for being particularly tough and physically very demanding. Yet I did not consider this a disadvantage.

On the contrary: I was looking for a challenge and the bicycle troop promised a great adventure. If I was to go to the army, I wanted the “real thing.” So at the physical entry examination I covered more distance than anyone else in the Swiss army’s traditional 12 minute run and was accepted. Yet, this feeling would not last very long. In fact, it had vanished a short

time after I had taken up my military training in the Rekrutenschule. While I did not mind the 200 km bike exercises on a one gear bike constructed in 1904 (though I could have done without carrying a gun on my back), I was disgusted by what was probably simply military routine. Suddenly I was to exercise and to march lock step, to share a room with 24 others, and to have my appearance inspected ad nauseam. I was deprived of regular sleep by surprise emergency exercises in the middle of the night and faced myriad other humiliations, all of which aimed at transforming individuals into soldiers. Discipline was the keyword, defined in the army’s Dienstrichtlinie 205: “Discipline means the conscious integration into the whole and carrying out one’s duty to the best of one’s knowledge, without respect for personal desires or opinions” (quoted in Gubler 1993: 195).2 So I learned to do away with my desires and opinions. Within a few days of my arrival, I had learned just how powerful structures can be. I clearly felt that there was no way out, that I was at the mercy of a totalitarian institution. There was a brief moment of hope, when a couple of days later someone

told me about the possibility of being exempted from military service for health reasons (which was, of course, a euphemism for mental disorders). So, about three weeks after my military training had started, I was put on a military truck and together with a number of other loonies, I was taken to a subterranean bunker that was a two hour drive from our barracks. There, I talked to a military psychiatrist who made me draw a picture of a tree and then decided that I was stable enough to carry a gun. I was declared “fit for service” and had to return to the barracks. I arrived in time for the real combat training. As elite troops, we had to be

ready to fight behind the lines, in territory occupied by the enemy. So I was taught not only how to use an assault rifle, but also how to handle the bayonet (though this seemed to be a rather old fashioned way of killing your enemy even in 1989). I was shown how to throw hand grenades (do not forget to yell “attention, a hand grenade” to warn those targeted) and advised in urban warfare. Some techniques of house to house fighting I remember to this very day, much to the entertainment of friends, who sometimes get me to leave parties through a second floor window. Moreover, I have proven expertise in shooting with a mobile rocket propelled grenade, a weapon operated by two soldiers and supposedly able to blow up a tank (military cyclists can cope with any enemy). And, I also enjoyed special training as an explosives expert. Should need arise, I could blow up bridges and destroy the enemy’s infrastructure. Yet, the individual combat training was only part of what was happen-

ing. I was also given a lesson in the forming of discipline and identity.

While individual identities were sidelined, group identities had to be formed, foremost the platoon’s identity. And this was done in a very sophisticated way. If any member of our unit failed to comply with one of the innumerable rules, for example cleaning one’s boots, one’s rifle, one’s anything, there followed a double punishment. First, there was individual punishment. The most popular method was to wake up the wrongdoer in the middle of the night and teach him proper behavior. I remember quite vividly how I once had to clean my gun for over an hour one night, simply because the evening before I was caught sitting instead of laying on my bed. In another instance I was given special training (exercising with my gas mask on at 3 am), because I had failed to store my gun correctly. These, I have to admit, were fairly effective means of securing compliance. Yet, the second form of punishment was even more effective, as it was collective: punishing the entire platoon for individual failures.3 I recall one Saturday, when we were all waiting in the barrack yard to be sent off for a 24-hour holiday. Yet, because one of us had not greeted an officer correctly just before, we all had to wait until he got his dose of special training. And so the 24-hour holiday had shrunk to a 22-hour one. That guy did not have an easy standing on the train ride back home. From now on, any kind of behavior that would potentially be of harm to the group was ruled out by self-discipline: we were checking on each other prior to the official controls by the sergeants. Who then, was our enemy? Curiously, it was to be found within rather than

outside the Swiss army. The cyclist identity was constructed by constantly confirming to us how important we were and how much better than other parts of the troop. We were the elite; they just ordinary soldiers. We had bicycles; they had to walk. Interestingly, the medical corps ranked lowest in the unofficial troop hierarchy, as the medics did not carry guns and thus were unable to fight. Also, many of them were students and thus found to be predisposed towards cowardice. An even greater threat came from within our troop: the potentially bad impression we would make when leaving the barracks. On the rare occasions when we were allowed an evening off, our uniform, shave, haircut, and so on were controlled exhaustively. In fact, our appearance and behavior were said to be important for the country’s security. As a former high ranking officer in the bicycle division explains: “There is still the danger that foreign observers – seeing Swiss soldiers’ careless attire and casual appearance – could draw completely wrong conclusions as to the commitment and clout of our army” (Gubler 1993: 199).4 This is how the soldiers’ looks are securitized. Where was I in all this? More than once I failed to comply and thus

became subject to punishment. Yet, in this respect I was no different from anybody else. But I was different from the rest because I was German, both in the other recruits’ view and in my self-perception. I did not speak the Swiss dialect properly and lacked the cultural knowledge others could draw upon concerning Swiss military training. My colleagues all had been raised in Switzerland and thus had friends and family who had already done their

military service. In fact, belonging to a particular division is often a family tradition. Hence, the fathers and even grandfathers of many of my colleagues were military cyclists, too. Thus they knew pretty well what to expect. I, in contrast, had imagined the Swiss army to be largely similar to the German Bundeswehr. Of the latter I had heard a lot while I was in high-school. The military service in Germany was supposed to be boring, but none too strenuous. In many respects, it seemed like a normal job – including regular working hours and holidays. To my surprise, I soon found out that the military training in the Swiss army, and the elitist bicycle troop in particular, was much more ambitious. It reminded me of what I had heard about the training of US marines. Not that my colleagues did not suffer just because they were better prepared than I was, but at least they knew some survival strategies – such as using the free of charge military mail service to have all your family and friends send you huge packets of Swiss chocolate on an almost daily basis. I was pushed to the group’s margins, because I was the only one not to receive such parcels. However, I also developed a technique to mitigate this effect: I volunteered to become the group’s postman and was therefore in charge of handing out the parcels, as a result of which I became part of the ritual (and able to secure my share of sweets). A lack of cultural knowledge was also the reason that I felt alienated by the

military language used. For my fellow soldiers there was apparently nothing strange about going to the KZ when feeling sick. For me, KZ was the abbreviation of the Nazis’ Konzentrationslager (concentration camps). For them, it simply was the short version of Krankenzimmer (sick room). Also, I seemed to be the only one shocked by the fact that a particular type of canned meat was commonly referred to as ‘stamped jew’ (g’stampfter Jud’). However, it was in the second half of the Rekrutenschule when I felt my

liminal position most strongly. Our unit had been displaced – on bicycles, of course – from the French speaking part of Switzerland to the German speaking part. I was now closer to home, though it turned out that it was a bit too close perhaps. As it happened, we were assigned the task of patrolling a stretch of the border between Switzerland and Germany. That stretch, we were told, was particularly difficult to control because of its hilly terrain and dense woods. Allegedly, many illegal immigrants from third world countries had crossed the border and entered Switzerland here. And we should help stopping them. So here I was, armed with my gun, hiding behind a barn only a few steps from the German border and watching out for refugees. I was never quite sure whether this was only meant to be an exercise or whether our commanders really thought that we would capture poor migrants. Fortunately, no one tried to cross the border while I was on patrol (not that I noticed, at least), except for the farmers who owned land on the other side and crossed the border without either them or anyone else taking much notice that there was a border. I was relieved when our division was moved elsewhere, even though the next phase of our military training meant that we were rehearsing combat situations – like stopping a “Czech tank” – at an

artillery range at the Säntis, a mountain in the north-east of Switzerland from where one can see – weather conditions permitting – the German village where I grew up. I thought about not going back to the barracks whenever we were given a

day off. However, I was not brave enough to actually desert by taking refuge in Germany. Somehow I managed to hold out. And just a few days before the end of my Rekrutenschule, I was rewarded with a last strange experience. In the night of November 9 to 10, 1989, I was on guard in the barracks, by then already well acquainted with spending long hours in the cold looking out for potential dangers. After two hours of fighting against the sleep, my replacement came, quite excited as I noticed, and told me to tune in to the radio. And so I found out that the Berlin wall came down that night. Soldiers that had been trained for years not to let anyone escape were now unable to control the border anymore. Tens of thousands of people crossed the iron curtain and entered West Berlin. And I sat there in a Swiss casern and joked with my colleagues about how long it would take the East Germans to get from Berlin to the Swiss border, where we would certainly do a better job than our colleagues from the GDR. Our cycling division would definitely be able to prevent these East Germans from entering our beautiful country. One day later, after 17 long weeks, I was discharged from the Rekrutenschule,

free again. I went to the theater in Zürich the very same evening, to see a play Max Frisch (1989) had written in support of a political initiative for abolishing the Swiss army. Two weeks later a referendum was held, in which the initiative gained more votes than anyone had ever imagined. Thirty-five and a half percent of all voters had favored doing away with the army, an astonishing number given that until then many firmly believed in the saying that Switzerland does not have an army, but is one. To some extent this reconciled me with the country; after all I had discovered that I am not the only one in doubt about the use of this army. Yet, I did not want to wait until, in some distant future, a further 15 percent of the population would turn their back on the army and help dissolve it. I was realistic enough to see that this would not happen while I was still a soldier. Because, this is what I continued to be. For the time being, I had only completed my basic military training, the

Rekrutenschule. But in Switzerland this is just the beginning. Every soldier not only takes home his entire military gear, including rifle and ammunition, thus being ready to go to war anytime. He also returns to the barracks for three weeks every year until age 35, doing a so-called Wiederholungskurs (repetition course). Thus I was facing another 15 years as a part time soldier, spending most of my holidays in the years to come in a battle suit, cycling and shooting. This was a perspective that I found more than disturbing. Yet, it is not so easy to escape. If one refuses to attend the repetition courses, a prison sentence is the consequence. I was still too pragmatic to go that far. Instead, I chose a more convenient way out: leaving the country, which in this case was very much fleeing the country. Yet, I could not simply go, but had to ask my regional army commander for what is called Auslandsurlaub

(holiday abroad). Once granted, I was allowed to store my military equipment in an armory and to move back to Germany. And this is what I did – and I have not returned to this very day. In fact, I still am on Auslandsurlaub. This means that I am still a Swiss

soldier; at least I was one until I turned 35 years, the age the normal soldier is demobilized (though I was never informed of my demobilization). The status of a holiday maker allowed me to stay away from the yearly repetition courses. However, it did not mean that I would no longer belong to the army. In fact, there are clear rules on how a soldier on leave for holiday ought to behave. And a soldier I still was, my official rank now being that of a cyclist. I was obliged to notify the Swiss embassy of my new address one month after taking residence abroad, just as I had to inform them of any change of residence thereafter. More importantly, a leaflet I was handed out when granted Auslandsurlaub specifies what I have to do in case of war: “In the case of a war mobilization of the Swiss Army all … ’holiday makers abroad’ have to return to Switzerland the fastest way” (Eidgenössisches Militärdepartement).5