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A mercenary is a fee ( pay ) recruited , limited mostly serving time and bound by contract soldier . Mercenaries were already very common in ancient times . It shaped the European military system from the Middle Ages to the French Revolution .

A union of mercenaries is called a mercenary army (also legion ).

With the introduction of standing armies and general conscription, mercenaries became rarer. In the 20th century mercenaries fought a. a. in the wars and civil wars in Africa, Asia and the Balkans, often within the framework of private security and military companies .


A legal definition of the mercenary can be found in Article 47 of the first additional protocol of 1977 to the Geneva Convention of August 12, 1949 on the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, the Geneva Conventions :

A mercenary is

  1. anyone who is recruited domestically or abroad for the special purpose of fighting in an armed conflict,
  2. who actually takes part directly in hostilities,
  3. Anyone who takes part in hostilities primarily out of the pursuit of personal gain and who has actually received a promise of material remuneration from or on behalf of a party involved in the conflict that is significantly higher than that of combatants of the armed forces of this party in a comparable rank and with similar tasks promised or paid remuneration,
  4. who is neither a citizen of a party involved in the conflict nor is resident in an area controlled by a party involved in the conflict,
  5. who is not a member of the armed forces of a party involved in the conflict and
  6. Anyone who has not been officially commissioned by a state not involved in the conflict as a member of its armed forces.

Article 1, paragraph 1 of the Convention on the Elimination of Mercenaries in Africa gives an almost identical definition. However, this convention is only of regional significance.

In addition to this legal definition, all people are colloquially referred to as mercenaries whose main motivation for participating in an armed conflict is the pursuit of personal gain, regardless of their actual legal status. A leader who personally commands a group of mercenaries and can pursue his own plans for his own benefit can be referred to as a mercenary leader .

Mercenaries and the international law of war

Under international martial law, mercenaries are not regarded as combatants and are therefore not entitled to the status of prisoners of war (cf. Art. 47, Paragraph 1, Additional Protocol). According to martial law, captured mercenaries are therefore to be treated as ordinary civilians who have illegally participated in an armed conflict. They can often be severely punished for participating in the armed conflict under national law.

In many countries, such as Austria and Switzerland, it is forbidden by law for nationals to do military service for another country . Sun also provides the service in the French Foreign Legion - their relatives, however, strictly speaking, no mercenaries, but regular members of the French armed forces are - for Austria and Switzerland according to the law a criminal offense, many Austrians, who after their mercenary service in the. Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s again came home, found themselves in the criminal court and were partly sentenced to long prison terms. In addition, Austrian citizenship can be irrevocably withdrawn from an Austrian doing military service for another country . A Swiss citizen who enters into foreign military service can be charged with treason and faces at least 20 years imprisonment.

In Germany it is a criminal offense to recruit German nationals "for the benefit of a foreign power" "for military service in a military or military-like institution" ( Section 109h of the Criminal Code ). Furthermore, a German risks losing his German citizenship if he joins an armed association of a state whose citizenship he also has ( § 28 StAG ).

According to US law ( Neutrality Act ), a US citizen who volunteers for military service in a foreign country risks losing his citizenship . An exception are Israeli-American citizens with dual citizenship who serve in the Israeli military . Many countries have similar laws, so most of the time a mercenary risks losing his or her home citizenship and can become a stateless person .

The legal status of civilian workers, especially logistics workers and technicians serving in military units, is unclear. One point of view is that they are functional mercenaries in that they aid in military operations, even though they do not fire weapons at the enemy themselves. This is not a hypothetical problem. For example, in the United States Navy, there are between 50 and 100 civilians on every aircraft carrier who work there as technicians, manufacturers' representatives, and so on.

International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries

In addition, at the plenary session of the United Nations on December 4, 1989, the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries was adopted, but only a few countries have ratified it.


Old world

Mercenary troops were already used in ancient times. King David had mercenaries, Krether and Plether were the king's bodyguards. Numerous foreign soldiers served in the Assyrian armies, sometimes involuntarily as part of the tribute of their hometowns, sometimes as mercenaries. Greek mercenaries are known from Egypt. Greek hoplites fought regularly in the service of the Achaemenids and often formed the core of Persian armies (cf. Xenophon , Anabasis ). Agesilaus II of Sparta fought with his troops several times against the Persian kings for pay. With the ancient Celts it was common for surplus sons to look for new land and hire themselves out as mercenaries. The Carthaginian general Hannibal used thousands of Celtic mercenaries in his invasion of northern Italy during the  Second Punic War  (218–201 BC). They made up the entire core of his army.

Mercenaries in European History

Mercenary armies such as B. the Brabant Zones and the Armagnaks appeared in the late Middle Ages, when it was found that disciplined mercenaries were superior to knights in battle , although the latter fought more valiantly in case of doubt. This was particularly evident at the Battle of Crécy . Since the 14th century, mercenaries gradually and regionally asserted themselves over feudal warfare at different speeds . The old feudal armies were replaced by mercenary troops, which led to the end of knight service and thus to an economic decline of the nobility . The decisive factor was the implementation of the money economy .

The introduction of mercenary armies placed the medieval individuals Convention country with major financial challenges. The mercenaries were mostly recruited from the urban and rural lower classes. These could be overindebted peasants, escaped serfs, later-born peasant sons, due to the narrow guild regulations, quasi-jobless journeymen and jobless miners. Mercenary leaders were usually recruited from among the family members of the feudal lords and their entourage, sometimes also within the citizenry of the cities, but always in foreign territory on a specially set up model site . Foreign armed men strengthened their own military power, but did not have to be permanently supported. The fired mercenaries posed a problem because they received neither severance pay nor retirement benefits; they often formed bands of robbers and made the streets unsafe.

Swiss mercenaries , so-called Reisläufer , were considered to be particularly effective combat forces until the 16th century, when their formations were vulnerable to artillery that was developed during this time. The papal Swiss Guard still comes from this tradition.

The German mercenaries began to compete against the Swiss after the battle of Marignano , when traveling was made difficult or even forbidden in many parts of Switzerland, and became a sought-after troop in the late 15th and 16th centuries. They were hired by all the powers of Europe and - like the Swiss in the past - could sometimes switch sides. “Dutch” Landsknechte were recruited from Northern Germany, “Oberland” from Bavaria, Swabia and Austria. The Thirty Years War was fought by all warring parties mainly with mercenaries.

The mercenaries, especially those of the Thirty Years War, have always had an extremely negative reputation. They are often seen as failed existences that killed for money and stole the livelihood of the farmers. In historical studies, too, the mercenary heaps were repeatedly described as a reservoir for criminals, rabble rousers and outcasts. It is only recently that attempts have been made to view this important social group in a neutral way and to explore their origins, their way of life and their motivation to become mercenaries. The simple ascription of the perpetrator role must also be questioned, since in many cases it was exploited by the war entrepreneurs or their officers themselves.

In the 16th century, in the course of the establishment of ever larger army units, an officer corps gradually formed, which was mainly recruited from the nobility . Most of the time, however, the officers came from different countries, so the danger was not too great that they would disempower the territorial lords in whose service they were and put themselves in his place. For centuries the traditional countries of origin of mercenaries were Switzerland , Scotland , Wales and Ireland ; so men from these countries provided whole regiments for France . In the process of state formation in Europe, the key to political power was not so much military power, but rather legitimacy and a functioning financial administration. It was only with the nationalization of the armies in the 19th century that the danger posed by the officer corps of a professional army to the political elite increased again.

In the 19th century, numerous European or North American mercenaries or military specialists served in non-European armies, for example in China and the new Latin American states. The Latin American navies in particular, such as Haiti and Brazil , needed qualified engineers and stokers to operate modern warships. The former Prussian major Carl Pauli served as Carlos Páuli in the armies of China, Honduras and Peru from the 1890s to around 1904 . His work Tropenvademecum (1907) is, among other things, a guide for the stay of European military advisers in non-European areas.

Mercenary and soldier

From a historical perspective, in the course of the formation of standing armies, the mercenary was replaced by the soldier . The soldier could no longer change fronts as often as he could for a 17th century mercenary, especially since he no longer had his own weapons. The state developed a monopoly of force over the standing army of soldiers. While the profession of mercenary is probably one of the oldest wage occupations, the patriotic motivation was part of the soldier's self-image and image. In recent decades, the outsourcing of military tasks to well-trained military professionals who support combat operations around the world as employees of private military service providers has resulted in a new occupational profile that unites soldiers and mercenaries.

Contrary to current media practice, the private security and military companies that exist today in the 21st century can definitely be described as mercenary companies, since their employees are not employed or recruited directly by the armed forces but by the government, but their use certainly corresponds to the activities that the Geneva Convention summarizes under Art.

Mercenaries in Africa

In the 20th century, mercenaries were mainly involved in the conflicts on the African continent. The mercenaries were used as unofficial auxiliary troops, usually by Western powers for the fight against communism, which could not or would not officially interfere in the affairs of the states concerned. Often men from Europe and America who were looking for "adventure" were recruited and sent into fights where it was clear that they would not survive and therefore would not have to be paid.

There were also many former Foreign Legionnaires who ended up in Africa after serving in France and who were looking for new employers there. There were also mercenaries in Africa who worked as military guards for large gold and diamond mines or who fought in the apartheid conflicts.

The best-known mercenary active in Africa was the Frenchman Bob Denard , who was involved in numerous civil wars and coup attempts from the 1960s onwards . The Irish officer Mike Hoare , whose mercenary force 5th Commando was a closed unit on an equal footing with a regular unit, was also deployed for the Congolese army. A high point of mercenary activity in Africa was the occupation of Bukavu by a group of mercenaries under the leadership of the Belgian Jean Schramme , with whom the arrested rebel leader Moïse Tschombé should be freed.

Mercenaries have been involved in a number of civil wars in Africa since the fighting that broke out in 1960 as a result of the independence of the Congo . French, British and nationals from other European countries fought in Biafra (Nigeria) , Angola and the Seychelles . The mercenaries fought for those who paid the most and often proved particularly cruel in the already bloody and bitter civil wars. Some claimed they were waging a crusade against Cuba-Soviet communism in Africa; others hired themselves out because they loved the thrill, still others because they couldn't find anything else to do.

The most famous mercenary in the Angolan Civil War was a man from Cyprus named Kostas Georgiou . He had served in the British 1st Paratrooper Regiment and was dishonorably discharged for robbing a post office in Northern Ireland. Georgiou, known as "Colonel Callan", was recruited by the FNLA (People's Liberation Front in Angola under the leadership of Holden Roberto, who was also supported by the US secret service CIA via Zaire) along with a force of British, American and Dutch mercenaries from the CIA . He allegedly killed spies and deserters himself and terrorized the men under his command, who themselves used violence and torture against soldiers and civilians without hindrance. He was wounded and later captured during a suicide squad against a much stronger Cuban brigade . The communist MPLA (Communist People's Liberation Movement for Angola) wanted to make the crimes of the mercenaries public and brought ten British and three Americans to court in Luanda . They were accused of being hired assassins. Kostas Georgiou aka Callan and three others were killed by firing squad on July 10, 1976. The trial in Angola's capital city and the brutalities that arose caught media attention and sparked general outrage against mercenaries and all those involved in the business.

Mercenary operations today

When the Vietnam War ended, many American veterans formed private security companies. They smuggled and sold weapons and drugs from the Far East and began to view the world's battlefields, often under the guise of the CIA , as a lucrative source of income. More prominent private security and military companies (PMC) today include Sandline International , a British paramilitary unit, and Executive Outcomes , a private company that hired former members of the South African Army . Both security companies, as such organizations call themselves, were eventually dissolved because their members were too often the focus of investigations and their operations came under the crossfire of criticism. Their definition as a mercenary is controversial, however.

It is known from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s that mercenaries, often ex-soldiers from Eastern Europe, were unable to make a living after the political upheavals in their home countries. In addition, soldiers from other European and Asian countries fought in the former Yugoslavia.

"At home we were unemployed, here we are seen as heroes."

- unknown Balkan mercenary

“I'll tell you something about friendships in the mercenary business. There are very nice guys you can go through thick and thin with, really nice guys. If you put a lot of pressure on them, I mean really, really big pressure that puts a strain on them so that they think they have to die the next day, then you have to watch their character change. You will see that these real guys can turn into real devils who are happy with any means. "

- Karl Penta, English mercenary in the Balkans in 1991 : WDR documentary: Warheads

In 2008, around 20,000 mercenaries were employed in Iraq on behalf of the British and US governments - including German ex-soldiers and former police officers.

Contractors, on the other hand, are not active in military orders, but as private companies at home and abroad, for example for the implementation of government contracts and the like a. of aid projects or for the maintenance of airplanes, helicopters or communications. In 2016, the US Department of Defense employed around 30,455 contractors in Afghanistan , 10,151 of them from the USA and 13,700 from Afghanistan itself.

In the case of the Russian mercenary troop Wagner , due to the fact that such a troop was banned under Russian law until 2017, it turned out to be difficult to differentiate between the official military and private soldiers on behalf of the state, since in Wagner's case it was a covert one Mercenary troop acts. In addition, military operations by the troops in Syria were also assigned to their own control and commercial exploitation of oil fields.

Known mercenaries

Historical mercenary leaders

Georg von Frundsberg (1473–1528), portrayed by Christoph Amberger

Present-day military companies and entrepreneurs


Like the pirate , the mercenary has a reputation for adventure, mystery and danger. A good example is the book and film The Dogs of War , which is about a fictional mercenary operation in Africa in the 1970s.




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Web links

Wiktionary: Mercenaries  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

See also

Individual evidence

  1. Duden: Legion .
  2. Art. 47 Mercenaries (Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention of August 12, 1949 on the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflict) . Swiss Confederation . Retrieved September 22, 2012.
  3. International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries of December 4, 1989, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations, entered into force on October 20, 2001, engl.
  4. Martin van Creveld: The mercenary armies are back. In: the TIME
  5. A. Fuchs: Was the New Assyrian Empire a military state? In: B. Meißner et al. (Ed.): War - Society - Institutions: Contributions to a comparative war history. Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 2005, p. 38
  6. ^ Y. Kaplan: Recruitment of foreign soldiers into the Neo-Assyrian army during the reign of Tiglath-pileser III. In: M. Cogan, D. Kahn (eds.): Treasures on Camels' Humps: Historical and literary Studies from the Ancient Near East presented to Israel Ephʻal. Magnes Press, Jerusalem 2008, pp. 135-152
  7. Helmut Birkhan : Celts. Attempt at a complete representation of their culture. Publishing house of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna 1997, ISBN 3-7001-2609-3 .
  8. Christian Pantle : Anthropology: pitiful living conditions . Ed .: G history. tape 11/2017 , p. 37 .
  9. ^ Christian Pantle : On an endless warpath . In: G history . tape 11/2017 , p. 38-41 .
  10. Michael Weise: Cruel Victims? Croatian mercenaries and their different roles in the Thirty Years War. In: Philipp Batelka, Michael Weise, Stephanie Zehnle (eds.): Between perpetrators and victims. Violent relationships and violent communities. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2017, pp. 127–148.
  11. Mercenaries of Security - German Paramilitaries in Iraq In: Süddeutsche Zeitung of June 6, 2008
  12. Taliban attack mercenary hotel ( Memento from August 1, 2016 in the Internet Archive )
  13. 'There's no one to help': Russian mercenary industry's toll on families , The Guardian, August 26, 2019-08-26; Ruslan Leviev, the founder of the Conflict Intelligence Team, an open-source investigation unit, said Wagner is "almost like a quasi-governmental machine ... It's hard to just call it a private military company."
  14. Ellen Nakashima, Karen DeYoung, Liz Sly: Putin ally said to be in touch with Kremlin, Assad before his mercenaries attacked US troops. In: The Washington Post , February 23, 2018.