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Prehistory, Celts and Romans

Covered by glaciers during the Ice Age, Switzerland was colonized only some 15,000 years ago. Celtic tribes, among them the Helvetians are the first inhabitants of Switzerland we have written reports of, however not by themselves but by their rivals, the Greeks and Romans. Roman commander Julius Cesar defeated the Helvetians in 58 B.C. and made Helvetia a Roman territory with fortified borders.

Middle Ages

After 400 A.D. Germanic tribes wandered southwards and westwards. The Burgundians settled in western Switzerland and western France (today known as Burgundy). Like the Francs in northern France they assimilated to the gallo-roman culture, so Latin became the base for the French language. In contrast, the Alamannen infiltrated northern Switzerland and built small villages outside the Roman cities, stuck to the German language and customs while the Romans retreated. This is the origin of the border between German and French languages in Switzerland.

Charlemagne united all Germanic tribes in western Europe around A.D. 800, but after his death his sons split the empire into three parts: France, Burgundy-Lorraine and Germany-Italy. Therefore Switzerland was part of the Holy Roman Empire together with Germany, Austria and Italy during the Middle Ages. The counts of Habsburg, later to become famous as German and then Austrian emperors, originated from northern Switzerland.

Federal Charter (1291)

About 1230 a new technology allowed to suspend catwalks in steep rocks, so the Schöllenen canyon in Uri (central Switzerland), a major obstacle on the direct way between Germany and Italy, could be overcome and the route between western Germany - Basel - Lucerne and Milan - Italy could be opened. Now central Switzerland raised the interest of the counts of Habsburg (then still residing in northern Switzerland). The counts tried to extend their rights while the local population defended their autonomy. This is the background of the first 1291 league by the cantons of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden.

Conflicts with Habsburg

As the counts of Habsburg sought a military solution, the conflict escalated and the young Swiss confederation was able to defeat the army of knights, which was a sensation at the time. In 1332, 1351 and 1353 the cities of Lucerne, Zurich and Bern joined the confederation. A period of military expansion to the south (canton Ticino), the northeast (cantons Aargau and Thurgau, homelands of Habsburg) and to the west (canton Vaud) followed. The new territories were not granted equal rights, however, but treated as subjects.

De facto Independence (1499)

In 1499 an attempt of the German emperor to bind the diverging territories of the empire more tightly to the crown resulted in the so-called Swabian War, the emperor was defeated and Switzerland became de facto independent. Basel and Schaffhausen were admitted as members of the confederation in 1501 as a consequence. Switzerland was on the summit of its military power when in 1515 the inconsistent strategies of the members of the loose confederation caused a bitter defeat at Marignano (northern Italy) which stopped the period of expansion. Some historians see this event as a key factor for Switzerland's neutrality.

Swiss Reformation: Zwingli (1523), Calvin (1536)

The Reformation (1523-1525 in Zurich by Zwingli, 1536 in Geneva by Calvin) split the country in two parts: while the he northern and western cities converted to the new creed, the rural areas of central Switzerland remained Roman Catholic. Four civil wars in 1529, 1531, 1656 and 1712 were waged because of religion.

Formal Independence (1648)

Switzerland remained neutral as a country in the Thirty Years' War, but private mercenary troops recruited in Switzerland played some role. In 1648 the Treaty of Westphalia finally officialised Switzerland's independence from the Holy Roman Empire.

Revolution and Helvetic Republic (1798)

Though the major cities and the free cantons in central Switzerland were formally republics, inegality and authoritarian rule in Switzerland had reached almost the same level than in neighbouring France. Numerous early local attempts of peasants under the rule of Bern, Lucerne and the confederation as a whole to get equal rights had all been crushed by military force, but after the 1789 French Revolution they could no longer be ignored. While authorities in eastern Switzerland realized that times were changing, the aristocrats of Bern thought they could withstand. So freedom fighters from canton Vaud, supported by French revolutionary troops defeated the old regime in 1798 and proclaimed the Helvetic Republic with a central government.

As the revolutionaries had underestimated the strong will to local self-determination in central Switzerland and problems of organizing a modern administration, the Helvetic Republic soon sank into chaos, despite French support for the revolutionary government. In 1803 the French emperor Napoleon decreed the so-called Mediation Constitution to Switzerland restoring moderately federalist structures while keeping up essential elements of the revolution.

Restauration (1815)

After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, Switzerland saw a counter-revolution and the old regimes returned to power in some cantons. The cantons of Aargau, Graubünden, St. Gallen, Thurgau, Ticino and Vaud could preserve their status as free members of the confederation, however. Geneva, Neuchâtel and Valais, former associates annexed by Napoleon, returned to Switzerland as full members.

Switzerland's Neutrality (1815)

During Napoleon's wars, Switzerland had been an ally to France and a major battlefield between Frech and Russian/Austrian troops. The Vienna Conference of 1815 declared Switzerland's neutrality between European powers. At that time, all major European nations were interested in having Switzerland as a neutral zone between France and Austria. Switzerland's neutrality was fixed in international law and cannot be changed without the consent of all powers involved.

Liberal Regeneration (1830)

The restoration of old regimes could not last for long. In the 1830's one canton after the other revised their constitutions (this basically non-violent democratic process is called regeneration). The background might be seen in Switzerland's early industrialisation strengthening the economic as well as the political influence of liberal entrepreneurs.

In the 1840's the ideological conflict between liberals and conservatives escalated, followed by provocations and violence from both sides. While there had been catholic liberals as well as protestant conservatives until the mid 1840's verbal interventions by the Pope and by catholic foreign kings as well as anti-clerical decrees by some liberal cantonal governments turned the ideological debate into a denominational one - at least in the eyes of some conservative catholics. When a secret alliance between the conservative catholic cantonal governments became public in 1847 they decided to declare civil war on the liberal cantons, but were defeated within a few days.

Federal Constitution (1848)

Now the liberal winners had their chance to bring about radical change. Switzerland's new federal constitution of 1848 not only established a federal state according to the model of the U.S.A. with both federal and cantonal authorities, it also introduced the Swiss Franc and the metric system of measure and weight instead of a jungle of cantonal units and abolished all sorts of internal toll systems - the basis for a common national market. The legislation on new key technologies (postal services, railways, telecommunication) as well as foreign affairs were put into the hands of the federal authorities, while the cantons kept control over traditional areas.

Industrial Revolution and Banking (19th century)

The basis of Switzerland's banking system was laid by French protestants seeking asylum from persecution in the 16th to 18th centuries. Capital needs of industry and railway infrastructure boosted the banking sector. The unreached political stability of Switzerland's direct democratic system after 1848 and the stability of the Swiss Franc against inflation was a major factor making the Swiss banking system one of the world's leading repository for international accounts.

Switzerland in World War I (1914-1918)

In World War I (1914-1918) Switzerland's strict neutrality seemed to work well and neither side showed interest to attack Switzerland with its oversized army and its then relatively modern mountain fortresses. After the war, Switzerland played an active role in establishing the League of Nations (a predecessor to the UN) at Geneva. (Geneva's Palais des Nations became the European Headquarters of the United Nations after World War II as well as of numerous international organizations even though Switzerland did not join the UN until 2002).

Switzerland in World War II (1939-1945)

In World War II Switzerland was completely sorrounded by fascist troops (Germany, Austria, Italy) and the French Vichy regime collaborating with Hitler. Though Switzerland intensified its agricultural production it remained heavily dependant on imports of coal, raw materials and food and on exporting its products in exchange for sheer survival. It was clear even to general Guisan, commander of the Swiss Army, that armed neutrality would not be enough to keep Switzerland out of the war. So he set up his Réduit concept of flexible retreat into the mountains as a base for some sort of guerilla war.

The Nazis seem to have calculated the total cost of fighting against a guerilla, losing access to two important railway lines between Germany and their ally Italy and massive internal resistance against their regime from within their own cultural base. But Switzerland's population and many foreigners were inclined to believe in the myth of the brave Swiss Army defending Switzerland alone until the end of the 20th century.

Switzerland becomes an open society (post war)

The need to unite against the Nazi ideology opened a way to the integration of the Social Democrats into the government. The fruits of this policy are social security, political stability and high productivity of the workforce. Following the 1968 students protests Switzerland's society has changed like in other western European countries towards more openness and personal liberty as opposed to strict moral rules set by religion. Women's right to vote, introduced in 1971, equal rights for men and women (1981) and a revision of the civil code concerning marriage (1984) reflect this. Since the late 1960's five initiatives to restrict the number of foreigners have been rejected.

While some foreign observers see a turn to the right in recent years one should be cautious and consider that the votes gained by the populist Swiss People's Party (SVP) are more than compensated for by those gained by the Greens. So the real trend is the erosion of the political center, especially the Christian Democratic Party. Those talking of a turn to the right simply are not looking at the facts:

Results of recent referendums like the legalisation of abortion, the introduction of a paid maternity leave (2004), the rejection of a tax reform in favour of the rich, two cooperation treaties with the European Union regulating key topics (abolition of checks at the frontier and closer police cooperation as well as free immigration for people from new EU member states, 2005) and last but not least the introduction of registered partnership for homosexual couples (2005) all show over and over again that the majority of citizens still supports a moderate liberal-social policy. In other words: the populist-nationalist Swiss People's Party (SVP) has lost all major referendums, while the positions of the Liberals and Social Democrats have been confirmed.

To probe deeper:
General Swiss History Local History of major Swiss cities

Switzerland from A to Z
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