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History of Switzerland

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History of Switzerland

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Since 1848, the Swiss Confederation has been a federal state of relatively autonomous cantons, some of which have a history of confederacy that goes back more than 700 years, putting them among the world's oldest surviving republics. For the time before 1291, this article summarizes events taking place on the territory of modern Switzerland.

From 1291, it focuses mainly on the fates of the Old Swiss Confederacy, at first consisting of only three cantons (Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden) in what is now central Switzerland, and gradually expanding until it encompassed the present-day area of Switzerland in 1815.


  • Early history 1
    • Roman Era 1.1
    • Post-Roman Empire 1.2
  • Old Confederacy (1291–1523) 2
  • Reformation (1523–1648) 3
  • Ancien Régime (1648–1798) 4
  • French Revolution and Napoleon 5
  • Civil War in 1840s 6
  • Switzerland as a federal state (1848–1914) 7
  • World Wars (1914–1945) 8
    • World War II 8.1
  • After 1945 9
    • Women's suffrage 9.1
  • Order of accession of the cantons 10
  • See also 11
  • Notes and references 12
  • Bibliography 13
  • External links 14

Early history

Divico and Julius Caesar after the Battle of Bibracte

Archeological evidence suggests that hunter-gatherers were already settled in the lowlands north of the Alps in the Middle Paleolithic period 150,000 years ago.[1] By the Neolithic period, the area was relatively densely populated. Remains of Bronze Age pile dwellings from as early as 3800 BC[2] have been found in the shallow areas of many lakes. Around 1500 BC, Celtic tribes settled in the area. The Raetians lived in the eastern regions, while the west was occupied by the Helvetii.

Roman Era

In 58 BC, the Helvetii tried to evade migratory pressure from Germanic tribes by moving into Gaul, but were defeated at Lawrenceburg by Julius Caesar's armies and then sent back. The alpine region became integrated into the Roman Empire and was extensively romanized in the course of the following centuries. The center of Roman administration was at Aventicum (Avenches). In 259, Alamanni tribes overran the Limes, putting the settlements on Swiss territory on the frontier of the Roman Empire.

A map of Switzerland during the Roman period

The first Christian bishoprics were founded in the 4th century.

Post-Roman Empire

With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Germanic tribes entered the area. Burgundians settled in the west; while in the north, Alamanni settlers slowly forced the earlier Celto-Roman population to retreat into the mountains. Burgundy became a part of the kingdom of the Franks in 534; two years later, the dukedom of the Alamans followed suit. In the Alaman-controlled region, only isolated Christian communities continued to exist and Irish monks re-introduced the Christian faith in the early 7th century.

Under the Carolingian kings, the feudal system proliferated, and monasteries and bishoprics were important bases for maintaining the rule. The Treaty of Verdun of 843 assigned Upper Burgundy (the western part of what is today Switzerland) to Lotharingia, and Alemannia (the eastern part) to the eastern kingdom of Louis the German which would become part of the Holy Roman Empire.

In the 10th century, as the rule of the Carolingians waned, Magyars destroyed Basel in 917 and St. Gallen in 926. Only after the victory of King Otto I over the Magyars in 955 in the Battle of Lechfeld, were the Swiss territories reintegrated into the empire.

In the 12th century, the dukes of Zähringen were given authority over part of the Burgundy territories which covered the western part of modern Switzerland. They founded many cities, including Fribourg in 1157, and Bern in 1191. The Zähringer dynasty ended with the death of Berchtold V in 1218, and their cities subsequently became reichsfrei (essentially a city-state within the Holy Roman Empire), while the dukes of Kyburg competed with the house of Habsburg over control of the rural regions of the former Zähringer territory.

Under the Hohenstaufen rule, the alpine passes in Raetia and the St. Gotthard Pass gained importance. The latter especially became an important direct route through the mountains. Uri (in 1231) and Schwyz (in 1240) were accorded the Reichsfreiheit to grant the empire direct control over the mountain pass. Most of the territory of Unterwalden at this time belonged to monasteries which had previously become reichsfrei.

The extinction of the Kyburg dynasty paved the way for the Habsburg dynasty to bring much of the territory south of the Rhine under their control, aiding their rise to power. Rudolph of Habsburg, who became King of Germany in 1273, effectively revoked the status of Reichsfreiheit granted to the "Forest Cantons" of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden. The Forest Cantons thus lost their independent status and were governed by reeves.

Old Confederacy (1291–1523)

The Battle of Laupen (1339) between Swiss forces and an army of the Dukes of Savoy (Diebold Schilling the Elder, 1480s).

In 1291, the cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden united to defend the peace upon the death of Emperor Rudolf I of Habsburg. Their union, one nucleus of the Sempach 1386, the Swiss defeated the Habsburgs, gaining increased autonomy within the Holy Roman Empire.

By 1353, the three original cantons had been joined by the cantons of Glarus and Zug and the city states of Lucerne, Zürich, and Bern, forming the "Old Federation" of eight states that persisted during much of the 15th century. Zürich was expelled from the Confederation from 1440 to 1450 due to a conflict over the territory of Toggenburg (the Old Zürich War). The Confederation's power and wealth increased significantly, with victories over Charles the Bold of Burgundy during the 1470s and the success of Swiss mercenaries.

The traditional listing order of the cantons of Switzerland reflects this state, listing the eight "Old Cantons" first, with the city states preceding the founding cantons, followed by cantons that joined the Confederation after 1481, in historical order.

The Swiss defeated the Swabian League in 1499 and gained greater collective autonomy within the Holy Roman Empire, including exemption from the Imperial reforms of 1495 and immunity from most Imperial courts. In 1506, Pope Julius II engaged the Swiss Guard, which continues to serve the papacy to the present day. The expansion of the Confederation and the reputation of invincibility acquired during the earlier wars suffered a first setback in 1515 with the Swiss defeat in the Battle of Marignano.

Reformation (1523–1648)

The Reformation in Switzerland began in 1523, led by Huldrych Zwingli, priest of the Great Minster church in Zürich since 1518. Zürich adopted the Protestant religion, joined by Berne, Basel, and Schaffhausen, while Lucerne, Uri, Schwyz, Nidwalden, Zug, Fribourg and Solothurn remained Catholic. Glarus and Appenzell were split. This led to multiple inter-cantonal religious wars (Kappeler Kriege) in 1529 and 1531, because each canton usually made the opposing religion illegal, and to the formation of two diets, the Protestant one meeting in Aarau and the Catholic one in Lucerne (as well as the formal full diet still meeting usually in Baden)[3][4] but the Confederation survived.

During the Thirty Years' War, Switzerland was a relative "oasis of peace and prosperity" (Grimmelshausen) in war-torn Europe, mostly because all major powers in Europe depended on Swiss mercenaries, and would not let Switzerland fall into the hands of one of their rivals. Politically, they all tried to take influence, by way of mercenary commanders such as Jörg Jenatsch or Johann Rudolf Wettstein. The Drei Bünde of Grisons, at that point not yet a member of the Confederacy, were involved in the war from 1620, which led to their loss of the Valtellina in 1623.

Ancien Régime (1648–1798)

Leonhard Euler (1707–83), one of the most prominent scientists in the Age of Enlightenment

At the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, Switzerland attained legal independence from the Holy Roman Empire. The Valtellina became a dependency of the Drei Bünde again after the Treaty and remained so until the founding of the Cisalpine Republic by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797.

In 1653, peasants of territories subject to Lucerne, Bern, Solothurn, and Basel revolted because of currency devaluation. Although the authorities prevailed in this Swiss peasant war, they did pass some tax reforms and the incident in the long term prevented an absolutist development as would occur at some other courts of Europe. The confessional tensions remained, however, and erupted again in the First War of Villmergen, in 1656, and the Toggenburg War (or Second War of Villmergen), in 1712.

French Revolution and Napoleon

During the French Revolutionary Wars, the French army invaded Switzerland and turned it into an ally known as the "Helvetic Republic," (1798–1803). It had a central government with little role for cantons. The interference with localism and traditional liberties was deeply resented, although some modernizing reforms took place.[5][6]

Resistance was strongest in the more traditional Catholic bastions, with armed uprisings breaking out in spring 1798 in the central part of Switzerland. The French Army suppressed the uprisings but support for revolutionary ideals steadily declined. The reform element was weak, and most Swiss resented their loss of local democracy, the centralization, the new taxes, the warfare, and the hostility to religion.[7]

Major steps taken to emancipate the Jews included the repeal of special taxes and oaths in 1798. However reaction took place in 1815, and not until 1879 were the Jews granted equal rights with the Christians.[8]

In 1803, Napoleon's Act of Mediation partially restored the sovereignty of the cantons, and the former tributary and allied territories of Aargau, Thurgau, Grisons, St. Gallen, Vaud and Ticino became cantons with equal rights. Napoleon and his enemies fought numerous campaigns in Switzerland that ruined many localities.

The Congress of Vienna of 1815 fully reestablished Swiss independence and the European powers agreed to recognize permanent Swiss neutrality. At this time, Valais, Neuchatel and Geneva also joined Switzerland as new cantons, thereby extending Swiss territory to its current boundaries.

The long-term impact of the French Revolution has been assessed by Martin:

It proclaimed the equality of citizens before the law, equality of languages, freedom of thought and faith; it created a Swiss citizenship, basis of our modern nationality, and the separation of powers, of which the old regime had no conception; it suppressed internal tariffs and other economic restraints; it unified weights and measures, reformed civil and penal law, authorized mixed marriages (between Catholics and Protestants), suppressed torture and improved justice; it developed education and public works.[9]

Civil War in 1840s

Religious geography in 1800 (orange: Protestant, green: Catholic).

The Radical Party and liberals made up of urban bourgeoisie and burghers, who were strong in the largely Protestant cantons, obtained the majority in the Federal Diet in the early 1840s. They proposed a new Constitution for the Swiss Confederation which would draw the several cantons into a closer relationship. In 1843, the conservative city patricians and mountain or Ur-Swiss from the largely Catholic cantons were opposed to the new constitution. In addition to the centralization of the Swiss government, the new Constitution also included protections for trade and other progressive reform measures.

In 1847, the Catholic cantons formed a separate union within the Confederation (the Sonderbund). This led to the Sonderbundskrieg. The Radicals, fearful of a Jesuit takeover, used their control of the national government and ordered the Sonderbund disbanded. When it refused the national army attacked in a brief civil war between the Catholic and the Protestant cantons. The Sonderbund was easily defeated in less than a month; there were about 130 killed. Apart from small riots, this was the last armed conflict on Swiss territory.[10]

Switzerland as a federal state (1848–1914)

As a consequence of the civil war, Switzerland adopted a federal constitution in 1848, amending it extensively in 1874 and establishing federal responsibility for defense, trade, and legal matters, leaving all other matters to the cantonal governments. From then, and over much of the 20th century, continuous political, economic, and social improvement has characterized Swiss history.

While Switzerland was primarily rural, the cities experienced an industrial revolution in the late 19th century, focused especially on textiles. In Basel, for example, textiles, including silk, were the leading industry. In 1888 women made up 44% of the wage earners. Nearly half the women worked in the textile mills, with household servants the second largest job category. The share of women in the workforce was higher between 1890 and 1910 than it was in the late 1960s and 1970s.[11]

Gotthard line in 1882

World Wars (1914–1945)

The major powers respected Switzerland's neutrality during World War I. In the Grimm–Hoffmann Affair, the Allies denounced a proposal by one politician to negotiate peace on the Eastern Front; they wanted the war there to continue so as to tie Germany down.

While the industrial sector began to grow in the mid-19th century, Switzerland's emergence as one of the most prosperous nations in Europe—the "Swiss miracle"—was a development of the short 20th century, among other things tied to the role of Switzerland during the World Wars.[12]

League of Nations conference in Geneva (1926).

World War II

During World War II, Germany considered invading,[13] but never attacked. Under General Henri Guisan, the Swiss army prepared for mass mobilization of militia forces against invasion, and prepared strong, well-stockpiled positions high in the Alps known as the Réduit. Switzerland remained independent and neutral through a combination of military deterrence, economic concessions to Germany, and good fortune as larger events during the war delayed an invasion.

Attempts by Switzerland's small Nazi party to cause an Anschluss with Germany failed miserably, largely due to Switzerland's multicultural heritage, strong sense of national identity, and long tradition of direct democracy and civil liberties. The Swiss press vigorously criticized the Third Reich, often infuriating German leaders. Switzerland was an important base for espionage by both sides in the conflict and often mediated communications between the Axis and Allied powers.

Switzerland's trade was blockaded by both the Allies and by the Axis. Both sides openly exerted pressure on Switzerland not to trade with the other. Economic cooperation and extension of credit to the Third Reich varied according to the perceived likelihood of invasion, and the availability of other trading partners. Concessions reached their zenith after a crucial rail link through Vichy France was severed in 1942, leaving Switzerland completely surrounded by the Axis. Switzerland relied on trade for half of its food and essentially all of its fuel, but controlled vital trans-alpine rail tunnels between Germany and Italy.

Switzerland's most important exports during the war were precision machine tools, watches, jewel bearings (used in bombsights), electricity, and dairy products. During World War Two, the Swiss franc was the only remaining major freely convertible currency in the world, and both the Allies and the Germans sold large amounts of gold to the Swiss National Bank. Between 1940 and 1945, the German Reichsbank sold 1.3 billion francs worth of gold to Swiss Banks in exchange for Swiss francs and other foreign currency.[14]

Hundreds of millions of francs worth of this gold was monetary gold plundered from the central banks of occupied countries. 581,000 francs of "Melmer" gold taken from Holocaust victims in eastern Europe was sold to Swiss banks.[15] In total, trade between Germany and Switzerland contributed about 0.5% to the German war effort but did not significantly lengthen the war.[16]

Over the course of the war, Switzerland interned 300,000 refugees.[17] 104,000 of these were foreign troops interned according to the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers outlined in the Hague Conventions. The rest were foreign civilians and were either interned or granted tolerance or residence permits by the cantonal authorities. Refugees were not allowed to hold jobs. 60,000 of the refugees were civilians escaping persecution by the Nazis. Of these, 26,000 to 27,000 were Jews.[18] Between 10,000 and 25,000 civilian refugees were refused entry.[19][20] At the beginning of the war, Switzerland had a Jewish population of between 18,000[21] and 28,000[22] and a total population of about 4 million.

Within Switzerland at the time of the conflict there was moderate polarization. Some were pacifists. Some took sides according to international capitalism or international communism. Others leaned more towards their language group, with some in French-speaking areas more pro-Allied, and some in Swiss-German areas more pro-Axis. The government attempted to thwart the activities of any individual, party, or faction in Switzerland that acted with extremism or attempted to break the unity of the nation. The Swiss-German speaking areas moved linguistically further away from the standard (high) German spoken in Germany, with more emphasis on local Swiss dialects.

In the 1960s, significant controversy arose among historians regarding the nation's relations with Nazi Germany.[23]

By the 1990s the controversies included a class-action lawsuit brought in New York over Jewish assets in Holocaust-era bank accounts. The government commissioned an authoritative study of Switzerland's interaction with the Nazi regime. The final report by this independent panel of international scholars, known as the Bergier Commission,[24] was issued in 2002.

After 1945

During the Cold War, Swiss authorities considered the construction of a Swiss nuclear bomb.[25] Leading nuclear physicists at the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich such as Paul Scherrer made this a realistic possibility. However, financial problems with the defense budget prevented the substantial funds from being allocated, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 was seen as a valid alternative. All remaining plans for building nuclear weapons were dropped by 1988.[26]

Opening speech by president Pascal Couchepin at the World Economic Forum, one of the many international organizations based in Switzerland

From 1959, the Federal Council, elected by the parliament, is composed of members of the four major parties, the Protestant Free Democrats, the Catholic Christian Democrats, the left-wing Social Democrats and the right-wing People's Party, essentially creating a system without a sizeable parliamentary opposition (see concordance system), reflecting the powerful position of an opposition in a direct democracy.

In 1963, Switzerland joined the Council of Europe. In 1979, parts of the canton of Bern attained independence, forming the new canton of Jura.

Switzerland's role in many United Nations and international organizations helped to mitigate the country's concern for neutrality. In 2002, Switzerland voters gave 55% of their vote in 2002 in favour of the UN, and joined the United Nations. It followed decades of debate and its rejection of membership in 1986 by a 3-1 popular vote.[27]

Switzerland is not a member state of the EU, but has been (together with Liechtenstein) surrounded by EU territory since the joining of Austria in 1995. In 2005, Switzerland agreed to join the Schengen treaty and Dublin Convention by popular vote.

Women's suffrage

After a century of agitation, women were finally granted the right to vote in 1971. An equal rights amendment was ratified in 1981.[28] In one area, however, Switzerland was a pioneer for rights of women from other countries. From 1870 to 1914 thousands of women from all over the world went to Swiss universities to study medicine; indeed the first women physicians in most European countries received their medical education there.[29][30]

Order of accession of the cantons

See also


Notes and references

  1. ^
  2. ^ Julia Slater (September 10, 2007). "Prehistoric find located beneath the waves".  
  3. ^ Hughes, Christopher, Switzerland (London, 1975) p.66 ff, 84.
  4. ^ Bonjour, Edgar et al. A short History of Switzerland (Oxford, 1952) p.191.
  5. ^ Marc H. Lerner, "The Helvetic Republic: An Ambivalent Reception of French Revolutionary Liberty," French History (2004) 18#1 pp 50-75.
  6. ^ R.R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution 2:394-421
  7. ^ Otto Dann and John Dinwiddy (1988). Nationalism in the Age of the French Revolution. Continuum. pp. 190–98. 
  8. ^ Holger Böning, "Bürgerliche Revolution und Judenemanzipation in der Schweiz," Jahrbuch des Instituts für Deutsche Geschichte (1985), Vol. 14, pp 157-180
  9. ^ William Martin, Histoire de la Suisse (Paris, 1926), pp 187-88, quoted in Crane Brinson, A Decade of Revolution: 1789-1799 (1934) p 235
  10. ^ Joachim Remak, A Very Civil War: The Swiss Sonderbund War of 1847 (Westview, 1993) online edition
  11. ^ Regina Wecker, "Frauenlohnarbeit - Statistik und Wirklichkeit in der Schweiz an der Wende zum 20," Jahrhundert Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Geschichte (1984) 34#3 pp 346-356.
  12. ^ Roman Studer, “When Did the Swiss Get so Rich?” Comparing Living Standards in Switzerland and Europe, 1800-1913, Journal of European economic history, (2008) 37#2 pp 405-452. online
  13. ^ Let's Swallow Switzerland by Klaus Urner (Lexington Books, 2002).
  14. ^ The Bergier Commission Final Report, page 238
  15. ^ The Bergier Commission Final Report, page 249
  16. ^ The Bergier Commission Final Report, page 518
  17. ^ Asylum in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
  18. ^ The Bergier Commission Final Report, page 117
  19. ^ Asylum in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland. states 24,000
  20. ^ Karacs, Imre (December 11, 1999). "Switzerland refused to help 24,500 Jews in war". The Independent. Retrieved February 4, 2009. 
  21. ^ Switzerland from the Shoah Resource Foundation accessed Feb 4, 2009
  22. ^ Second World War-Refugees in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland. states 28,000
  23. ^ Hadrien Buclin, "'Surmonter le passé?': les intellectuels de gauche et le débat des années soixante sur la deuxième guerre mondiale," ["Overcoming the Past?": Intellectuals on the Left and the Debate of the 1960s About the Second World War] Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Geschichte (2013) 63#2 pp 233-249.
  24. ^ Independent Commission of Experts Switzerland – Second World War ICE
  25. ^ 7.4 States Formerly Possessing or Pursuing Nuclear Weapons Retrieved March 5, 2014
  26. ^ Swiss nuclear bomb International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War October 9, 2010. Retrieved March 7, 2014
  27. ^ See May 25, 2007SWI"Moving towards the UN in slow motion"
  28. ^ Banaszak, Lee Ann (1996). Why movements succeed or fail: Opportunity, culture, and the struggle for woman suffrage. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.  
  29. ^ Holmes, Madelyn (1984). "Go to Switzerland, young women, if you want to study medicine".  
  30. ^ Bonner, Thomas N. (Spring 1988). "Medical women abroad: a new dimension of women's push for opportunity in medicine, 1850-1914".  


  • Balsiger, Jörg. Uphill Struggles: The Politics of Sustainable Mountain Development in Switzerland and California (2009)
  • Codevilla, Angelo M. Between the Alps and a Hard Place: Switzerland in World War II and the Rewriting of History (2000) excerpt and text search
  • Dawson, William Harbutt. Social Switzerland: Studies of Present-day Social Movements and Legislation (1897) 302pp; with focus on social and economic history, poverty, labour online
  • Fahrni, Dieter. An Outline History of Switzerland. From the Origins to the Present Day (8th ed. 2003, Pro Helvetia, Zurich). ISBN 3-908102-61-8
  • Halbrook, Stephen P. Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality in World War II (2003) excerpt and text search
  • Luck, James Murray. A History of Switzerland. The First 100,000 Years: Before the Beginnings to the Days of the Present. SPOSS, Palo Alto CA. (1985) ISBN 0-930664-06-X
  • Oechsli, Wilhelm. History of Switzerland, 1499-1914 (1922) full text online
  • Ozment, Steven E. "The Reformation in the Cities: The Appeal of Protestantism to Sixteenth-Century Germany and Switzerland (1975)
  • Schelbert, Leo. Historical Dictionary of Switzerland (2007) excerpt and text search
  • Wilson, John. History of Switzerland (1832) excerpt and text search, outdated

External links

  • History of Switzerland on
  • Swiss Diplomatic Documents (DDS)
  • History of Switzerland: Primary Documents
  • Swiss American Historical Society
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