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History of Switzerland

The Middle Ages Struggle for Independence Reformation
Unification A Neutral Nation Domestic Issues


In pre-Roman times the territory now known as Switzerland was inhabited by the Helvetii in the west and the Rhaetians, a people believed to have been related to the Etruscans, in the east. Julius Caesar and the Romans conquered the region, which they named Helvetia, in the 1st century BC, and it became thoroughly Romanized. During the Germanic invasions that swept over the Western Roman Empire in the 4th century AD, the Burgundians and the Alamanni conquered Helvetia.

The Middle Ages

The Franks in turn conquered the Alamanni in the 5th century AD, and the Burgundians in the early 6th century. The Franks introduced a new civilization based largely on Christianity. On the dissolution of the Frankish Carolingian Empire in the 9th century, most of Switzerland became part of the duchy of Alemannia, or Swabia, one of the great feudal states of the German Kingdom; the southwestern part was incorporated into the kingdom of Transjurane Burgundy. In 1033 the Burgundian portion was acquired by Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II, and Switzerland became a part of his empire. It consisted of a collection of petty states, ruled by dukes, counts, bishops, and abbots, and of a number of small city-states, independent by imperial charter, which later became cantonal commonwealths.

Struggle for Independence

In 1276 Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf I of the Habsburg dynasty attempted to assert feudal rights in Switzerland, making his power a threat to the traditional liberties of the Swiss. To resist Rudolf's aggression, the three so-called forest cantons—Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden—around the Lake of Lucerne, entered a league for mutual defense in 1291. During the 14th century Zürich, Glarus, Bern, Lucerne, and Zug joined the league, and in the 15th century Fribourg and Solothurn joined. In 1474 the Habsburgs, unable to cope with the militant Swiss mountaineers, abandoned their attempts to acquire the region as a family appanage, and the Swiss confederation became directly dependent on the empire.

In 1499 Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I attempted to abrogate various Swiss governmental rights; in the ensuing war he was defeated, and by the Treaty of Basel on September 22, 1499, he was compelled to recognize the virtual independence of the Swiss. By 1513 Appenzell, Schaffhausen, and Basel had entered the confederation, each independent as a canton and sending two delegates to a federal assembly. Because of their skill and bravery in war, Swiss mercenaries became famous throughout Europe. In the course of the wars between Italy and France in the early 16th century, Swiss troops, fighting with the French as mercenaries, were able to annex the Italian districts and towns that later formed the canton of Ticino. The Swiss troops then fought against the French, and were defeated in 1515. This led to the introduction of Switzerland's neutrality policy. In 1536 the Bernese Swiss took Lausanne and various territories from the duchy of Savoy.


The Protestant Reformation in Switzerland started in 1518, when a country pastor named Huldreich Zwingli began to denounce the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic church. Subsequently, under Zwingli's leadership, the city of Zürich revolted against church dogma by burning relics, banning the adoration of saints, and releasing clerics from their vows of celibacy. Vigorously backed by the merchant class, such innovations further asserted the city's independence from both the Roman Catholic church and the Holy Roman Empire. Other Swiss towns, such as Basel and Bern, quickly adopted similar reforms. In 1536 Geneva, where the French theologian John Calvin had just settled, revolted against the duchy of Savoy and refused to acknowledge the authority of its Roman Catholic bishop. Calvin organized his church democratically, incorporating ideas of representative government. From 1541 to 1564 Geneva became the stronghold of the Calvinist brand of Protestantism. Although the cantons preserved their neutrality in the Thirty Years' War of 1618 to 1648, Swiss diplomacy was able to maneuver formal recognition of Switzerland as a completely independent state by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.


During the 1790s the French Revolution spread to Switzerland; the French continually intervened in support of Swiss revolutionaries, a group that sought to promote political reforms and the establishment of a strong national government, and in 1798 the revolutionaries occupied all Swiss territory. The Swiss confederation had until that time been a loose defensive alliance, but Napoleon Bonaparte, the future emperor of France, unified the country under the name Helvetic Republic and imposed a written constitution, which, like the French military occupation, was bitterly resented by most of the Swiss. In 1803, when it was in his interest to have Switzerland friendly, Napoleon withdrew the occupation troops and by the Act of Mediation granted a new constitution with Swiss approval. The Congress of Vienna, in 1815, recognized the perpetual neutrality of Switzerland, and Swiss territory was expanded to include 22 cantons; since that time the country's boundaries have remained virtually unchanged.

The period following the integration of Switzerland was one of attempted adjustment to the newly won unity. Conflict existed between autocratic and democratic elements and between Roman Catholic and Protestant areas. In 1847 the Roman Catholic cantons formed a league, the Sonderbund. The federal government declared the formation of such a league a violation of the constitution. Civil war resulted when the league refused to disband. The Sonderbund was defeated by the federal government, and the ensuing constitution of 1848 greatly increased the federal power. It was followed by the constitution of 1874, which, with modifications, is still in force; the 1874 constitution completed the development of Switzerland from a group of cantons to a unified federal state. However, Switzerland is unusual regarding the power vested within the cantons and individual communes. For example, it is the communes that grant individuals Swiss citizenship.

A Neutral Nation

Because of the traditional neutrality of the country, Switzerland became the favored site of international conferences and the headquarters of many organizations. The main office of the International Red Cross was established there in 1863, as was that of the League of Nations following World War I (1914-1918). Switzerland was a league member but, after maintaining neutrality and harboring political refugees during World War II (1939-1945), the country refused to join the United Nations (UN) on the grounds that certain obligations of membership were incompatible with Swiss neutrality. It did, however, become a member of many agencies affiliated with the United Nations, and it maintains a permanent observer at UN headquarters. It also served on the neutral nations' commission supervising the 1953 truce agreement in Korea; contributed money to UN peacekeeping efforts in Cyprus; and became a member of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, an international trade organization that will eventually be replaced by the World Trade Organization.

In 1948 Switzerland joined the Organization for European Economic Cooperation. It became a founding member of the European Free Trade Association in 1959 and in 1963 joined the Council of Europe.

Domestic Issues

In February 1971, Switzerland for the first time granted women the right to vote in federal elections and to hold federal office; by 1979 more than 10 percent of the seats in the Nationalrat were held by women. Although most cantons also extended suffrage to women, the process was not completed until 1990. An equal rights amendment to the constitution was approved in a 1981 referendum; another referendum in 1985 guaranteed women legal equality with men in marriage. Other referenda in the 1980s upheld Switzerland's system of military conscription (1984), rejected restrictions on abortion and some forms of contraception (1985), barred Switzerland from joining the UN (1986), tightened constraints on immigration and the granting of political asylum (1987), and defeated a proposal to abolish the military (1989).

Responding to international pressures, in recent years Switzerland has relaxed its traditional insistence on banking secrecy and allowed foreign investigators access to bank records in cases where illegal acquisition or use of funds was suspected. In November 1986, 30 tons of chemicals were released into the Rhine River after a fire at a factory near Basel; the Swiss government agreed to compensate the affected countries along the Rhine.

In 1992 Switzerland moved to end decades of fierce independence by joining the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the International Monetary Fund. However, in December of that year Swiss voters soundly rejected joining the European Economic Area, a free-trade zone linking many Western European countries. The vote was a significant blow to Switzerland's application, filed earlier that year, to join the European Community (now the European Union). Hopes for the success of this application increased in November 1993, when the voters approved a national value-added tax more in line with the tax structure of other European Union members. The tax had been rejected three times in previous votes. In early 1994, however, the Swiss voted to curtail heavy truck traffic through their country by the year 2004, as an environmental preservation measure. The vote may have the side effect of hampering future relations with the other European nations.

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