History of Switzerland: Introduction / Sitemap A Short History of Switzerland History of Switzerland: Detailed Timeline  Early Swiss History
Prehistory: Lake-dwellings in Switzerland Swiss History: Celtic Helvetians Switzerland during the Age of Romans, Aventicum Aventicum, Old Swiss Capital in the Age of Romans Switzerland during the Middle Ages  Old Swiss History
The Old Swiss Confederacy (1291-1515) William Tell (Switzerland's National Hero) The Swiss Reformation (Calvin, Zwingli)  A Modern Constitution
Swiss Revolution and Helvetic Republic (1798) Switzerland's Federal Constitution (1848) History of Switzerland's Flag Switzerland's Political System The Long Way to Women's Right to Vote  Industrialisation
Industrialisation in Switzerland Johanna Spyri: Heidi, the girl from the alps - A bestseller about times of change  World War II
World War II: General Timeline Switzerland's Role in World War II Spiritual Defense against Nazism Switzerland's Economic Dependence and Rationing Jewish Refugees Looted Assets Switzerland's Neutrality Switzerland's National Public Radio Station Beromünster  Links
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History of Switzerland

Lake Geneva Region

The written history of Lake Geneva, Switzerland region goes back to the Roman occupation of Switzerland in 58 B.C. Before, there had been celtic tribes settling in the region, but they left no written records.

Where are Lake Geneva and the canton of Vaud located?

Lake Geneva, Switzerland's largest lake (581 km² = 224 sq. miles) is situated in the southwestern corner of Switzerland. Lake Geneva's southern shore belongs to France, however. Lake Geneva is mainly fed by river Rhône coming from the center of the Swiss Alps, and river Rhône also carries its waters way down to the Mediterranean Sea.

Since the 1815 treaty of Vienna (after Napoleon's defeat), the borders of Switzerland are fixed. In the map shown above, today's borders of Switzerland are marked with a red line. In the centuries before, however, several regions were conquered by the Old Swiss Confederacy and lost again. While the Valtellina region (dark blue, bottom right) was lost in 1815, several regions, including the south shore of Lake Geneva and the surroundings of the City of Geneva (light gray, bottom left) belonged to the Old Swiss Confederacy only for short intervals of time. The City of Geneva (light blue, bottom left) itself was not a full member of the Old Swiss Confederacy but had the status of an associated member. The canton [federal state] of Vaud (light green, bottom left) was conquered by the city of Berne [today Switzerland's capital] in 1536 and remained a dependent territory without civil rights until the 1798 Swiss Revolution.

Lake Geneva and the Romans

In 58 B.C. the later Roman emperor C. Julius Caesar defeated the celtic Helvetians and forced them to return to their homes in Switzerland instead of settling in Southern France. Following this, the Romans occupied the territory today known as Switzerland up to river Rhine. Soon the Romans set up a military infrastructure with headquarters in Avenches (Aventicum). Today, Avenches is but a small village. Among others, the two major cities of the Lake Geneva region, Geneva and Lausanne were founded by the Romans. The following table gives some of the Roman towns in the Lake Geneva region.

Latin (Roman) name of town translation / comment today's name
Agaunum   Saint-Maurice
Aventicum   Avenches
Eburodunum (-dunum=name of celtic origin) Yverdon
Genava   Genève (Geneva)
Iulia Equestris (Noviodunum) (-dunum=name of celtic origin) Nyon
Lousonna   Lausanne
Minnodunum (-dunum=name of celtic origin) Moudon
Octodurus   Martigny
Penneloci   Villeneuve
Summus Poeninus   Grand St. Bernard
Tarnaiae   Massongex
Urba town Orbe
Uromagnus   Oron-la-Ville
Viviscus   Vevey

Towards the end of the Roman period, christianity spread among the Roman empire. Geneva became the seat of a bishop. The Romans also built about 80000 km (50000 miles) of roads all over Europe. Among these roads were several routes crossing the Alps, one of them used the Grand St. Bernard pass southeast of the Lake Geneva region. After the collapse of the Roman Empire around 400 A.D., these roads were neglected. The standard of roman roads was not reached again until the 19 th century.

Lake Geneva and the Burgundians

About 400 A.D. several germanic tribes overran the roman fortifications and set an end to the western part of the Roman empire. While the Francs settled in what is know northern France, the Burgundians settled in what is know western Switzerland and Burgundy (southeastern France). Both of these tribes, originally speaking some sort of ancient German, were keen to assimilate the Roman culture, so they learnt Latin. In the course of centuries, the French language developed out of this.

The expansion of the Dukes of Savoy

About 800 A.D., French Emperor Charles the Great could unite France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland under his reign. He set up an administration based on dukes and counts. During the Middle Ages, traffic crossing the Alps was difficult (due to neglection of the roads) and therefore not particularly intense. In late middle ages, alpine traffic gained importance again, however.

Chillon Castle, Lake Geneva, Switzerland
Chillon Castle on Lake Geneva

As early as in the 11th century, the Dukes of Savoy (the mountain area south of Lake Geneva) began, little by little but very systematically, to spread their influence on the mountain roads on both sides of the Grand St. Bernard and and Mount Cenis pass, including the Piémont (county of Turin, Italy) and the both shores of Lake Geneva. Among others, they built the famous Castle of Chillon in order to control the passage to the Grand St. Bernard pass.

The counts of Kyburg (a castle near Winterhur, eastern Switzerland) had managed to gain control over a vast territory reaching from Lake of Constance (northeastern Switzerland) to Lake Geneva. When they last count of Kyburg died without children, Count Rudolf Habsburg (later to become German king) and Count Peter I. of Savoy quarreled about the heritage. Finally Savoy conquered the Vaud region north of Lake Geneva in 1266. Because of the rising importance of Savoy - not only by size of their territory, but as well by the strategic role of the alpine routes - the German Emperor granted the title of Duke to the counts of Savoy.

Geneva and the Dukes of Savoy

The city of Geneva was continuously a reason of quarrels between the bishop of Geneva, the counts of Geneva and the counts of Savoy. In 1124 and in 1219 once more, sovereignty rights over Geneva were granted to the bishop of Geneva, but the balance of strength continued to be very instable. In 1263 the citizens of Geneva arranged themselves with Count Peter II. of Savoy, because they thought that the counts of Savoy could better guarantee the liberty of commerce (and of its roads!). In 1285 Count Amadée V. of Savoy became protector of the city of Geneva. When the dukes of Savoy brought Faucigny and Gex under their control in 1355, the count of Geneva had lost the race for the domination of the region; in 1358 he became a vasall of the Duke of Savoy. Now Savoy had become frighteningly strong and the supporters of the bishop of Geneva gained a majority among the citizens of Geneva. In 1387 bishop Adhemar Favre confirmed all traditional rights of the city.

In 1519 a party of the citizens, the so-called "Eydguenots" negotiated a pact with the city of Fribourg, but Duke Charles III. of Savoy occupied Geneva with his troops. Already in 1526 the Geneva citizens signed again a pact with Fribourg and Berne. This provoked an attack by Duke Charles III. of Savoy in 1530. Berne, Fribourg, Solothurn, Bienne, Neuchâtel and Payerne came to the assistance of Geneva besieged with 10000 soldiers. The citizens of Geneva were able to keep up their rights against the Dukes of Savoy and against the bishop of Geneva bishop. A general council, an ordinary council and four syndics were in charge of the matters of the city.

Removal of the Dukes of Savoy from Vaud

But Duke Charles III. of Savoy did not want to renounce on his rights on Geneva. In 1534 he tried to isolate the city with a supplying blockage. In 1535 the death of Duke Francesco Sforza of Milan made the situation in northern Italy unstable, even the French king got involved there. Therefore the Duke of Savoy had to concentrate his forces there. Berne took the occasion to conquer the county of Vaud in 1536. But as in 1477, when they had defeated Duke Charles of Burgundy, the other Swiss confederates did not want that Berne became too strong. So after the withdrawal of French troops from his territory in 1560 Duke Emmanuel of Savoy managed to reach agreement with the catholic member states of the Swiss confederacy and isolate Berne from its confederates. The treaties of Lausanne (1564) and Thonon (1569) restored the sovereignty of the Dukes of Savoy on Ternier, Thonon, the Country of Gex and Evian and the valley of Abondance. (cf. map above, regions south/west of Lake Geneva in light gray, bottom left)

John Calvin, the Reformation and Calvinism

French jurist John Calvin (1509 - 1564) was banished from Paris because of its open partisanship for the Reformation in 1533. When Calvin traveled through Geneva in 1536 he had no intention to stay, but Farel convinced him to do so. Farel had failed 1532 in a first attempt of reformation due to the resistance of the citizens of Geneva, he returned however in 1533 under the protection by Berne. Berne threatened to stop support against the dukes of Savoy if Geneva would reject the reformation. The bishop of Geneva sympathizing with the dukes of Savoy was banished in 1533. Calvin was not able to move a majority of Geneva's cititzens to accept his severe church order. After a dispute about the form of celebrating the Lord's Supper, Calvin and Farel were banished from Geneva in 1538, but called back in 1541 after re-elections to the city council.
more: Reformation in Switzerland

Geneva Escalade (1602)

In 1602 the Duke Charles Emmanuel of Savoy tried once more to conquer the city of Geneva. An ancient ballad, Cé qu'è lainô, narrates that his troops attempted to climb the walls of the city of Geneva with black ladders during night, but two courageous women, Mère Royaume (Mother Kingdom) and Dame Piaget (Lady Piaget) discovered the attackers. Mère Royaume pushed back one attacker with a pan and Lady Piaget opened a strategic door to the Geneva soldiers and so gave them the occasion to a counter-attack from behind. The Genevans celebrate their triumph over the Dukes of Savoy annually in December. Since 1926, the Company of 1602 takes care of the organization of the historic party.

Geneva and Vaud in the age of Revolution

Jean Jacques Rousseau and his "Contrat Social"

Political philosophy, especially in France, reacted with new ideas on society and political organization. One of the famous philosophers of the time was Jean Jacques Rousseau, born 1712 in Geneva.. His novels Nouvelle Héloise (1761) and Emile (1762), his democratic program Contrat Social (1762) exercised a considerable influence. Jean Jacques Rousseau spent most of his life in France and died there in 1788.

Revolution in Switzerland and the Helvetic Republic (1798)

The history of revolts in Switzerland during the 17th and 18th centuries shows that the revolution of 1798 in Switzerland was not at all a simple copy of the French Revolution, but rather the logical consequence of the corrupt political system in Switzerland. Of course, the French Revolution was not without influence on Switzerland, it had two functions:
1) it proved that a revolution is possible (after all the failures in Switzerland)
2) revolutionies were able to threaten with a French intervention

Everywhere in Switzerland the situation after the French Revolution and the perspectives for Switzerland's political system were discussed, especially in the French speaking region of Lake Geneva that had been deprived of democratic political participation by the aristocrats of Berne for centuries. Several revolutionary leaders came from the canton of Vaud and the revolution was supported by a broad majority of the population of the Lake Geneva region.
more: Revolution in Switzerland and the Helvetic Republic


coat of arms: Canton Vaud

The outcome of the Helvetic Revolution was a centralistic republic according to the French model. This, however, provoked to much opposition in Switzerland, where people were used to think in very small dimensions. In 1803 a federalist model was adopted and the Vaud region became a member state of the new federation with full and equal rights. Geneva, however, as well as Neuchâtel (along the French border) and Valais (east of Lake Geneva, controlling the Simplon pass route that was of strategic value for Napoleon) were annexed to France. When Napoleon was defeated in 1815 these territories returned to the Swiss Confederation.


coat of arms: Canton Geneva

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

Geneva Conventions

Red Cross flag
Red Cross Flag:
inverted colors of Swiss Flag

Henri Dunant, a merchant from Geneva, was shocked when he learned about the fate of wounded soldiers in the battle of Solferino (1859, Austrian-French war). In 1862 he wrote a book about it and in 1864 the Swiss government organized an international conference on humanitarian aspects during war. 12 nations signed the Geneva conventions and established the International Committee of the Red Cross as a permanent, neutral institution to take care of military and civil persons wounded or imprisoned in war.

Literature and links concerning the region and history of Lake Geneva, Switzerland:

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