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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, 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  Country & People
Basic information about Switzerland - country profile Switzerland's Population and Languages Important Swiss monuments: pictures and meaning  Links
Links: History Swiss Museums Links: Switzerland

A Short History of Switzerland

Switzerland is a small country (41,285 km² = 15,940 square miles), but densely populated (7 million inhabitants, 170 per km² = 440 per sq.mi.), situated in the heart of western Europe. It shares much of its history and of its culture with its neighbours Germany, Austria, Italy and France.

  Map of Central Europe

Some 60% of Switzerland are in the alpine region, with high mountains (12 peaks above 4,000 m = 13,000 ft above sea level and many more between 2,000 and 4,000 m) and narrow valleys. 30% are hills and relatively flat valleys carved out by glaciers called "Mittelland" [midlands] (400 to 900 m above sea level). 10% on a chain of older mountains called Jura (not exceeding 1,600 m above sea level). Most of the cities, towns and larger villages are located in Mittelland - this means that the actual density of population in this part of the country is somewhere near 500 inhabitants per km² (1300 per sq. mile)!

Early Swiss History

Stone Age

Morteratsch glacier, eastern Switzerland  

About 600,000 years ago, temperatures sank and Europe was covered by glaciers almost completely. In Lucerne, Central Switzerland, the thickness of the ice reached as much as about 1 km (3000 ft).

Until about 30,000 years ago, several cold and warm periods followed, animals and men came to Europe and had to leave again. The focus of cultural development remained for thousands of years in the Middle East (Sumer, Babylon, Egypt), however. Traces of early hunters (weapons and tools made from stone splinters, bones of prey animals) can be found in several natural caves in Switzerland. Later, around 3000 B.C. lake-dwellers erected their houses made of wood and clay on posts at the shores of Switzerland's lakes.

Bronze Age

Metals, first copper, then bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) were introduced in Europe around 2000 B.C. Bronze age tools and weapons were first just copies of the most advanced late stone age products.

Iron Age

Iron was known in the Middle East as early as around 3000 B.C. but came to Europe relatively late. The early Iron Age period in Europe (800 - 450 B.C.) is named after Hallstatt, a village in Austria.

Celtic tribes in Switzerland

Celtic tribes colonized Europe from the east. Around 500 B.C. they had reached Switzerland and eastern France. Their culture is known as the La Tène period (450 - 50 B.C.) of the Iron Age. This name comes from an excavation in western Switzerland (Lake of Neuchâtel). At this time, Switzerland's relatively flat midlands from Lake Geneva to Zurich were the territory of a celtic tribe named Helvetians.

The name of the Helvetians lives on as a keyword for everything that needs a short name not depending on one of the four official languages spoken in different parts of Switzerland. The label "HELVETIA" can be found on coins and postal stamps. while the Swiss top level internet domain ".ch" stands for "Confoederatio Helvetica", the latin version of "Swiss Confederation".

Age of the Romans

When the Helvetians attempted to move south to Southern France they were stopped by the Roman commander and subsequent emperor C. Julius Cesar in 58 B.C. They were forced to return to Switzerland. The Romans controlled Switzerland's territory until about to about A.D. 400. Roman military camps and forts were erected at the northern Rhine frontier towards Germany. Several major Swiss cities and towns were founded by the Romans, among others Basel, Zurich, Geneva, Lausanne and Chur.

The Roman military command and bureaucracy was established at the Old Swiss Capital Aventicum (Avenches, western Switzerland), which is today but a small village, however

  Roman Amphitheatre at Avenches, western Switzerland

The total population of Switzerland at the time amounted to only about 100,000 to 200,000 inhabitans. They settled where the soil was easy to cultivate and the climate not to cold (especially in winter). - preferably in the Mittelland region and in a few major alpine valleys. Large areas remained a wilderness covered by forests.

Migration of Nations

Germanic Tribes in Western Europe

A widely accepted theory assumes, that most European peoples have a common origin somewhere in Central asia. Their languages (Greek, Latin, Old German/Old English, Slavonian) are quite similar to each other and even to Persian (Iran) and Sanskrit (India!). For reasons we do not know, they decided to move to the regions of the world where they settle now. While southern Europeans arrived in Greece and Italy several thousand years B.C.. Germanic tribes first moved to the north (Poland, Scandinavia) and from there to the west and south (France, Great Britain, Germany). Slavonians came last.

Smaller incidents between Roman troops and Germanic tribes did not change a balance of power for several centuries until about A.D. 400. But then the Roman Empire was challenged by severe attacks and raids carried forth to the south of the Alps. So the Romans withdrew troops from their territories north of the Alps (including Switzerland). But they could not prevent the decline of their empire. The western Germanic tribe of the Franks invaded France, and settled near Paris. They adopted much of the Roman culture and even their language Latin, which was gradually transformed into what is known today as French. Much the same was true for the Burgundians settling along the Jura mountain chain in France (Burgundy) and western (French speaking) Switzerland.

The southern Germanic tribe called Alamannen settled in southern Germany and northern Switzerland. Recent excavations in Switzerland do not support the older theory of a violent conquest. It seems much more probable, that the Alamannen were not quite interested in Roman towns, nor Roman culture. They rather infiltrated in small groups, cleared woodland and erected their own small villages. They stuck to their German language as did the northern Germanic tribes settling in northern Germany and Scandinavia.

Todays border between German and French language in Switzerland is more or less the border between Burgundians and Alamannen. While the original Celtic population kept up at least parts of their culture in some parts of France, Spain, Ireland and Great Britain, the original Celtic population in Switzerland completely melted with the newcomers in the course of the centuries. So there is no area with special Celtic influence nor any significant remains of their language in Switzerland except for a few geographical names.

Middle Ages

Feudal System and Monasteries

feudal system In the Middle Ages the Feudal System was developed in Europe: The king was primarily a warlord and had power to distribute land conquered by his troops among the dukes. these gave it to the knights. Money barely existed. there was no economical ground to raise taxes in significant amounts.

As both German and Celtic tribes had little experience in writing, science and arts, Europe took several centuries to regain the knowledge of the Greek and Roman culture. This work was performed by literate monks in the monasteries. Interestingly enough, the task of preaching the gospel to Germanic people in Switzerland was not taken over by Romans or people from Constantinople, but rather by wandering Irish monks. One of them, Gallus, settled near St Gallen (eastern Switzerland) early in the 7th century. A.D. 820 an influential monastery was founded there. Monasteries were also leading in agricultural progress (e.g. fruit-growing) and business affairs (e.g. model business treaties from St Gallen A.D. 888).

Monasteries were founded by kings and noblemen for political, social and religious purposes (power politics, bad conscience and fear of supernatural powers, public relations and placement for children).
more More: Monasteries in the Middle Ages

Jurisdiction is one of the dark sides of the Middle Ages: torture to extort a confession, cruel sentences and judicial murder (especially burning of so-called witches and heretics) were widespread. Awareness of the shameful wrong done to thousands of innocent women and men lead to the abolition of the death penalty all over western Europe.

The Old Swiss Confederacy

From the 11th to the 13th centuries, many cities (among them the federal capital Berne, Lucerne, Fribourg) were founded. Skilled craftsmen specialized in production of high quality goods and trade became more important. So did the roads crossing the Alps.

St Gotthard route: "Teufelsbrücke" 
 [devil's bridge] over Schöllenen canyon
St Gotthard route: "Teufelsbrücke" [devil's bridge] over Schöllenen canyon
(The bridges of stone shown here were built in the 19th and 20th centuries, but they might give an impression of the difficulties to be overcome 700 years ago.)

At the same time, people from the upper part of canton Wallis developed means to suspend wooden water pipes and catwalks in steep rocks. People from Wallis settled in upper Uri and Graubünden [Grisons] around A.D. 1200. So the Schöllenen canyon in Uri, that had blocked to way to St Gotthard pass, was overcome and a trade route developed.

The new route made those regions far from the centers of power look interesting for the counts of Habsburg who were trying at the time to strengthen their dynastic power. German king Friedrich II exempted Uri (1231) and Schwyz (1240) from the powers of counts and made them subjects to the king alone as a reward for help in several war expeditions to Italy. When king Rudolf of Habsburg, the first German Emperor from this house, died in 1291, people from Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden feared that the counts of Habsburg would try to regain influence in their territories. So they swore to help each other against anyone trying to subject them.

This is the background of the legend of William Tell, the Swiss national hero. The counts of Habsburg tried to reach their goals by military force but were defeated several times and finally had to leave their native castle in Switzerland, while they were strong enough at the same time to gain the German kingdom from their new seat in Austria.

  Monument of Wilhelm Tell, Switzerland's national hero, in Altdorf

The Reformation

Corruption had deprived the Roman Catholic Church from its credibility during the last centuries of the Middle Ages. Numerous attempts of reforms within the system (e.g. orders of mendicant friars, councils) had not produced longterm results. When Renaissance scholars discovered ancient handwritings of the Bible in the original Greek (instead of the Latin) language and began to study them as well as early comments by bishop Augustine (A.D. 354 - 430), they found a new approach to the christian religion: sola scriptura (only the Bible instead of church tradition) and sola fide (only faith instead of religious exercises).

Huldrych Zwingli, reformer in Zurich  

What Martin Luther preached in Germany, Huldrych Zwingli taught in Zurich, and even more radical. Johannes (John) Calvin organized the reformed church in Geneva, Oekolampad in Basel.

The Reformation in Switzerland split the country in two fractions: the progressive cities like Zurich, Basel, Berne, Neuchâtel, Geneva turned to the new confession. whereas the conservative, rural areas in Central Switzerland (including Lucerne) remained catholic. When the Pope started an inner reform to regain influence, Lucerne gladly accepted the opportunity and called in the Jesuit order to organize its schools.

The Age of Enlightment

Science, economy, philosophy and arts had all set out for new shores. only the political system remained as it was. or to be more precise, medieval feudalism culminated in absolutistic forms of kingdom (especially in France and Austria). Political philosophy, especially in France, reacted with new ideas on society and political organization. Among those was Jean Jacques Rousseau, born in Geneva, living most of his life in France.

The Helvetic period

Switzerland occupied by Napoleon

For centuries, young Swiss men, especially from Central Switzerland fought in mercenary troops for French kings and Italian dukes. During the French Revolution a detachment of 800 Swiss mercenaries tried to defend the king against the radical Montagnards assaulting the Tuileries castle in 1792. All mercenaries were killed. The Lion Monument in Lucerne reminds of the infamous end of the once formidable Swiss military force.

  Lion Monument (Löwendenkmal), Lucerne
Lion Monument (Löwendenkmal), Lucerne

Inspired by the French Revolution, liberal people in western Switzerland, revolted against the undemocratic reign of the old members of the Swiss Confederacy over other parts of the country and called for French support in 1798. Napoleon Bonaparte's troops occupied Switzerland and a central government was introduced. But soon (1803) he was obliged to reestablish some federal elements.

After Napoleon was defeated in Russia and at Waterloo, Switzerland returned to extremely federal structures in 1815. However, the cantons [federal states] St Gallen, Graubünden, Aargau, Thurgau, Ticino, Vaud, Valais, Neuchâtel and Geneva became full and free members of the confederation instead of their former status of partial members or even subject territories.

Switzerland's Way to Modern Democracy

The Federal Constitution of 1848

From 1815 to 1848 liberals and conservatives debated about the structure of Switzerland after the French Revolution. Step by step the liberals could put through small innovations on the cantonal level. There were liberals as well as conservatives in every canton. the majority of one or the other side was mostly quite small. so that government changed from time to time in many cantons. When the cantons with conservative governments made a secret treaty with Austria against the liberals in 1846, civil war ("Sonderbundskrieg") was inevitable. Thanks to Henri Dufour, general of the liberal troops, it lasted only a few days and cost only 86 dead and some 500 wounded soldiers.

Berne, Switzerland: Bundeshaus (Seat of the Swiss government) 
  Foto: model from Swissminiatur park Melide  

After this, the way was free for a new political system: The loose confederacy, almost without common structures was replaced by a confederation of 25 (today: 26) relatively autonomous cantons [federal states] with enforced central structures after the model of the United States of America.

The new principles were outlined in the 1848 Federal Swiss Constitution - basically still valid despite of two "total revisions" in 1874 an 1999:

  • a declaration of civil rights
  • a new federal structure with central and cantonal parliaments and governments
  • national parliament with two chambers: "Nationalrat" (house of representatives according number of population) and "Ständerat" (2 delegates from each canton)
  • federal responsibility for foreign affairs and public services of more than regional relevance (currency, customs, post and telecommunication)
  • a federal court of justice
  • cantonal autonomy remained unchallenged in broad sectors of administration (education, hospitals, police, justice etc.)

From 1848 to 1874 some instruments unique to the Swiss form of so-called direct democracy with frequent referendums on many affairs (several per year) and the possibility for citizens to demand a change of the constitution by collecting signatures were developed. Again it was the overreaction of conservative representatives and the catholic church in particular that brought about both some restrictions on church influence and the necessary majority in public opinion for the revised constitution.

more More: Switzerland's Way to Democracy

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

Red Cross flag Henri Dunant, a Swiss merchant, 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.

Switzerland during the World Wars

Since the 1815 Vienna conference on international affairs after Napoleons defeat, Switzerland is obliged to be neutral in any conflicts between other nations. During World War I (1914-1918), it was relatively clear, what this obligation meant. In World War II (1939-1945), Switzerland was surrounded by troops of or loyal to the German Nazi regime disregarding any international rules. From today's point of view, it seems that Switzerland could and should have done more in favour of jewish refugees. It is also clear that accepting gold from the Nazis while knowing they stole it from murdered jews was a big mistake. Today's Swiss government has appointed an international Independent Commission of Experts (ICE) to conduct an inquiry on Switzerlands role in World War II.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was critized for not having intervened on behalf of the Jews in World War II. In fact, though the 4th Geneva Convention protecting civilians during wartime was only established after the war in 1949, the ICRC has admitted that it did neglect a moral duty. Those who are criticizing the ICRC for its legalistic omissions in World War II are kindly invited to support it now, when it demands e.g. that El Qaida terrorists being detained on Guantanamo U.S. base are either treated as civilians (with full legal rights, including fair trial within reasonable time) or at least as prisoners of war.

more More: Switzerland during World War II

A society in prosperity

After World War II, technical progress and economic growth reached a new dimension particularly in Western Europe, North America and South East Asia. Switzerland with its tradition in machine building, chemical and pharmaceutical processes and financial services could establish itself as an important player on global markets. Political stability is based a broad coalition of four parties: Liberals, Conservatives, Social Democrats and People's Party (farmers/craftsmen), improved government programs for social security and a negotiated partnership between employers and t rade unions helped to increase both productivity and prosperity for all inhabitants.

Switzerland, though not member, takes part in many scientific programs of the European Union. Among others, it hosts the European Nuclear Research Center (Centre Européen de Recherche Nucleaire, CERN "where the Internet was born", when Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 designed Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML) as a simple and effective means to link text and graphics independent of proprietary standards).

Society has changed following the 1968 student's protest movement in Europe. Religious and moral traditions have become less important to people; on the other hand, problems are discussed more frankly. The Swiss "Stop Aids" - campaign, a cooperation between a self-help association and the federal office for health, is an excellent example of this new spirit.

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