A Brief

History

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t A 17th-century map showing Basel.

Thanks to its strategic location, Switzerland has been highly sought for centuries. In 1291, the Swiss Confederation was created to stave off foreign rule. The alliance expanded until modern Switzerland was born in 1848. Although its international neutrality has kept it out of many major events, this small country remains one of the continent’s powerhouses.

The Crossroads of Europe

As early as 500 BC, the lands that now comprise Switzerland were settled by two tribes, the Celtic Helvetii and the Etruscan Rhaetians. By 58 BC, the region was incorporated into the Roman Empire and peace and prosperity reigned: agriculture flourished, towns grew and new roads encouraged trade. From the 5th to the 13th centuries, different factions fought over the territory until it was swallowed into the Holy Roman Empire in the 800s; it continued to be a battleground for powerful feudal families, notably the Habsburgs, Savoys and Zähringens.

Birth of the Swiss Nation

In 1291, men from Unterwalden, Schwyz and Uri, the “Three Forest Cantons”, gathered to form an alliance against foreign power. The Swiss Confederation was born, eventually giving rise to the legend of William Tell, the heroic countryman who defied Habsburg rule. Over the next 200 years, other cantons joined the fight for independence, which they finally gained in 1499. Renowned for their valour, Swiss troops became sought after as mercenaries. However, a shock defeat at the 1515 Battle of Marignano led the nation to declare an “eternal peace” with France; this led to laws preventing the Swiss from fighting in foreign wars, and gradually brought about complete neutrality.

The Reformation

The Protestant Reformation of the early 16th century created bitter conflict between Catholic cantons and those embracing the new creed of reformers such as Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) and Jean Calvin (1509–64). Despite this religious rift, all the cantons remained loyal to the Confederation throughout the wars of religion that swept Europe in the 17th century.

Mère Royaume’s Food Fight

On 11 December 1602, the Duke of Savoy’s troops attempted to scale Geneva’s walls in a surprise attack. Catherine Cheynel (“Mère Royaume”), a mother of 14 children, grabbed a cauldron of hot vegetable soup and poured it over the attackers, killing one of them. This caused such a commotion it roused the townspeople to defend their city.

The Foundation of Modern Switzerland

Napoleon invaded Switzerland in 1798 and replaced the cantons of the Confederation with the short-lived, unpopular Helvetic Republic. The Swiss Confederation was restored in 1803, but French jurisdiction lasted until Napoleon’s defeat by a British-led coalition of European armies at Waterloo in 1815. In the wake of civil war, a new constitution, drawn up in 1848 and revised in 1874, established today’s system of direct democracy, with the cantons collectively ruled by a federal assembly in Bern. With political stability, the country flourished. New commercial banks were established, and the construction of the railway network and new roads opened up alpine areas to burgeoning tourism; industries from watchmaking to chocolate manufacture thrived.

Neutrality through Two World Wars

During both the World Wars, Switzerland maintained a state of armed neutrality. As a result, it was sought after by both the Allied and Axis countries as a location for commerce (thus boosting the growth of the Swiss banking industry), espionage and secret diplomacy. It also became a safe haven for refugees fleeing violence from all across Europe, even as it provided anonymity for Nazi officials seeking to exchange pillaged gold and other looted assets for hard currency. The postwar years coincided with a period of unprecedented financial and industrial growth as the country, unscathed by the ravages of war, basked in its insular neutrality and political isolationism.

Switzerland Today

Although this small, wealthy alpine nation still enjoys its political neutrality and its role as a tax haven, it has now finally become more involved in European matters. The country joined the United Nations in 2002 and the Schengen Agreement in 2005 as a result of public voting, and signed the Paris climate agreement in 2016, although it remains firmly outside the EU to date. As it looks to redefine itself in a changing world, Switzerland’s asylum and immigration laws have become highly contentious. Nonetheless, as host to the headquarters of several important international organizations, it continues to play a key role in world affairs.

Women’s Suffrage

Swiss women were only granted the right to vote in federal elections in 1971; in 1991 Appenzell Innerrhoden became the last canton to give women a vote on local issues. Since then, women have made great strides in the political arena. In 2010, the country was one of just five world-wide to have more women than men in the cabinet that year.

Did You Know?

The date of Henri Dunant’s birthday – 8 May – is celebrated as World Red Cross Day.

Discover A Brief History

Timeline of events

500s BC

The Helvetii and Rhaetian tribes begin to settle in the Alps.

390 BC

Gallic armies heading for Rome cross the Grand St Bernard Pass.

217 BC

Hannibal comes over the Alps with his elephants.

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200 BC onwards

The Roman rulers introduce their religion, language and underfloor heating.

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742

A feudal system develops as Charlemagne draws the region into the Holy Roman Empire.

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1291

The Swiss Confederation stands against the Habsburgs.

1315

The Swiss defeat the Habsburgs at the Battle of Morgarten, consolidating the Confederation; the 1499 Swabian War brings independence.

1506

The Swiss Guard is engaged to protect the Vatican.

1516

Huguenot refugees introduce the craft of clock making.

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1680s–90s

Swiss mathematicians Jacob and Johann Bernoulli work on probability and calculus.

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1863

Henri Dunant establishes the Red Cross; he receives the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.

1874

A revision of the Swiss constitution allows direct democracy by referendum.

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1912

Carl Jung publishes his ground-breaking book, Psychology of the Unconscious.

1914–18

Switzerland organizes Red Cross units but remains neutral during World War I; the 1919 Treaty of Versailles reaffirms Swiss neutrality.

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1928

The inaugural Winter Olympics are held in St Moritz.

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1996

The “Nazi Gold” scandal reveals Swiss banks had bolstered the German economy.

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2008

The nation scraps routine passport controls at all its borders.

2018

The government initiates “national empowerment”, sponsoring tourism in Tunisia to try to curb illegal immigration.

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