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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Swiss History,
But Were Afraid to Ask
compiled by K. Augustiny
- The "inevitable" chronological table
- The Pre-Roman Era
- The Roman Era 58 BC - 400
- Towards Quadrolinguism
- Medieval Feudal Society
- The foundation of the Swiss Confederation
- Dawn of liberty
- The Growth of the Swiss Confederation
- The Reformation in Switzerland
- The Ancien Régime
- The Eighteenth Century - Industrial Expansion
- The Collapse of the Old Confederation
- The Democratic Movement and the New Constitution of 1874
- Industrial Changes in the 19th Century
- World War I: An Era of Confrontation
- World War II: A neutral island in a fascist Europe
- A flash on post war Switzerland
-58 BC Celtic Helvetians live on the plateau
58 BC-400 Roman Era
5 C Germanic Burgundians and Alemannians
6 C Frankish Kings
-14 C Fragmentation of Carolingian power. The houses of Habsburg
and Savoy ruled the area of modern Switzerland
1291 The forest Communities of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden form
14C Other communities join the Confederation: Luzern 1332,
Zurich 1351, Glarus and Zug 1352, Bern 1353.
1460 Foundation of the first university of Switzerland (Basle)
1481 Fribourg and Solothurn join the Swiss Federation
1499 Switzerland gains independence from Holy Roman Empire.
Territorial Expansion. Basle and Schaffhausen join the Swiss
Federation 1501, Appenzell 1513.
1515 Switzerland withdraws from expansionist policies and
1519 Reformation starts in Zurich. Central Switzerland remains
1648 Switzerland becomes recognised as a neutral state in the
Treaty of Westphalia
1798 The French invade Switzerland. The Old Confederation collapses.
1803 The new Cantons of Sankt Gallen, Graubünden, Thurgau,
Ticino, Aargau and Vaud join the Federation
1815 The Congress of Vienna establishes Switzerland as a Federation
and guarantees its independence and permanent neutrality.
The Cantons of Geneva, Valais and Neuchatel join the Federation.
1847 Civil war. The Protestant army led by General Dufour crushes
the Catholic cantons who had formed a separatist league
1848 New Federal Constitution: Compromise between central control
and cantonal authority. Industrialisation, railway boom,
development of tourism.
1864 Foundation of the International Committee of the Red Cross
(ICRC) in Geneva. Compulsory free education introduced.
1872-82 Construction of the railway across the alps the "Gotthardbahn"
1914-18 and 1939-45 Swiss neutrality remained unbreached.
1971 Swiss people vote for the women's suffrage.
1979 The new Canton Jura comes into being.
1992 Swiss people vote against becoming a member of the EEA
(European Economic Area)
More detailed table
This text is accompanied by 3 maps:
Map 1 and 3 were copied from D. Fahrni (1994).
- 1) Idiomas in Switzerland.
The distribution of the 4 official languages in Switzerland
(cf section 3 Towards Quadrolinguism).
80 KB JPG-file!
- 2) The Confederation 1536 - 1798
(cf. sections 7 - 11).
528 KB GIF-file!
- 3) Switzerland and its Cantons in 1995
(cf. sections 11 - 16).
275 KB GIF-file!
Map 2 is from Putzger Historischer Atlas (1961) and was put to our
disposal by courtesy of Cornelsen Verlag Berlin.
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1. The Pre-Roman Era
The earliest of human activity discovered in Switzerland dates back to the Paleolithic Age.
Cutting tools which must have belonged to the Neanderthal Man (20'000 until 4000 BC)
have been found in the Cotencher Cave in the Canton of Neuchâtel.
Many sites from the era of farming people at the Neolithic Age (which lasted until 3000 BC)
have been discovered in Switzerland too.
Hunters, gatherers, lake-dwellers, but not yet William Tell!
During the period of Bronze Age and Early Iron Age tracks were cut through the mountains and
trade slowly developed. Later in the La Tène period the first coins
circulation (around 800 BC). The site of La Tène
(north-east of Neuchâtel) has given
its name to the second stage of the Iron Age. In the 1st century BC we can witness the Celtic
tribe of Helvetians leaving Southern Germany for the Central Plateau of Switzerland. They
travelled west until they came up against the Romans. The Helvetians were pushed back onto the Plateau by Caesar's army in 58 BC.
2. The Roman Era 58 BC - 400
The Celtic population soon became assimilated into Roman civilisation and during the first
two centuries of our era enjoyed peace and prosperity. An excellent network of roads,
traces of which still remain, led across the Great St. Bernhard Pass in the west and
the Grisons passes (Julier, Splügen, Oberalp) in the east to Rome, the hub of
the empire, with which active contact could be maintained. Towns grew up:
Augusta Raurica (Augst, near Basle) and the beautiful Aventicum (Avenches,
between Berne and Lausanne) the chief town in Roman Switzerland, whose fortified walls
offered protection to 50'000 inhabitants.
Caesar et consortes, Wilhelmus Tellus non cumerat!
3. Towards Quadrolinguism
The peaceful era ended with the invasion of the Roman Empire by German tribes. In 260 the
Alemannians crossed the 'limes' the fortified northern boundary, for the first time and
pushed on southwards. Only for a short while were the Romans able to re-establish a stable
frontier along the Rhine and Danube. Helvetia and Rhaetia soon became impoverished border
provinces under military occupation. Around 400 Rome finally had to evacuate its
Alpine territories. During the era of Great Migrations the Western part of the Empire
succumbed to the Germanic invaders, the vital commercial links with the Mediterranean
world were interrupted. Burgundians, already converted to the Christian faith, settled
in the west, adopting the language - Latin. It was a similar story for the Lombard
(Langobard) tribes, installing themselves in southern Switzerland and scarcely disrupting
the established culture. The largest number of immigrants was the heathen Alemannian tribe
in the area between the Rhine and the Aare. The Alemannians did not succeed in infiltrating
Rhaetia (the future Grisons), thanks to the resistance of the Rhaetian Romans.
This people had established themselves over much of eastern Switzerland, South Tyrol,
Vorarlberg and Friuli. Later, during the Middle Ages, they withdrew into high Grisons
valleys to live autonomously. Without this strong survival instinct, the Rheto-Roman
(Romansh) tongues would quickly have been absorbed by the major language groups around them.
All the same name: Wilhelm, Guillaume, Guglielmo, Guglielm (and William too!)
So by now the pattern for today's quadrolinguism was established: in the Roman and Burgundy
region, vulgar Latin evolved into Franco-Provencal dialect; the lands occupied by
the Alemannians became completely German speaking by 900 AD. The people in the southern
valleys stuck to their Gallo-Italian Lombard dialects, while Romansh was spoken in the
The Franks conquered both tribes, the Burgundians and the Alamannians, in the 6th century,
but the two areas were torn asunder when Charlemagne's Empire was partitioned in 870.
Between the 9th and the 14th centuries hundreds of castles, imposing fortresses, monasteries
and new towns were built and some fine examples have survived: the frescoes in St. John's
Monastery at Müstair (GR) are among the rare reminders of the Carolingian period:
the 10th century Cluniac abbeys of Romainmôtier and Payerne, Zurich's Grossmünster
and the cathedrals of Basle and Schaffhausen remain the most important romanesque buildings
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4. Medieval Feudal Society
In the Middle Ages the Swiss territory was included in the great body of the Holy Roman
Empire (1032). The gradual decline of this Empire enabled certain feudal dynasties,
like the families of Zähringen, Savoy, Kyburg and Habsburg, to emerge as real
territorial powers at the beginning of the 13C. Meanwhile, as in Germany, certain cities
(Zurich, Berne), which had enjoyed the favour of the distant Emperor, already had
the status of free towns, while the small isolated communities in the mountains were
almost autonomous. The Waldstätte (the forest cantons) of the shores of the lake
Lucerne adopted themselves without difficulty to a symbolic allegiance to the Emperor.
The "immediate" attachment of the district of Uri to the Empire was formally guaranteed
as early as 1231, since that area deserved special treatment for its situation on the
St. Gotthard route.
The relative autonomy seemed threatened when the House of Habsburg, anxious to ensure the effective and profitable administration of its possessions in the region, created a corps of officials financially interested in the revenues of their estates without consulting local susceptibilities. These bailiffs quickly became unpopular and the position became critical when the Habsburgs in the person of Rudolf, acceded to the Imperial throne in 1273. At the death of Rudolf, which opened the prospect of a fiercely contested election and a dangerously confused political situation, the representatives of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden met to conclude a permanent alliance "to last, if God will, forever". This mutual assistance pact did not propose disobedience to the overlords, but it categorically rejected any administrative and judicial system imposed from without and it is regarded by the Swiss as the birth certificate of the Confederation. Its
original text is carefully preserved at Schwyz (Federal Charters Museum), and the anniversary of its signature
(beginning of August 1291) is celebrated as the national festival on the First
Town and Urban Leagues and no Knight Willibald!
6. Dawn of liberty
Such a development may have seemed to be surprising to the feudal society of the period.But the later fame and its legendary interpretation came up from the 15 C onwards and created an more colorful and dramatic version of these events. The later medieval chronicles were all written under the myth of the Swiss struggle for liberty. The Tell myth became a foundation stone of German literature with the Willhelm Tell of Schiller in 1804. This drama described a conspiracy long matured by the representatives of the three communities, solemnly sworn by 33 spokesmen of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden. It depicted henceforth as so many victims of despotism personified by Bailiff Gessler. After having been subjected by Gessler to the famous ordeal of the apple, the archer Wilhelm Tell became the arm of justice of the conspiracy. He killed Gessler in the sunken road (Hohle Gasse) at Küssnacht, opening the way to an era of liberty.
In 1332 Lucerne, which was anxious to get rid of its Habsburg overlords,
entered into league with the forest cantons, and was followed by Glarus and
Zug (1352). The same step was taken by Zurich in 1351, which had experienced
a revolution by the guilds and feared that the nobles might try to restore
their power. In 1353 Berne acted likewise, because it sought to protect its
rear at a time when it was expanding westwards. The Confederates won great
military victories on the fields of Sempach (1386) and Näfels (1388).
These battles dealt major blows to noble rule at a time when the league of
Swabian towns in Southern Germany was going down to defeat.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we proudly present: Wilhelm Tell!
The alliance of the Eight Old Cantons (Orte, literally 'localities'), which in
reality was a treaty system embracing three, four or five such localities,
remained very shaky. Nevertheless by the end of the fourteenth century one may
say that the Confederation was on its way to being an independent state within
the Empire. The Swiss Confederation was unique in the strength of its burgher class.
These men took the lead in expelling the Habsburgs and in weakening the local
nobility. Land and power passed from the nobles to the cities, with their merchants
and guilds of artisans, and to the country towns, which still had a peasant character.
Inspired by their feats of arms, the cantons felt a taste for adventure and a wish
to extend their political influence farther afield. Swiss military prestige
was brilliantly vindicated by the victories of Grandson and Murten over the
Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold (1476). Fribourg, Solothurn, Basle, Schaffhausen
and Appenzell joined the Confederation, and the Swiss gained independence from Holy
Roman Emperor Maximilian I. after their victory at Dornach in 1499.
In 1513 the Confederation was at the peak of its territorial influence, and even
had Milan under its protection but finally the Swiss over-reached themselves.
They squared up against a superior combined force of French and Venetians at
Marignano in 1515 and lost. The Swiss therefore decided to withdraw from the
international scene by renouncing expansionist policies and declaring their
neutrality. Swiss mercenaries continued to serve in other armies for centuries to
come and earned an unrivalled reputation for their skill and courage. Even today
the Pope is protected by the Swiss Guard.
The policy ceased when Swiss soldiers increasingly found themselves fighting on opposing sides such as during the war of the Spanish Succession in 1709.
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In Switzerland the Reformation was launched in Zurich, where Huldrych Zwingli
(1484-1531) was a secular priest at the cathedral. In 1525 Zurich's Great
Council adopted his innovations (reforms in the Church and demands for economic
and political change). The Reformation significantly strengthened the urban
burgher class. This was why the Anabaptist (and after 1535 Mennonites) movement
among the rural population, whose followers sought to do away with rents and
tithes as well as serfdom, was ruthlessly suppressed and the peasants forcibly
returned to the rule of the city authorities.
Peasant disturbances in several of the cities' subject territories were likewise
put down, and thereafter the Reformation spread rapidly. Everywhere the guilds,
which dominated the urban scene, were the driving force behind the movement. There
were also some towns where the artisans were weak and which remain Catholic: Lucerne
and Zug in central Switzerland, Solothurn and Freiburg in the west. But the focal
point of resistance to the new faith was located in the rural areas of the central
part of the country. 1528 the powerful city of Berne also threw its weight decisively
on the side of the Reformers and the new faith was spread over Western Switzerland
(the Romandie) by arms. In 1536 Jean Calvin (1509-1564) took up residence in the city
of Geneva and Berne acquired most of Savoy's possessions in Vaud.
The Reformation split the Swiss Confederation into two camps, led respectively by a
league of Catholic cantons (one third of the population) and the Protestant cities
with their municipal rights. The antagonism between the Swiss Protestants and
their Catholic neighbours in the German lands led to a sense of alienation from,
and then to a gradual breach between the Confederation and the Empire, which was
formalised in 1648 after the Thirty Years' War.
9. The Ancien Régime
Switzerland was spared from the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) and from the development and wars of absolutist monarchies in Europe. The political life congealed in the eight cities and five rural cantons of the old Confederation. (cf. map of the Swiss Confederation 1536-1798). Power came to be exercised by an ever smaller number of families. In those cantons where the entire population exercised sovereignty through a single commune, the authorities endeavoured to curb the people's rights. They did not succeed in doing away altogether with the popular assembly, but the patrician families occupied an overwhelmingly strong position. The practice of inviting the people to express their opinion, which had to been resorted too frequently during the Reformation, died out completely in the seventeenth century.
Peasant unrest was quashed in 1653. However religious disputes dragged on in Switzerland in the Villmergen Wars of 1656 and 1712. At this time the catholic cantons were sucked into a dangerous alliance with France that could have split the Confederation beyond repair had matters really come to a head but the Catholic factions reluctantly agreed to religious freedom.
The political conditions did not change much before 1798, and a reactionary caste
spirit continued to hold sway. However, profound changes were taking place in the
social and economic domain. Between 1700 and 1800 the population rose from 1.2 to
1.6 million, predominantly in the rural areas. In the textile branch spinning and
weaving cotton, printing cloth (calico), the manufacture of silk ribbons and material,
and embroidery all flourished in the northern and eastern parts of Switzerland.
The watch- and clock-making industry developed around Geneva, in Neuchâtel and
the Jura. During the eighteenth century Switzerland underwent an industrial revolution.
Prior to Napoleon's invasion it was the most highly industrialised country on
the European continent. Scientists such as Johann Bernoulli (1667-1748), Leonhard
Euler (1707-1783) and Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777) made significant contributions
to knowledge. The educational experiments and writings of Heinrich Pestalozzi
(1746-1827) won renown far beyond Switzerland's borders.
The Confederates remained neutral during the War of the First Coalition against
revolutionary France. But once Napoleon Bonaparte had established French power
in northern Italy the military pressure of Switzerland increased. Its alpine passes
were of strategic importance for the French army, since they commanded the direct
route from Paris to Milan. French revolutionary troops marched into the Bernese
Vaud on 28 January 1798. The Diet was unable to react decisively to the French
invasion. Berne alone withstood the French army, but its forces were defeated at
the battle of Grauholz and on 5 March 1798 the victors entered the city.
Patricians consolidate their power - 17 C and 18 C
A long and tortuous path led to the foundation of the Swiss Federal state in 1848.
The events of 1798 ushered in a 50-year-long political crisis, during which the
conservative and progressive forces more than once resorted violence in attempting
to resolve their disputes.
The thirteen old cantons were joined by six new ones, the former subject territories
of Aargau, Thurgau, Ticino and Vaud and the former Allied Cantons of Sankt Gallen
After Napoleon's defeat the Congress of Vienna (1815) restored the old neutral league
of sovereign states. Three new cantons were added: Geneva, Valais, and the Prussian
Neuchâtel. The diplomats in Vienna rewarded the Jura to Berne as compensation
for the latter's loss of former subject areas in Aargau and Vaud.
(cf. the map Switzerland and its Cantons 1995)
The Paris revolution of 1830 brought about a change in Switzerland, too. A strong
liberal movement began to develop and in a number of cantons the aristocrats divested
The old order found its defenders above all in the Catholic cantons of central Switzerland, they united their forces in a military defence pact, known as the Sonderbund.
Matters came to a head in 1845 against the background of a severe economic crisis.
Switzerland's last famine was the result of the terrible potato blight which struck
all of Europe. The rise in prices caused a depression in the rural textile industry.
After a brief campaign Federal troops occupied Lucerne (1847).
The new Federal Constitution guaranteed a whole range of civic liberties, such as the
right to reside wherever one wished, freedom of association, and equality before the
law. It also heeded the interests of the vanquished minority by making far-reaching
provisions to maintain cantonal sovereignty. The Swiss Federal state of 1848 marked
the end of 18 years of bitter conflict. By 1850 the Confederation was recognised as
the most heavily industrialised country in Europe after Great Britain. But Swiss
industry was of the cottage type and had a peasant background.
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The liberal hegemony was not seriously threatened either by the Catholic conservatives or by the old patrician forces. But in the sixties a new opposition emerged which consisted of peasants and artisans, intellectuals and conservative federalists. The pressure for social and economic reforms provided common ground on which the various opposition groups could unite against the liberal regime. In 1869 the democrats won the constitutional battle in Zurich. Henceforth the government was elected directly by the people and all parliamentary bills had to be submitted to popular vote. The success of democrats in the cantons made a revision of the Federal Constitution essential. In 1874 the new Federal Constitution was promulgated .
As a result of the development of international rail and maritime communications the Swiss
agricultural sector was plunged into a crisis. From the 1870s onwards ever cheaper cereals were imported from eastern Europe or overseas.
The farmers managed to achieve a
measure of stability by joining together to form agricultural co-operatives and the export
of dairy products (cheese, condensed milk, chocolate) offset the loss of the market in cereals.
The watch- and clock-making and silk-ribbon weaving industries had always been geared to
the export trade. The prolonged economic depression that started in 1874 marked a turning
point: the textile industry lost its position of predominance. The chemical industry
and the machine-building industry entered upon a period of swift development.
Although Switzerland has neither any mineral deposits to speak of nor reserves of
coal or other raw materials, within a short time it was able to develop export
industries of major international importance. The chemical plants in Basle,
manufacturing coal-tar dyes and the machine-building industry were the most important
in the Swiss export trade before 1914.
Railway building was a significant factor in this expansion. Germany and France played a
major role in financing the boring of the great 15-kilometre-long Gotthard Tunnel in 1880.
Between 1844 and mid-1860s 1300 kilometres of track had been laid; by 1885 they were joined
by another 1400 kilometres, but only 700 kilometres more track was added between that date
N.B.: Switzerland has an area of 15'942 sq. miles. It could be contained in a circle with a radius of 70 miles - 115 km. The maximum North-South extent is 220.1 km; the maximum East-West extent 348.4 km! Small is beautiful!
Between 1914 and 1918 Switzerland came close to violating its much vaunted neutrality.
German-speaking Switzerland (but not the French or Italian parts) was pro-Germany,
and secret military information was passed to the German side. In 1917 Hermann Hoffmann,
a federal councillor, even tried to bring about a separate peace between Germany and Russia.
He was forced to resign, when the plan became public.
Swiss industry profited during WW I but the rewards did not filter down to the working
classes. Mobilisation of the civilian army affected wages, and food prices more than
doubled during the period. the authorities were increasingly worried by the radical
trend among the workers. In November 1918 the army took over the administration of
Zurich on the pretext of forestalling a coup d'état. A general strike brought
the country to a halt. The paralysis was only temporary: the army was called in and
within three days the strike leaders had capitulated. But the strike was not a waste
of time. It eased the passage of a referendum on proportional representation,
48-hour week was introduced, collective contract-bargaining between workers and
employers was developed, and the social security system was extended.
In 1915 a uniform Federal Swiss Passport was issued for the
first time (until then passports had been issued by the cantons). This first
Federal passport had a dark-green cover. The today well-known red passport was
first issued in 1959.
In general economic life in the inter-war years was marked by a slow rate of growth
and a shift away from production towards services.
Switzerland faced much heavier foreign pressure in the second World War than it had in the first. After the fall of France in 1940 it was surrounded by the Axis powers. The Nazis did not conceal their contempt for a nation whose cultural diversity gave the lie to their racist philosophy and propaganda. Even in Switzerland there was a mood of appeasement vis-ŕ-vis Europe's new masters among certain leading politicians. Censors tried to suppress journalistic pinpricks against the Nazis; the granting of asylum to refugees was severely limited at the German's behest. Switzerland's attitude in W.W.II was a blend of tactical accommodation and demonstrative insistence on the country's readiness to defend itself. The mobilisation of the Swiss people to defend their country's territorial integrity between 1939 and 1945 has left a profound impression on the mind's of men and women of that generation.
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In the domain of foreign political relations the country remained after the war
as reticent as ever. Switzerland did not join the United Nations but assumed
an active role in the UN's specialised agencies and programmes. Geneva
became European headquarters of the UN. The country also remained reserved
in the face of European integration efforts and it did not become member of
the Council of Europe, when it was first founded in 1949. Instead it joined
other non EEC countries in 1960 to form the European Free Trade Area (EFTA),
which was not striving for ultimate political union. In 1986 75.7% of the
electorate voted against Swiss entry into the UN, a rejection to be interpreted
lass as a well-defined stand on foreign policy than as a reaction to diffuse
fears of loosing autonomy and an expression of general unease. When participation
in the European Economic Area (EEA) was defeated by a small margin in 1992,
the motives were much the same. The people should have a say in foreign
policy matters is typical of the Swiss system; but it complicates foreign
policy and gives rise to new domestic conflicts.
(all inexpensive and readily comprehensible small books!)
- A good and short book on Swiss history in English:
Dieter Fahrni: An Outline History of Switzerland.
- From the Origins to the Present Day.
Edited by: Pro Helvetia Arts Council of Switzerland, Zurich.
6th enlarged edition 1994. ISBN 3-908102-16-2
(A great part of this text was adapted from this booklet).
- Im HOF Ulrich (1974) Geschichte der Schweiz. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart
- SCHAFFER Fritz (1972) Abriss der Schweizer Geschichte. Huber, Frauenfeld
- N.N. (1995) Switzerland 1995 - People, State, Economy, Culture. Kümmerly+Frey, Berne (new edition every year).
- A recommendable Atlas of the history of the whole world:
Putzger - Historischer Atlas zur Welt- und Schweizer Geschichte.
New edition (12th) 1994. Cornelsen Verlag, Berlin
- A more comprehensive book in the English language of Swiss history by a
James Murray LUCK (1985) A History of Switzerland - The First 100,000
Years: Before the Beginnings to the Days of the Present.
SPOSS inc, Palo Alto CA.; ISBN 0-930664-06-X; LCCCN 85-050338
887 pages, illus., 1985, US$36.00 USA, US$38.00 elsewhere; postpaid.
"History of Switzerland is an all-encompassing work of exemplary
clarity.... We can thoroughly recommend this work to those of our readers
who want a dependable book, in English, on Switzerland" - Swiss American
Switzerland by Markus Jud, Luzern
Switzerland in Wikipedia
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