Swiss History

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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
  1. The Pre-Roman Era
  2. The Roman Era 58 BC - 400
  3. Towards Quadrolinguism
  4. Medieval Feudal Society
  5. The foundation of the Swiss Confederation
  6. Dawn of liberty
  7. The Growth of the Swiss Confederation
  8. The Reformation in Switzerland
  9. The Ancien Régime
  10. The Eighteenth Century - Industrial Expansion
  11. The Collapse of the Old Confederation
  12. The Democratic Movement and the New Constitution of 1874
  13. Industrial Changes in the 19th Century
  14. World War I: An Era of Confrontation
  15. World War II: A neutral island in a fascist Europe
  16. A flash on post war Switzerland
Bibliography / Links

The "inevitable" chronological table

-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
        an alliance
 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 
        declares neutrality
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:
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 1 and 3 were copied from D. Fahrni (1994).
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
Hunters, gatherers, lake-dwellers, but not yet William Tell!

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.

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 came into 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
Caesar et consortes, Wilhelmus Tellus non cumerat!

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.

3. Towards Quadrolinguism
All the same name: Wilhelm, Guillaume, Guglielmo, Guglielm (and William too!)

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.

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 Grisons region.

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 in Switzerland.

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4. Medieval Feudal Society
Town and Urban Leagues and no Knight Willibald!

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.

5. The foundation of the Swiss Confederation
Willy Tell is nearly here!

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 of August.

6. Dawn of liberty
Ladies and Gentlemen, we proudly present: Wilhelm Tell!

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.

7. Back to reality: The Growth of the Swiss Confederation

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.
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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8. The Reformation in Switzerland
The Reformators Zwingli, Calvin, and Farel

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
Patricians consolidate their power - 17 C and 18 C

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.

10. The Eighteenth Century - Industrial Expansion

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.

11. The Collapse of the Old Confederation in 1798 and the Long March to the New Federal State of 1848

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.

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 and Graubünden.
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 of power.

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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12. The Democratic Movement and the New Constitution of 1874

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 .

13. Industrial Changes in the 19th Century

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 and 1914.

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!

14. World War I: An Era of Confrontation

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.

15. World War II: A neutral island in a fascist Europe

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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16. A flash on post war Switzerland

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!)

  1. 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).

  2. Im HOF Ulrich (1974) Geschichte der Schweiz. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart

  3. SCHAFFER Fritz (1972) Abriss der Schweizer Geschichte. Huber, Frauenfeld

  4. N.N. (1995) Switzerland 1995 - People, State, Economy, Culture. Kümmerly+Frey, Berne (new edition every year).

  5. 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

  6. A more comprehensive book in the English language of Swiss history by a nonSwiss:
    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 Review.

History of Switzerland by Markus Jud, Luzern

History of Switzerland in Wikipedia

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