The history of Switzerland

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Must knows about the history of Switzerland

  • Switzerland was founded on August 1, 1291. August 1 is still the national holiday;
  • Switzerland declared itself a neutral state in 1515. Neutrality still plays a major role in today's politics;
  • Switzerland is a United Nations member since 2002. It still is not a European Union member.

Gladiator fight during a Roman festival in Augusta Raurica (Augst, Switzerland).
© Augusta Raurica

Gladiator fight during a Roman festival in Augusta Raurica (Augst, Switzerland).
© Augusta Raurica

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20,000 BC to the Roman era

As far as we know, Neanderthal Men were the first inhabitants of the region that we now call Switzerland. That was between 20,000 and 4,000 BC. Tools of them have been found in the canton of Neuchâtel, in the west of Switzerland. Later trails were cut through the mountains and trade slowly developed. Celtic groups left Southern Germany for current Switzerland in the 1st century BC. This tribe is known as the Helvetii. Eventually, they came up against the Romans. They were pushed back into Switzerland by Caesar's army in 58 BC. The Romans founded their province of Helvetia in current Switzerland in 15 BC.

The Celtic population became assimilated into Roman civilization during the first two centuries of our era. Peace and prosperity reigned. The first passes were opened, such as the Julier-, Splügen- and Oberalp pass. Several cities were founded as well, such as Augst (near Basel) and the capital of that time, Avenches (near the lake 'Lac de Morat' between Bern and Lausanne).

The peaceful period ended with the invasion of the Roman Empire by German Alemannians in 260. The Alps became temporary border provinces under military occupation. The Romans finally had to evacuate their Alpine territories around the year 400. The Alemannians did not manage to conquer Rhaetia (the current canton of Graubünden). The Rhaetian Romans who lived here had been settled in parts of current Austria as well, and offered great resistance against the Alemannians. They managed to keep their territory and lived autonomously for a long time. At this point the language Rhaeto-Romanic came into existence, which still is spoken in Graubünden. The Alemannians occupied the West, where Christian Burgundians finally settled. The Burgundians adopted the language Latin from the Romans. In the South a similar process took place.

The four languages that are currently spoken in Switzerland came into existence around this time. The invasion of the Alemannians caused the North to become completely German-speaking around the year 900. In the West, vulgar Latin evolved into a French dialect. The South stuck to Latin which gradually developed into Italian. The separated Graubünden stuck to its Rhaeto-Romanic.

1291: formation of the Swiss Confederation

The Franks occupied the Burgundian territory in 534, which resulted in several Frankish families ruling this region successively. The region finally became a part of a large empire that was divided into East Francia (Germany), West Francia (France) and Middle Francia (the bigger part of current Switzerland) by means of the Treaty of Verdun in 843. Eventually, the rulers of East and West Francia came in charge of Middle Francia. The kingdom of Burgundy came into being in the late 9th century. West Switzerland and the French department of Savoie belonged to it. The German empire conquered the area in 1032. But its power declined, while that of the duke of Savoie increased. A number of dynasties slowly gained power in the North and East. The Austrian Habsburg family eventually ruled over parts of this area, which resulted into a lot of resistance.

When the emperor of Habsburg died, some regions took their chance and met to enter into a permanent alliance in order to become independent; the cantons of Schwyz, Unterwalden and Uri formed the Swiss Confederation on August 1, 1291. This event turned out to be the birth certificate of current Switzerland, and August 1 is still a national holiday to be celebrated annually.

14th to 18th century: the foundation of Swiss neutrality

The cantons of Luzern, Zürich, Glarus, Zug and Bern acceded to the confederation between 1332 and 1353, so that the end result was a confederation of 8 cantons. The confederation endured attacks from Savoie and Burgundy, which flourished again. The successful confederation developed a tendency to expansion. It succeeded in ruling over Milan and the current canton of Ticino in 1513 and had entered into an alliance with Geneva and Graubünden.

In 1515, the confederation lost a battle against a combined force of the French and Venetians. This setback resulted into a redefinition of the objectives: the confederation no longer aimed at expansion, and it declared itself to be a neutral state. It was laid down in a 'perpetual' treaty with the French, which is still the basis of Swiss policy today.

The Swiss Reformation was launched in Zürich. The Catholics started their resistance in 1550. Catholic and Protestant cantons were at one another's throats for many years to come. When the Catholics were first defeated in 1712, the Treaty of Aarau resulted into freedom of religion and spreading power between the Catholic and Protestant cantons.

19th century: formation of a unitary federal democratic state

The industrialization began between 1700 and 1800. The textile industry flourished in the northern and eastern parts of the country, while the watch- and clock-making industry developed in the west. It made Switzerland the most highly industrialized country on the European continent. Scientists such as Albrecht von Haller made significant contributions to science. He was a doctor, poet and professor of anatomy, surgery and botany. Daniel Bernoulli and Leonhard Euler invented the dynamics laws for fluids and developed the first method to measure blood pressure.

Switzerland's neutrality remained intact until 12 January 1798, when the French army, commanded by Napoleon, invaded the Swiss Jura in the west. France was mainly interested in the Alpine passes, since they were of strategic importance for a direct route from Paris to Milan. However, the Swiss were not easy to negotiate with, and the Frenchmen decided to withdraw their troops in 1803. Six new cantons were added to the confederation and three others followed in 1815. The cantons received the advantage of a great extent of independence, which was laid down in a treaty.

Unfortunately, the treaty resulted in a lack of clarity, which was even strengthened by the many different languages and religions. A severe economical crisis started in 1845 followed by a potato blight which struck all of Europe. Another war broke out in 1847, which ended in a victory for the protestant general Dufour. The constitution of 1848 transformed Switzerland from a loose confederation into a unitary federal state. It is the oldest federal democracy in the world after the United States. The new constitution guaranteed freedom of domicile, freedom of religion; internal trade barriers were lifted. The precursor of the famous Swiss postcar, the horse post coach, started its services in 1849.

The democrats gained power in 1869. From now on, the government was elected directly by the people and all parliamentary bills had to be submitted to popular vote.

19th to 20th century: railroad construction

The construction of international railroads made it easy for neighboring countries to import cheap grain from other countries than Switzerland. This resulted in a difficult situation for the Swiss agricultural sector. The farmers managed to compensate the losses by joining together to form agricultural co-operatives and exporting dairy products like chocolate, condensed milk and cheese. The chemical industry and the machine-building industry developed and complemented the textile industry and watch- and clock-making industry.

Railway building was a significant factor in this expansion in order to be able to export products quickly. The amount of track was more than doubled between 1865 and 1885, and the major achievement was the opening of the Gotthard tunnel in 1880. The horse post coaches were replaced by post cars from 1906.

Trains and post cars still play a major role in today's transportation. Most places in Switzerland can be reached by public transport, or sometimes by public transport only. The rail station and post office often are central places in many towns, where one also finds other services like the tourist information, ATMs and shops.

Early 20th century: First and Second World War

Switzerland maintained its neutrality during the First World War between 1914 and 1918, although there were differing opinions among Swiss communities. The civilian army was mobilized which affected wages, while food prices doubled. This period shows a shift away from production towards services, which is still an important sector in Switzerland.

Switzerland also did not get involved in the Second World War between 1939 and 1945. Germany made clear that it did not appreciate a country with such a cultural diversity, as it did not fit their racist philosophy and propaganda. Certain Swiss politicians inclined towards a policy of conciliation with the Nazis. Censors tried to suppress journalistic resistance against the Nazis, and the granting of asylum to refugees was severely limited at the German's behest. Switzerland emphasized its ability to defend itself in order to prevent being attacked, and mobilized everyone eligible for militairy service. With a lot of difficulty Switzerland managed to maintain its neutrality again.

Late 20th century: holding on to neutrality

In many respects, thriving Switzerland makes rather progressive choices. There are far-reaching measurements in order to protect the environment and living conditions, the services sector is of excellent quality, there is modern industry, a good network of transportation and the population has a great deal of influence on political decisions such as the construction of major infrastructural projects. However, in other areas, choices that have been made in surrounding countries are adopted by the Swiss rather late: it was not until 1971 that the Swiss chose to entitle women to vote.

The choice to be neutral and independent that had been made 500 years earlier resulted in a large majority of the population that voted against joining in the UN (United Nations) in 1986. Switzerland did accept to actively join some special agencies and UN-programs. One of the results was the establishment of the European UN headquarters in Geneva. A small majority of the population decided in 1992 not to participate in the EEA (European Economic Area) either, which has been confirmed by 77% of the population in March 2001. In 1960, Switzerland did join other countries that did not strive for a centralized European administration by participating in the EFTA (European Free Trade Association) with Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Switzerland does not share the opinion of many other countries to have a single European currency. For the time being, the country holds on to its Swiss franc while surrounding countries are using the euro.

21th century: Switzerland joins the UN and Schengen

Swiss neutrality remains subject of discussion. A bilateral agreement between Switzerland and the EU (European Union) entered into force on January 1, 2002. By that, many trading barriers between the involved countries were cleared. In March 2002, the Swiss people again got the chance to express their opinion on participating in the UN (United Nations). This time, 55% of the voters followed the advice of president Kaspar Villiger to vote for the membership. The UN welcomed her 190th member on 11 September 2002, and added the Swiss flag to the flags in front of the headquarters of the UN in New York. President Villiger emphasized that Switzerland joins the UN as a neutral country, always in accordance with the wishes of the Swiss people but in the interest of global solidarity as well. "We are not an island on this planet", the president said.

Further improvement of international collaboration was reached on June 5, 2005, when 55% of the Swiss voters agreed to participate to the Schengen treaty. It allowed Switzerland to simplify border checks as surrounding countries were Schengen members already, and checks on the external borders of Schengen are very strict. Active participation to Schengen started on 12 December, 2008.

Switzerland is not a member of the European Union or the Eurozone (countries using the Euro as their currency).

Meanwhile, other important decisions have been made too. Switzerland is a major transit country for both passengers and freight between Northern and Southern Europe. The Swiss people voted for expanding rail traffic rather than road traffic. As a result, sensitive Alpine regions remain attractive to locals and tourists, CO2 emission is limited, traveling times are reduced and transport capacity is growing. On the Bern to Italy route, the Lötschberg base tunnel was opened in 2007. On the Lucerne to Italy route, the Gotthard base tunnel will be opened in 2018.

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