Switzerland has existed as a state in its present form since the adoption of the Swiss Federal Constitution in 1848. The forerunners of Switzerland concluded a protective alliance at the end of the 13th century (1291) and formed a loose confederation of states that lasted for centuries.
The oldest traces of hominids in Switzerland date back about 150,000 years. The oldest known agricultural settlements in Switzerland, found in Gächlingen, have been dated to around 5300 BC.
The oldest known cultural tribes in the region were members of the Hallstatt and La Tène cultures, named after the archaeological site of La Tène on the northern shore of Lake Neuchâtel. The La Tène culture developed and flourished at the end of the Iron Age, from 450 BC, probably under the influence of the Greek and Etruscan civilisations. One of the most important tribal groups in the Swiss area were the Helvetii. In 58 BC, the Helvetii decided to leave the Swiss plateau and migrate to western Galilee, but Julius Caesar’s armies pursued them and defeated them at the Battle of Bibracte in eastern modern-day France, forcing the tribe to return to their homeland. In 15 BC, Tiberius, later the second Roman emperor, and his brother Drusus conquered the Alps and incorporated them into the Roman Empire. The territory of the Helvetii – the homonyms of the Confoederatio Helvetica – was first incorporated into the Roman province of Gallia Belgica, then into Germania Superior, while the eastern part of present-day Switzerland was integrated into the Roman province of Raetia. At the beginning of the common era, the Romans maintained a large legionary camp called Vindonissa, today a ruin at the confluence of the Aare and Reuss rivers near the town of Windisch, in the suburbs of Brugg.
The first and second centuries AD were a time of prosperity for the population of the Swiss midlands. Some towns, such as Aventicum, Iulia Equestris and Augusta Raurica, reached a considerable size, while hundreds of agricultural estates (villae rusticae) were built in the countryside.
Around 260 AD, today’s Switzerland became a borderland of the Empire due to the fall of the Agri Decumates area north of the Rhine. Repeated raids by the Alamanni tribes led to the ruin of Roman towns and economy and forced the population to seek refuge near Roman fortresses, such as the Castrum Rauracense near Augusta Raurica. The Empire established another line of defence on the northern border (called Danube-Iller-Rhine-Limes), but by the end of the fourth century, increasing Germanic pressure forced the Romans to abandon the concept of linear defence, and the Swiss plateau was finally opened to the settlement of Germanic tribes.
In the early Middle Ages, from the end of the 4th century, the western part of present-day Switzerland belonged to the domain of the kings of Burgundy. The Alemanni settled the Swiss midlands in the 5th century and the valleys of the Alps in the 8th century, forming Alemannia. Today’s Switzerland was thus divided into the kingdoms of Alemannia and Burgundy. After Clovis I’s victory over the Alemanni at Tolbiac in 504 AD and the later Frankish rule of the Burgundians, the entire region became part of the expanding Frankish Empire in the 6th century.
For the rest of the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries, the Swiss territories continued to be under the domination of the Franks (Merovingians and Carolingians). But after its expansion under Charlemagne, the Frankish Empire was divided by the Treaty of Verdun in 843. The territories of present-day Switzerland were divided into Middle Franconia and Eastern Franconia until their reunification under the Holy Roman Empire around the year 1000.
Around 1200, the Swiss Plateau comprised the dominions of the houses of Savoy, Zähringer, Habsburg and Kyburg. Certain regions (Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, later called Waldstätten) were granted imperial immediacy to give the empire direct control over the mountain passes. With the extinction of the male line in 1263, the Kyburg dynasty fell in 1264 AD; thereafter, the Habsburgs under King Rudolf I (Holy Roman Emperor in 1273) claimed the Kyburg lands and annexed them, extending their territory to the plateau of eastern Switzerland.
Old Swiss Confederacy
The former Helvetic Confederation was an alliance between the valley communities of the Central Alps. The Confederation facilitated the pursuit of common interests and ensured peace on the important mountain trade routes. The Federal Charter of 1291 between the rural communities of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwald is considered the founding document of the Confederation, although similar alliances probably existed decades earlier.
In 1353, the three original cantons joined with the cantons of Glarus and Zug and the city states of Lucerne, Zurich and Bern to form the “Old Confederation” of eight states, which existed until the end of the 15th century. The expansion led to an increase in the power and wealth of the confederation. By 1460, the Confederates controlled most of the territory south and west of the Rhine to the Alps and the Jura, especially after the victories against the Habsburgs (Battle of Sempach, Battle of Näfels), against Charles the Bold of Burgundy in the 1470s and the success of the Swiss mercenaries. Switzerland’s victory in the Swabian War against Emperor Maximilian I’s Swabian League in 1499 established de facto independence within the Holy Roman Empire.
The old Helvetic Confederation had earned a reputation for invincibility in the previous wars, but the expansion of the Confederation suffered a setback in 1515 with the defeat of the Confederates at the Battle of Marignano. This defeat ended the so-called “heroic” era of Swiss history. The success of Zwingli’s Reformation in some cantons led to intercantonal religious conflicts in 1529 and 1531 (Kappel Wars). It was not until more than 100 years after these internal wars that the European states recognised Switzerland’s independence from the Holy Roman Empire and its neutrality in 1648 as part of the Peace of Westphalia.
In the early modern period, the growing authoritarianism of the patrician families, combined with a financial crisis in the wake of the Thirty Years’ War, led to the Swiss Peasants’ War of 1653. As part of this struggle, the conflict between the Catholic and Protestant cantons continued and erupted in new violence in the First Villmerger War in 1656 and the Toggenburg War (or Second Villmerger War) in 1712.
The Napoleonic Era
In 1798, the French revolutionary government conquered Switzerland and introduced a new unitary constitution. This centralised the country’s government and effectively abolished the cantons: Mulhouse also became part of France and Valtellina Valley, the Cisalpine Republic, separated from Switzerland. The new regime, known as the Helvetic Republic, was very unpopular. It had been imposed by a foreign invading army and had destroyed centuries of tradition, turning Switzerland into a mere French satellite state. The fierce French suppression of the Nidwalden uprising in September 1798 was an example of the oppressive presence of the French army and the resistance of the local population to the occupation.
When war broke out between France and its rivals, Russian and Austrian troops invaded Switzerland. The Swiss refused to fight alongside the French in the name of the Helvetic Republic. In 1803 Napoleon organised a meeting of leading Swiss politicians from both sides in Paris. The result was the Act of Mediation, which largely restored Switzerland’s autonomy and established a confederation of 19 cantons. In the future, a large part of Swiss politics will be finding a balance between the tradition of cantonal autonomy and the need for central government.
In 1815, the Congress of Vienna fully restored Switzerland’s independence and the European powers agreed to recognise Switzerland’s neutrality once and for all. Swiss troops remained in the service of foreign governments until 1860, fighting in the siege of Gaeta. The treaty also allowed Switzerland to expand its territory by admitting the cantons of Valais, Neuchâtel and Geneva. Switzerland’s borders have not changed since then, apart from a few minor adjustments.
The restoration of the power of the parikat was only temporary. After a period of unrest with repeated violent clashes such as the Zurich Putsch of 1839, civil war (the Sonderbund War) broke out in 1847 when some Catholic cantons tried to form their own confederation (the Sonderbund). The war lasted less than a month and claimed less than 100 lives, most of them by friendly fire. Although the Sonderbund War seems insignificant compared to other European unrest and wars in the 19th century, it had a major impact on the psychology and society of the Swiss population.
The war convinced most Swiss of the need to be united and strong against their European neighbours. Swiss from all walks of life, whether Catholic or Protestant, liberal or conservative, realised that the cantons would benefit more from uniting their economic and religious interests.
So while the rest of Europe was experiencing revolutionary uprisings, the Swiss were drafting a constitution that provided for a federal order, largely inspired by the American example. This constitution provided for a central authority, but left the cantons the right to autonomy in local affairs. In agreement with the proponents of cantonal power (the Sonderbund Kantone), the National Assembly was divided into an upper chamber (the Council of States, with two representatives per canton) and a lower chamber (the National Council, whose representatives were elected nationwide). A referendum was obligatory for any change to this constitution.
A system of uniform weights and measures was introduced and in 1850 the Swiss franc became the single Swiss currency. Article 11 of the Constitution prohibits the sending of troops to serve abroad. Nevertheless, the Swiss are obliged to serve Francis II of the Two Sicilies, with Swiss guardsmen present at the siege of Gaeta in 1860, marking the end of foreign service.
An important clause in the constitution was that it could be completely rewritten if deemed necessary so that it could evolve as a whole rather than being changed from amendment to amendment.
This need soon became apparent when population growth and the ensuing industrial revolution led to demands for a corresponding constitutional amendment. A first draft was rejected by the people in 1872, but the amendments led to its adoption in 1874. It introduced the optional referendum for laws at the federal level. It also established federal jurisdiction over defence, commerce and legal affairs.
In 1891, the constitution was revised with unusually strong elements of direct democracy that are still unique today.
Switzerland was not invaded in either of the two world wars. During World War I, Switzerland was the home of Vladimir Illych Ulyanov (Vladimir Lenin) and he remained there until 1917. Switzerland’s neutrality was seriously challenged in 1917 by the Grimm-Hoffmann affair, but it was short-lived. In 1920, Switzerland joined the League of Nations, based in Geneva, on condition that it was free from military constraints.
During the Second World War, detailed invasion plans were drawn up by the Germans, but Switzerland was never attacked. Switzerland was able to remain independent thanks to a combination of military deterrence, concessions to Germany and luck, as more important events during the war delayed an invasion. Under the central command of General Henri Guisan, a general mobilisation of the armed forces was ordered. Swiss military strategy shifted from static border defence to protect the economic heartland to a strategy of long-term organised attrition and retreat to strong and well-equipped positions in the Alps known as the Reduit. Switzerland was an important spy base for both sides in the conflict and often served as an intermediary for communications between the Axis and Allied powers.
Switzerland’s trade was blocked by the Allies and the Axis powers. Economic cooperation and the provision of credit to the Third Reich varied according to the perceived likelihood of an invasion and the availability of other trading partners. Concessions reached their peak after a major rail link through Vichy France was cut in 1942, leaving Switzerland completely surrounded by the Axis powers. During the war, Switzerland interned more than 300,000 refugees and the Geneva-based International Red Cross played an important role during the conflict. Strict immigration and asylum policies and financial relations with Nazi Germany were controversial, but not until the end of the 20th century.
During the war, the Swiss Air Force fought aircraft from both sides. In May and June 1940, it shot down 11 Luftwaffe aircraft and then, after a change of policy following threats from Germany, forced down further invaders. More than 100 Allied bombers and their crews were interned during the war. In 1944-45, Allied bombers mistakenly bombed several places in Switzerland, including the cities of Schaffhausen, Basel and Zurich.
After the war, the Swiss government exported loans through the charity fund Schweizerspende and also donated to the Marshall Plan to help rebuild Europe, which ultimately benefited the Swiss economy.
During the Cold War, the Swiss authorities considered building a Swiss nuclear bomb. Leading nuclear physicists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, such as Paul Scherrer, made this possibility a reality. However, financial problems in the defence budget prevented the allocation of significant funds, and the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was considered a valid alternative. All remaining plans to build nuclear weapons were abandoned in 1988.
Switzerland was the last Western republic to grant women the right to vote. It was approved in some Swiss cantons in 1959, at the federal level in 1971, and after resistance in the last canton, Appenzell Innerrhoden (one of only two remaining Landsgemeinden) in 1990. After gaining the right to vote at the federal level, women quickly gained political importance. The first woman among the seven members of the Federal Executive Committee was Elisabeth Kopp, who held this office from 1984 to 1989, and the first woman president was Ruth Dreifuss in 1999.
Switzerland joined the Council of Europe in 1963. In 1979, the regions of the Canton of Bern became independent from the Bernese and formed the new Canton of Jura. On 18 April 1999, the Swiss people and the cantons voted in favour of a completely revised Federal Constitution.
In 2002, Switzerland became a full member of the United Nations, leaving Vatican City as the last widely recognised state without full UN membership. Switzerland is a founding member of EFTA, but is not part of the European Economic Area. An application to join the European Union was made in May 1992, but has not been made since the rejection of the EEA in December 1992, when Switzerland was the only country to hold a referendum on the EEA. Since then, several referendums have been held on the subject of the EU; due to the mixed reaction of the population, the membership application has been frozen. Nevertheless, Swiss law is gradually being aligned with that of the EU, and the government has signed a number of bilateral agreements with the European Union. Since Austria’s accession in 1995, Switzerland, together with Liechtenstein, has been completely surrounded by the EU. On 5 June 2005, Swiss voters approved accession to the Schengen Treaty by a majority of 55%. This result was seen by EU commentators as a sign of support for Switzerland, a country traditionally perceived as independent and reticent towards supranational bodies.