The History of Switzerland: A Quick Glance Back

history switzerland

Located in the heart of Europe, Switzerland is a nation of wealth with a high standard of living. It’s one of the world’s most important financial centers and a top destination for tourists who come to admire the beauty of the Alps, lakes, and Swiss villages.

World conflict after world conflict, Switzerland has managed to maintain its neutrality. How did this small landlocked country become a leader of peace and prosperity on the global stage? Let’s take a brief look at its history past and present for the answer.

Early History of Switzerland

basel view from munster
Basel, view from munster

Switzerland’s history is long and complex. The first inhabitants of what is now Switzerland were a Celtic tribe known as the Helvetians who have been traced back to the 1st century BC. In 58 BC, the Romans, who introduced Christianity, conquered the Helvetians and declared the area part of the Roman Empire. It would remain so until the 4th century AD. Over a span of time, roads, bridges, and cities such as Zurich, Basel, and Geneva were built.

In the 5th century AD, the Roman Empire collapsed. Invading Germanic tribes from the north and west ruled the area, and in the year 800, it became part of Charlemagne’s empire. Later that century, it was passed to the Holy Roman emperors.

By the 13th century, the cantons of Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden formed the Old Swiss Confederacy, an alliance for protection against the Holy Roman Empire. Early in that century, a north-south trade route opened across the Alps. The Empire’s rulers realized the importance of the remote mountain valleys and granted the area a degree of autonomy.

On August 1st, 1291, families from Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden signed a charter in support of an autonomous administration and judicial rule. The day would later be celebrated as Swiss National Day. The sharp contrast in time when compared to the Declaration of Independence for the United States of America in 1776 is a testament to the ancient history of Switzerland.

From 1315 to 1388, the Swiss Confederates inflicted three debilitating defeats on the Habsburgs, a ruling family of Austria who sought to dominate the area. Bursting with confidence, five other localities, now known as cantons, joined the Confederacy. Expansion of the borders continued by military means and by 1499, the Confederacy gained formal independence from the Holy Roman Empire.

A Confederacy Grows

Swiss guard in The Vatican Church
Swiss guard in The Vatican Church

The Confederacy grew over time, and by the 16th century, it encompassed 13 cantons. The cantons had their own councils and armies. The Catholic cantons became members of The Catholic League and the Protestant cantons joined the Swiss Protestant Confederacy. Wars were waged between the leagues in the 16th and 17th centuries, but peace was eventually reached. All the while, Swiss mercenaries served for centuries in foreign armies, a tradition seen today in the Swiss Guard of the Pope.

The alienation between the Protestants and the Catholics ultimately kept the Swiss Confederation disengaged from the wars between European powers. In 1648, Swiss neutrality was formally recognized in the Treaty of Westphalia. Switzerland’s neutrality continued during the War of the First Coalition against the French Revolution, but between 1797 and 98, Napoleon invaded and conquered much of the country, and a centrally governed unitary state replaced the rather unorganized confederation.

The Rise of Direct Democracy

After France invaded Switzerland, the country was forced to adopt a constitution making it a republic; but the French were defeated and withdrew in 1815. In 1848, after the French Revolution, a new constitution created a federal government with a system of direct democracy. The Swiss could now vote on a variety of issues including the election of the federal government and the declaration of war.

Switzerland’s neutrality in all major wars since 1815 continued, helping to shield the country from invasion and contributing to its growth as a center of international trade and commerce. The Congress of Vienna reinstated the former confederation of sovereign states and consecrated the status of Switzerland’s neutrality permanently in international law.

A brief Civil War between Catholic conservatives and Protestant liberals took place in 1848. Most Swiss Cantons chose a Federal State partially modeled after the Constitution of the United States of America. A range of civil liberties with provisions to maintain the autonomy of cantons appeased the overpowered Catholic conservative minority. The Constitution was amended in 1874 and a direct democracy was established by popular referendum. Referendum democracy and cantonal autonomy remain trademarks of Switzerland to this day.

Industrialization and Independence

Parliament building over the Aare river
Parliament building over the Aare River

During the 19th century, Switzerland experienced rapid industrialization. By the mid-19th century, it was only second to Great Britain as the most industrialized country in Europe. Tensions arose between the German, Italian, and French language-speaking parts of the country. Switzerland managed to maintain its neutrality and independence during the conflicts, although it was a struggle.

During World War II and after the fall of France in 1940, Switzerland was pressured heavily by fascist powers. Some Swiss leaders displayed an intention of appeasement, but the country remained ready to defend itself with heavy fortification.

Switzerland’s neutrality was enhanced during the Cold War and the country found a way out of its diplomatic detachment after WWll. Economically, the Swiss followed the Western postwar order led by America but remained reluctant to become a supranational body. And although the Swiss city of Geneva became the host of the United Nation’s European headquarters, the country didn’t join the Council of Europe until 1963.

A Bright and Peaceful Future

Through diplomacy, its strong identity as a nation, and a little luck, Switzerland has been able to remain both neutral and independent. With its Confoederatio Helvetica franc (CHF) currency, it’s a major player in the global economy. The president of the country is the president of the Swiss Confederation and the head of the Federal Council. Bern serves as the capital city.

A strong economy, dedication to sustainability, acceptance of refugees, and its gift of natural beauty ensure a bright and peaceful future for Switzerland.

Frequently Asked Questions

When was Switzerland founded and by whom?

Switzerland was founded in 1291 by the three valley communities of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden.

When did Switzerland gain independence?

Switzerland gained legal independence from the Holy Roman Empire in 1648 at the Treaty of Westphalia.

What was the original name of Switzerland?

The original name of Switzerland was Helvetia.

Written by Ashley Faulkes
As a twenty-year resident of Switzerland, I am passionate about exploring every nook and cranny of this beautiful country, I spend my days deep in the great Swiss outdoors, and love to share these experiences and insights with fellow travel enthusiasts.

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