History of Switzerland

The Swiss Confederation

The European nation known as Switzerland in English has several different names in the country’s four official languages: die Schweiz (German), Suisse (French), Svizzera (Italian), and Svizra (Romansch). Switzerland’s official name is Swiss Confederation, or Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft in German.

Early History
Switzerland is one of the oldest nations in Europe. The country takes its name from Schwyz, one its original provinces (called cantons). In 1291 three cantons, Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden, joined together to create the Ewiger Bund (Eternal League). The new nation grew slowly by adding more cantons over the years. Known today as a peaceful, neutral nation, Switzerland has a turbulent past of religious and political strife, just one example being the Swiss victory over the Austrian Hapsburgs in the Battle of Sempach in 1386.

Swiss Air AB330

A Swiss Airbus 330 at the Zurich airport. PHOTO: Lucien.S (Wikimedia Commons)

By 1353 the tiny Swiss nation had grown to eight cantons and city-states. But in 1515 the Swiss were defeated in the Battle of Marignano and during the 1500s conflict grew between Catholic and Protestant cantons following Zwingli’s (Protestant) Reformation. In 1648 the Treaty of Westphalia granted Switzerland its independence from the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, and recognized Swiss neutrality for the first time. However, as the Peasant War of 1653 demonstrates, that did not mean Switzerland had ended its internal political and religious disputes.

In 1798 French forces conquered Switzerland and imposed a new centralized government and constitution, but by 1803 Napoleon restored Swiss independence and a country made up of 19 cantons (26 today). Since the 1815 Congress of Vienna, Switzerland has enjoyed neutrality within Europe and has kept the same national borders it has today — although its own internal strife was not over. A civil and religious war in 1839 (the Sonderbundskrieg) eventually led the Swiss to realize that they needed a stronger form of national government. In 1848 a federal constitution was adopted that introduced referenda (popular votes) to settle issues and gave the cantons self-rule. The Swiss constitution was amended in 1874 and again in 1891 to become the one largely in effect today (with minor amendments in 1999).

Also see: The Swiss Guard on our Switzerland page.

International Switzerland
Switzerland avoided being invaded during both world wars, although the Germans did prepare plans for a World War II invasion, and the Allies mistakenly bombed several Swiss towns in 1944-1945, including Basel, Schaffhausen, and Zurich. Switzerland drew some criticism for its failure to accept more than the 27,000 Jewish refugees it did take in during the war. Swiss banks also drew fire in the 1990s when it was revealed that they had accepted secret deposits of Holocaust victims’ assets. The International Red Cross was founded in Switzerland in 1863 and has its headquarters in Geneva. The International Olympic Committee is located in Lausanne, while the World Economic Forum (WEF) foundation is based in Geneva. The WEF is best known for its annual meeting in Davos, in the Swiss Alps.

Bundeshaus in Bern

The Swiss federal Bundeshaus legislative building in Bern, Switzerland.
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Four Languages
About 64 percent of Swiss citizens speak Swiss German. About 22 percent (in western Switzerland) speak French, while Italian represents about eight percent (mostly in the southern canton of Ticino). Only a small minority (less than one percent) of the Swiss speak Romansch.

Helvetia on 2-franc coin

A standing Helvetia figure is featured on the Swiss two-franc coin resting her hand on the Swiss coat of arms.

To avoid favoring any one of the country’s four languages, Swiss coins and stamps use the Latin term Helvetia. Helvetia is also the symbolic Swiss female figure (similar to the US Lady Liberty) that dates from the late 1600s, and is also depicted on some Swiss coins. Confoederatio Helvetica (Helvetic Confederation) is the nation’s full Latin name. That name is derived from the Celtic Helvetii people who first entered the area around 100 B.C. Helvetia was also the Roman name for the region that is now western Switzerland.

Switzerland Today
Modern Switzerland has maintained its independent, isolationist, neutral attitude by refusing to join the European Union or to use the euro currency. The Swiss franc (CHF) has been in use since 1850. One of the world’s strongest currencies, today one CHF is roughly equivalent to one US dollar (USD).

Switzerland did not become a full member of the United Nations until 2002. It is a founding member of the European Space Agency (ESA). Women were not allowed to vote or hold office at the federal level in Switzerland until 1971. Although not a member of the European Union (EU), Switzerland has cooperative agreements with all of its bordering countries and most of the EU.

Next | Switzerland: Facts and Figures

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