History of Switzerland

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Much of the territory covered by present-day Switzerland is mountainous. For this reason, the Alpine passes have played a significant role in the development of the country, as have the powers that sought to control these important communication and trade routes.

From the beginnings to the Romans

The oldest traces of human existence are about 150,000 years old, while the oldest flint tools that have been found are about 100,000 years old.

The territory of the present-day Switzerland developed in a similar way to that of the rest of Europe. The first centuries were marked by migration, resulting in the area being inhabited by different peoples. With the rule of the Romans, Christianity spread, and the Church with its bishoprics and monasteries became an important landowner. At the same time, aristocratic families increased their power by conquest, inheritance and marriage policy. For a short time, the Frankish king Charlemagne controlled a significant part of Western Europe. In 962 another sphere of power came into being when the German king Otto I persuaded the Pope to appoint him Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.


Switzerland in the late Middle Ages

1291 is traditionally regarded as being the founding year of the Confederation – this was when three rural valley communities banded together in order to be better prepared for attacks from the outside.

In the 14th and 15 centuries there developed a loose federation with rural and urban members. By the end of the 15th century it was strong enough to affect the balance of power in Europe. Various wars were fought in which the Confederates displayed courage and ingenuity, and they gained a reputation as a formidable opponent in combat. The Confederation was enlarged in various ways with some areas joining voluntarily and as equal members while others were more or less forced. The members of the Confederation mainly administered the affairs of their own regions but representatives of each area also met regularly to discuss issues of common interest.

Reformation and the 17th century

The 16th century in Western Europe was dominated by the Reformation, a movement which divided western Christianity into two camps.

Although the riots and destruction were fought on a religious level, this reflected, above all, the desire for social change and the social tensions that existed primarily between town and country. The 17th century saw three further landmarks in the development of modern-day Switzerland. All came as a result of the 30 Years' War (1618-48). While large parts of Europe were involved in this war, the Confederation remained neutral. An important consequence of the Thirty Years' War was Swiss independence from the Holy Roman Empire, which was formally recognised by the Treaty of Westphalia.

18th and 19th century

In 1798, French troops invaded Switzerland and proclaimed a centralised state. Later, the old cantonal system was restored - albeit in a more centralised form.

In 1798, French troops invaded Switzerland and created the centralised Helvetic Republic. For the first time in its history, Switzerland was forced to abandon its neutrality and to provide troops for France. After the Sonderbund War, the foundations for the modern Switzerland were finally laid down with the adoption of the Constitution of 1848. It brought about a more centralised form of government and a single economic area, which put an end to the cantonal rivalries and enabled economic development. Despite this progress, the 19th century was a difficult time for many people in Switzerland. Poverty, hunger and poor job prospects led to a wave of emigration, including to North and South America.

Switzerland in the 20th century

The 20th century was generally marked by a series of striking developments in the political, economic and social arenas.

Domestically there was a shift towards a multi-party system. While at the beginning of the century one party occupied all the positions in the government (Federal Council), there were four parties represented there at the end of the century. Agrarian Switzerland developed into an industrial state with the result that there were more immigrants than emigrants and the standard of living rose significantly. Working conditions and social security steadily improved and there was greater access to a more extensive range of consumer goods. The development of the export sector changed the country’s relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. Although Switzerland remained politically neutral – it did not actively participate in either of the two World Wars – neutrality remained the subject of intense debate.