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History of Switzerland

Since 1848, the Swiss Confederation has been a federal state of relatively autonomous cantons, some of which have a history of confederacy that goes back more than 700 years, arguably putting them among the world's oldest surviving republics. For the time before 1291, this article summarizes events taking place on the territory of modern Switzerland. From 1291, it focuses mainly on the fates of the Old Swiss Confederacy, at first consisting of only three cantons (Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden) in what is now central Switzerland, and gradually expanding until it encompassed the present-day area of Switzerland in 1815.

Early history

Archeological evidence suggests that hunter-gatherers were already settled in the lowlands north of the Alps in the late Paleolithic period. By the Neolithic period, the area was relatively densely populated. Remains of Bronze Age pile dwellings from as early as 3800 BC have been found in the shallow areas of many lakes. Around 1500 BC, Celtic tribes settled in the area. The Raetians lived in the eastern regions, while the west was occupied by the Helvetii.

In 58 BC, the Helvetii tried to evade migratory pressure from Germanic tribes by moving into Gaul, but were defeated at Bibracte by Julius Caesar's armies and then sent back. The alpine region became integrated into the Roman Empire and was extensively romanized in the course of the following centuries. The center of Roman administration was at Aventicum (Avenches). In 259, Alamanni tribes overran the Limes, putting the settlements on Swiss territory on the frontier of the Roman Empire.

The first Christian bishoprics were founded in the 4th century. With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Germanic tribes entered the area. Burgundians settled in the west; while in the north, Alamanni settlers slowly forced the earlier Celto-Roman population to retreat into the mountains. Burgundy became a part of the kingdom of the Franks in 534; two years later, the dukedom of the Alamans followed suit. In the Alaman-controlled region, only isolated Christian communities continued to exist and Irish monks re-introduced the Christian faith in the early 7th century.

Under the Carolingian kings, the feudal system proliferated, and monasteries and bishoprics were important bases for maintaining the rule. The Treaty of Verdun of 843 assigned Upper Burgundy (the western part of what is today Switzerland) to Lotharingia, and Alemannia (the eastern part) to the eastern kingdom of Louis the German which would become part of the Holy Roman Empire.

In the 10th century, as the rule of the Carolingians waned, Saracenes ravaged the Valais, and Magyars destroyed Basel in 917 and St. Gallen in 926. Only after the victory of king Otto I over the Magyars in 955 in the Battle of Lechfeld, were the Swiss territories reintegrated into the empire.

In the 12th century, the dukes of Zähringen were given authority over part of the Burgundy territories which covered the western part of modern Switzerland. They founded many cities, including Fribourg in 1157, and Berne in 1191. The Zähringer dynasty ended with the death of Berchtold V in 1218, and their cities subsequently became reichsfrei (essentially a city-state within the Holy Roman Empire), while the dukes of Kyburg competed with the house of Habsburg over control of the rural regions of the former Zähringer territory.

Under the Hohenstaufen rule, the alpine passes in Raetia and the St. Gotthard Pass gained importance. The latter especially became an important direct route through the mountains. Uri (in 1231) and Schwyz (in 1240) were accorded the Reichsfreiheit to grant the empire direct control over the mountain pass. Most of the territory of Unterwalden at this time belonged to monasteries which had previously become reichsfrei.

The extinction of the Kyburg dynasty paved the way for the Habsburg dynasty to bring much of the territory south of the Rhine under their control, aiding their rise to power. Rudolph I of Habsburg, who became Holy Roman Emperor in 1273, effectively revoked the status of Reichsfreiheit granted to the "Forest Cantons" of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden. The Forest Cantons thus lost their independent status and were governed by reeves.

Old Confederacy (1291–1523)

In 1291, the cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden conspired against the Habsburgs. Their union, the nucleus of the Old Swiss Confederacy, is recorded in the Federal Charter, a document probably written after the fact, in the 14th century. At the battles of Morgarten in 1315 and Sempach 1386, the Swiss defeated the Habsburg army, allowing the confederacy to continue within the Holy Roman Empire.

By 1353, the three original cantons had been joined by the cantons of Glarus and Zug and the city states of Lucerne, Zürich, and Berne, forming the "Old Federation" of eight states that persisted during much of the 15th century. Zürich was expelled from the confederation during the 1440s due to a conflict over the territory of Toggenburg (the Old Zürich War). This led to a significant increase of power and wealth of the federation, in particular due to the victories over Charles the Bold of Burgundy during the 1470s and the success of Swiss mercenaries.

The traditional listing order of the cantons of Switzerland reflects this state, listing the eight "Old Cantons" first, with the city states preceding the founding cantons, followed by cantons that joined the federation after 1481, in historical order.

The Swiss victory in a war against the Swabian League in 1499 amounted to de facto independence from the Holy Roman Empire. In 1506, Pope Julius II engaged the Swiss Guard that continues to serve the Vatican to the present day. The expansion of the federation and the reputation of invincibility acquired during the earlier wars suffered a first setback in 1515 with the Swiss defeat in the Battle of Marignano.

Reformation (1523–1648)

Huldrych Zwingli was elected priest of the Great Minster church in Zürich in 1518. Zwingli's Reformation of 1523 was supported by the magistrate and population of Zürich and led to significant changes in civil life and state matters in Zürich. The reformation was spread from Zürich to five other cantons of Switzerland, while the remaining five sternly held onto the Roman Catholic faith, leading to inter-cantonal wars (Kappeler Kriege) in 1529 and 1531, where Zwingli died on the battlefield.

During the Thirty Years' War, Switzerland was a relative "oasis of peace and prosperity" (Grimmelshausen) in war-torn Europe, mostly because all major powers in Europe were depending on Swiss mercenaries, and would not let Switzerland fall in the hands of one of their rivals. Politically, they all tried to take influence, by way of mercenary commanders such as Jörg Jenatsch or Johann Rudolf Wettstein. The Drei Bünde of Grisons, at that point not yet a member of the Confederacy, were involved in the war from 1620, which led to their loss of the Valtellina in 1623.

Ancien Régime (1648–1798)

At the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, Switzerland attained legal independence from the Holy Roman Empire. The Valtellina became a dependency of the Drei Bünde again after the Treaty and remained so until the founding of the Cisalpine Republic by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797.

In 1653, peasants of territories subject to Lucerne, Berne, Solothurn and Basel revolted because of currency devaluation. Although the authorities prevailed in this Swiss peasant war, they did pass some tax reforms and the incident in the long term prevented an absolutist development as would occur at some other courts of Europe. The confessional tensions remained, however, and erupted again in the Battles of Villmergen in 1656 and 1712.

Napoleonic Era (1798–1848)

During the French Revolutionary Wars, the revolutionary armies boiled eastward, enveloping Switzerland in their battles against Austria. In 1798 Switzerland was completely overrun by the French and became the Helvetic Republic. The Helvetic Republic encountered severe economic and political problems. In 1798 the country became a battlefield of the Revolutionary Wars.

In 1803 Napoleon's Act of Mediation partially restored the sovereignty of the cantons, and the former tributary and allied territories of Aargau, Thurgau, Grisons, St. Gallen, Vaud and Ticino became cantons with equal rights.

The Congress of Vienna of 1815 fully re-established Swiss independence and the European powers agreed to permanently recognise Swiss neutrality. At this time, the territory of Switzerland was increased for the last time, by the new cantons of Valais, Neuchatel and Geneva.

Switzerland as a federal state (1848–1914)

In 1847, a civil war broke out between the Catholic and the Protestant cantons (Sonderbundskrieg). Its immediate cause was a 'special treaty' (Sonderbund) of the Catholic cantons. It lasted for less than a month, causing fewer than 100 casualties. Apart from small riots, this was the last armed conflict on Swiss territory.

As a consequence of the civil war, Switzerland adopted a federal constitution in 1848, amending it extensively in 1874 and establishing federal responsibility for defence, trade, and legal matters, leaving all other matters to the cantonal governments. From then, and over much of the 20th century, continuous political, economic, and social improvement has characterized Swiss history.

World Wars (1914–1945)

The major powers respected Switzerland's neutrality during World War I.

During World War II, detailed invasion plans were drawn up by the Germans,[2] but Switzerland was never attacked. Switzerland was able to remain independent through a combination of military deterrence, economic concessions to Germany, and good fortune as larger events during the war delayed an invasion. Attempts by Switzerland's small Nazi party to cause an Anschluss with Germany failed miserably, largely due to Switzerland's multicultural heritage, strong sense of national identity, and long tradition of direct democracy and civil liberties. The Swiss press vigorously criticized the Third Reich, often infuriating its leadership. Under General Henri Guisan, a massive mobilization of militia forces was ordered. The Swiss military strategy was changed from one of static defence at the borders to protect the economic heartland, to a strategy of organized long-term attrition and withdrawal to strong, well-stockpiled positions high in the Alps known as the Réduit. Switzerland was an important base for espionage by both sides in the conflict and often mediated communications between the Axis and Allied powers.

Switzerland's trade was blockaded by both the Allies and by the Axis. Both sides openly exerted pressure on Switzerland not to trade with the other. Economic cooperation and extension of credit to the Third Reich varied according to the perceived likelihood of invasion, and the availability of other trading partners. Concessions reached their zenith after a crucial rail link through Vichy France was severed in 1942, leaving Switzerland completely surrounded by the Axis. Switzerland relied on trade for half of its food and essentially all of its fuel, but controlled vital trans-alpine rail tunnels between Germany and Italy. Switzerland's most important exports during the war were precision machine tools, watches, jewel bearings (used in bombsights), electricity, and dairy products. During World War Two, the Swiss franc was the only remaining major freely convertible currency in the world, and both the Allies and the Germans sold large amounts of gold to the Swiss National Bank. Between 1940 and 1945, the German Reichsbank sold 1.3 billion francs worth of gold to Swiss Banks in exchange for Swiss francs and other foreign currency.[3] Hundreds of millions of francs worth of this gold was monetary gold plundered from the central banks of occupied countries. 581,000 francs of "Melmer" gold taken from Holocaust victims in eastern Europe was sold to Swiss banks.[4] In total, trade between Germany and Switzerland contributed about 0.5% to the German war effort but did not significantly lengthen the war.

Over the course of the war, Switzerland interned 300,000 refugees. 104,000 of these were foreign troops interned according to the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers outlined in the Hague Conventions. The rest were foreign civilians and were either interned or granted tolerance or residence permits by the cantonal authorities. Refugees were not allowed to hold jobs. 60,000 of the refugees were civilians escaping persecution by the Nazis. Of these, 26,000 to 27,000 were Jews.[6] Between 10,000 and 25,000 civilian refugees were refused entry. At the beginning of the war, Switzerland had a Jewish population of about 25,000[citation needed] and a total population of about 4 million.

Within Switzerland at the time of the conflict there was moderate polarization. Some were pacifists. Some took sides according to international capitalism or international communism. Others leaned more towards their language group, with some in French-speaking areas more pro-Allied, and some in Swiss-German areas more pro-Axis. The government attempted to thwart the activities of any individual, party, or faction in Switzerland that acted with extremism or attempted to break the unity of the nation. The Swiss-German speaking areas moved linguistically further away from the standard (high) German spoken in Germany, with more emphasis on local Swiss dialects.

In the 1990s, controversy over a class-action lawsuit brought in Brooklyn, New York over Jewish assets in Holocaust-era bank accounts prompted the Swiss government to commission the most recent and authoritative study of Switzerland's interaction with the Nazi regime. The final report by this independent panel of international scholars, known as the Bergier Commission, was issued in 2002.

After 1945

After the war, Swiss authorities considered the construction of a Swiss nuclear bomb. Leading nuclear physicists at the Federal Institute of Technology such as Paul Scherrer made this a realistic possibility, and in 1958 the population clearly voted in favour of the bomb. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 was seen as a valid alternative, however, and the bomb was never built.

From 1959, the Federal Council, elected by the parliament, is composed of members of the four major parties, the Protestant Free Democrats, the Catholic Christian Democrats, the left-wing Social Democrats and the right-wing People's Party, essentially creating a system without a sizeable parliamentary opposition (see concordance system), reflecting the powerful position of an opposition in a direct democracy.

In 1963, Switzerland joined the Council of Europe. Women were granted the right to vote only in 1971, and an equal rights amendment was ratified in 1981. In 1979, parts of the canton of Berne attained independence, forming the new canton of Jura.

Switzerland's role in many United Nations and international organizations, helped to mitigate the country's concern for neutrality. In 2002, Switzerland was officially ratified as a member of the United Nations — the only country joining after agreement by a popular vote.

Switzerland is not a member state of the EU, but has been (together with Liechtenstein) surrounded by EU territory since the joining of Austria in 1995. In 2005, Switzerland agreed to join the Schengen treaty and Dublin Convention by popular vote.