Great succinct history of Switzerland. Written and illustrated for kids, but really a perfect-sized quick read. It answered most of the questions I had in my recent visit.
Around 200 BCE, the Romans, led by Julius Caesar, quickly defeated the Helvetians and took over the land for about the next 150 years.
They introduced baths, floor heating, pottery, glass, tiles, bricks, plumbing, nails, cats, and garlic to the Helvetians.
They also established most of the largest Swiss cities still existing today, including Zurich (Turicum), Basel (Basilia), Lausanne (Lousonna), and Geneva (Genava).
The Barbarian Kingdoms (Franks, Alamanni, Vandals, Huns, Goths, and others) continued their power struggles within Europe until, by 534 CE, Switzerland found itself occupied by Burgundians and Franks in the west, and Alamanni in the east.
The dividing line between the two languages and cultures became known as the Rösti ditch (Röstigraben or rideau de rösti).
Napoleon invaded Switzerland in 1798.
If you’ve seen a castle still standing in Switzerland, chances are good that it was built by one of the Habsburgs.
The Habsburgs were one of the most powerful families in Europe between the 1400s and 1800s.
Before the Habsburgs took things over, Switzerland was a bunch of people living in towns, villages, or out in the middle of nowhere, answering to whatever local medieval family had power at the time.
Most of Europe - including what is now called Switzerland - belonged to the Holy Roman Empire.
The horrible Habsburg family of Austria were the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, the self-proclaimed bosses of the lands.
And they were not kind to its proud peasants.
In 1914, the murder of the Habsburg Franz Ferdinand triggered World War I and led to the dismantling of the entire Habsburg Empire.
The Federal Charter is a document that describes the alliance between Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden - that alliance many people consider to be the beginning of Switzerland.
This moment is regarded by the Swiss as the founding moment of their country.
It’s been celebrated every year since its occurrence on August 1st, 1291 … Switzerland’s birthday.
Since there is no historical record of the Rütli Oath, nobody can prove that it really happened.
The Federal Charter was the most important document in Swiss history, about the most important event. But after it was made, it was stuck away in an archive in canton Schwyz…and pretty much ignored for 500 years. No one cared.
The Federal Charter was discovered in 1758 in the archives of Canton Schwyz and was made use of again about 140 years later.
But…wait a second! Didn’t we just say that the secret meeting at the Rütli meadow was during November 1307?
Why is Switzerland’s birthday celebrated as August 1st, 1291?
During the 19th century, much of Europe was going through a period of “enhanced nationalism.”
Nearly every European country had its own National Day…and the Swiss government desperately wanted one of its own.
So, in November 1889, the Federal Council ordered two governmental agencies to figure out how to create a Swiss National Day.
As it turned out, Bern was about to celebrate its 700-year anniversary in 1891 and the government wanted to combine the 600-year anniversary of Switzerland with that celebration.
The government decided that the Swiss Confederation began on the 1st of August, as this was the date of the Federal Charter.
Never mind that the Federal Charter doesn’t actually contain an exact date. It just says something about being written at the start of August.
So that was that. Switzerland was suddenly founded on the 1st of August 1291, even though this date meant nothing whatsoever to most Swiss citizens at the time.
At the time they broke free from Habsburg rule, the Swiss Confederacy was made up of eight cantons - Bern, Lucerne, Zurich, Zug, Glarus, Schwyz, Uri, and the two half-cantons of Obwalden and Nidwalden.
There were lots of empty spaces in between what already belonged to the Swiss Confederacy.
Canton Graubünden were also immersed in battles against the greedy Habsburgs when they decided to become allies with the Swiss Confederacy.
Lucerne, Uri, Nidwalden, and Obwalden allied themselves with Valais, which gave the Confederacy control over the area west of the Gotthard Pass.
In 1402, Uri attacked and conquered the Levantine Valley in Ticino, taking it as a territory…like it or not.
In 1415, the Confederates attacked Aargau to fill in the space between Bern, Lucerne and Zurich, clicking it into place like the piece that was always missing from the middle of a jigsaw puzzle.
In 1516, the Swiss Confederacy signed a “perpetual peace” treaty with France.
They did not try to expand their own territory again. Quite the opposite. The Swiss government eventually decided that “the best offense is a good defense.”
So, instead of trying to expand their territory and power, they invested tons of energy and cash into ensuring that the land and power they already had stayed that way.
The Swiss will not fight in any war unless they are directly attacked.
The Swiss provided well over one million mercenaries to fight for foreign armies between the 14th and 19th centuries.
In 1527, Swiss Guards managed to sneak the Pope to safety through a secret stone passageway.
From then on it was clear: Future Popes would definitely keep their Swiss Guard. An ever-changing Swiss Guard has protected the Pope and the Vatican ever since.
In 1848, Switzerland adopted its first official constitution, which prohibited any new contracts for Swiss mercenaries in foreign countries.
In 1522, Switzerland was one of the poorest countries in Europe.
Zurich would no longer follow the fasting rules of the Catholic Church.
In the heyday of witch hunts from 1550 to 1700, there were more accusations of witchcraft and executions of witches in Switzerland than anywhere else in Europe.
In 1848, the Swiss Confederation wrote and adopted its own federal constitution, some of which was based on the agreements made in Napoleon’s Act of Mediation.
Finally, what had been the Helvetic Republic became Switzerland. And so it remains - more or less - to this day.
Most countries have representative democracy, not direct democracy.
Switzerland breaks the mold and blends both together.
Everybody can suggest new laws or suggest changes to existing laws.
If people vote on a law the government has passed, it’s called a “referendum.”
If a Swiss citizen - or a group of citizens - make the suggestions themselves, it’s called a “popular initiative” … and it’s very popular indeed.
Ballots are sent out to all voters four times per year. The dates for voting are already decided all the way through 2038.
The people of Switzerland themselves came up with 192 popular initiatives between 1893 and 2014.
97 of them were rejected by voters or not allowed by the government.
73 were withdrawn by the people proposing them.
Of the rest, only 22 were voted into official Swiss law.
But that’s 22 times that Swiss voters had their voices directly heard.
63% speak German.
23% speak French
8.2% speak Italian
0.5% speak Romansh
Back in the 1800s, the Swiss were one of the first nations to build factories.
To make Great Britain easier to defeat, Napoleon set up the Continental Blockade in 1806.
Basically, it prohibited all European ports from trading goods with Great Britain, which for Switzerland, was a blessing in disguise.
British cotton and textiles were suddenly not available anymore. Somebody needed to fill the gap…why not the Swiss?
They figured out how to harness the mountain waters’ energy and used it to power their factories.
Watchmaking had been big in Switzerland since the 1500s.
Until the 1840s, there was really no railway system to speak of in Switzerland.
Alfred Escher, returning from a six-month trip to Paris in 1843, realized that Switzerland was far behind the rest of Europe.
Escher made a plan and pushed it through, setting-up railway lines and tunnels all over Switzerland.
He also started the first major Swiss bank, which helped to pay for these railway lines. It’s now known as Credit Suisse.
As late as the 1800s, most Swiss people wouldn’t have dared to venture too high up any mountain.
That all changed in Switzerland during the 1850s.
The industrial revolution came to England earlier than it did to Switzerland. So those rich Brits had time and money on their hands. Time for the next challenge.
England is a country without really tall mountains, so tons of explorers from Britain wanted to climb the Swiss mountains.
The mountain regions in Switzerland were transformed from poor, rural areas into true international tourist destinations.
Only about 100 people in Switzerland died as a result of World War II battles.
Two days before Germany invaded Poland, the Swiss sent out a message of neutrality to forty countries, declaring that the Swiss were unwilling to fight in any war.
Within months, the Swiss army stocked fortifications in the mountains with supplies, artillery.
They also loaded alpine roads, railway lines, and tunnels with massive amounts of explosives, ready to blow them up at a moment’s notice to stop invading troops if needed. Doing so would also destroy transport lines between Germany and Italy, leaving them cut off from each other and without many of the materials they would need to continue their attack against Switzerland. General Guisan made absolutely sure that the Axis Powers knew all about the National Redoubt. Switzerland never was invaded during World War II, and Hitler’s knowledge of the National Redoubt probably had a lot to do with that.
Aircraft caught straying into Swiss airspace would be forced down and their crews kept in Swiss internment camps until the end of the war.
Before the war, about 50% of food in Switzerland was imported from other countries in Europe.
The Swiss knew that there was a good chance that those supplies would get cut off when war was underway.
So, the ever-practical Swiss government ordered the planting of every available plot of land with grains, vegetables, and potatoes to ensure they could feed themselves during the war years.
They called it the “Cultivation Battle.”
Every available private and public bit of earth was planted, including patches at private homes, schools, soccer fields.
By the end of World War II, the amount of cultivated soil in Switzerland had tripled, meaning that Switzerland only had to import about 20% of its food.
Before the war, the Swiss had trade agreements with many European countries.
After the outbreak of war, the Swiss decided to keep honoring those agreements, doing business with both the Allies and the Axis Powers.
Switzerland was pressured by both the Allies and the Axis Powers not to do business with the other side.
If Switzerland gave in to one of those demands, but not the other, they would risk their neutrality.
If they refused both, they would either starve or freeze, as they needed to import a lot of their food and nearly all of their fuel.
So, to most people it was clear. They had to keep doing business with both sides, even if it meant doing business with some very bad people.
Likewise, the Swiss also chose to allow both the Allies and the Axis Powers to move people, food, and supplies through Switzerland, when needed.
When the other European countries fell under the control of the Axis Powers, their own currencies became worthless.
Likewise, nobody else wanted to accept the currencies of the Axis Powers for international business deals.
That meant that - for a while - the Swiss franc was the only major currency that could be freely used in Europe…and both the Allies and the Axis powers needed it.
Both sides ended-up selling tons of gold to Switzerland in exchange for Swiss francs, which they then used to buy materials that were important to have during wartime.
The gold that Germany sold to Switzerland was mostly looted from the central banks of the other European countries they had invaded and stolen from Jewish victims.