swissworld.org - Switzerland's official information portal

swissworld.org - Switzerland's official information portal

Your Gateway to Switzerland

Muleteers and their pack train make their way along the "Sbrinz Route", which runs from central Switzerland to northern Italy, via the Brünig, Grimsel and Griess mountain passes. © www.sbrinzroute.ch© www.sbrinzroute.ch

Swiss History

Switzerland evolved over many centuries from a loose alliance of small self-governing towns and states, beginning with the confederation of Uri, Schwyz and Nidwalden in 1291, to a fully-fledged federal state of 26 cantons.
Despite periods of political, social and religious unrest, unity prevailed in the Old Swiss Confederacy. However, the French invasion of 1798 was to be a turning point in the country’s history, ushering in the first of several changes in government – the short-lived Helvetic Republic – that would continue until 1848.
The birth of modern-day Switzerland was accompanied by the creation of a federal constitution that laid the permanent foundations for national cohesion and the pursuit of the common good, while upholding the country’s cultural and linguistic diversity.

Human habitation

Much of Switzerland’s landscape is covered by mountains – apparently inhospitable terrain for human habitation. And yet the routes across the Alpine and Jura mountain passes have brought in people and goods since prehistoric times. The Swiss Plateau, which stretches from Lake Geneva in the west to Lake Constance in the east, and includes the Alps, Jura and the River Rhine, was and continues to be the mostly densely populated area of the country.
 
Since the High Middle Ages, various powers had sought to control these mountain passes, as they were part of a network of vital communication routes. However, the inaccessibility of mountain areas made it difficult for outsiders to impose their rule there, allowing the Swiss to develop their own traditions and forms of government
With few natural resources and little farming land at their disposal, the people of Switzerland historically relied on imports of agricultural and industrial goods, and services. Up until the 19th century, famine and extreme poverty forced many Swiss to emigrate in search of a better life.

Town versus country
Although most people still lived in the countryside, working the land, powerful towns and cities began to emerge during the Middle Ages thanks to a revival in trade and commerce. As they grew more powerful, these urban strongholds started to exert control over the neighbouring rural communities.
Each state (canton) naturally looked to its own interests, which sometimes meant cooperating with its neighbours and sometimes competing with them. Relations between urban and rural states were at times strained. Following the Reformation, it was religion that stirred up tensions, with conflict breaking out between some Catholic and Protestant cantons. Despite these clashes, which in certain instances bordered on full-scale war, the Old Swiss Confederacy began to take root from the end of the Middle Ages and the start of the Early Modern era.

Equality versus inequality
Relations within the cantons and with neighbours also varied. For example, some towns and territories, although fiercely guarding their independence, entered into alliances with their neighbours. Among these “perpetual allies” were Graubünden, Valais, the town and abbey of St. Gallen, Geneva, and sections of the episcopal principality of Basel.
In contrast, other regions were either seized or acquired. Some became the dependency of a single state, as was the case for French-speaking Vaud, which fell under the control of German-speaking Bern. Others like Thurgau and Aargau were administered as “common lordships” (i.e. subject to the joint rule of the Swiss Confederates).
While most are still part of Switzerland, some of these regions now belong to neighbouring France (Mulhouse), Germany (Rottweil) and Italy (Valtellina).

Switzerland and Europe
Neighbouring countries have also had a hand in the development of modern-day Switzerland. Sharing borders with major European cultures – German-speaking Europe, France, and Italy – was and continues to be an advantage for multilingual Switzerland, which has always nurtured close contact with its neighbours.