A Brief History Of Switzerland

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This brief history of Switzerland is just that.  A brief history of the country so that you can learn a little about it before you go.  

Early History of Switzerland

Our history of Switzerland begins with a Celtic tribe, known as the Helvetii.  They settled and lived in the region for a period of time in the early centuries BCE.  In 58BCE, the Helvetii were invaded by Julius Caesar and the Roman army as they expanded their territory further west into Europe.  This meant that in the following centuries there was a gradual Romanisation of the region.  A relative peace was then maintained up until the third century CE. In the middle of the third century CE, the German Alemannians invaded the region as they pushed into Roman territory. They eventually pushed the Romans out around 400 CE.

Development of Languages in Switzerland

Map showing the different languages spoken in Switzerland. @Wikimedia Commons

With the arrival of the German Alemannians came the gradual development of the different languages of Switzerland. They brought with them the German language, which became one of the principal languages of the country.  There are four main languages spoken in modern-day Switzerland. German, Italian, French and Romansh. These developed separately, due to the different populations that lived in each region of the country.  German came from the Alemannians.  Italian came from the Romans.  French came about as another offshoot of Latin, developing in France and western Switzerland.  The most unique of the languages, Romansh, is a direct descendant of the Latin used in the time of the Roman Empire, with some German influence. It’s mainly spoken in the southeastern corner of the country.

The foundation of Switzerland

From 400CE until 1291CE, the region of Switzerland underwent many changes.  It was occupied by the Franks, was a part of the Kingdom of Burgundy, was conquered by the Germans, and was in for a time ruled by the Austrian Hapsburgs. During this time, the region was broken up into smaller regions, called cantons.

On August 1 1291CE, with the death of the Austrian Hapsburg ruler, three of these cantons came together.  They made an agreement to rule themselves and remain neutral towards each other. This was the beginning of modern day Switzerland. In the 15th century five more cantons joined, creating the eight ‘old cantons’ of Switzerland. Switzerland continued to expand throughout the centuries as more cantons joined.  Modern day Switzerland is made up of 26 Cantons. To this day, Switzerland’s national day is still celebrated on August 1, the day that the first three cantons came together.

The cantons of Switzerland. @Wikimedia Commons

Swiss Neutrality

From the 16th century onwards, Switzerland had a policy to remain neutral in all international relations.  This was despite often being surrounded by conflict. The main conflict that Switzerland was involved in during the next few centuries was in fact an internal one, between the catholics and the protestants. Even this conflict ended with a treaty and an agreement for freedom of religion within the country.

Switzerland’s neutrality was briefly broken in the late 18th century by Napoleon’s invasion of the region.  The invasion, however, was short-lived. By 1815 the French had withdrawn, and Switzerland and Swiss neutrality was restored.  At the congress of Vienna in 1815 the rest of Europe signed an agreement to respect Swiss neutrality in international affairs.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Switzerland continued to grow economically.  it became the second most highly industrialised country in Europe, behind only England.

Switzerland and the World Wars

Throughout both World War One and World War Two Switzerland remained neutral.  It used a strong defence and clever international relations to remain out of the conflict that engulfed the continent.

During World War One, the Swiss army was mobilised to the borders of the country to protect it from possible invasion. The number of troops stationed at the borders was initially high, but dwindled as it became clear that both powers would respect Swiss neutrality. Switzerland was a haven for refugees during the war.

The country again managed to maintain its neutrality throughout World War Two. Nazi forces had drawn up a plan to invade the country, which was known as Operation Tannembaum. However, a combination of a strong internal defence and more pressing battles for the Nazis meant that these plans were never realised, and Switzerland remained neutral and conflict free.

The Swiss army patrolled the border during World War I and II

Swiss neutrality in World War Two has actually been much debated since the war. The country accepted some refugees, but they also refused quite a lot.  In particular, they refused to grant asylum to thousands of Jewish refugees.  Some see this as an attempt to appease the Germans. Swiss banks were also used by the Nazis to deposit any gold or valuables that were collected. Despite adopting some controversial policies, the Swiss did grant asylum to many thousands of refugees, and they did manage to stay conflict free for the duration for the duration of the war.

Read more:  The (not so) neutrals of World War II.  (NY Times Article)

Modern Day Switzerland

Modern day Switzerland continues to remain a neutral country.  The country has elected not to join the European Union and the Eurozone.  However, it has made some concessions to globalisation.   In 2002 the population voted to join the UN, and in 2005 it became a member of the Schengen zone.

Switzerland in the 21st century is a popular tourist destination, particularly for anyone keen on hiking (in the summer months) or skiing (in the winter months).



Further reading on Switzerland that we found useful

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