History of Switzerland

Switzerland only became a Federal state in 1848 but some of its cantons have a history of confederacy dating back 700 years, making them some of the oldest surviving republics in the world. Prior to federalization the country was known as the Old Swiss Confederacy which was formed in 1291. Over the centuries the land has been conquered, divided and then restored again several times.

Prior to the formation of the confederacy Switzerland was occupied by various peoples. The Romans integrated the territory into its Empire and heavily romanised the region before the collapse of the Western Empire. Prior to the fall Switzerland became the frontier against the Germanic tribes to the north.

After Rome collapsed Germanic tribes moved into the region, the Burgundian tribe settled in the west and the Alamanni occupied the north. In 534 the Franks conquered the tribes and re-introduced Christianity to Switzerland. The region then became a part of the Holy Roman Empire. In the 12th century many of today’s cities were founded including Bern in 1191.

In 1291 a number of cantons united to defend themselves upon the death of the Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf the first. The Swiss battled for greater autonomy, finally winning it after victories in a number of battles against the Empire. By 1353 the old Swiss confederacy had grown and by the 16th century it had grown to become a wealthy and even more autonomous part of the Empire.

In 1506 Pope Julius the 2nd engaged the famous Swiss Guard, which continues to protect the pope and the Vatican today.  During the 16th century the confederacy came close to breaking apart as the religious reformation swept Europe and turned Protestant cantons against Catholic ones.

The confederacy was granted its independence from the Holy Roman Empire in 1648 after the Empire was severely weakened during the Thirty years war. However, it lost that freedom in 1798 when Switzerland was completely overrun by the French led by Napoleon Bonaparte.

The confederacy was replaced by the French backed Helvetic Republic which in turn abolished the cantons system. It wasn’t until Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo that Switzerland regained its full independence. It was at this time that European powers agreed to recognise Switzerland’s permanent neutrality.

In 1848 Switzerland became a Federal state. Following religious strife and a brief civil war the country became the nation we know today. From then, and over much of the 20th century, continuous political, economic, and social improvement has characterized Swiss history.

Swiss neutrality was respected in both World Wars and the country donated lots of money to the Marshall plan. After the war Switzerland continued to prosper. The 20th century saw women being granted the vote, the country join the European council and in 2002 it became a member of the United Nations. Switzerland is not a member of the European Union but is surrounded by Eurozone nations.