I. History of Switzerland
In pre-Roman times the territory now known as Switzerland was inhabited by the Helvetii in the west and the Rhaetians, a people believed to have been related to the Etruscans, in the east. Julius Caesar and the Romans mastered the region, which became known as Helvetia, in the 1st century bc, and it became thoroughly romanized. During the Germanic invasions that swept over the western Roman Empire in the 4th century AD, the Burgundians and the Alamanni conquered Helvetia.
A. The Middle Ages
The Franks in turn conquered the Alamanni in the 5th century ad, and the Burgundians in the early 6th century. They introduced a new civilization based largely on Christianity. On the dissolution of the Frankish Carolingian Empire in the 9th century, most of Switzerland became part of the duchy of Alemannia, or Swabia, one of the great feudal states of the German Kingdom; the south-western part was incorporated into the kingdom of Transjurane Burgundy. In 1033 the Burgundian portion was acquired by Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II, and Switzerland became a part of his empire. It consisted of a collection of petty states, ruled by dukes, counts, bishops, and abbots, and of a number of small city-states, independent by imperial charter, which later became cantonal commonwealths.
B. Struggle for Independence
In 1276 Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf I of the Habsburg dynasty attempted to assert feudal rights in Switzerland, threatening the traditional liberties of the Swiss. To resist Rudolf’s aggression, the three so-called forest cantons—Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden—around the Lake of Lucerne entered a league for mutual defence in 1291. During the 14th century Zurich, Glarus, Bern, Lucerne, and Zug joined the league, followed in the 15th century by Fribourg and Solothurn. In 1474 the Habsburgs, unable to cope with the militant inhabitants of the Swiss mountain villages, abandoned their attempts to acquire the region as a family apanage, and the Swiss confederation became directly dependent on the Holy Roman Empire.
In 1499 Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I attempted to abrogate various Swiss governmental rights. He was defeated in the ensuing war, and by the Treaty of Basel signed on September 22, 1499, he was compelled to recognize the virtual independence of the Swiss. By 1513 Appenzell, Schaffhausen, and Basel had entered the confederation, each independent as a canton and sending two delegates to a federal assembly.
Because of their skill and bravery in war, Swiss mercenaries became famous throughout Europe. In the course of the wars between Italy and France in the early 16th century, Swiss troops, fighting with the French as mercenaries, were able to annex the Italian districts and towns that later formed the canton of Ticino. Swiss troops then fought against the French, and were defeated in 1515. This led to the introduction of Switzerland’s neutrality policy. In 1536 the Bernese Swiss took Lausanne and various territories from the Duchy of Savoy.
The Protestant Reformation in Switzerland started in 1518, when a country pastor named Huldreich Zwingli began to denounce the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church. Subsequently, under Zwingli’s leadership, the city of Zurich revolted against Catholic dogma by burning relics, banning the adoration of saints, and releasing clerics from their vows of celibacy. Vigorously backed by the merchant class, such innovations further asserted the city’s independence from both the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire.
Other Swiss towns, such as Basel and Bern, quickly adopted similar reforms. In 1536 Geneva, where the French theologian John Calvin had just settled, revolted against the Duchy of Savoy and refused to acknowledge the authority of its Roman Catholic bishop. Calvin organized his Church democratically, incorporating ideas of representative government. From 1541 to 1564 Geneva became the stronghold of the Calvinist brand of Protestantism.
Although the cantons preserved their neutrality in the Thirty Years’ War of 1618 to 1648, Swiss diplomacy was able to achieve formal recognition of Switzerland as a completely independent state by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.
During the 1790s the French Revolution spread to Switzerland. The French continually intervened in support of Swiss revolutionaries, who sought to promote political reforms and the establishment of a strong national government; in 1798 the revolutionaries occupied all Swiss territory. The Swiss confederation had until that time been a loose defensive alliance, but Napoleon Bonaparte, the future emperor of France, unified the country under the name Helvetic Republic and imposed a written constitution, which, like the French military occupation, was bitterly resented by most Swiss. In 1803, when it was in his interest to have Switzerland friendly, Napoleon withdrew the occupation troops and by the Act of Mediation granted a new constitution with Swiss approval.
The Congress of Vienna, in 1815, recognized the perpetual neutrality of Switzerland, and Swiss territory was expanded to include 22 cantons; since that time the country’s boundaries have remained virtually unchanged.
The period following the integration of Switzerland was one of attempted adjustment to this newly won unity. Conflict existed between autocratic and democratic elements, and between Roman Catholic and Protestant areas. In 1847 the Roman Catholic cantons formed a league, the Sonderbund. The federal government declared the formation of the league to be a violation of the constitution. Civil war resulted when the league refused to disband. The Sonderbund was defeated by the federal government, and the ensuing constitution of 1848 greatly increased the federal power. It was followed by the constitution of 1874, which, with modifications, is still in force; the 1874 constitution completed the development of Switzerland from a group of cantons to a unified federal state. However, Switzerland is unusual with regard to the power vested within the cantons and individual communes. For example, it is the communes that grant individuals Swiss citizenship.
E. A Neutral Nation
Because of its traditional neutrality Switzerland became the favoured site of international conferences and the headquarters of many organizations. The main office of the International Red Cross was established there in 1863, as was that of the League of Nations following World War I. Switzerland was a league member but, after maintaining neutrality and harbouring political refugees during World War II, the country refused to join the UN on the grounds that certain obligations of membership were incompatible with Swiss neutrality. It did, however, become a member of many agencies affiliated to the UN, and it maintains a permanent observer at UN headquarters. It also served on the neutral nations’ commission supervising the 1953 truce agreement in Korea; contributed money to UN peacekeeping efforts in Cyprus; and is a member of the World Trade Organization, which seeks improved world trade relations.
In 1948 Switzerland joined the Organization for European Economic Co-operation. It became a founding member of the European Free Trade Association in 1959 and in 1963 joined the Council of Europe. In 1992 Switzerland applied for membership in the European Community (now called the European Union), but later withdrew the application in order to avoid violating its neutrality.
F. Domestic Issues
In February 1971, Switzerland for the first time granted women the right to vote in federal elections and to hold federal office; by 1979 more than 10 per cent of the seats in the Nationalrat were held by women. Although most cantons also extended suffrage to women, the process was not completed until 1990. An equal rights amendment to the constitution was approved in a 1981 referendum; another referendum in 1985 guaranteed women legal equality with men in marriage.
Other referenda in the 1980s upheld Switzerland’s system of military conscription (1984), rejected restrictions on abortion and some forms of contraception (1985), barred Switzerland from joining the UN (1986), tightened constraints on immigration and the granting of political asylum (1987), defeated a proposal to abolish the military (1989), and defeated a proposal to involve Swiss forces in UN peacekeeping operations (1994).
Responding to international pressures, Switzerland relaxed its traditional insistence on banking secrecy and allowed foreign investigators access to bank records in cases where illegal acquisition or use of funds was suspected. In the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Russia in April 1986, there were large demonstrations about the safety of Switzerland’s five power stations and nuclear programme. As a result, in 1989, the government suspended the building of a sixth power station. The following year a proposal to suspend the construction of nuclear power stations for ten years was passed by referendum.
In 1990 it emerged that the country’s security police held secret files on over 200,000 people. Following rioting in Bern, the state security laws were relaxed and new regulations put in place to control the security police. In 1992 Switzerland moved to end decades of fierce independence by joining the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. However, in December of that year Swiss voters soundly rejected joining the European Economic Area, a free-trade zone linking many western European countries. The vote was considered indicative of the general opposition of the Swiss people to joining the European Union, a move that the Swiss government favours and is still pursuing.
Hopes for the success of this drive increased in November 1993, when voters approved a national value-added tax more in line with the tax structure of other European Union members. The tax had been rejected three times in previous votes. In early 1994, however, the Swiss voted to curtail heavy lorry traffic through their country by the year 2004, as an environmental preservation measure. The vote may have the side effect of hampering future relations with other European nations.
G. Controversy over Wartime Policies
In 1997, Switzerland agreed to use its gold reserves in order to create a fund to help “victims of genocide, catastrophes, and poverty” and to compensate for the failure of some Swiss banks to return money to descendants of Jews who died in the Holocaust during World War II.
Further controversy erupted over Switzerland’s provision of financial services to Germany’s Nazi government during World War II, and accusations that Switzerland had allowed German trains full of Jews and Italian slave labourers through its borders en route to concentration camps, as well as its refusal of asylum to Jewish wartime refugees. Facing what one diplomatic source described as Switzerland’s worst foreign policy crisis since the war, some Swiss officials responded by denying that Switzerland had anything to apologize for; there were also reports of a rising incidence of anti-Semitism. In August 1998 two major Swiss banks, Union Bank of Switzerland and Crédit Suisse, agreed to pay US$1.25 billion to families of those who had suffered in the Holocaust. In December 1998 Switzerland elected as federal president Ruth Dreifuss, its first female and Jewish president.
H. Switzerland in the New Millennium
Exactly a year later, the Swiss parliament re-elected all seven ministers of the Federal Council, preserving the political coalition that had governed Switzerland since 1959, and depriving the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, which had become the country’s second strongest political party, of a place in government. Adolf Ogi became the new president in January 2000, but in early 2001, under Switzerland’s rotating presidency system, Ogi was replaced by Moritz Leuenberger of the Social Democratic Party. Two months later voters overwhelmingly rejected proposals for immediate membership talks with the European Union; an unexpectedly high percentage of the electorate, nearly 77 per cent, voted against the initiative.
In September 2001 a gunman broke into the parliament building of the regional assembly of the Zug Canton and killed 14 people before committing suicide. In a March 2002 referendum the Swiss people voted to join the United Nations with a “yes” vote of 55 per cent. Switzerland joined as the UN’s 190th member in September 2002. The populace also voted to join the Schengen Agreement in a referendum held in 2005.
In the 2003 parliamentary elections the right-wing Swiss People’s Party won 55 seats in the National Council, with the biggest losses being suffered by the centrist parties. The win was reflected in the composition of the new Swiss Cabinet, with the addition of a second SVP member to the seven-member team. The party went on to win the 2007 general election, with an increase of seats to 62, securing a large victory over the Social Democrats and emphasizing increasing right-wing sentiments in the country. These were most evident in the election campaign of the Swiss People’s Party, which majored on the deportation of immigrants who commit crimes. The Green Party also polled strongly in the election.